Calzaghe calls it a day on his terms
After 46 victories against no losses and 18 years as a top-level fighter, Joe Calzaghe is walking away from boxing while at the peak of his powers -- and he wouldn't have it any other way.
Joe Calzaghe was sitting in the lobby of the Radisson SAS Royal Hotel in Copenhagen with his father and trainer, Enzo, and a couple of friends. It was four days before he would make his ninth super middleweight title defense at Parken Stadium against an obscure American, Will McIntyre, and the Welsh champion's frustration was clear.
"Why is Mike Tyson getting all the attention?" he said. "I'm defending my title, and he's a has-been fighting a nobody [Brian Nielsen], yet everyone's talking about him, not me. What's the point in me even being here?"
It had not escaped his attention that McIntyre was a nobody, too, "very limited and, quite obviously, a middleweight stepping up," as he would reflect in his autobiography, "No Ordinary Joe." But Calzaghe understood his own worth; he knew his talent and fighting instinct deserved bigger billing.
Tyson, of course, defeated Nielson on that October night in 2001 and went on to challenge Lennox Lewis for the world heavyweight title. Calzaghe, meanwhile, was destined to remain on the fringes for five more years before his big breakthrough, in which he tortured Jeff Lacy for 12 rounds of virtuoso boxing.
"One of the greatest displays of superb technique, confidence and fighting intelligence a British boxer has delivered in a major contest," Hugh McIlvanney of The Sunday Times wrote of Calzaghe's performance in 2006.
But McIlvanney, the doyen of British sportswriting who will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in June, remained critical of Calzaghe's quality of opposition to that point in his career, suggesting it "had obscured historic talent."
Calzaghe was more a victim of his sport, however, than an expedient benefactor.
Would he have fought Bernard Hopkins sooner than he did in April 2008, when "The Executioner" was 43 years old? No question. In fact, the fight was agreed on and all parties were content with the conditions after negotiations took place in New York in 2002, only for Hopkins to scupper the deal by telling Showtime to double the money within 24 hours or he would walk away. Without compunction, he walked.
If boxing were like tennis, for example, this could never happen. Rafael Nadal versus Roger Federer is the most compelling rivalry in sports today because the Spanish matador and the Swiss maestro encounter one another regularly, reaching unprecedented levels of extreme excellence in order to overcome. They bring out the best in one another.
In boxing, with its multiple titles, it is too easy to take the safe route, the easy option.
"I struggled to fill the Cardiff Ice Rink, fighting mandatory contenders whose names I couldn't even pronounce, like Mger Mkrtchian," Calzaghe said. "Some of them, like Miguel Angel Jimenez and Evans Ashira, I hadn't even heard of. At one point, I thought that the big fights had passed me by, and it became very hard for me to motivate myself. I never considered quitting, if only for financial reasons, but I knew I wasn't performing and, emotionally, this was hurting me."
Financially, Calzaghe did well defending his title, facing capable former titleholders, too, such as Charles Brewer, Richie Woodhall, Byron Mitchell and Robin Reid, but he suffered in terms of legacy.
Just as Hopkins needed Felix Trinidad to confirm his authenticity as middleweight champion, Calzaghe required triumphs over Lacy in 2006 and Mikkel Kessler in 2007 to consolidate his reign.
Ultimately, he dominated the super middleweight division for 11 years before stepping up to light heavyweight to dethrone Hopkins in Las Vegas and defeat the remnants of Roy Jones in New York. Statistics never tell the whole story, but 46 successive victories as a pro and an unbeaten record stretching back as an amateur to 1990 reveal a lot about Calzaghe's ability. For more than 18 years, he beat every man he faced, even on his off-nights, when chronic hand injuries and a recurrent back problem rendered him fallible.
"Winning is what set Joe apart," Enzo Calzaghe said. "There were nights that he didn't box to his own high standards, but he always won, and this puts him in a very elite group."
The best British boxer of all time? Certainly, Joe Calzaghe can hold his head high when his name is included among pre-war legends Ted "Kid" Lewis and Jimmy Wilde and the best of the post-war years like Ken Buchanan, John Conteh, Lennox Lewis, Barry McGuigan and Ricky Hatton. Aesthetically, his style did not endear him to everyone, but the unique southpaw demonstrated abundant skill, a remarkable reservoir of fitness, an iron chin and incredible heart.
"He beat everybody that they put in front of him," said Hatton, the world junior welterweight champion. "He's the best British fighter we've ever had."
Recently, Calzaghe was hammered by the media for uttering the words that "boxing is a dying sport," a phrase that was taken out of context. Calzaghe feels the pertinent points he made were disregarded: "You've got UFC, which has taken a lot off boxing, business-wise. There is too much politics in boxing, too many belts and too many champions, which dilutes real champions like myself. America only had one medalist in the Olympics this year. In Britain we did pretty good, but I'm glad I'm ending my career and not starting it, because I don't think it's going to be that great in the future. There are no stars any more. It's a big problem."
Over the years, Calzaghe disdained the trappings of stardom, remaining close to his roots in south Wales while dedicating himself to his profession, to which he was a credit. He will stay retired and devote his efforts to Calzaghe Promotions (which will stage its first show Feb. 21 in Merthyr Tydfil), a career in TV and his substantial charity work, for which he received his Commander of the British Empire award from Queen Elizabeth II this year.
The fighter who was overlooked in Denmark was also recognized at the palace for his services to boxing.
Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for The (London) Sunday Times.
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