Joe Calzaghe: I cried... and then I swore I'd never lose again

Brian Viner Interviews: The Welsh boxer who stunned America with his devastating march towards a unified world title says he can be even better still
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The Independent Online

Whether or not the English will have an exciting sporting event to look forward to on the weekend of the World Cup final, the Welsh have one already. On 8 July, the eve of football's showpiece occasion, the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organisation super-middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, a darling of the valleys if not before his obliteration of the American Jeff Lacy in Manchester last month then certainly since, will be fighting at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

It will be the first time a boxing bill has taken place in that marvellous arena, but Calzaghe's opponent has yet to be decided. There has been talk that the Welshman might fight the IBF light-heavyweight champ, Clinton Woods, a prospect given further spice by a £500,000 bet reportedly struck between Calzaghe's manager, Frank Warren, and Woods's manager, Dennis Hobson, the latter demanding bookmaker's odds of 7-4.

Warren, however, told me yesterday that he didn't think the Woods fight was going to happen, asserting that Hobson had offered the bet merely to gain publicity for his protégé's next bout in May. In any case, Woods is not the fight Calzaghe really wants. The medium-term plan is for him to step up to light-heavyweight to take on the winner of the Antonio Tarver-Bernard Hopkins fight, or for the winner of the Winkie Wright-Jermaine Taylor fight to step up from middleweight to fight Calzaghe.

And there is always the fading but still formidable Roy Jones Jnr. Whatever, Calzaghe is entitled to expect headline opponents. Wiping the floor with Lacy propelled him into the world's pound-for-pound top 10 and, in the estimation of no less an authority than Barry McGuigan, confirmed him as Britain's greatest-ever fighter.

"I'm willing to fight Woods," says Calzaghe. "He's a good fighter, but it would still be a mismatch. I'd destroy him. My natural weight is 13st 7lb. That's what I walk around at. So stepping up a weight won't be a problem. I'll still have the speed, and the extra poundage will give me added punching power."

If Warren is wrong (which he rarely is where boxing is concerned) and the Woods camp have every intention of fighting Calzaghe, then these words might give them pause for thought. As a rule, Calzaghe does not make idle boasts.

Indeed, if it is possible to say "I'd destroy him" in a modest way, then Calzaghe does so. Softly spoken, friendly and blessedly articulate, he is also the least vainglorious of boxing champions, turning up for our interview in an unremarkable BMW, which he parks in a dirty puddle outside his father Enzo's gym on an industrial estate in the old Welsh mining village of Abercarn.

The gym is housed in a low-slung, grey, pebble-dashed building that must appear distinctly unsalubrious to anyone who didn't see Calzaghe's previous gym, just up the road in Newbridge. But having spent some time with Calzaghe in the old gym, I can report that this one is downright ritzy. The old place, where the seeds were sown of a professional boxing record that currently stands at 41 victories and no defeats, was little more than a tumbledown shack.

Calzaghe walks into his gym with the graceful ease of a boxer, but otherwise his looks belie his profession. He is handsome, almost pretty, with not the slightest indication that he has ever taken even a single piledriver to the face. I suppose it is a paradox that the greatest of boxing champions very often don't look like boxers, but it is a paradox easily explained. Calzaghe is not easy to hit. His nose remains aquiline and unbroken.

The favourite for last month's fight, on the other hand, went home to Florida in a dreadful state, doubtless reflecting ruefully on his pre-fight contention that Calzaghe was not a puncher but a slapper.

"One of my mates went to Lacy's hotel and took a picture of him," says Calzaghe, with a slight smile. "Considering I slap, he looked like he'd been run over by a bus. Both eyes were busted up, there were big swabs up his nose and everything. But it's too easy for me to rub it in: that's not my style. I had a lot of respect for him and I still have. He had the balls to come over to fight me, and if he hadn't I would have been stuck in the doldrums." Instead, he is now getting the acclaim that he feels he has long deserved.

He has been a super-middleweight world champion since beating Chris Eubank in October 1997; now he is the world champion.

"If I'd lost, everyone would have said 'we told you so, he's overrated'. And that would have been disastrous for my legacy. I did think about that a little bit. About three weeks before the fight I started having doubts in myself. I told Frank, and I told my dad. My dad is a great judge of fights. He's the only person I know who said that Holyfield would beat Tyson the first time. And he said that this would be one of my easiest defences, that I'd smash this guy to bits."

Whether or not Enzo was overdoing the bluster to give his boy confidence, he called it correctly. Calzaghe outclassed Lacy with a dazzling display of speed and power that, in terms of epic British performances in the boxing ring, McGuigan later compared with Randolph Turpin's 1951 knockout of Sugar Ray Robinson.

"Every single sports writer in America said Lacy would come over here and knock me out," Calzaghe says. "Even in Britain I was the underdog. So it wasn't just that I beat him, but the manner in which I beat him. Even if I never perform like that again I think I've cemented my legacy.

