Boxing: Calzaghe stakes claim as Britain's greatest
Monday 05 November 2007
In the end it had nothing to do with records or attendance or the money available. In the end it was all about just one man going in search of his own personal records.
At about 2.30am yesterday Joe Calzaghe established beyond any reasonable doubt that he is the finest British boxer of his generation and, in the eyes of many, the finest British boxer ever.
Inside the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Calzaghe performed an often breathless and always tactically brilliant 12 rounds of boxing to retain his World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight title and win both the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Association versions from Denmark's previously unbeaten Mikkel Kessler.
However, the record books will not convey what happened in front of nearly 50,000 people yesterday morning. They will not be able to produce on a page what happened when Calzaghe stepped through the ropes for his 21st and finest defence on a night when British sport firmly accepted the young Welsh fighter as one of its true greats.
Kessler had arrived from Denmark with about 5,000 flag-waving fans and in the hours before the first bell the build-up of expectation inside the stadium had created the type of atmosphere that Hollywood so often invents for sporting events.
The fight was not a movie, but it had that type of film quality.
By the time the Welsh choir had run out of words the crowd had been standing in anticipation for 10 minutes or so and they remained like that for almost the entire fight – and what a fight it turned out to be. Too often in the business of boxing great fighters meet great fighters and have dreadful nights countering the anticipation with the harsh reality of simply not being able to do what they had done previously.
From the opening bell it was clear, painfully obvious, that Kessler's 13 weeks of preparation away from the public eye had been spent creating a plan to beat Calzaghe by being as mobile as people had suggested he was static. Calzaghe played his part like the champion he has been for 10 solid years and simply walked through Kessler's brilliant counters.
By the end of round four they had both had moments in control, but it seemed likely that Calzaghe's reign as the world's longest current champion was coming to an end. Kessler had been at times quite brilliant and, to be honest, that is the only way that anybody will ever come close to beating Calzaghe.
By the end of round seven I had Calzaghe one round down, but his persistence and his brain had started to work in glorious tandem and he started to move his feet just a fraction closer and move his head just a fraction further away. The Danish kid suddenly started to fall short and that is when Calzaghe is at his most beautiful and most painful.
Rounds nine, 10 and 11 were probably the finest of Calzaghe's career, because during those three rounds he somehow managed to turn a difficult and often savage encounter into something bordering on ballet.
The crowd, even the bleary-eyed Danes, nodded and showed their appreciation of a master at work in an arena that he has so convincingly dominated since 1997, when he won the world title.
It was a joy to watch and Kessler suddenly found that a good right hand, a big heart and lots of stamina are simply no match for ring genius.
As each of the last few rounds ended, Calzaghe celebrated with the crowd on the short walk back to the corner and his 60-second audience with his father and trainer, Enzo. The pair have worked together now for 25 years and with his dad in his corner Calzaghe is now unbeaten in 55 both amateur and professional. There is not a sporting relationship like it anywhere in the world.
In round 12 Calzaghe, who has admitted in the past that his love of a fight often gets in the way of his boxing brain, walked out and seemed determined to give the audience something extra to remember.
It is hard to explain, hard to capture what happened in the last three minutes at the Millennium Stadium yesterday morning. Calzaghe was caught and later admitted he was hurt as Kessler somehow found the punches and the necessary desire to stage the type of late rally that will surely mean he is for ever received in his home country as a hero. It was beyond any movie, beyond any sporting fairy tale and the scenes of rapture and enjoyment on the faces of the entire stadium at the final bell so perfectly captured just how emotional and involving the sport of boxing can be at this level. As I said at the top, it was not about records and it was not about money it was just about winning a fight.
All three judges voted in favour of Calzaghe, but again the statistics fall short of explaining what those in attendance and those watching live on television experienced throughout the fight.
Both men were gracious and humble in their post-fight interviews. Even the promoter, Frank Warren, was lost for words and appeared close to tears when he attempted to sum up his feelings and put the fight in perspective.
"For me it is the best night that I have ever had in boxing," Warren managed as he tried to hold back the tears.
It was not, as I have said, a night for statistics but, just for the record, Kessler lost for the first time in 40 fights and Calzaghe won for the 44th time.
Kessler will win one of Calzaghe's discarded titles, but there will be no rematch. Calzaghe has his eyes elsewhere.
Now Calzaghe will, as he said, burn his plastic sweatsuits and move from super-middleweight to light-heavyweight to complete his brilliant career with just one or two more big fights in the higher division. The veteran American Bernard Hopkins is one of the targets and it is also one fight that boxing's premier paymasters, HBO, are willing to finance. They will need to dig deep to get Hopkins and Calzaghe in the same ring, but it will be worth every cent. The winner of that fight will find his name in the record books and in the top 10 fighters of all time, and that is the type of company that Calzaghe clearly deserves to keep.
Calzaghe's 21 title defences
* Oct 1997 bt Chris Eubank on pts super-middleweight title
* Jan 98 bt Branco Sobot TKO in 3rd WBO super-m title
* March 1998 bt Juan Gimenez TKO in 9th WBO super-m title
* Feb 1999 bt Robin Reid on pts WBO super-m title
* June 1999 bt Rick Thornberry on pts WBO super-m title
* Jan 2000 bt David Starie on pts WBO super-m title
* Aug 2000 bt Omar Sheika TKO in 5th WBO super-m title
* Dec 2000 bt Richie Woodhall TKO in 10th WBO super-m title
* Oct 2001 bt Will McIntyre TKO in 4th WBO super-m title
* Apr 2002 bt Charles Brewer on pts WBO super-m title
* Aug 2002 bt Miguel Jimenez on pts WBO super-m title
* Dec 2002 bt Tocker Pudwill TKO in 2nd WBO super-m title
* June 2003 bt Byron Mitchell TKO in 2nd WBO super-m title
* Feb 2004 bt Mger Mkrtchian TKO in 7th WBO super-m title
* Oct 2004 bt Kabary Salem on pts WBO super-m title
* May 2005 bt Mario Veit TKO in 6th WBO super-m title
* Sept 2005 bt Evans Ashira on pts WBO super-m title
* March 2006 bt Jeff Lacy on pts WBO/IBF/IBO super-m title
* Oct 2006 bt Sakio Bika on pts WBO/IBF/IBO super-m title
* Apr 2007 bt Peter Manfredo Jnr rsf in 3rd WBO super-m title
* Nov 2007 bt Mikkel Kessler on pts WBO super-m title
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