Blood dripped slowly down Joe Calzaghe's cheek as he stared in disbelief at Sakio Bika at the end of round four of their oddly gripping but ultimately one-sided fight at Manchester's MEN Arena on Saturday night.
It is now the 10th year of Calzaghe's reign as a world champion and the Bika fight was his 19th defence. On paper it looked like one of the easier ones. However, in round four, a nasty butt opened an even nastier cut next to Calzaghe's left eye and suddenly the routine defence took an extremely interesting twist. Calzaghe did retain his World Boxing Organisation and International Boxing Federation super-middleweight titles on points, but it was not easy. Too often he looked uncomfortable at the feel of blood oozing from the cut, which a plastic surgeon closed after the fight.
Bika refused to take risks and Calzaghe has never been great at breaking up reluctant fighters. On Saturday night, Bika, who was born in Cameroon but is based in Australia, failed to live up to his pre-fight billing as an "animal", yet Calzaghe struggled to find rhythm and timing and Bika stuck grimly to a steady trio of assets: he used his head and his elbows and he held at every opportunity.
In the aftermath, questions were being asked about both Calzaghe's willingness to sink to his opponent's level, and also Bika's previously undetected ability to run and hide when most expected him to stand and fight. It is fair to say that Bika came closest to getting the tactics right on the night.
"He's very strong and he caught me with some terrific headbutts," said Calzaghe. "He came with the hope of surviving and possibly landing a lucky swing and if that failed he followed through with his head. It is hard to look good against a fighter like Bika but that is not an excuse. I am disappointed with my performance. It should have been a lot better and it will be the next time."
It was not a bad fight to watch and, it could be argued, under a different set of expectations, it was not a bad performance by Calzaghe. However, Saturday night was not about being easy on the eye and neither was it about being praised for boxing eight rounds with a nasty cut: Saturday night was about impressing the American public.
Calzaghe's devastating win over the American Jeff Lacy in March appears to have finally stirred the parochial American audience and boxing industry from its ongoing denial of most things British. On Saturday night, the big-haired men and women from US broadcaster HBO were ringside to pass judgement on Britain's finest fighter.
"The people from HBO left happy," insisted Frank Warren, the fight's promoter. "It was not Joe's best performance but that is the way boxing works. I think he is being too critical on himself - he had a bad cut and he had hand problems. That is not unusual, that is just Joe."
There is a shortlist of quality American fighters for Calzaghe to meet next year if HBO adds its considerable financial expertise to the proposed plans. It seems that Bernard Hopkins, who held the world middleweight title for 10 years, is close to the top of the list and it is worth pointing out that most of his championship fights, which HBO inflicted on the American public, were tiresome affairs.
Calzaghe has not become a bad fighter overnight, simply because he let his heart rule his head against Bika, but the real fear about his future is that at 34, his body is struggling to keep up with his ambitions.Reuse content