On Friday it will be exactly four years since Welshman Joe Calzaghe outpointed Chris Eubank to become the World Boxing Organisation's super-middleweight champion. On Saturday he fights the American Will "Kid Fire" McIntyre, on the Mike Tyson undercard in Copenhagen. It will be his ninth defence of his world title. He is hot favourite. Yet he remains unfamiliar to the man in the street, at least by comparison with, say, Audley Harrison.
This is a shame, not to say perverse. Unlike Harrison, Calzaghe is a hell of a fighter, with a professional record of 31 wins, 26 of them knock-outs, and no defeats. He operates at the same weight as Eubank did, as Nigel Benn, as Steve Collins, as Michael Watson did, so there is nothing unfashionable about the division. Unlike Harrison, he is not flamboyant. But he is good-looking, affable, bright, articulate. He deserves to be fêted.
He thinks so, too. In fact, he gets rather animated on the subject.
"I came through at the same time as Naz [Naseem Hamed]. I was knocking out good fighters, good journeymen, at the same time he was. But he had the exposure. Why? Because I was with the wrong promoter. I was with Mickey Duff. Old school. I wasn't getting much exposure, until I signed with Frank Warren. I never had any terrestrial TV exposure, not like Eubank, Collins, Benn, Bruno, Naz." Warren is on record as saying that he is a better fighter than Naz. More skilful. And Calzaghe couldn't agree more.
"He can't take a shot, which I can. He's one-dimensional. He can punch. He's a tremendous puncher, and that's got him to where he is. But he can't box. He's got no boxing ability whatever, as he showed in the [Marco Antonio] Barrera fight. Unless he can land his big shots, he's lost. Everyone thought Barrera would come forward and that Naz would pick him off. But Barrera kept his distance, kept counter-punching. Jab, jab, move, move. Naz was completely outboxed. He loads up every shot to knock your head off, but he has no defence. His hands are down here. He throws punches from all over the place."
Naseem Hamed's technique thus demolished, we move on to Audley Harrison. It must irritate Calzaghe, I venture, that a fighter some distance his inferior has had so much hype? "It does. I think it's a shame that the BBC pulled the plug on boxing, and when they do put it on it's someone like him who can't fight. OK, he won the Olympic gold medal, but the quality of opposition was pathetic. And then he had a shedful of money waiting for him before he even turned pro, so he's not even a hungry fighter. No, I don't rate him at all. He doesn't have enough power for his size. He's going nowhere."
Today, by contrast, Calzaghe leaves for Denmark, and a probable extension to his reign as world champion. McIntyre, he suggests, should pose no serious problems in a fight to be carried here by Sky Box Office, and in America on the prestigious Showtime channel. "I've seen him on tape. But I don't make plans for my opponents; I always say they must make plans for me. He's a good fighter, but I'm exceptional. He's tough, but pretty straightforward. He's won 20, lost two. But this time he's got to step up to world class. He'll be nervous, and he has every right to be nervous, because he's never fought anyone near my standard before.
"For me, it's not just about winning, but winning in style. I can raise my profile no end, because Tyson should knock the guy [Brian Nielsen] out in one or two rounds, so that leaves lots of air time for me. I want to prove that I'm not just the best super-middleweight in the world, I'm one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world." This is not idle boastfulness, although it still seems an unlikely claim to make in a tin shack clinging, only just, to the side of a Welsh mountain.
When I was given directions to Calzaghe's training facility in the old pit town of Newbridge, I assumed that it was called "The Shack" in the spirit of whimsical understatement, like "The Shed" at Stamford Bridge. Wrong, it is called "The Shack" because it is a shack. More, it is an unusually decrepit shack. When Calzaghe's trainer, his dad Enzo, tells me that he never gets his fighters skipping at the same time, in case the place finally collapses around their ears, he is not entirely joking.
It used to be the Miner's Welfare Institute, but has been a boxing gym as long as anyone can remember, and in any case, after going 12 rounds with Margaret Thatcher, there are no longer any miners in Newbridge. The Shack certainly does not lack for atmosphere, with Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Robinson among the legends gazing down, from tatty photocopies taped to the walls, on a shabby ring. A couple of electric bar fires keep the temperature somewhere between hot and sweltering. On the afternoon I visit, two of Enzo's other charges, the featherweight Gavin Rees and the lightweight Bradley Price, WBO inter-continental champions both, are losing puddles of sweat hammering punchbags.
Calzaghe has been training here, under Enzo's watchful eye, apart from when the pair briefly fell out a couple of years ago, since he was nine. At 12 he decided he wanted to be champion of the world, with only the weight division to determine.
"When I was 14 I was going to be a welterweight, but at 15 I sprung up. Actually, I wanted to be a footballer, until I realised I was quicker with my hands than my feet."
He drew inspiration from Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran, but especially Marvin Hagler. "Yeah, because he was an attacking southpaw, the same as me. My dad used to let me stay up to watch his fights, to watch all those great fighters of the '80s. I loved watching them. And Rocky Balboa inspired me too." Calzaghe laughs. "Those Rocky films. I loved them."
