- Brian Doogan
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If all the world's a stage, as Shakespeare suggested, describing the seven stages of a man's life in the same monologue, then Joe Calzaghe is ready for Act 5 -- as a fighter, at least.
"A soldier seeking the bubble reputation, even in the cannon's mouth," was Shakespeare's commentary on young adulthood, when reputation and recognition are imperative, however short-lived they might be.
Then comes the justice, the stage that Calzaghe is about to enter, satisfied that his achievements over 15 years in the ring have secured his status as one of the most accomplished fighters of his generation.
Of course, there is one last test to overcome: that against Roy Jones on Saturday at Madison Square Garden, one final appearance at boxing's citadel before Calzaghe walks away. "Full of wise saws and modern instances," as Shakespeare would have put it.
Boxing's bard, Hugh McIlvanney of The (London) Sunday Times, sees it a different way. He insisted in a recent column that "if Joe Calzaghe sees [this fight] as having relevance to his legacy, he must be thinking of the cash he may be able to leave his children in his will."
McIlvanney's point is that Jones is light-years past his best and, essentially, Calzaghe's reputation should stand on what he has already done. Saturday's superfight bears a hint of irrelevance beyond the boundaries of making money.
Not that Calzaghe has prepared for his first fight at the Garden with anything other than a soldier's mindset, for his unblemished record through 45 fights is an obvious source of pride which goes to the heart of this extraordinary Joe. Defeat would be an unconscionable conclusion for Calzaghe after all these years unbeaten.
Calzaghe looked nothing short of brilliant on a Saturday afternoon just over three weeks ago at the Newbridge Boxing Club gym where he has toiled in the same unassuming way throughout his 11 years of dominance as a super middleweight and, belatedly, as a light heavyweight.
His hand speed and fluent foot movement, the sustained power in his punches and the relentless energy with which he tackled his work gave not a hint of a man winding down his career. The candle still burned strongly that day, which is just the way he intends it to be.
"Why would I want to be doing this if I had nothing left to give, like Evander Holyfield or Muhammad Ali in his final fights?" Calzaghe said in his suite overlooking New York's Central Park this week. "I'm still fighting because there is still something in the tank. I don't want to be running on empty, as some fighters do, which is sad."
"In my heart, I believe this will be my final fight, but I know it won't hit me that I've retired until six, eight, 10 months from now when I am sitting at home and thinking, 'Why am I not fighting?' That's not me being confused, that's just the reality. For months after a fight I do nothing anyway, just sit around [at] home and eat, drink and get fat, so the next six months won't seem any different in any case."
"The question is whether I will stay retired, or whether money or challenge will tempt me back. I know there are other things that I will be able to do with my life, such as TV work, maybe some acting, and I've got Calzaghe Promotions up and running, but who knows about getting back in the ring some time down the road? I'll only know when the time comes."
In the past three years especially, Calzaghe has demonstrated the kind of champion he has always been: dignified, dedicated, ambitious, humble, unyielding. He was immense on the nights that he exposed Jeff Lacy, against whom he was the betting underdog, and when he withstood the firepower and broke the will of Mikkel Kessler -- and his underachieving performance against Bernard Hopkins has to be viewed in a new light since Hopkins' masterful display against Kelly Pavlik in October.
Father Time, clearly, had less influence over Hopkins' decline in the final two-thirds of their bout than did Calzaghe's work ethic, prodigious pace and will to win. Hopkins' will abated -- so he chose merely to survive -- but not Calzaghe's.
"Hopkins' fight with Pavlik, in which he shut Pavlik down completely, and his fight with Joe demonstrated that, if you are not an incredibly active fighter, Hopkins will beat you every time," Sylvester Stallone, who was ringside at Calzaghe-Hopkins, told ESPN.com. "You cannot be lazy around Hopkins or even second-guess yourself, and Joe doesn't second-guess himself. He lets his rhythm go, he lets his heart go, he lets his anger go and he stayed one large step ahead of Hopkins, who eventually shut down and was exhausted.
"He will sit there and pepper the hell out of you with an unorthodox style, which hasn't been seen in America for some time, so we dismiss it because everyone in America expects this thudding, crashing, bone-jarring punching style -- supposedly this determines if a man is tough. It's not true. Joe puts himself in the teeth of the fire for a longer period to achieve his goal and that's b----. He's one of the best boxers of his generation, no question."
Maybe if Calzaghe had been able to win all the super middleweight titles sooner, recognition of his worth would not have been withheld for so long, but boxing politics were to blame.
If Calzaghe had been able to face Germany's Sven Ottke and boxing politics had not intervened, he would have jumped at the chance.
"Everybody has their claim to fame but if you can put it another notch higher, why wouldn't you?" said Jones. "If Joe can beat me, that will put him even higher in people's estimations, with all those defenses. If I can beat him, it will put me a notch higher. It's an intriguing event for both of us."
So it comes down to a final curtain call on boxing's most celebrated stage. Shakespeare wrote that "the last scene of all" brings "mere oblivion."
As a fighter, at least, Calzaghe has always been ahead of the game. As a scholar, we will know where he stands perhaps a year from now.
Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for The (London) Sunday Times and is a longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.
Win or lose Saturday, Joe Calzaghe's legacy as one of the most accomplished fighters of his generation is secure, writes Brian Doogan.