EXCLUSIVE: Saving grace: Cleverly fighting to repair British boxing's battered reputation
Shameful, disgraceful and disgusting were just some of the words used to describe the brawl between Dereck Chisora and David Haye last Sunday morning.
The two British heavyweights showed a flagrant disregard for a noble sport built on respect and discipline when their war of words escalated into an embarrassing punch-up.
But on Saturday, Nathan Cleverly, one of only two world champions from these shores, can begin the arduous task of dragging British boxing from the gutter.
All grown up: Nathan Cleverly is ready to take on Tommy Karpency to defend his light-heavyweight crown
The 25-year-old from South Wales faces the unheralded American Tommy Karpency in the third defence of his WBO light-heavyweight title at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena.
Cleverly’s long-awaited homecoming is part of a mouthwatering triple header for Welsh sport with Twickenham hosting the Six Nations clash with England before Cardiff travel to Wembley to take on Liverpool in the Carling Cup final on Sunday.
Wedged in between, Cleverly will hope to defend his belt in style as he eyes a summer showdown with American legend Bernard Hopkins at the Cardiff City Stadium.
And, at a time when many are questioning boxing’s place in society, the Welshman’s story epitomises the positive influence it can have.
Graduating in style: Cleverly in his younger years and at his university graduation
‘As a young child, for some reason I enjoyed fighting,’ the world champion admits. ‘I enjoyed the buzz of being competitive and if I thought there was some guy who was a bit of a bully, I always liked to challenge myself against him and bring him down. It was a mix of competitiveness, aggression and wanting to stand up for myself.
‘The fights were mostly on street corners or in the nearest field with a big crowd of people. It was very raw and it sums up my background and the area I was brought up in. There were no facilities and not much going on, it was very rough.
‘The majority of boxers come from a background where they haven’t had everything put on a plate. They’ve had a tough upbringing and are often insecure people. I thought boxing was a good way to battle my demons.
Fighting fit: Cleverly weighed in at 12st 6lb
‘I was named called quite a bit because I had big ears. I was never bullied physically because I had the strength and mentality to fight my way out of it. It added to my insecurities but you can either cave under the bullies or come out fighting and obviously I came out fighting. It does make you stronger.’
/02/24/article-2106091-11E13F7F000005DC-985_634x453.jpg” width=”634″ height=”453″ alt=”Flying the flag for Wales: Rugby captain Sam Warburton will be hoping to beat England while Cleverly defends his light heavyweight title and Cardiff City Captain Mark Hudson will hope to lift the Carling Cup” class=”blkBorder” />
Flying the flag for Wales: Rugby captain Sam Warburton will be hoping to beat England while Cleverly defends his light heavyweight title and Cardiff City Captain Mark Hudson will hope to lift the Carling Cup
‘The gym was a controlled and monitored environment. If you keep channelling your aggression on the street, you’ll end up in trouble.’
But while Cleverly found respite in the ring, some of his peers took a different path altogether.
‘There are numerous people I grew up with who ended up in prison,’ he admits. ‘They got into trouble and ended up paying the consequences. Part of that was because they had no way of channelling their energy.’
After the brawl in Munich cast a shadow over boxing, Cleverly is keen to extol its positive influence.
‘A lot of the boxing trainers are very hard and cold characters; they’re straight to the point, and strict,’ he adds. ‘That teaches you respect, to listen to commands and to focus. There’s no room for any violence outside the ring, that was always drummed into me from a young age.
Meeting his hero: Cleverly with Joe Calzaghe and Bradley Pryce as a youngster and then as sparring partners
‘Personally, boxing has given me a focus and a direction in life. Ultimately its allowed me to earn myself a good living and has provided the foundations for life. It was a platform for my dream to become world champion and I’m grateful to the sport for allowing me to go on and to do that and for making me a mentally strong character, in and out of the ring.’
As well as flourishing with his fists, Cleverly used his new-found mental toughness to excel in the classroom.
‘Everything I did I wanted to be good at. I loved challenging myself and it was the same with school work and exams. I had a lot of respect for my education because it sets you up for life and I combined that with my boxing and pushed as hard as I could with both of them.
Keeping fit: Cleverly was into boxing and keeping in shape from a young age
‘Boxing helps make you a more disciplined person because it requires a high level of concentration and that rubbed off on my school work. That benefited my education and I made the most of the opportunities I had in school.’
Having turned professional aged 18, Cleverly enrolled at Cardiff University in 2006 to study maths. Within two years, he had beaten Tony Oakey over 12 rounds to lift the vacant Commonwealth title which he went on to defend five times.
Courtney Fry was stopped inside eight at London’s York Hall as Cleverly added the British belt to his collection and the European title followed in 2010 just months before he graduated with a 2:2.
But juggling fractions with fighting brought its own problems.
Fulfilling his potential: Cleverly shows an early interest in boxing (left) and poses with his belts years later
‘It was the first time I had lived on my own,’ he recalls. ‘I had to try and concentrate on my diet, which was difficult, but I learned to be independent and to take care of myself.
‘I lived with four mates in my second year, which was crazy. We were all studying for good degrees but we liked to party. That was a really challenging year and I had to step it up because my workload was increasing, my fights were getting slightly harder and my social life was heavy.
‘I was always fit for my fights, but there were some I wasn’t 100 per cent for. I was going to bed at three or four in the morning after a long revision session and that affected my sleep pattern and my diet.
‘I did have a fear of losing. If my preparations were not right, doubts would creep in but I always found a way to pull out a victory.
Face off: Cleverly and Tommy Karpency go head to head at the weigh-in
‘At times I thought either university or boxing had to go but I just dug deep and worked hard. I do look back and wonder how I did it but it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’
Which gave him the bigger rush, graduating, or winning a bout
‘Graduating from university was special for me. I was always wondering if the day was ever going to come and when it finally did it was such a relief. I felt a sense of pride that I’d come through but my biggest buzz comes from winning in the boxing ring. When my hand is raised and I’m announced as the winner, it’s incredible.’
Months after completing his education, Cleverly earned the interim WBO title with a hard-fought win over Frenchman Nadjib Mohammedi in Liverpool.
Full champion Jrgen Braehmer was the next target but the German pulled out of the proposed fight last May. Cleverly was awarded the WBO title and successfully defended it against Aleksy Kuziemski, a late replacement for Braehmer, before winning a majority decision over Tony Bellew in October.
On Saturday, Cleverly will aim to continue on his upward trajectory and restore a little faith in a sport that has given him so much.
‘Boxing is commonly associated with thuggery,’ he concludes. ‘But my case proves you can break the mould.’