Four years ago, on a famous night in Sheffield, Calzaghe finally got to emulate his heroes, Hagler and Balboa. "I was really nervous beforehand. It was my first world title fight, whereas he [Eubank] had probably had more world title fights than I'd had fights. There was so much pressure, money pressure as much as anything because I had a family [he has three sons, aged 12, seven and four... and if you're wondering, says he's never smacked them] and if you don't perform then you're back at the bottom of the ladder.
"But as soon as I stepped into the ring the pressure lifted. I just thought 'I'm here now, this is it'. And I knocked him down after 15 seconds, whacked him with a left hook. But credit to him, he got up and gave me 12 hard rounds. He had one of his best fights against me, because he fought, he didn't pose."
It is Calzaghe's aim to retire undefeated, ideally three or four years from now. But first he must conquer America, for which Saturday's Showtime exposure should pave the way. He also faces a dilemma. On paper, there are no other super-middleweights who can live with him, which is doubtless why the World Boxing Association champion, Bryon Mitchell, and the International Boxing Federation champion, Sven Ottke, have declined unification fights. So Calzaghe wants to move up a division, to light-heavyweight, and fight the undisputed champion, the American Roy Jones Jnr, who is regarded as the most destructive fighter at any weight.
Even if Jones agrees, this has financial implications. Calzaghe would first have to jack in his title, and forgo his world champion's fee. "But I'll be a better fighter at light-heavyweight," he insists. "I've already got the speed and I'll have extra power." The weight gain, from 12st to 12st 7lbs, will be no hardship, he adds. "My natural weight is way over that in any case. When I'm not training I walk around at 13 stone plus. I really struggle to make 12 stone.
"In fact, as soon as we've had the weigh-in I think the hard work is done. I don't even think about the fight. In my mind I've already won the fight. Anyway, the fight is just 36 minutes, maximum. The eight weeks before is where the hard work comes in. Making the weight is the hard bit, and it's good for me that they have the weigh-in the day before, because that gives me 24 hours to stack up on carbohydrates. I've known boxers who weighed in and then were a stone and a half heavier by the time they got in the ring."
This anomaly, that some boxers actually fight way out of their weight division, represents a relatively minor stain in boxing's increasingly blemished image. But Calzaghe is not slow to pinpoint some of the bigger stains.
The proliferation of titles? "A joke, it discredits genuine champions". The notion of old Joe Bugner fighting the even more superannuated Larry Holmes, a freak show which reportedly may come to pass? "Pathetic. Shouldn't be allowed." Young Miss Ali fighting young Miss Frazier? "Women fighting doesn't look right as far as I'm concerned. Boxing is becoming like WWF wrestling. We'll have a woman fighting a man before too long."
And what, moreover, of the criticism levelled at boxing as a serious health risk? After all, in December last year Calzaghe fought on the same card as Paul Ingle, the Yorkshire featherweight who needed brain surgery to recover. "Yeah, that puts everything in perspective, and I pray it never happens to me or any of my opponents. All you can do is be as fit as you can possibly be, and not kill yourself making the weight. But there are a lot more dangerous sports than boxing."
Such as? "Such as rugby. Byron Haywood, a friend of mine who boxed 20 or 30 times as a light-heavyweight, played for Newbridge and Gloucester and was capped for Wales. He used to tell me how he broke his neck, how he got pins in his wrist... at least in boxing you can see where the punches are coming from. You're never on the floor with someone stamping on your head. And at least in this game you mess with people your own weight."
Which brings us neatly back to Saturday's opponent, Will "Kid Fire" McIntyre. How, I wonder, will the champ psych himself up for the fight? "I won't. I don't psych myself up. I do the opposite, try to keep relaxed. On the day I'll have friends with me, listen to music, walk round the town, that sort of thing. I don't want to dwell on the fight, because the harder you think about it the worse it gets. He's the one I want to be nervous.
"I like to intimidate fighters in the press conference. Eubank was the same, and Naz psychs them out completely. Because we've all got animal instincts, and like any two animals fighting on the street, when you sense fear in the other one, it gives you confidence. If you sense you've got him frightened in the press conference, you keep on pushing him and get more confidence yourself. Like the German last time [Mario Veit, demolished by Calzaghe in one minute and 52 seconds, six months ago in Cardiff]. I saw the fear of God in him, in his body language and his eyes.
"But I used to mouth off a bit too much. I give the opponent more respect now. And anyway, it doesn't always work. I tried to intimidate Eubank and got nowhere." Calzaghe pauses for reflection. "But then maybe he was intimidated because he couldn't intimidate me."
The Calzaghe/McIntyre and Tyson/ Nielsen fights are available on Sky Box Office to all Sky Digital viewers for £14.95. Live coverage starts on Saturday at 8pm. For further information call 08705 800 888.Reuse content