Joe Calzaghe was crowned undisputed world super-middleweight champion in Cardiff tonight after a victory over Mikkel Kessler which secured his place in the pantheon of great post-war fighters.
The 35-year-old Welshman was forced to draw on every inch of his experience and skills to repel the Dane by scores of 117-111, 116-112 (twice) on the judges' cards and add the WBC and WBA titles to the WBO belt he successfully defended for the 21st time.
There were moments when it seemed Kessler - who came to Cardiff with a 39-fight unbeaten record - might be the man to ruin Calzaghe's big night in front of 50,000 fans. However, the Welshman's immense fighting heart proved decisive.
Calzaghe came on strong in the later rounds and his multi-dimensional approach paid dividends against an opponent who, whilst hugely talented, fought upright behind a stiff left jab.
It added up to an enthralling contest which lived up to every inch of its illustrious billing, and one which will ensure the superlatives are finally foisted upon Calzaghe after over a decade reigning as champion.
Calzaghe had been woken up by two crisp lefts in the opening round but there were misplaced hopes of an early night in the third, when Kessler toppled backwards but it was deemed a slip by referee Mike Ortega.
There was no doubt Kessler was setting the early pace. He cracked home a trademark right in round four and provided a timely reminder to Calzaghe not to throw caution to the wind.
A superb right uppercut also jolted back Calzaghe's head in a superb spell of boxing by the Dane, and another beautiful left through the gap in round five underlined Kessler's ability.
But Calzaghe enjoyed a much better sixth as he began to pick his shots, and built up his momentum during the second half of the fight to slowly squeeze the victory away from the Dane.
Calzaghe was on top early in the seventh round, clattering home hooks from either hand, although he was clearly wobbled by a long right over the top by Kessler who came back strongly.
Calzaghe was reprimanded by referee Ortega towards the end of round eight for hitting round the back of Kessler's head and during the break in the action promoter Frank Warren urged his fighter to employ body shots more.
Kessler, though, was beating him to the punch and landed two powerful lefts in round nine. There was a real urgency to Calzaghe's work as he faced the very real prospect of losing his long unbeaten record.
Still on his toes and with no sign of his stamina seeping away at the age of 35, Calzaghe chased his composed opponent and finally established the upper hand.
As he entered the final three minutes, Calzaghe was at his irresistible best, landing with hooks from either hand and successfully repelling Kessler's desperate advances to close out a magnificent contest.
"I knew it was going to be one of the toughest fights of my life, Kessler is a fantastic fighter in his prime," the Newbridge man told Setanta Sports.
"It's not bad for a 35-year-old!
"I'm so proud of my efforts, the efforts of my Dad and Frank (Warren) who put this together.
"It's so sweet, I was struggling at the end, I was a bit tired. But I felt I controlled the fight and was proud of my performance."
Speaking of the nature of the fight, Calzaghe added: "I realised after a few rounds the jab was too fast for him. When I put my boxing together he couldn't get past the jab.
"There was a bit of ring rust but I won the fight. I think it was a good performance by myself, I felt pretty sharp but made a few mistakes.
"That's boxing. You never stop learning.
"I'm fantastically proud. It was awesome."
Promoter Warren, meanwhile, said: "It's my best moment in sport.
"I'm so proud of him. He gave everything."Reuse content