Tony Bellew’s shot at becoming the first Briton to hold four world titles in a weight division ended in failure as Oleksandr Usyk produced a stunning finish in the eighth round at Manchester Arena.
The Ukrainian, initially cautious and behind on the cards, found rhythm around the midway point and, after following a jab with a brutal left hook, he was already smiling as Bellew tried to get back to his feet, to no avail.
Usyk’s IBF, WBO, WBA and WBC world cruiserweight titles were safe, despite Bellew’s solid counter-punching early on, when the undefeated and undisputed champion struggled with the Briton’s movement.
Referee Terry O’Connor waved the bout off and while 35-year-old Bellew appeared dazed in the moments after, he quickly stated he had given “everything” he had.
It was a conclusive finish, befitting of a much-hyped champion, who is now expected to chase the glamour names of the heavyweight division.
“He is just so hard and so awkward. He is big and he overpowers you. I tried my best and he is probably the best cruiserweight that ever lived,” Bellew told BBC Radio 5 live.
“It is heartbreaking because I gave it everything I had. Heavyweights stay away, he takes a great shot and I don’t even know if I hurt him.”
Bellew confirmed it would be his last fight, saying: “I have been doing this for 20 years, and it is over.”
In what was just the sixth bout in men’s boxing history where all four world titles were on the line, 31-year-old Usyk briefly appeared frozen but the pedigree which took him to Olympic gold at London 2012 shone through.
All week he cut a figure at ease, a man so confident in his sublime skill-set. Against Bellew, he simply would not be drawn into a brawl which could level the playing field. There was no room for the chance attached to a slugfest.
He was tentative early on in a bear-pit atmosphere. Through four minutes the champion barely threw a punch. After landing a solid counter-right, Bellew beat down on his shorts with both hands as if to urge his rival to attack.
As he was in the early stages of his first encounter with David Haye, Bellew was comfortable with his back to the ropes, pulling his right hand to counter repeatedly.
Usyk – just 16 fights into his career – was being forced to think about every move, though he landed a stinging left hook to the middle of Bellew’s face in the fourth, forcing the Briton on to the back foot.
It was tense. The world’s first four-weight world champion Tommy Hearns sat two rows from the ring. Enthralled like the masses, his eyes were wide as Usyk started letting his hands go by halfway.
His caution ebbed away, each shot that landed added belief and, with Bellew suddenly breathing more heavily in the eighth, Usyk threw shots which served to create space for the hook, sending Bellew down and into the ropes.
The fairytale career the Liverpool fighter has enjoyed was brutally ended but he had taken on a challenge few believed he could overcome.