"I've had an amazing amount of letters from people saying it was the best fight they'd ever seen. Letters from old people, from Scandinavia even, thanking me. I don't know what they're thanking me for but I'm pleased that I gave everybody a great fight. The Eubank fight will always be the best because that's when I won the world title, but I'd never performed at this level before."

By the Saturday of the fight, Calzaghe had been convinced both by his father and his own supreme level of fitness that he was unbeatable. "I usually get quite nervous before a fight. The adrenalin is pumping. But before this one I felt so relaxed, so chilled out. It was the most important fight of my life and I couldn't believe how relaxed I was. I was totally in the zone and I just felt that the fight was mine, that it was my defining moment, that he'd just been put there for me.

"You could say that he froze or whatever, but you're only as good as your opponent allows you to be. I jumped on him right at the start and threw a fast combination, and that set the tone. Apparently I threw over 1,000 punches and connected with most of them. I knew Lacy was a puncher, but I like people who come forward. That suits me. He's quite one-dimensional, I knew he'd come in straight lines, loading up the big shots, but I knew I'd do him with speed. He'd probably sparred with every other southpaw in the world, but he hadn't sparred with me."

Afterwards, as Calzaghe soaked up the adulation, did it ever flit across his mind that after 18 successful defences of his title and one career-defining fight, he might, at 33 - now 34 - hang up the gloves and be assured a hallowed place in the boxing annals for ever? He laughs. "No chance. No way. I've just got through a divorce, I still need to make money. And I've looked after myself, I haven't had many wars in the ring, I'm not all marked and bashed up, and at the age of 34 I've just given my best-ever performance. Fighters peak at different times. Tyson peaked at 21 and was shot when he was 30. I'd love to fight another two years, but no more than that. I'll quit at 36, tops. But I'm sure I'll stay in boxing in some way."

Calzaghe has luxuriated in his new-found status since the Lacy fight, but now the luxuriating must stop and the training begin. "I've been a bit lazy. I've done a little running and that's about it. I went to Dubai with my girlfriend and that was great, so much so that I think I'm going to get a place out there.

"But I've got kids, two boys, so I had to get back. I've spent a lot of time with my boys, and I bought them an X-box 360. That's the only thing I've bought since the fight, really. I'll probably get myself another car but I'm sensible with money, not lavish. I'm on good money but it's not massive, and I'll be a long time retired.

"Apart from that I've spent a lot of time sitting back and reflecting, and talking with Frank about the next fight. Frank's been great for me. I went to him after 21 fights with Mickey Duff when I realised I couldn't even afford my mortgage and I was watching fighters like Robin Reid go straight to world title fights.

"I knew Frank would deliver the unification fight, and the Millennium Stadium's a fantastic venue, it doesn't get bigger than that."

It was at the adjacent Cardiff Arms Park, on the Lennox Lewis-Frank Bruno card in October 1993, that Calzaghe had his first professional fight. One journalist who was there saw enough in the youngster to suggest presciently that the assembled crowd would in time recall the evening less for anything that Lennox and Bruno did than for the fact that they were present when Joe Calzaghe made his debut. More than 12 years and 18 world title fights later, I ask Calzaghe whether he can still get better?

"Definitely," he says. "The perfect fighter has never been born and never will be." What, then, of boxing itself? How might Calzaghe improve the game that has given him such a good living? "I wish there was just one belt. I was a genuine world champion for eight years before I beat Lacy, yet the Americans were saying that the WBO belt was not a proper belt." A rare frown. "The fighter makes the belt. The WBC title is supposed to be more prestigious, but how many WBC champions were there in those eight years? About 15. I beat Eubank and Benn and I've held the title ever since.

"So boxing would definitely be better if there was just one champion, but that's impossible because of the politics of it. The politics drags it down a bit, but then politics is what makes boxing happen. I wouldn't change anything else. There's no fixing any more, and it's safer now than it's ever been... "

Which raises the question: should not the Lacy fight have been stopped? "Probably, yeah. When I was fighting I didn't realise it was so one-sided, how helpless he looked. It was only pride and heart that kept him in there, and it was the job of the referee or trainer to say he'd had enough. They might have thought he still had a puncher's chance, but there was no way, there was nothing in him. So from the eighth round on they'd have been justified in pulling him. It would have been better for his career, too. If you lose in seven or eight, you can always say you had an off-night. But to get beaten like that over the distance, that's going to be hard for him mentally."

Calzaghe knows about the mental torment of losing, even though it has been 17 years since it last happened. "It was in the European Junior Championships and afterwards I cried and cried. It was in Prague against a Romanian guy. He won on points and I was absolutely gutted. I swore to myself that I was never going to lose again, and that's what drives me still. More than money, more than titles, more than fame, it's the desire not to be defeated." There speaks a true champion of the world.

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