- Kieran Mulvaney, Boxing
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After two rounds of Saturday night's light heavyweight clash between Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe, I was already mentally writing my post-fight analysis.
It was going to be called "Never Again," and the theme was going to be how there were probably no circumstances under which I would in future bet against Hopkins.
Not that I had made a habit of doing so before.
I had suspected he might beat Felix Trinidad. I was actually reasonably confident he would beat Antonio Tarver, although I was taken aback by how easily he did so.
But I didn't pick him to beat Calzaghe.
In contrast, it has taken me a long time to be convinced of Calzaghe's quality. I picked him to lose to Jeff Lacy (which in retrospect seems like a stupid call) and Mikkel Kessler (which also seems stupid, albeit less stupid than picking Lacy). I remained unconvinced by his offensive output, which was certainly voluminous -- but even in its dominance, had not always struck me as particularly punishing.
The Kessler fight was what finally sold me on Calzaghe. He showed adaptability and a great chin, and apart from a couple of moments where he seemed to allow himself to become over-excited, he threw straight punches, more than 1,000 of them over the course of 12 rounds.
It was the latter fact in particular that convinced me he would ultimately overwhelm Hopkins, that a 43-year-old man who liked to fight for 30 seconds a round simply would not be able to turn back the challenge of an indefatigable foe who never stopped coming forward, and never stopped letting his hands go.
The only way Hopkins could win, I felt, was if he could somehow do to Calzaghe what he had done to countless other opponents, and somehow slowed him down and forced him to fight at the pace that the Philadelphian wanted.
And yet, almost immediately, it appeared that that was just what he was doing.
As Hopkins feinted, turned, moved and twisted, Calzaghe stood in front of him, looking slightly confused, preparing his punches and then failing to pull the trigger as Hopkins, in anticipation of incoming artillery, made as if to throw counters before moving out of harm's way.
With barely a minute gone, I turned to fellow boxing scribe Ron Borges, sitting to my left, and said something to the effect if, "Hopkins is doing it again. He's making Calzaghe fight his fight."
Then came the knockdown, the beautiful straight counter right that landed flush and buckled the Welshman's knees. While Hopkins arguably helped him down with a slight push, let it be noted that Calzaghe's right arm, locked behind Hopkins' neck, prevented him from dropping immediately without any assistance.
After two rounds, Calzaghe looked slow, befuddled and uncertain.
Behind me, Tom Hauser leaned forward.
"Unless Joe Calzaghe has something else, this fight is over," he observed.
But Calzaghe did have something else. He had an extra gear, and he engaged it.
He started to pump his southpaw jab, and to land his left hand behind it. He sought to maneuver Hopkins against the ropes or into the corner and then launch a flurry; Hopkins seemed to block a fair share of the punches and certainly did his best to clinch after but a few had been thrown, but Calzaghe's output was preventing Hopkins from effectively returning fire.
But then Calzaghe began to appear over-confident and a little sloppy. Hopkins, whose concentration never wavered, began to reassert himself, landing sharp counters and hauling himself back into the lead.
The fight was rarely pretty: There was a lot of clinching, a lot of mauling and the flurried offensive output from both men was hardly going to make anyone forget Bob Foster, Michael Spinks or Matthew Saad Muhammad -- or even, for that matter, Roy Jones.
But Hopkins has never cared about aesthetics, simply about getting the job done, and he frequently dipped into his familiar bag of tricks to make sure he did so, not just holding and smothering but also landing frequent furtive shots to Calzaghe's left hip when referee Joe Cortez was on the Welshman's right side and unable to see.
But Hopkins was fighting two foes on Saturday night: The super middleweight champion of the world from Newbridge, Wales, and his own advancing age. And the effort of doing so finally appeared to take its toll on even this remarkable athlete.
Once again, Calzaghe adapted, and this time Hopkins seemed unable to respond. At the beginning of Round 10, he was slow to get off his stool, and when he doubled over following an alleged low blow, the suspicion was that he was both buying himself as much time as possible to gather his second wind and also perhaps seeking to persuade Cortez to deduct a point from Calzaghe -- which, in a close contest, could prove decisive.
Heading into the final round, it was close on the scorecards of most ringside observers, but Calzaghe left no doubt, enjoying perhaps his best three minutes of the bout, outworking, out-hustling and outscoring his experienced opponent to add an emphatic punctuation mark to his performance.
The judges' scorecards reflected the closeness of the bout and those of the media: 114-113 for Hopkins, and 115-112 and 116-111 for Calzaghe.
Hopkins refused to acknowledge the defeat, protesting that he had fought the fight he wanted to, that he had in essence schooled Calzaghe. To some extent, that was true: In many ways, Hopkins had shown the greater strategy, had been the more effective in disrupting his opponent's fight plan and had nullified at times his foe's offense. His punches had appeared the more effective. But typically for Hopkins in recent years, he had thrown far too few of them.
And so, to Joe Calzaghe go the spoils.
Fighting for the first time at light heavyweight and the first time in the United States, he overcame a first-round knockdown to secure a points victory over a Hall-of-Fame fighter.
That is a singular achievement, a significant notch on his belt and further consolidation -- not that any is by now necessary -- of his own Hall-of-Fame credentials. Although he has indicated strongly that only one or two fights remain in his career, he has the opportunity to secure plenty more money and glory in those remaining contests, the next one most likely against Jones, with whom he shared classy, mutual expressions of admiration at the post-fight press conference.
As for Hopkins: Even prior to the fight, he had admitted that this might well be his last contest, and he underlined that likelihood afterward, speaking wistfully of wanting to spend more time with his young daughter and frequently referring to his career in the past tense.
He had retired once before, of course, after dominating Tarver, honoring a promise he had made to his late mother. But the lure of the ring had proven too strong and had brought him back twice, once against Winky Wright and now Calzaghe.
Hopkins' mother is no longer around to urge him to hang up the gloves for good, but the cold hand of Father Time is now on his shoulder, and that is an opponent which always ultimately prevails. It has been a long, absorbing and compelling ride, but Saturday night in Las Vegas, it seemingly, finally, came to an end.
Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com and Reuters.
No matter the opponent or the circumstance, Joe Calzaghe always seems to get the job done, just as he did against Bernard Hopkins in his first fight in Las Vegas Saturday.