Boxing: Calzaghe to crown his decade of dominance

After 10 years as a champion and 20 title defences, the Welshman has the whole boxing world watching at last, writes Steve Bunce

There is an unique poster on one wall at Joe Calzaghe's gym in an abandoned rugby club on the outskirts of Newport.

The wall hanging is about 30 feet long by eight feet deep and it has pictures from all 21 of Calzaghe's world title fights. The first dozen or so photographs look so ancient and even my notebooks from ringside on the nights are yellow and faded. I can clearly remember celebrating the birth of my daughter after one title defence in Cardiff. She will be 10 next year.

Calzaghe first won the World Boxing Organisation title when he beat Chris Eubank in October 1997 and, since that night, he has made 20 defences, which means in boxing technical talk that only four boxers in history have made more.

At about one in the morning tomorrow, Calzaghe will try to make it 21 defences when he fights the unbeaten Danish boxer, Mikkel Kessler, in front of an anticipated audience of over 50,000 people under the roof at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff. This is a fight that appears to have finally convinced the American boxing press that there is action worth covering in Europe.

It has not always been this easy for Calzaghe to get the column inches and the respect of everybody inside the fight business.

Since leaving the ring with the WBO belt after the Eubank fight, Calzaghe has often struggled with respect. At the start of his reign, there were many injuries and this led to fights being postponed or put back and opponents being replaced or dropped.

There were times when Calzaghe fought with badly swollen hands and he has admitted recently that he reinjures his left hand every time he steps through the ropes. However, the number of defences increases and the years pass. It is unrealistic to have expected all 20 defences to be against the best available opponent, but there is not one boxer in history who has not enjoyed an easy night in a title fight. The problem with Calzaghe was that his name was continually linked with better known fighters in America and, in many ways, he has been plagued by fictitious fights that never took place rather than actual fights that did.

Too many people have pointed the finger at woeful opposition like Tocker Pudwill, but not taken a second or two to study the formbook and analyse almost every other opponent Calzaghe has defended against. Even the so-called easy ones were a lot better than people give him credit for. Calzaghe did start to stack up the numbers early and quality fighters like Omar Sheika and Richie Woodhall were beaten in 2000 and, at that point, it looked like Calzaghe would inevitably have to accept terms and fight one of the high-profile Americans.

Deals were done, contracts agreed in principle and venues selected by the hopeful men and women in promotional offices and the television companies, but the brutal truth is that Calzaghe posed too much of a threat for the big name Americans. It was not that they were scared of him, it was just that the money available for losing against him was simply not enough, and that meant he was regularly excluded from the big fight club in America.

Calzaghe worked his way through the challenges with a relentless fury and, by the end of 2005, when he had made 17 defences, it was clear that he was so much better than any of his critics had originally thought. But there were still the cries for Calzaghe to face a real test. That finally came in March last year when Calzaghe met unbeaten American idol, Jeff Lacy, in front of 19,000 people in Manchester. Lacy delivered his International Boxing Federation belt on the night, but left the ring after 12 rounds a broken man. Calzaghe was suddenly one of British boxing's very best, and he became an equally big player in America.

In many ways, the fight against Kessler is the start of the end of Calzaghe's remarkable 10 years as champion because it is obvious that he is running out of time and there will almost definitely not be any more soft touches against relatively unknown fighters in the future. The fight will be screened live on prime time by HBO in America and the next one or two fights in Calzaghe's career are already being talked about.

Calzaghe has never strayed very far from his boxing roots near his home in Newbridge and he has been joined at the hip with his father, Enzo, throughout a remarkable 25-year boxing career.

The pair have endured criticism over the years, but, now, as a fleet of HBO executives pays their partnership, it is gratifying to watch. Calzaghe insists that he has never been so calm before any fight and he is telling the truth because he is a boxer who understands too well the dangers of complacency, which is why he is in the elite club who have reigned for 10 years or more.

This is the type of fight that will guarantee Calzaghe the status that looked like forever eluding him seven, eight, nine and 10 years ago. Looking at the pictures on the wall in the gym, the most remarkable thing about the images is that Calzaghe's features have barely changed. He still looks young for any age and now, at 35, he looks particularly childlike.

If Calzaghe can win, there are fights available to him, fights that will make him an even bigger star in boxing. The beauty now is that he can sit down and relax because there is nobody questioning his credentials.

Tale of the tape

CALZAGHE......... v.........  KESSLER

6ft ......... HEIGHT ......... 6ft 1in

11st 12lb ......... WEIGHT ......... 12st

74ins ......... REACH ......... 73ins

38ins ......... CHEST ......... 38ins

40ins ......... CHEST EXP ......... 42ins

11.5ins ......... FOREARM ......... 12 .5ins

21ins ......... THIGH ......... 20ins

16.5ins ......... NECK ......... 15.5ins

15ins ......... CALF ......... 14.5ins

11ins ......... ANKLE ......... 12ins

7ins ......... WRIST ......... 6.5ins

12ins ......... FIST ......... 11.5ins

Tattooed Dane with a textbook jab

Mikkel Kessler won the World Boxing Association version of the super-middleweight title in 2004 after he had replaced his friend, Mads Larsen, at just 10 days' notice. Kessler forced Manny Siaca to quit on his stool after round seven.

Kessler (pictured) then agreed to travel to Australia to fight the former world champion and Australian rugby league star, Anthony Mundine. At the time, it seemed like Kessler was taking the most money for the most risk, but he won every round.

He returned to Denmark without a mark on his face and a record of 36 wins from 36 fights.

"After the Mundine fight, things went a bit crazy for me," admits Kessler, 28, who is now followed everywhere he goes by a press pack of Danish journalists and TV crews. The pressure has led to him relocating to Monaco.

There was talk of a fight against Calzaghe in late 2005. Negotiations collapsed, and Kessler soon added the World Boxing Council title to his collection of belts, when he knocked out Germany's Markus Beyer in three rounds.

Kessler is one of the most conventional and stand-up fighters in the business, with a textbook jab and a straight right cross that is both precise and damaging. But he tends to go backward and forward in straight lines and that is clearly something that will please Calzaghe.

In his last fight, Kessler beat the previously unbeaten Mexican, Librado Andrade, on points.

Crucially, the American broadcaster HBO screened the fight – inevitably, its cash helped make this fight.

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