What was billed as Nathan Cleverly's toughest fight turned into a shut-out as the Welshman retained his WBO light-heavyweight championship – and moved closer to a unification fight with Bernard Hopkins – with a unanimous points decision over Robin Krasniqi.
Two judges scored it 120-108, awarding Cleverly every round. Only one judge gave Krasniqi anything, scoring the bout 119-111. It was marginally more competitive than the numbers suggest. It was just that Cleverly was better at every facet: at distance, up close; when the fists were flying, when the jabs popped like pistons.
There was no disputing the strength of Krasniqi's chin or his resolve: he was rocked repeatedly yet he kept coming back. Afterwards Cleverly paid respect to his challenger, saying: "I thought sooner or later he was going to have to go but he was very tough. Plan A was to box and Plan B was to get inside. He was hurt a lot but he wasn't quite ready to go, so in the end I had to revert to Plan A."
Krasniqi, a German-based Kosovan, was the WBO's No1 contender and arrived in London with a record of 39 wins and two defeats. Initially, at least, he had the mindset of coming to win. Cleverly soon changed that.
Both men tried to impose the jab in the opener but Cleverly's left hand was sharper and faster. Several times he connected before a flurry briefly wobbled Krasniqi. It proved to be a warning.
In the second, Cleverly stepped up his attacks and reddened the face of his opponent with a smart right uppercut, and though Krasniqi finally got some sort of footing in the fight in third, Cleverly was always pressing, probing, hurting.
Too often, Cleverly's jab resembles a clay-court player's backhand – with more wrist than shoulder in the punch, too much flick and not enough spit – but in the early rounds it was highly effective and he used it repeatedly to push Krasniqi back on to the ropes.
By the fifth, Cleverly's best round, it looked a case of when, not if, the fight would end. Krasniqi was breathing hard and being dismantled with sharp lefts to the body and rights to the head.
Yet the final onslaught never arrived. In the sixth, Cleverly switched off and Krasniqi took heart – he even probably took an uneventful seventh by landing a big right hand at the end of the round. Cleverly continued to box on the back foot in the eighth but the jab and classy combinations returned, along with his dominance.
You had to admire Krasniqi's bravery but he was getting outclassed. Despite his seemingly impressive record, only 15 of his 39 wins had come against fighters with winning records – and he had never fought the full 12 rounds he was being asked to do here.
Yet he kept battling away. In a furious exchange in the ninth, both landed shots but Cleverly was the one coming forward, with Krasniqi backtracking, buying time.
To his credit, Krasniqi tried to pressure Cleverly in the 10th but he was picked off again. Now the pattern from the opening three rounds began to return: Cleverly dominant with the jab, Krasniqi game but limited, unable to retaliate. His rueful face at the final bell told the story.
Cleverly, who moves to 26-0 with 12 knockouts, did enough – as usual – but his career has stagnated since he became world champion in 2011. He wants the big fights, and, just like his close friend Joe Calzaghe at a similar stage of his career, he needs them too.
On the undercard, Derek Chisora looked flabby and unconvincing in beating the Argentinian Hector Alfredo Avila with a ninth-round stoppage.
Meanwhile, the former WBO featherweight champion Scott Harrison, who is attempting to rebuild his career at 35 after a seven-year hiatus, lost his attempt to win the WBO European lightweight championship on a unanimous points defeat decision to Liam Walsh.
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