By Mark Whalley
Liverpool’s popular light-heavyweight Tony “The Bomber” Bellew promised he was “prepared to die” in the ring before his contest with Malawian Isaac Chilemba, but cut a frustrated figure in a twelve-round draw that failed to capture the imagination of those watching on at Liverpool’s Echo Arena.
The match was for Bellew’s WBC “silver” light-heavyweight title, but the real prize on offer was a position as the mandatory challenge for WBC world champion Chad Dawson’s title.
Bellew is a likable character who broadcasts his emotions for all to see.
In the pre-fight press conference and the weigh-in, he attempted to draw Chilemba into staredowns, with the African seemingly unwilling to engage.
The Liverpool crowd was buzzing following a titanic twelve-rounder between Derry Mathews and Anthony Crolla, and Everton-fan Bellew’s ring entrance (to the “Z Cars” theme tune) whipped them into somewhat of a frenzy.
However Chilemba lived up to his pre-fight billing as an awkward customer with genuine pedigree and the ability to make good boxers look bad with his elusive style.
Bellew started brightly and landed a flush right hand early on, backing Chilemba onto the ropes.
For the most part, though, he failed to land anything meaningful, and shipped a few counters at the same time.
At the end of the first round the two clashed on their way back to their respective stools, with Bellew petulantly pushing his opponent away.
Rounds two and three followed the same pattern as the first, with Chilemba seemingly happy to cede the centre of the ring, and let Bellew tire himself out by missing with loaded punches.
Chilemba’s slippery style makes him very difficult to hit, but comes at the expense of being able to set himself to deliver shots with any power. And everything he hit Bellew with amounted to little more than pot-shots.
This made it difficult to score each round – Bellew was throwing more punches and more obviously going for a knockout, but his work was largely ineffective and he was getting tagged with eye-catching counters.
In the middle rounds it was noticeable that Chilemba had slowed the tempo down to one that suited him.
He had also succeeded in subduing the crowd, who were channelling Bellew’s frustration.
Before the start of round seven, Chilemba’s trainer – the vastly-experienced Buddy McGirt – implored his fighter to be more aggressive and start winning rounds more obviously.
Clearly there was concern that Bellew might benefit from home-town advantage if – as was looking inevitable – the fight went to the final scorecards.
Chilemba followed his trainer’s orders, which give Bellew slightly more opportunity to land with his heavy artillery.
He ruffled Chilemba’s feathers a few times in the next couple of rounds with body shots, but failed to capitalise with any real pressure.
Indeed, both fighters looked content to continue the status quo as the rounds eked by.
Bellew seemed to believe that he was winning rounds on workrate, whilst Chilemba was finding enough success with counter-punches and sneak right hand leads to justifiably believe he was racking up rounds.
In the final round, the action got a bit wilder, but Chilemba was still landing what clean punches there were on offer.
At no point had he hurt Bellew though, and the final bell concluded what was a largely unsatisfying battle.
Bellew raised his arms in triumph but there was the feeling that, whatever the result, he had not delivered on his pre-fight statements of intent.
As the judges revealed their scores, there was audible shock around the arena when the first score went to Chilemba by four points.
Though Ghanaian judge Eddie Pappoe had Bellew wining by one point, Swiss adjudicator Fabian Guggenheim failed to separate the two.
The way the scoring panned out was effectively a carbon copy of the Mathews/Crolla battle that had preceded it.
That was a vastly superior fight, however.
And whilst the partisan Liverpool crowd (and the SKY commentary team) reacted with incredulity, more unbiased observers were far more understanding of the scoring.
In the post-fight interview, Bellew was clearly distraught.
He claimed he had won nine of the twelve rounds, and rather classlesly told Chilemba that his own trainer McGirt said he thought Bellew would get the decision.
More worrying was a bizarre statement by Bellew that he was the hometown fighter, implying that he expected a decision, as if he anticipated that would influence the judges.
Regardless of whether it is a truism that judges lean towards the local fighter, it would be madness to rely on this.
Bellew’s promoter Eddie Hearn said that they would look to do the fight again so that a true challenger for Dawson’s WBC strap can be established.
Bellew will need to improve significantly not only to overcome Chilemba, but also to stand a chance of challenging Chad Dawson, who on this showing is a class above the pair of them.
It would be wrong to assume on the back of this showing that Bellew cannot be a world champion.
Chilemba is highly unorthodox and therefore clearly difficult to shine against.
However, his diffusing of “The Bomber” is a reminder that Bellew is not yet the complete package.