Boxing: The Greatest - British Boxers: Joe Calzaghe
There are many words you could use to describe Joe Calzaghe, but ‘unbeaten’ is one of the first to mind.
In boxing, no matter how good you are, nearly every fighter eventually succumbs to defeat.
For Joe Calzaghe, that was simply never an option. The fear of it – you’d be forgiven for thinking he feared losing more than death – is what drove him to become, and retire as, an undefeated world champion.
The Pride of Wales, a highly-decorated amateur, only lost a handful of fights before turning pro, and admitted he cried after each defeat, such was the agony of losing.
“That gut-wrenching feeling of defeat I can still feel today,” Calzaghe said. Losing in the professional ranks was an unthinkable fate.
Calzaghe’s final defeat in an excellent amateur career would come as a 17-year-old. He’d never, for the rest of his amateur career, and the entirety of his professional career, lose a fight again. As an amateur, he’d go on to win three consecutive British ABA titles, making history by doing it at three different weight classes.
Upon turning pro, his lightning-fast hand speed was too much for opponents in the early stages of his career, winning seven of his first nine fights in the first round, with the other two in the second round. The sheer volume of blows was overwhelming to everyone who entered the ring with the young Welshman.
Two years into his professional career, Calzaghe would beat Stephen Wilson. He would defend six months later against Mark Delaney, but it wasn’t enough. Calzaghe had eyes for only one prize: a world title.
The desired title shot wasn’t coming while working with promoter Mickey Duff, so Calzaghe switched to Frank Warren, who set up the fight with then-champion, Steve Collins, within 12 months.
The halfway point of Calzaghe’s career would see him face his toughest fight to date. Not champion Steve Collins, who pulled out of the fight and retired, but stand-in, Chris Eubank.
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Despite a perfect record of 22-0 with 21 by stoppage, Calzaghe had faced criticism that he hadn’t fought stellar opponents; also that he was a slapper rather than a puncher – both would be levelled at him throughout much of his career.
Although Chris Eubank had a lot of miles on the clock and had come out of retirement for this fight, Calzaghe had answered the first point just by stepping into the ring with him. He answered the second 15 seconds after the first bell.
A wicked left hook to the retreating Eubank sent the former WBO middleweight and super-middleweight champion to the canvas. Calzaghe thought he was in for an easy night, but Eubank bounced to his feet with a nod and a smirk; an acknowledgement that he’d been caught by a good shot, and a reminder that it’d take much more than that to put him away.
Calzaghe would throw the kitchen sink at Eubank for the rest of the round, testing the chin and heart that had taken Eubank to the pinnacle of the sport.
Both stood that test.
Eubank said before the fight that he would take Calzaghe to a place he’d never been before, that he’d take him to the trenches, and with Calzaghe unloading so much into that first round, the gas tank was running on empty by the halfway stage. But to his immense credit, he went the distance with an all-time great, to win by a decision.
Going by the scorecards, the decision might have looked comfortable, but the fight was anything but for Calzaghe. To this day he still regards it as the toughest fight of his career, admitting he couldn’t get out of bed for three days afterwards. In pouring so much into the early rounds, trying to secure an early finish, Calzaghe had totally exhausted himself. The second half of the fight was fought on fumes, with only his heart seeing him through to the final bell. The world title was his.
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Calzaghe would go on to notch up another 16 wins, each of which were for his WBO super-middleweight crown, but since Eubank, there hadn’t really been many career-defining names or career-defining performances.
It was held against him for a number of years, that despite approaching a decade as world champion, he’d not faced an opponent like Eubank. Calzaghe would retort that not only had he faced anyone put in front of him, but that he’d also faced the likes of Robin Reid, Richie Woodhall and Byron Mitchell, all former conquerors of the super-middleweight division.
The fight against Mitchell – his 36th as a pro – came on the back of a performance from Mitchell in Germany against IBF champion Sven Ottke, in which the American controversially lost his WBA belt via an eyebrow-raising decision.
The pair engaged in an all-out brawl, with Calzaghe being dropped in the second for the first time in his career, before choosing to throw the gauntlet to the challenger, fighting fire with fire, putting Mitchell down moments later and forcing a stoppage later in the round.
His 40th fight would come against Evans Ashira, with a unification fight against Jeff Lacy scheduled two months after.
The first few rounds saw Calzaghe dismantle the Kenyan, whose boxing simply wasn’t on Calzaghe’s level.
But beyond the early rounds of a fight Calzaghe was expected to win comfortably, the performance was unconvincing, albeit with good reason; doubts over his ability to beat Lacy increased. Of course, the reality was that Calzaghe had just won all 12 rounds of a world title fight with his weaker hand.
What people didn’t realise at the time is that Calzaghe had broken his left hand early in the fight, and would have to see the contest out effectively with one hand.
Calzaghe’s career would be plagued by hand and wrist injuries, but this time, it threatened to jeopardise the biggest fight of his life.
The Welshman’s recent performances weren’t that of the pound-for-pound boxer he claimed to be, and knowing what was on the line against Lacy, he wanted to pull out. He’d been forced to pull out once before after the Ashira fight, but dad Enzo gave Calzaghe the belief that he could somehow beat the ‘Mini Mike Tyson’ one-handed.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what Calzaghe would do.
