The judges scored the bout 117-112, 116-113 and 114-114 in Cleverly’s favour, but it was a competitive match throughout and a rematch is already being mentioned.
Both fighters were undefeated going into the fight and they gave the Liverpool crowd pure entertainment for 12 rounds as they traded jabs, low blows and huge right hands.
Bellew, 28, started the fight the quicker, surprisingly using his jab to great effect, doubling it up and then landing his big right hand.
But the 24-year-old champion Cleverly worked well on the inside with damaging body shots and right uppercuts.
The tempo of the bout remained fast during the middle rounds and Bellew continued to impress with his jab and boxing skills, not looking outclassed – as many had predicted.
From the eighth onwards, Cleverly began to dominate as Bellew visibly tired and decreased the output of his jab, allowing the Welshman to get in closer and land more punches on the inside where he was most comfortable.
Bellew rebounded in the tenth, catching Cleverly with two huge right hands on the ropes – but the champion recovered well and finished the round strongly.
By the twelth, both fighters were exhausted but it was Cleverly who looked the fitter as he threw more punches, catching his opponent several times with left and right hooks.
It was a hard-fought bout, but Cleverly had the stamina in the final rounds to enable him to hold onto his title, via the judges, after what proved to be an immensely competitive fight.
The victory improved Cleverlyâ€™s perfect record to 23 wins, 11 by the way of knockout, while Bellew suffered the first defeat of his professional career.
“I think I won it in the middle rounds,” said Cleverley after the fight. “I knew he would be dangerous in the first three rounds. I thought he’d tire more, but he held in there.”
Bellew added: “I’m just devastated. I’ve got my two kids and I can only apologise to them. I’m just gutted, I can only apologise.”
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