Boxing: Calzaghe's last stand
Victory tonight would allow the Welshman to retire unbeaten, but may not seal his place among the greats.
Saturday 08 November 2008
You could call it the Street of Champions, Eighth Avenue running past Madison Square Garden, where Muhammad Ali once stopped the traffic while taking a morning stroll in pale autumn sunshine.
A shoeshine boy and workers from the garment industry who came down from their sewing machines clustered around the great man and, as ever, he rejoiced in their attention. Joe Calzaghe has also been gratified this week by cries of "Hi Joe", "You're the champ", while reporting for light training at the Kingsway Gym a few blocks away off Broadway. Indeed, even though the shouts of recognition have been sporadic, he still dug down for a word rare on the lips of a still working pugilist when it came to describing how it felt to be in the presence of the greatest ghost of the ring on such hallowed sidewalks and to be recognised, however briefly and casually, as one of his number.
"It's just surreal," said the 36-year-old Welshman who, after 45 winning fights, is performing only for the second time on the side of the Atlantic which invariably defines the status of a champion. With considerable honesty, Calzaghe is addressing the pressure upon him here tonight in what he says, with less than towering conviction will be his last fight, against the ageing but perhaps still dangerous superstar Roy Jones Jr.
He understands that when Ali brought Eighth Avenue to a standstill and Sugar Ray Robinson, in his shiny suit and pomaded hair and pink Cadillac, was cheered all the way back up to Harlem after avenging his defeat by Britain's Randolph Turpin, they had won all their great battles both home and away.
Calzaghe, but for his American debut in Las Vegas earlier this year and an occasional foray against milk-and-water opposition in Scandinavia, made Britain, and principally Wales, his fortress. Given all his natural talent, and the warm reaction by Americans to his commitment to relentless attack, clearly he wonders now how much more triumphant would be his own passage down the streets of Manhattan if he too could wear the battle ribbons won on foreign soil boasted by Ali, the conqueror of Kinshasa and Manila, and some of his rivals for the status of Britain's best post-war fighter.
Certainly he did a little soul-bearing under the force of inquisition by some of the American fight crowd this week. In the basement of BB King's Blues Bar off Times Square he reacted sharply to one suggestion that in the past he might only have been driven out of his comfort zone of a British – and ideally, Welsh – ring, at gunpoint. There was, too, the additional charge of Jones's long-time trainer Alton Merkerson that back when his fighter was the acknowledged pound-for-pound ruler of boxing, they could not lure a new world champion of obvious ability from the Valleys. "Of course," said Merkerson, "if they had fought then, there wouldn't have been the kind of money there is now. Roy was willing, but Joe wouldn't come over here to fight him."
Calzaghe said, with more than a little fire in his eyes, "They accused me of hiding behind my belts, but believe me I wasn't. I was struggling along, fighting in small arenas and getting no respect. It took years, until the Jeff Lacy fight in 2006 before I was able to do it. For years I was fighting guys you never heard of with names you couldn't spell, even fighters I never saw a tape of. And all the time I wanted to be in this type of situation, fighting big names – and now I have it at the end of my career, believe me, I'm as hungry as ever I've been, maybe even hungrier. I want to make a great fight, a great performance here on Saturday night." Still, Calzaghe cannot quite outrun the shadows that almost without exception hover over every version of boxing truth. As he speaks of old frustration, it is, for example, impossible to forget his testy response to a question posed on the eve of his WBC world super-middleweight title defence against one of the halt and the lame, the obscure Will McIntyre on the undercard of Mike Tyson's formal bashing of the Danish Mr Pastry, Brian Nielsen, in Copenhagen seven years ago.
With belated mercy, the referee stopped Calzaghe's fight 45 seconds into the fourth round. Calzaghe had been asked, ironically in the light of Merkerson's contention this week, if he despaired of the fact that even a megatalent like Jones insisted on fighting tourists from the boxing graveyard rather than a serious opponent like himself. "Boxing is a business," Calzaghe snapped, "and a fighter like Jones has earned the right to pick his fights. If I was in his position, I would probably do the same."
Yet when the money is earned, and the career has run out along finely calculated lines, what does it leave apart from financial security for the rest of your life? In Calzaghe's case plainly he has been left with a haunting desire to make another kind of deposit to the bank vault. It is a major topping up of the glory account.
Many believe that if he fulfils his best hopes against Jones tonight, if he avoids the shocking ambush which cannot be discounted if the moody, egocentric 39-year-old virtuoso from Florida finds a few strands of his old destructive genius to throw outrageous punches with impeccable timing, he will have got at least some of his wish for a higher status among the great names of the post-war British ring. Some even argue that it would make him the best of all.
