Joe Calzaghe is dicing with danger. When he meets one of boxing's foremost senior citizens, the former world middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, in their "superfight" at the Thomas & Mack Centre in Las Vegas on Saturday, it will not only be his first bout in the US but alsohis first at light-heavyweight after 15 years making the 12st super-middleweight limit.
Moreover, there is the added pressure of knowing his father, Enzo, voted by the American media as the world's supreme trainer, has seen two of histhree world champions, Enzo Maccarinelli and Gavin Rees, unseated within a fortnight. And the gambling citadel in the Nevada desert is no friendly oasis for those on a losing roll.
Calzaghe had his first trip to Las Vegas in December when he went to watch Ricky Hatton be mesmerised by Floyd Mayweather. It was there that he had the confrontation with Hopkins that essentially set up the mega-bucks match, and he insists that Hopkins, a past master of psychological warfare, will not mess up his mind: "He might intimidate someone who was 21, but I'm 36 and I've been boxing since I was nine. For a guy of 43 to be saying some of the things he has is ridiculous. If I fight as well as I can, I'm going to win, simple as that."
However, in boxing there is no such thing as simplicity, and while the outcome should be as Calzaghe predicts, he is taking a huge gamble by risking his prized unbeaten status on his American debut for nothing more than a Ring Magazine belt (albeit plus a £12 million purse) against a wily opponent adept at making the best look bad. In an American ring, with an American referee (Joe Cortez, who some claim mishandled theMayweather-Hatton fight) and Nevada-appointed judges, Hopkins may have more than his own two fists going for him.
Hopkins will try to conserve his energy, tie Calzaghe up inside and box in a flurry in the last 30 seconds of every round to catch the judges' eyes. An old trick from an old dog.
Hopkins terms himself "The Executioner", though his axe has been blunt of late. He set a record of 21 defences during a 10-year middleweight reign but has been embroiled in some humdrum fights. He is a classic spoilerwhose potency has faded, being beaten twice by Jermain Taylor before points wins over Antonio Tarver and Ronald "Winky" Wright in a 54-fight career.
He comes off the production line of ghetto fighters, a jailbird from Philadelphia who reconstructed his life through boxing. As a self-styled "political soldier" of the ring he has also playedthe race card to help get the turnstiles spinning.
Calzaghe has picked up a few pointers from Hatton about his Vegas preparations and is staying in a rented villa rather than a hotel. While he may not have Hatton's army of support, his superior all-round armoury makes him better equipped than the Hitman to deal with an opponent's cuteness on a bill which also features the "comeback" of Audley Harrison. And Hopkins, for all his mouth and menace, is no Mayweather.
"I look at his record and I believe mine is better," says Calzaghe. "So he beat Oscar De La Hoya. Wow! A welterweight. And Felix Trinidad, another small guy stepping up. Then Antonio Tarver, who was coming off making the Rocky film, and probably had to lose four stone. He hadn't trained for three months.
"I don't care about names or reputations. He's fighting someone his own size this time. Hopkins reckons he's a legend. Well, he's certainly old enough to be one but he's lost four fights. Don't get me wrong; Hopkins may be 43 but he can still do the business. If I let him drag me into a fight, I could struggle. He is cagey, he fights on the back foot and he'll try to steal rounds. He's also a dirty fighter, he does a lot of headbutting, [but] I'm going to outbox the guy and take him out."
You wonder why Calzaghe, at 36 rich and finally famous, still has the compulsion to cause hurt. He admits: "Some people say I'm crazy to be boxing after over 25 years. Yes, I'd be crazy if I was getting my head punched in but I've been blessed with my hands. I've been undefeated 17 years and, as you can see from my face, I've [protected] myself good. If you judge me on my past few performances, I'm getting better, not physically but mentally. I'm more in control."
Hopkins counters: "Calzaghe is 36 so he's no spring chicken, but he's never had to overcome what I have. I'm a convicted felon, I've been stabbed, I've seen rape in prison, a guy hang himself and one inmate kill another. Boxing takes me to a dark place where I have to dig deep into my soul. Joe won't be prepared for me. Whatever he throws at me it's nothing to what I've faced. I've no fear of losing because I've no fear of dying."
In boxing terms, they have almost identical statistics, but as people they are as far apart as Vegas and the valleys. "Thanks to the Sports Personality of the Year I seem to be more recognised now and that's cool," says Calzaghe. "But I've never been someone who will do anything to get his name in the papers. You can't be going out and getting pissed, making movies and shagging everyone. That's not how a champion behaves. My only ambition is to have a couple more fights and retire with zero defeats against my name."
What they are calling The Battle of the Planet may be staged under the auspices of Planet Hollywood but don't expect a blockbuster. The trailers may prove more exciting than the actuality, which is more likely to be a messy brawl. The hope is that Calzaghe extricates himself enough from Hopkins' clutches to employ his southpaw skills and make the old man feel his age.Reuse content