Joe Calzaghe: The Louis landmark

This is no ordinary Joe, but he still feels he is fighting for the sporting world's respect. Alan Hubbard talks to a deserving winner
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The Independent Online

Apparently the quickest way to offend Joe Calzaghe is to tell him he looks like a boxer. He confesses a certain vanity about his dark and handsome profile, a product of his Latin-Celtic ancestry, which after 41 professional fights, and too many to remember as an amateur from the age of 13, remains remarkably unblemished. Yet in the last of these engagements, against the hitherto untamed American Jeff Lacy, whose IBF super-middleweight title he forcibly removed six months ago, he certainly looked like a complete boxer, administering one of the most comprehensive goings-over ever witnessed in a British ring, one which was almost Ali-like in its sublime execution.

Lacy, five years younger and boasting a fearsome record as the "mini-Mike Tyson", returned to the US chastised and chastened, leaving Calzaghe basking in plaudits for what surely was the supreme single performance in British sport this year. Which brings us to the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

Had the fight been seen on the Beeb, it must have put Calzaghe beyond the reach of other contenders, but his audience, albeit terrestrial, were watching in the early hours on ITV for the benefit of the American transmission. Previously, Calzaghe's southpaw exploits had been confined to Sky, which meant, for all his accomplishments as Britain's most enduring world champion, he has never been as big as Bruno, or even Chris Eubank, from whom he first won the WBO title back in 1997.

But is he bothered? Not a bit, it seems. As for the BBC award, well, frankly, he couldn't give a damn whether he wins it or not.

"To be honest it wouldn't mean that much to me," says the 34-year-old Welshman who has never pulled punches in the ring or out. "What is it at the end of the day? I don't need it as I know I am head and shoulders above any other champion in Britain.

"You look at the past winners and some of them are a lot of losers. What has Greg Rusedski ever won? Well, in the end I suppose to be nominated would be quite nice, but I am not holding my breath. The BBC are bigger on things like golf, tennis and cricket, aren't they? Boxing doesn't get a look-in these days. I've won the Welsh award a couple of times and I am happy with that. Nah, to tell you the truth, I'm not bothered."

Calzaghe professes to be far more flattered to receive another award when he becomes the first super-middleweight recipient of the prestigious Ring magazine belt this week, exactly nine years to the day since he took his title from Eubank. It is rare for a British fighter to be placed in the same legendary league as the likes of Ali, Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson.

"I am probably more excited about getting this than becoming the IBF champion. That belt is something special; even Roy Jones has never won it."

It is a busy week for Calzaghe. On Thursday he is the feature of ITV4's documentary Calzaghe - No Average Joe, and Saturday sees him in the ring at Man-chester's MEN Arena as the centrepiece of a two-and-a-quarter-hour ITV broadcast. It is his 42nd bout, and 19th title defence, against the Afro-Australian Saiko Bika, from Sydney by way of Cameroon.

It will be his first appearance since unifying the titles and it is a fight that will complete his American makeover, with the network HBO so impressed with his demolition of "Left Hook" Lacy that they are bringing over Lennox Lewis as their ringside pundit, with Michael "Let's get ready to rumble" Buffer as MC.

Bika, 27, has lost only once in 23 fights and fought a technical draw with the German WBC champion Markus Beyer, but the bout should be a prelude to a major date in February against a bigger-name opponent, when Calzaghe hopes to equal the 20 title defences made by Bernard Hopkins, making him second only to Joe Louis in world championship longevity.

"I think finally this country - and now America - has woken up to Joe," says his promoter, Frank Warren. "He did a press conference with American writers last week and one of them told him his performance against Jeff Lacy was the finest he had ever seen in a title fight. He was just fantastic that night. He's not had it easy, as everyone knows, with a lot of hand problems and some domestic issues, but he has dealt with them professionally. You have to go back to when he was a teenage amateur to see an 'L' against his name in the record books. It's phenomenal.