Yet it is surely no disrespect to Calzaghe's formidable ability, and heart, and the late flowering of his ability against Denmark's Mikkel Kessler, a fine upright battler who provided a far more significant examination than the absurdly lauded Lacy, to say that such a historic elevation is, frankly, an insult to compatriots who were ready, from the outset, to campaign in the most difficult places. Among the resentful, here and in the boxing heavens, would surely and legitimately be such men as Kenny Buchanan, Lennox Lewis, Randy Turpin, Barry McGuigan – the fighting Irishman who acquired a British passport to win the domestic title before becoming an authentic world featherweight champion in demanding company – John H Stracey and Jim Watt, who did his unspectacular but deeply professional work against some superb opponents, yielding his world title, over 15 rounds, only to the brilliantly clean-hitting Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello. There is also the case for the tempestuous but beautifully and seriously talented world light-heavyweight champion John Conteh.
Calzaghe loyalists can cite a run of consecutive world title defences rivalled only by the immortal Joe Louis, but then it is also true that the Brown Bomber was at one point accused of setting up one of the old game's least appetising institutions, the Bum of the Month club.
By his own admission, many of Calzaghe's opponents would have had no fear of being blackballed from such a place. Yet if this indeed is the final act of Calzaghe's play – and it has to be reported that there is a persistent belief here that in fact, win or lose, he will make one last statement in a ring back home at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff – it is no hardship acknowledging both the scale of his talent and his contribution to British boxing. His place is undoubtedly a high one even if it lacks the underpinning of great fights and a roll call of the best of opposition through his long career. Jones's trainer was generous enough, certainly, when discussing tactical possibilities on the eve of the fight. Inevitably, there was a question about the frequently less than classic quality of Calzaghe's punching. "Yes, it's true," said Merkerson, "he does slap a lot. But then let's look at his record? Thirty-two opponents have been 'slapped down'. That makes Joe a hell of a slapper." It's also true that his achievements have come under the tutelage of his father Enzo, a temperamentally volatile man whose youth was spent making music rather than ring violence, and who never stepped through the ropes with the intention of fighting.
It is reasonable to speculate that under the guidance of an Eddie Futch or, back home, Terry Lawless, Calzaghe might have made more technical progress beyond the formidable reservoir of his natural talent and created in himself – who knows? – more insistence that he should fight opponents who would have tested much more deeply those gifts he displayed the moment he stepped into the bedraggled little gym in Newbridge. Not much of this, inevitably, is registering on the pre-fight radar screen, certainly not that one being monitored by Calzaghe Snr. He says that his son has superb talent and an unmatchable fighting heart, and that a combination of these qualities will conquer both Roy Jones Jr and the last doubt that he is a fighter of the ages. On even the roughest recent form guide, the Calzaghe camp is right to be confident. Joe Calzaghe should win, should earn the chance to leave the professional ring with an unblemished record.
Yet there have to be a couple of nags. One is the stirring of belief in the once rampant Roy Jones. The other is the scarcity of his opponent's experience of such an eruption from someone of the highest quality – and in a still dangerously alien place.
James Lawton's five best post-war British boxers
*1. Kenny Buchanan
He fought, in his upright style, and won in the hardest places with a brave and brilliant application. When he lost in Madison Square Garden it was to arguably the greatest lightweight of all time, Roberto Duran who named him unhesitatingly as his greatest lightweight opponent.
*2. Lennox Lewis
Became Britain's first undisputed world champion in a century when he beat Evander Holyfield. A serious fighting man who triumphed over the terrible fault line of a vulnerable chin, which required him to avenge, comprehensively, his only two professional defeats, to Oliver McCall and Hasim Rachman
*3. Randolph Turpin
He beat the nonpareil Sugar Ray Robinson in London and then, in the rematch in New York, he fought so strongly that the man who some believe to be the greatest fighter of all was required to produce the best of his extraordinary talent to rescue the fight in the 11th.
*4. Barry McGuigan
The Clones Cyclone held the world featherweight title only briefly but he filled the ring with his passion and intensity. When he lost his title against Texan Steve Cruz he was overcome by the desert heat of a Las Vegas afternoon and was taken to hospital suffering from dehydration.
*5. Joe Calzaghe
The only unbeaten candidate for the top position, the Welshman has always been a fighter of heart-warming aggression and style. But unblemished records can be deceptive, and a higher position for him would have to draw a veil over the long years of unchallenging competition.
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