Oleksandr Usyk remains in cruise control, but it wasn't all smooth sailing before he knocked out Tony Bellew in the eighth round Saturday night.
The undisputed world cruiserweight champion defended the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO titles after delivering a devastating finish with a left to Bellew's jaw at Manchester Arena in England.
But Usyk had to turn the fight around -- two judges had Bellew ahead at the time of the stoppage, while the other had it even -- in the first fight in Britain with all four world title belts on the line.
Usyk (16-0, 12 KO's) only became dominant after Bellew (30-3-1, 20 KO's) had won the earlier rounds, and the champion was well in control at the time of pulling off a spectacular knockout.
Defeat is likely to end Bellew's career after the English boxer said before the fight he hoped it would be his last, whatever the outcome. But for Usyk, bigger things and bigger opponents await in the heavyweight division. The Ukrainian is running out of options at cruiserweight, and the Bellew win underlined his dominance there.
Stepping up to heavyweight, however, would present more difficult challenges. Usyk's ultimate goal is to face WBA-IBF-WBO world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua, of England, and Usyk is co-promoted by Matchroom Sport, which also guides Joshua.
"I had the most difficult year in my life, now I want to relax and spend time with my family and after that I will think about the future," Usyk said. "We need to put goals in front of us and move towards them."
Added Alexander Krassyuk of K2 Promotions, which co-promotes Usyk with Matchroom: "He definitely needs to fight Anthony Joshua."
Bellew faded at the halfway point and Usyk began to land more punches before the finish.
"I tried to go for it because I thought I was behind," Bellew said. "He's a brilliant fighter, he's hard to pin down. I fought the very, very best, and he's just better than me.
"Usyk is pound-for-pound material, the best I've ever fought. Anyone who fights him is in trouble.
"That's definitely the end [of my career]."
Bellew, who turns 36 later this month, had shelved retirement plans for a shot at greatness, and briefly reigned as WBC cruiserweight champion in 2016. The Liverpool boxer then stepped up to heavyweight to twice stop former WBA world heavyweight champion David Haye -- but this upset bid proved too big to pull off as Usyk belatedly got into his stride, with his polished boxing taking control of the contest. It was a valiant effort from Bellew, and he went out on his shield.
Usyk impressed the previous time he was on the big stage in the U.K. -- he won heavyweight gold at the 2012 London Olympics -- and then showed his undeniable class in winning July's World Boxing Super Series, an eight-man knockout tournament, which enabled him to unify the world title belts.
Usyk, who has now fought in seven countries as a professional, impressed again with how he recovered in the fight and in executing a clinical finish.
After a non-eventful opener, Bellew shouted at Usyk to engage, and he kept the champion from getting into a rhythm. Bellew landed a cuffing right in the second round, and in the third the challenger landed another straight right through the guard. It was not the start Usyk would have hoped for, but he was better in the fourth round and buckled Bellew's legs with a left. Usyk, 31, kept pressing and deserved to win the fourth, but Bellew was full of confidence and dangerous with countershots.
Usyk's quick hands caught Bellew in the fifth round, and his legs stiffened momentarily from a left hand. Bellew was unraveling and got careless at the end of the sixth, allowing Usyk to land a big hook before dominating the seventh.
Bellew spent much of the seventh round backed up on the ropes as Usyk's punches began to flow better. In the eighth round, Usyk was well into his rhythm, and Bellew was taking punches flush before the Ukrainian landed a looping left hook.
Bellew fell back through the ropes, his head snapping back off the bottom rope, and his senses scrambled. The count was waved off as he got to his feet, signalling the end of his career.
Crolla, Burns continue revivals
Anthony Crolla and Ricky Burns, opponents just over a year ago, kept themselves in the frame for big fights with victories on Saturday's undercard at Manchester Arena.
Crolla (34-6-3, 13 KO's) unanimously outpointed Daud Yordan (38-4, 26 KO's) in an eliminator for the WBA world lightweight title, held by Usyk's training partner and fellow Ukrainian Vasyl Lomachenko -- who is regarded as the world's best boxer in any weight division.
"I will never disrespect Vasyl Lomachenko by calling him out, but if I'm mandatory challenger you never know it could happen," Crolla said. "I would love to have it."
Former WBA world lightweight champion Crolla, who had big support in front of his home fans in Manchester, earned scores of 116-112 from all three judges.
It was an absorbing fight, without any dramatic moments, and Indonesia's Yordan gave Crolla problems when he applied more pressure in the second round, but Crolla did better work from close range in the third.
Crolla, 31, dictated the fourth and fifth rounds, throwing plenty of left hooks to the body, but Jordan was better in the sixth. In the latter rounds, Crolla was more in control -- but Lomachenko, if a fight happens, would be an entirely different challenge.
Burns (43-7-1, 15 KO's), 35, was a level above Scott Cardle (23-3-1, 7 KO's), as he showed great technique to floor and finish his British rival with a right hand in the third round.
Scotland's first three-weight world champion, Burns needed a win to revive his career after back-to-back points defeats last year to Crolla and Julius Indongo, whom he lost to in a world super-lightweight title unification fight. And Burns delivered, after he immediately established his jab in the first round and then repeatedly caught Cardle with the right hand.
"Hopefully there are still some big fights out there for me," Burns said.
England's Josh Kelly will face a step up in class after recording a first-round stoppage win to extend his record to 8-0 (6 KO's). The unbeaten welterweight, who quickly disposed of Argentina's Walter Castillo (13-3, 3 KO's), will face David Avanesyan, of Russia, who last year was outpointed by Lamont Peterson for the WBA world title, at the Sheffield Arena on Dec. 8.