"I can't think of any other sportsman in this country this year who has done what he has. What I would love to see is for him to beat Louis' 25 title-defence all-time record, which will put him in the history books."

Calzaghe is happy as a homegrown hero. He hates straying from his local gymnasium in Newbridge, where he is trained by his Sardinian-born father, Enzo. His mother is Welsh. "A lot of people say to me, 'You never should have had your dad in the corner', and that I should train away or go to America.

"But listen, this is what I am happy to do. When nothing's broke, don't try to fix it. Where I live is nice and quiet. I get left alone. There are beautiful mountains, and every time I run in the morning there's a big hill to climb. I'm happy sticking to the same routine and that's probably why I've had this tremendous consistency and fitness. I've been training nearly every day since I was 13. Even then I had a burning ambition to be a champion."

Unlike so many champions, he does not come from a ghetto, neither was he a bad lad who found salvation through boxing. "I was brought up on a council estate in South Wales, and while the family were poor we never went hungry, with dad working wonders with pasta every day.

"Yes, there have been some hard times, but I've kept plugging away. I was never going to be a nine-till-five man or work shifts in a cake factory, like my mum. I tried it once for a couple of days, sticking stickers on things, but I thought, 'Screw this for a lark, I want to be a world champion'. Now I am at the tail end of my career and I am looking forward to having three big fights next year and quitting in 2008 to leave some sort of legacy. If I can get through a decade as champion with 25 defences, that will be something nobody can ever take away."

Calzaghe, who was divorced a couple of years ago, has been one of British boxing's highest-ever earners, but never Hello magazine material, preferring the green, green grass of his homeland to more fashionable pastures. He now has a new lady in his life and several million in the bank. "As long as I have a nice house and my kids are provided for, that's all I want." But he points out: "I'm not a steady 50-grand-a-week Premiership footballer. I'm a boxer, and every fight could be my last. You just have to remember Michael Watson to know what boxing can do to you."

Yet his passion and ambition are undimmed. "When you start in boxing, everyone says they want to retire as an undefeated champion like Rocky Marciano, but for me I feel this is a realistic aim. The only thing that can let me down is myself, if I take things for granted. I am proud of being undefeated but I realise you can get beat and, strangely enough, the closest I've been to it is in fights I've been expected to win easily. But against Lacy and Charles Brewer [another top US fighter] I was never in danger. The balance of power has changed since I beat Lacy. He was America's superkid, and I bashed him up. But I don't think I've been given enough credit for my record, really. My only mistake is being a lot better than my opponents; maybe I have suffered through that. The trouble is we are a country which prefers game losers to great winners.

"The biggest fight I'd like now is with Hopkins. He would be the No 1, but I've always said I want to be a two-weight world champion, so it would be great to fight Clinton Woods eventually. All I am thinking about now is the guy who is in front of me next Saturday and how to take him out. I'd like to think Lacy was my defining fight, but if I have a shit performance next time, I know that's the one I'll be remembered for.

"I am always critical of myself. Even in that fight I felt there were things that I could improve. I am 35 in March, but a young 35. I believe I could carry on to 40 but I want to get out at the top, though that's easier said than done. I never feel invincible and that's one of my strengths, because when a fighter thinks like that, it's when he gets beat. At the end of the day I'm not Superman." Maybe not, but at least this Extraordinary Joe has proved he is as good as he looks.

Life & Times

BORN 23 March 1972, Hammersmith. Aged two, moved to Newbridge, South Wales.

FAMILY Father Italian, mother Welsh. He is divorced, with sons aged 12 and 14.

PRO CAREER Beat Chris Eubank in 1997 for World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight crown and Jeff Lacy in 2006 for International Boxing Federation belt. Unbeaten in 41 fights (31 kos). Longest-reigning British world champion with 18 defences.

AMATEUR CAREER Took up boxing at Newbridge ABC, aged seven. Won British schoolboy championship. Second boxer to win three consecutive ABA titles. Turned pro 1993.

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