James Lawton: Calzaghe out of his comfort zone in heat of the desert
Undefeated for 18 years, the super-middleweight champion of the world is facing a big fight for the first time away from British soil – and Bernard Hopkins is not alone in believing that could count against him
Thursday 17 April 2008
Having attempted to turn his gated corner of Las Vegas Boulevard into home from home, into Newbridge, Glamorgan, Joe Calzaghe says that if even a hint of doubt enters his mind between now and Saturday night he knows precisely what to do. He merely has to reach for a DVD of a Bernard Hopkins fight and ask himself, "What do I have to worry about?"
Most of the boxing cognoscenti here, mindful of Hopkins's extreme age, and deficit in speed, are nodding their agreement. But then some are beginning to wonder if there is a limit to how many taunting questions a supremely confident world champion of 11 years, who lost his last fight 18 years ago in an amateur ring in extremely questionable circumstances, is entitled to ask without provoking a certain suspicion.
Another example of Calzaghe rhetoric: if Bernard Hopkins is such a great defensive boxer, why is his nose sprawled all over his face? And, still another: What kind of legend is 43-years-old, has four defeats, wears a stupid hat and calls himself "The Executioner"?
That suspicion, for the moment at least, is that Calzaghe, fighting a significant fight for the first time away from his own Welsh or British soil, is in danger of protesting his serenity a little too much.
No one can doubt that the undisputed world super-middleweight champion has the speed and the class to engulf the often tortured, crab-like manoeuvring of his life-gnarled, former convict but extremely rich opponent, but it is not just Hopkins who is building up the fact that in psychological as well as geographical terms Calzaghe is operating on unknown terrain.
Lennox Lewis, who campaigned relentlessly in America until finally beating Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight title in the same Thomas and Mack Center that stages Saturday's fight, agrees that Calzaghe coming into Hopkins's lair at so late a stage of his career is definitely an "issue".
Another concern, though Calzaghe is denying it, is that Hopkins's notorious ability to spoil, and then steal, fights will find more favour in front of American judges than would be possible anywhere else in the world.
What isn't in doubt, though, is that Hopkins, who has already played the racist card that proclaims he will never be beaten by "a white boy", will continue to probe at what he believes is Calzaghe's one area of insecurity.
This week he has returned to the theme that Calzaghe, for all his protestations, is in a place he never wanted to be, a place which, despite the expected arrival of around 6,000 British fans, separates him from so much of the underpinning of a seamlessly successful career: the warmth of instant, approving identity, of feeling utterly grounded in – and surrounded by – the values which have always given him most strength.
Maybe the garish surrounds of the Planet Hollywood Casino, which is contributing to the fighters' $8m (£4m) pay nights, have underlined for Calzaghe the uncomplicated bliss of life in Newbridge.
"It's lovely going into the town, popping in to buy a paper, chatting with people but nobody bothering you, and though I want to travel when my career is over, I know where my roots are and where my home is." It is not, Hopkins is hammering home, this neon-lit fleshpot Don King once euphemistically described as "the Oasis in the Desert".
Hopkins insists that he comes from a rougher place than Calzaghe, a place where survival is something you do entirely for yourself. In his case you graduate from a prison life that flowed inevitably from immersion in the violence of the streets. You fight so hard you are filled with obsessions that you believe will never end. If you are Hopkins you reveal that you have $20m (£10m) in your bank account – and add, "Outside of harm to my family, there's only one thing I'm afraid of... going broke.
"I'm a different fighter to any other fighter that came in my era. Come 19 April people are going to have to put me in a whole new different category, maybe that icon thing. Legend I already got. Icon, American icon, would be really special to me."
After a public workout in which he was at pains to show off the body sculpture which he believes, because of an exemplary lifestyle, would sit well on a man 10 years younger, Hopkins said: "It's four days to the execution, and one reason is that if you punch into my record you will see that Bernard has travelled the globe to fight. I'm bigger around the world than Joe is in Wales. This is his commercial introduction to the American ring. It will not be a good one.
"I've made a Hall of Fame career out of my big right hand, but my left shouldn't be discriminated against. Yes, this is fight talk, but I have the credentials to prove it. It's called a track record. He's unbeaten yes, but is he a Hall of Famer? In Europe. There, he is a god. But he's not a Ricky Hatton.
"Ricky Hatton showed a lot of balls coming over here a long time ago whereas Joe had that opportunity when he was 32 or 33 not 36. Joe has not voluntarily come here. Joe has a HBO TV contract for three fights and guess where his third fight had to be? America.
"I just happen to be the guy here to fight him. I eliminated Antonio Tarver easily. I was the underdog. I eliminated "Winky" Wright. I was the underdog. I have a big wage bill of trainers, led by Freddie Roach [who once attempted to resurrect Mike Tyson's career], and I don't do that for nothing. You're going to see effective, punishing, precise execution in this fight. I don't waste anything. I don't flick out punches for the sake of it. I'm not giving you all flair. I shower damage on my opponents physically."
Hopkins is relentlessly painting the picture of Calzaghe in pale hues. He is talking of a hometown hero, the toast of the parish who will be ambushed and discarded the first time he steps away from the reassurance which comes with local acclaim.
The American's picture of himself is many-layered and rich in approval. He believes he is in the process of moving from the status of legend to American icon, a man of both the streets and the world.
"I've made a career of making people's mouths drop in superfights like this. I took Felix Trinidad, Oscar de la Hoya, Antonio Tarver and "Winky" Wright and I messed them up. They couldn't deal with my strength of body and mind.
"Now I'm going to prove that Joe is an ordinary Joe and the reason he didn't leave Europe before he had to is because he feared his worst nightmare – coming to the United States and getting his butt whipped by Bernard Hopkins. This sort of thing just tickles my fancy. When I do it I like to look into people's faces. It's as though they've just seen Jesus walking on water."
If Calzaghe owns up to any uncertainty in the face of this blast of self-regard, it is maybe only within himself and not the dangers of a fight which he believes he has all the means to control. Earlier this week he was talking, quite wistfully, of the time he lost his last fight as an 18-year-old in Prague, and how he came home swearing that he would never lose again.
"I suppose one danger when you have been winning for so long, when it becomes so much part of who you think you are, that you lose the fear of losing," says Calzaghe. "You don't worry about pain, of being hurt... adrenalin is the best painkiller of all. Then you think of retiring, and staying retired and staying unbeaten. How many fighters do that? This is a great goal and if I didn't have any other reason to stay focused this week it would be enough.
"I've fought better fighters, faster fighters, harder punchers than Bernard Hopkins. This guy has two things. He's probably the biggest name I've fought and he is the oldest, I'll give him that. No, he's not the best guy I've fought and he will need a respirator to keep up with me.
"I know how he will try to fight me, he's going to do things to stop me rather than do things himself. He will try to lull me into a messy, dirty fight and try to nick it. I respect the referee Joe Cortez, he handled my fight with Chris Eubank, and he is very stern, but we know what can happen with American judges.
"The fact is that if this fight was in Wales it would be no contest." Yes, of course, everyone agrees, and here is maybe the only the reason for the old assassin's glint in the eyes of Bernard Hopkins. The fight is in Las Vegas, USA. The tricky ones generally are.
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