James Lawton: Hopkins the burglar threatens to steal Calzaghe's thunder

Wales' unbeaten world champion will be the purists' choice when he enters the ring for the bout of his life tonight, but he faces a battle of wits with a ruthless streetfighter

If the beauty of fighting, because it is the most natural and expressive thing you will ever do, was the guaranteed decisive factor when Joe Calzaghe meets Bernard Hopkins here tonight, the boy from Newbridge – for even at 36 there is so much of him that remains engagingly so – could proceed directly to his place in boxing history.

Unfortunately, it is not. The only guarantee Calzaghe has tonight is he is going to a place he has never been before, a place where a certain kind of clean and obvious merit might just not ultimately count for as much as a single sigh.

Another if clouds Calzaghe. If Hopkins is 43 – and about as idealistic about how you win in the ring as the average street hustler is on survival from one day to the next – he is also an acknowledged master of some of the unscrupulous forces that have always threatened to darken the light given off by a Calzaghe.

The more innocent world sees the Welshman, who so loves the fresh air and the certainties of his native valley, who finds the glare and the blare of this place an unwelcome intrusion into the order of his life, as the most uncomplicated of heroes and is right to do so. But in this fight they are calling "the Battle of the Planet" we really do have a scaled down war of the worlds. There is Calzaghe's world and Hopkins' world. One is filled with the freedom of adventure, of doing what is set deep in your nature. The other plots ambush.

One says tonight's affair is about style and talent. The other says it is about finding a way to win, some way, somehow, who cares?

We have Calzaghe the exuberant exponent of what was once known as "the sweet science" and we have Hopkins the seriously ageing anti-fighter, the hard-nosed, hard-minded pragmatist who has hired one of the most expensive ever training teams – if they are successful against the odds tonight they might come to be remembered as the wrecking crew – to explore every point of weakness in an opponent who always shows what he has, outside, and admits to worrying about his hands.

Yet the Las Vegas sports books, not known for being beguiled by anything less than a sure thing, respect Calzaghe's talent to the point of offering one dollar on his victory for every two and a half invested. A Hopkins win would pay 2.10 on the dollar.

It is also true that even hard-bitten American boxing types chuckled with and not at Calzaghe's impassioned trainer and father, Enzo, who never wore boxing gloves with serious intent, when he told this week how a Sardinian uncle browbeat him into being a musician rather than a footballer and that maybe the crucial point in his son's development, at the age of nine, was when it was noted he had faster hands than feet.

So much of Calzaghe's boxing is as spontaneous as one of those Italian peasant love songs his father deplored so passionately.

It wells out of him and, perhaps partly because of judicious matchmaking – and a refusal until now to move too far from from the stronghold valley which has nurtured his confidence and soothed his spirit for an extraordinary stretch of 18 unbeaten years, 11 of them as a world champion – it has never been contained.

Mikkel Kessler and Jeff Lacy, the most formidable of his opponents but now despised by the Hopkins camp, failed and those who say that Calzaghe's talent equipped him for sterner wars had early confirmation when he mastered the fierce pride of an ageing Chris Eubank in 1997. But there is a nag here that cannot be put aside. It says that the coronation of Calzaghe in the Thomas and Mack Center, the ultimate statement of the success he has found on his own terms, is perhaps not as preordained as some believe it to be.

Calzaghe admits that he fears Hopkins' head as much as his fists. The American's trainer Freddie Roach, who once handled Mike Tyson, is candid enough about this potentially key factor on the eve of the fight, saying, "We know that Joe has got bad hands and we are looking to take advantage of this in several ways." One, no doubt, is that Hopkins will apply the hard part of his head, quite legally, to worryingly brittle Welsh hands.

"We have our strategies, or course," added Roach, "but we're not announcing them. Let's say we can also see some advantage for Bernard in the way Calzaghe fights, which is quite square, and yes, European. But he has his own way too, and he's 44-0 as a professional, and we respect that."

In the Calzaghe camp both father and son are pouring scorn on the anticipated tactics of their opponent – they wonder how they can be placed alongside an ambition to move from mere legendary status to that of an American icon. "I believe," says Enzo, "that Hopkins would rather be disqualified than lose in an honourable way. What kind of legend is this? It isn't a legend, it's a disgrace."

Joe says: "I know what he's going to do, it's there for anyone to see ... it might as well be written in the sky. He can't throw in a thousand punches. He can't boss me. He's not fast enough.

"He'll throw in a big wow-eee right over the top, follow with his head and his shoulder, and that's about it. I'm not too worried about headbutts because I'm quick enough to show up what he's trying to do. My plan is simple enough. I'm going to take charge of an ideally clean fight, I'm going to show him what I have, and who is the boss, right from the start. I just don't think he has anything to counter me, nothing to make me worried."

It is the battle plan from the world of light and one underpinned both by a high degree of talent and relative youth.

Yet there is another one from a darker region and it is idle to pretend that it is not without menace. This week, interestingly, it was endorsed on the ESPN network by Pat Burns, the Miami-based trainer who plotted the two narrow wins over Hopkins by his fighter Jermain Taylor.

Burns said he had to go against the critical, and bookmaking, flow in favour of Calzaghe. "I think it's going to be very tough for Calzaghe. Hopkins is very cagey and everyone knows that Calzaghe likes to move a lot. I just don't think that's the right style to beat Hopkins. When you're moving, working your angles and staying away, it's very hard to hit Hopkins, very hard to get clean shots on him.

"There is no one operating in boxing today who makes adjustments through a fight better than Hopkins. What he shows you in the first three rounds is different to what he shows you in four, five and six, and then what he shows you in the seventh, eighth and ninth rounds is totally different, and then when he finishes, that too, is something you haven't seen before.

"So this is a guy who is making adjustments all the time. When you consider all the factors you might say it is a 50-50 fight but I would say it is 60-40 – with Hopkins winning."

Hopkins' strategist Nazim Richardson offers still another warning to the Calzaghe camp. He says that one aspect of Calzaghe's new theatre of war is that the final judgement is often based not on activity, or perceived action, but accuracy. "Joe throws a lot of punches but if I throw a thousand stones into a pool I'm going to land some of them," says Richardson. "But then Bernard will be throwing a few too, and they will be accurate, you can be sure of that."

Roach resurrects the charge that some of Calzaghe's punches are really slaps, but he concedes, "I've seen him throw a left-handed slap that has knocked somebody down, so you have to say that he can slap pretty hard. But then Bernard Hopkins isn't going to worry about slaps, however hard they come. Training him has been like a graduate course; there is not a lot you can tell him about this game."

Except, perhaps, that talent and speed sometimes take on lives of their own. Richardson certainly made one point that Calzaghe is entitled to pick up cheerfully and perhaps even polish if and when he believes he has taken control of the fight.

The Hopkins man said there will be a similarity between the great collision of Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, when Hagler did the accurate, punishing work and Leonard, like a burglar in the night, shone briefly at the end of most rounds as he attempted to steal the verdict.

What Richardson cannot have forgotten is that Leonard did indeed get the verdict. The burglar won. What is most worrying for Calzaghe is that everyone knows the identity of the ambitious burglar tonight.

The terrible fear here, and it is one that has been growing in this corner these last few days, is that Bernard Hopkins will lack only a mask and a swag bag when he steals Joe Calzaghe's prize, probably in a late round.