DUBAI // On the eve of his bout against the WBC world strawweight champion Xiong Zhao Zhong, the Filipino challenger Denver Cuello said: "This is going to be a very easy fight for me."
Zhong, however, proved Cuello wrong by winning a split decision at the Dubai World Trade Centre last night to retain the belt he had won in China in November.
"It was a very tough, very close fight," said China's first world boxing champion, who won for the first time outside his home country and was mobbed by fans as he left the arena. "I love the people here and I hope I can come back here for another fight in Dubai."
Cuello left the ring a shattered man, his face battered and his head bleeding from a gash.
Midway through the bout, he dislocated his right shoulder, as well.
Still, his manager, Aljoe O Jaro, was surprised by the decision. One judge called the fight a draw, at 113-113, but the other two had it for Zhong 115-112 and 113-110.
"I don't know what happened there," Jaro said. "Denver clearly deserved to win, so we are really disappointed.
"Hopefully, we will get another chance."
Cuello, the biggest boxing star in the Philippines after Manny Pacquiao, had earned the right to fight the WBC champion after stopping the Mexican Ganigan Lopez in two rounds in May 2012. However, the 26-year-old Filipino stepped aside for Zhong last November following a plea from the WBC president Jose Sulaiman, as well as a reported US$25,000 (Dh91,800) in compensation.
Zhong then defeated Mexico's Javier Martinez Resendiz in Kunming, in front of his home fans, in a unanimous 12-round decision. He was given the option of a voluntary defence, which meant he could choose his opponent, and the 30-year-old champ picked the No 1 contender, Cuello.
Walking in for his first world championship bout after nine years as a professional, Cuello was beaming, and the man dubbed "The Excitement" even tried shake a bit to the music.
The champion, however, showed no emotions. He seemed focused and cold as he walked for his first defence.
Things, however, did not start well for Zhong, who was sent to the canvas by the Filipino's massive left hook midway through the first round.
The Chinese, however, recovered to give Cuello a tough time in the following rounds, especially in the fourth. "I am the champion and I am not scared of anyone. I will fight anyone, anywhere in the world," Zhong had said on the eve of the fight. And proved equal to his words.
In the fifth round, Cuello was on the ropes, shaken by some power-packed hooks by the champion, and the Chinese fans were beating on their drums. By the end of the round, though, the challenger was leading the champion in the books of all three judges - 39-36, 38-37, 39-36. That raised the hope of the Filipino fans.
Cuello, however, injured his right shoulder soon after and was left to fight with just one hand, unable to move the other. A doctor was called in during the eighth round to check on his injury, but the challenger decided to continue, and he became an easy target for Zhong.
In the ninth round, Cuello's head was split open following an accidental butt from Zhong and he started bleeding profusely.
His vision impaired from the bleeding, and effectively left with just one hand, the challenger hung on till the finish, but his predictions of victory ended in disappointment.
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