Boxing: Calzaghe must stop fighting doughnuts to beat doubters

Steve Bunce talks to a British world champion still in search of status despite his 15th title defence in Edinburgh tonight
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The Independent Online

There was a time many, many years ago when a British world champion was a household name even if his reign was short and often painful.

There was a time many, many years ago when a British world champion was a household name even if his reign was short and often painful.

At some point in the early Nineties that all changed and for some there is a disappointing belief that any boxer holding one of many world titles in the modern age is for some reason a lesser fighter. It is a flawed philosophy, one that Joe Calzaghe ruthlessly exposes.

In the Seventies and Eighties British boxing had a fantastic series of champions like Charlie Magri, Jim Watt, John Conteh, John H Stracey, Barry McGuigan, Maurice Hope and Alan Minter. The seven fighters were often watched by millions on terrestrial television and when they fought, dozens of boxing writers kept vigil in the days, and in some cases, even the weeks before their major fights.

However, the seven managed only 14 world title defences between them and their combined length of their reigns was barely nine years.

Calzaghe will make the 15th defence of his World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title tonight in the outskirts of Edinburgh at the Royal Highland Showground against an Egyptian called Kabary Salem. It is not, on paper, a great fight but many of Calzaghe's defences have been potentially brilliant encounters and one or two have even turned out that way. However, a little spice has been added to the mix - yesterday's weigh-in turned ugly and the camps exchanged pushes and insults.

It was in late 1997 that Calzaghe first won the title when he ended the competitive years of Chris Eubank's career with an emphatic points decision in Sheffield. Eubank was dropped heavily in the first round and maintains to this day that of all the good men he met Calzaghe is the best.

"The simple truth is that I was born too late to get the recognition that I know I deserve,'' said Calzaghe. He is quite correct because had he been two or three years older he could have met Michael Watson, Nigel Benn and Steve Collins in addition to Eubank.

Calzaghe's problem in Britain's present confused climateis quite simple: he is one of 20 or so so-called world champions and, sadly for him, the list is judged from the bottom up and therefore Calzaghe is too often compared to boxers with baubles who are not even household names in their own homes.

It is a problem that Calzaghe and his long-suffering promoter, Frank Warren, have grown tired of changing and equally tired of defending. Warren has been criticised repeatedly over the years for failing to secure Calzaghe the type of fight that would in theory elevate him from the dubious list of British champions.

"I first started hearing people giving me advice about four years ago and at the time I was negotiating with Roy Jones, who was the light-heavyweight champion of the world, and he was asking for nearly $4m to fight Joe,'' said Warren. "After several flights to and from America and hours of endless and pointless talks, Jones and Calzaghe never turned into a fight. After Jones I started dealing with Bernard Hopkins and once again the asking figure was over $4m.

"With Hopkins the fight was getting closer and closer, but he was getting greedier and greedier and in the end it collapsed. I agree that I could have made both fights happen in an instant but the figures simply did not stack up and Joe would not fight for free and I was not prepared to drop $2-3m on a promotion,'' added Warren.

The frustration outside the ropes often interfered with Calzaghe's performance inside the ring and there have been some unimpressive outings. There have also been quite a few unimpressive opponents but that is not the fault of Calzaghe and not necessarily the fault of Warren because it is unrealistic to expect any champion to fight competitive fight after competitive fight. Hopkins, who has been a champion for 10 years, has fought an awful lot of doughnuts in his time.

Had Calzaghe been born 30 years earlier then no doubt he would have come and gone in a rather spectacular flash like Minter, the middleweight champion who managed just one defence and held the undisputed title for a measly six months. Calzaghe has been champion for seven years.

"I know that there were far fewer titles back then but I honestly believe that I'm good enough to have won one of the two or three that were available and I know that I would have kept it for a long time,'' claimed Calzaghe. Warren obviously agrees.

Tonight's fight, however, is typical of far too many of modern British boxing's world title defences. Salem, who fights under the wonderful sobriquet of "The Egyptian Magician", is 36, and long ago left the streets of Cairo for the neighbourhoods of New York. He is tough and rugged, but is, in reality, several leagues below Calzaghe, who next year will hope to fight someone a bit more special.

It has been a dreadful year for Calzaghe, with just one fight against a hapless Armenian forced on him as a mandatory challenger. Outside the ring, he has split from his childhood sweetheart and is going through a messy divorce.

However, the real loss this year occurred in the early summer when his planned challenge against Jamaica's Glencoffe Johnson for the International Boxing Federation title fell through because of his injured back. The contracts were signed and it finally looked like Calzaghe had the right fight against the right man at the right time. The winner would inevitably meet Jones, who was still a major attraction in America.

Calzaghe had to withdraw, Johnson met Jones and knocked out the once brilliant American. Calzaghe missed his opportunity and will go back to work tonight in search of something that is hard to define in the cruellest of sports.