Wales is a small country, usually in the shadow of its English neighbor, but in terms of boxing, every now and again a genuine world-class exponent of the noble art makes a mark on the hardest of professions.
In recent times, Joe Calzaghe's name is thrown in as the obvious example. A fighter who was able to finally obtain the acclaim internationally to match the fervor the fans in his homeland brought. Older Welshmen would probably point to other boxers, Howard Winstone or Freddie Welsh, as even greater, in times where world titles were harder to come by. Tougher men in tougher times.
Twenty-four-year-old Nathan Cleverly (23-0, 11 KOs) is the latest Welsh world champion. After compiling an amateur record of 32-4, he turned professional at the age of 18. Nothing unusual in that, except that he also continued with a mathematics degree at the University of Cardiff which was duly obtained in August 2010. The fact that he's a boxer with a higher education and his surname is a tabloid writer's dream has meant his promoter, Frank Warren, has been able to create a high profile in the UK as a whole and not just in Wales itself.
In fact, Cleverly's next fight in his hometown of Cardiff on Feb. 25 is being billed as a "homecoming" fight, given that Warren has successfully built a wider UK fan base by showcasing Cleverly on his cards around the UK over the last four years. Tommy Karpency will be his next opponent, a US fighter who has amassed a 21-3 record.
While both Cleverly and Warren have sought to highlight Karpency's dangers in press conferences ahead of the fight, it's likey Cleverly gives the expected capacity crowd a comfortable victory and retains his WBO light heavyweight title. Karpency's biggest fight came against Karo Murat, who had him down in the second round before taking a points victory. Murat then went on to fight Cleverly in his next fight, with Cleverly winning by TKO. Nothing suggests the form line will not prove to be correct.
While Cleverly's early pro record shines more for the locations than the men he was beating, thanks mainly to the fact he was fighting on Calzaghe's undercards, the general feeling is he's now amassed a record whereby he is ready to step up to the next level and fight unification bouts with the bigger names in the division. Warren usually prefers a shallower gradient for his fighters, and we should therefore expect to see a few more UK-based fights before anything more exotic is considered.
While Cleverly's KO percentage is low for the light heavyweight division, eight of his last 10 fights have been stopped within the distance. Cleverly attributes this to the fact that he's grown into his frame and that this, coupled with the end of his studies, has allowed him to improve his power.
A potential fight with Jurgen Braehmer may be on the cards in the future. Braehmer, the German former WBO champion, did not lose his title in the ring and as a result would be keen to retake his belt. A deal had previously been reached for the two to fight in London, while Braehmer was champion, with Warren making a last-minute offer to secure a Wembley fight before the bout went to purse bids. Ultimately the fight never materialized, and as a result there is a slight question mark over Cleverly's ascension to the title.
While the title wasn't won in the ring, Cleverly's performances as champion have justified his position, with entertainment accompanying his developing skills. His most recent fight, a toe-to-toe tear-up with Tony Bellew in the challenger's hometown of Liverpool, was perhaps the most entertaining of his career in one of the best fights seen in a UK ring in 2011. Cleverly demonstrated a good temperament in handling the most hostile environment he had faced to date and did no harm to the size of his fan base as a result.
The light heavyweight division has some big names. The evergreen Bernard Hopkins stands above other names who Cleverly could look to make fights with in the future, like Tavoris Cloud, Jean Pascal and Chad Dawson. The suspicion remains that Cleverly will be campaigned in more local matchups for the foreseeable future.
Enzo Maccarinelli, the former WBO cruiserweight champion, is also Welsh and has continued his career in the light heavyweight division with an eye firmly on a fight with Cleverly. With his links to Frank Warren, a fight should be easily made and would attract significant interest, given Maccarinelli's punching power and unreliable chin. Many people have expressed their concern at Maccarinelli continuing to fight, given the violent knockouts he has suffered in the cruiserweight division, but the drop in weight may have bought him one last opportunity.
Carl Froch's name has also been linked with a fight. With Froch seemingly intent on building himself the hardest schedule of any active fighter, Cleverly's profile will need to be raised Stateside before the fight can be made. Pascal, a previous Froch opponent, may be an ideal target. Since his defeat to Froch, Pascal's been shown to be a brave, hard man, but slightly lacking in comparison with the top-level fighters. Warren may look to make an offer to set up a stepping-stone fight for his fighter to begin to break out on the other side of the pond. Hopkins himself may be interested if only to provide a forum to discuss the defeat to Calzaghe that still rankles him.
Ultimately, how quickly Cleverly progresses to this level will depend on his desire. He has the profile, the promoter and the skills to set up some big fights in the next few years. It is likely we'll see him facing more UK fights in 2012, but there does seem a genuine aim from the boxer himself to see how far he is able to take his career.
If there is anyone out there to work out the probabilities, Cleverly is the man.