Boxing: Why Calzaghe is still the great unfulfilled

Welsh world champion comes through record 15th title defence but leaves more questions than answers
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The Independent Online

Joe Calzaghe is the best of British - and that's official. Yet the fact that the Welshman doesn't mean a bag of leeks across the Atlantic is reflected in the list of the world's top 100 fighters ranked by Ring magazine. Despite being the longest-reigning world champion in any division and the most successful super-middleweight ever, 32-year-old Calzaghe is down the list in 27th place.

Joe Calzaghe is the best of British - and that's official. Yet the fact that the Welshman doesn't mean a bag of leeks across the Atlantic is reflected in the list of the world's top 100 fighters ranked by Ring magazine. Despite being the longest-reigning world champion in any division and the most successful super-middleweight ever, 32-year-old Calzaghe is down the list in 27th place.

Manchester's Ricky Hatton is the only other British boxer to get a mention, at 50th, an altogether unflattering reflection of what the Americans think of the quality of British fighters.

However, Calzaghe's performance against adopted American Kabary Salem would have done little to earn him promotion up the Ring's fistic league table. It was, on his own admission, a disappointment, an unkempt, scrappy if unanimous points victory which contained only the second knockdown of his career. "A bit embarrassing, really," he acknowledged.

It was, by his own unblemished yardstick, probably the least distinguished of his 38 victories, certainly of his 16 World Boxing Organisation title fights dating back to his acquisition of the belt from Chris Eubank in October 1997, whose record number of defences he has now equalled.

But when he was floored in the fourth round by a right-hand counter which would have ko'd more fragile-chinned men, it seemed as if Calzaghe might have encountered a seven-year hitch in his title career.

He could, with some justification, plead mitigating circumstances for this less- than-polished showing - rust after a back injury, the disappointment of losing out on a challenge for the world light-heavyweight title, and the break-up of his marriage.

Plus having to contend with an opponent renowned for fighting dirty. They call the Brooklyn-based Egyptian the "Nile Nutter" though Calzaghe's response was to indulge in a bit of head-banging of his own. Consequently both men ended with cuts, repeated admonishments and a point off a scorecard overwhelmingly in Calzaghe's favour.

The Scottish audience of 6,000 endured the sort of brawl more commonplace on a Saturday night in Glasgow than a Friday in Edinburgh. "That was the worst you will see of me," said Calzaghe. "It was a bad day at the office." So what now?

No more messing around, according to former world champion Barry McGuigan. "He needs a career-defining fight. He must move up and fight for the world light-heavyweight championship. Get Glencoffe Johnson before he can fight Antonio Tarver."

McGuigan says it is incredible that a champion of Calzaghe's calibre has not captured the attention of a wider audience, not least in America. "He has the looks of a matinee idol, can box and punch, is undefeated but has not lit many fires outside of the British boxing community. It is time he did."

Calzaghe's trouble is that he has had too many fights against mediocre opposition. He knows he needs a really big fight. "The better the opponent, the better I perform. Against men who fight awkward, basically I struggle a bit. This made for a bad fight."

Unquestionably he remains the best super-middleweight around but the ever-astute McGuigan is right. It is time to move onwards and upwards, especially as it is obviously becoming hard for him to make the 12st limit.

One wonders, too, whether it is time for him to move away from his Newbridge base camp, where perhaps he may be too comfortably ensconced, and have a spell either in the United States or London, with some fresh ideas, and even personnel, injected into his training routine.

This formula seems to have worked for Alex Arthur, who forced the Ghanaian Eric Odumase into retirement at the end of the sixth round after inflicting three knock-downs in a beautifully controlled performance to defend his IBF Inter-Continental super-featherweight title.

Arthur has been training in London with Danny Williams' mentor, Jim McDonnell, after admitting too close-to-home comforts in his native Scotland may have cost him a defeat by Michael Gomez, which he now plans to avenge. "I needed a change. Jim is a tough task master, which is what I needed. In Scotland I was working with good people but they were far too close to me. I needed someone who tells me what to do rather than the other way round. That defeat by Gomez was the kick up the backside I needed. Jim reminded me I'm a technical boxer with punch power and that's going to be my game."

Arthur hopes to follow the route of his great rival Scott Harrison, who regained his WBO featherweight title after a similar setback. On Friday, Harrison, named Boxer of the Year by the British Boxing Board of Control, faces Samuel Kebede, from Ethiopia, a nation noted for long-distance runners rather than fighters. Kebede, who lives in Sweden, is no pushover. He is unbeaten in 24 contests (14 kos), albeit against poor opposition.

But Harrison, who has spent time training in Torquay, in addition to his usual back-pack hill-running in the Highlands, is one of the hardest men in the game, and will not be in the mood to allow Kebede to follow in the footsteps of his fabled fellow marathoners and go the distance.

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