Despite coming from America to the UK, Lacy was the favourite going into the fight. ‘Left Hook’ Lacy was building a reputation as a fearsome power puncher. In the space of 12 months he’d stopped Rubin Williams, then forced Robin Reid to retire on his stool, and finally delivered a devastating knockout of Scott Pemberton.
Lacy was riding the crest of a wave, while Calzaghe’s recent performances had left a lot to be desired. After being dropped by Mitchell, he was dropped again in a gruelling encounter with Kabary Salem.
After breaking his hand against Ashira, Calzaghe had pulled out of the fight and couldn’t afford to postpone the fight again, despite a similar injury picked up in training, weeks before the fight.
It was an injury however, that forced Calzaghe into a corner, a corner dad Enzo was all too happy about.
Calzaghe, with his dad’s sage wisdom, had begun to realise he’d unintentionally become the perfect fighter for Lacy, and would spend the early hours of Sunday 5th March jabbing away at Lacy with relentless pace. There’d be no need to go toe-to-toe with Lacy and engage in a firefight; Calzaghe would simply outbox the American.
Calzaghe said: “Most people – so-called experts – said I was going to get knocked out in the first few rounds.”
They couldn’t have been more wrong.
There was no arguing Lacy was the power puncher of the two; if there was to be a knockout, it would likely come from the American. Similarly, there was no question who had the better engine; who had more speed. By the end of the fight, Lacy had thrown 444 punches, Calzaghe nearly 1,000. Lacy had landed 10 punches per round, Calzaghe 30.
It took as long as the second round to see which way the contest was going. It took as long as the third round for the crowd to start chanting “Easy, easy”. Lacy had no answer to the questions Calzaghe posed.
It was Calzaghe’s finest hour. A masterclass in hitting and not getting hit. Calzaghe would have a point taken in the 11th but Lacy didn’t win a single round all night, and frankly the referee could have stepped in before the final bell rang, such was the disparity in class between the two.
After taking the inaugural Ring magazine title and Lacy’s IBF title, Calzaghe made defences against Sakio Bika and Peter Manfredo before making a step up in class to fight Denmark’s Mikkel Kessler.
Kessler, a fellow unbeaten world champion, held the WBC and WBA belts and was supremely confident he’d be taking Calzaghe’s WBO and Ring magazine titles. Calzaghe said he’d seen weaknesses in the build-up to the Lacy fight; he spotted no such weaknesses from Kessler.
In the aftermath of the Lacy fight, Calzaghe was finally getting the respect and recognition he craved, even across the pond. Though all-European fights didn’t typically attract a big American audience, this fight, on PPV with HBO, was broadcast at 1.30am UK time to accommodate boxing fans stateside.
More than 12 months after talks began to get the two unbeaten champions in the ring, the pair finally met.
Despite being better favoured than he was for the Lacy fight, Calzaghe found the early stages more challenging against Kessler, taking big shots in the fourth round which prompted a change of tack. Ultimately, Calzaghe’s work rate, speed and stamina saw him come through to win by unanimous decision to become the undisputed super-middleweight champion.
Making weight was becoming increasingly difficult for Calzaghe, now in his mid-30s, and having conquered the super-middleweight division, he made the jump to light-heavyweight.
Bernard Hopkins was the target, and while Calzaghe had gone to America to watch Ricky Hatton take on Floyd Mayweather, the pair bumped into each other. Having already called out Calzaghe prior to his win over Kessler, Hopkins famously claimed ‘I would never let a white boy beat me’. The touch paper had been lit, and the fight was signed for 19th April 2008.
It took a whole 60 seconds into his US debut for Calzaghe to hit the canvas, walking onto a stiff right. Going down early, on foreign soil, to a wily, world-class defensive boxer and counterpuncher was the worst possible start to the fight.
But Calzaghe would remain patient throughout, trusting his game plan, and not being drawn into the fight Hopkins wanted. Despite being in the twilight of his career, Calzaghe was seven years his junior, and once again, as he had throughout his career, relied on his superior work rate and fitness to continue to outwork and outbox the disruptive Hopkins, who became increasingly desperate to spoil the fight and frustrate the Welshman.
A win in Las Vegas, and a two-weight world champion. There was only one thing left for Calzaghe to tick off the bucket list: Madison Square Garden.
It might not have been the Roy Jones Jr of yesteryear, but it was Roy Jones Jr nonetheless. As with the Hopkins fight, Calzaghe was dropped in the first, albeit with a forearm rather than a punch. But Calzaghe bounced back and asserted his dominance.
Knowing it was his last fight, and that the former Fighter of the Year wouldn’t be able to live with him, Calzaghe decided to put on a show, poking his head through Jones’s guard, dropping his hands, even bolo punching.
The remarkable speed, reflexes and work rate that saw him win 45 professional fights would see him win his 46th and final. After the first-round knockdown, there’d be no split decision drama as with Hopkins; Calzaghe won the other 11 rounds on all three judges’ scorecards.
Four months after the win over Jones, while rated #3 in the pound-for-pound rankings, with no more worlds to conquer, Calzaghe decided to hang up the gloves.
Not many boxers are able to end their careers on a high and on their own terms. But Calzaghe did.
46 fights, 46 wins. A champion. Unbeaten.
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