James Lawton: Past greats unfairly knocked over in rush to hype Calzaghe's achievement

McGuigan's picture is at odds with reality. Why? The need to sell every morsel of our sport. If the major victim is truth, who cares?
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The Independent Online

You might say it is impertinent to question the boxing judgement of Barry McGuigan, the Clones Cyclone who flies straight into any serious assessment of British fighting's best post-war performers.

He fought with great courage and wit and when he lost his hard-won world title in the suffocating outdoor heat of Las Vegas, against a Mexican-Texan who was reared in such conditions, they had to take him to hospital with a life-threatening level of dehydration. He even managed not to wilt in the blast of Marco Pierre White's kitchen, and ego, in one of the more engaging reality shows.

Yet, from the perspective of ringside at Madison Square Garden in the early hours of Sunday morning, it was still dismaying to hear that McGuigan, back in the TV studio, had given Joe Calzaghe's defeat of Roy Jones Jnr a quite extraordinary rating.

Of course, it is true that in general there are few more generous souls than those of ex-fighters.

It is one reason why so many of them finish up broke, McGuigan, happily, proving one exception. Yet surely there is a difference between an eagerness to give credit where it is due, and in the process disabusing anyone of the idea that old pride and the angst that can come with the ageing process has turned you into a curmudgeonly critic of all that is new, and flying so far over the top you might be in need of an oxygen mask.

For some at least McGuigan surely flirted with that latter risk when claiming that Calzaghe had not only produced a fabulous, "sublime, absolutely sublime" performance, but established as fact that he simply gets better and better by such margins that it is amazing he should think of quitting at the age of 36.

When McGuigan says things like that you wonder whether the TV studio was located on some distant planet.

Yes, of course Joe Calzaghe showed us again a fine range of formidable gifts but at what point does McGuigan, and a growing army of cheerleaders, feed in the sad but unavoidable fact that here he was fighting the last remnants of a once sensational talent, one that had become the most poignant parody of what it had been?

Who benefits from the avoidance of such an uncomfortable fact, except perhaps Calgazhe if, after the weeks of reflection he has sensibly enough granted himself, decides that in fact the weekend fight was not his last hurrah but the prelude to a hugely profitable farewell at home in his adoring Cardiff bailiwick of the Millennium Stadium?

Certainly, not among the beneficiaries is any sober ranking of great performance – and proper respect for all that has preceded the achievements of boxing in Calzaghe's native valleys and the rest of Britain.

By giving so generously to Joe, surely it is at cost to the memory of such fighters as Kenny Buchanan, Lennox Lewis, Randy Turpin, John Conteh, John H Stracey, Jim Watt, Alan Minter, not to mention Sir Henry Cooper, who on one unforgettable occasion visited a left hook on Muhammad Ali which, according to the great man, shook up his kinfolk all the way back in Africa.

Closer to Calzaghe's home, there are other disservices implicit in McGuigan's extravagant praise. Howard Winstone, who lost the end of the fingers of his right hand, was a brilliant featherweight who fought superbly against the formidably strong Vicente Saldivar, a fight that Hugh McIlvanney said so memorably had really been settled in the womb.

The Welsh heavyweight Tommy Farr's campaigning in America led him to a performance so fine and durable against the great Joe Louis that it provoked the building of beacon fires of celebration.

McGuigan's blanket assessment of Calzaghe's performance as the greatest in British fight history also laid waste the rankings of other great men of the earlier days, when they fought to live without the biannual underpinning of pay-per-view millions. Men like Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll, Ted Kid Lewis and Jack Kid Berg.

Calzaghe's fellow Welshmen, Wilde, the Mighty Atom, and Peerless Jim Driscoll, for example, warranted at least a fleeting thought here on Sunday when Calzaghe, congratulated himself on concluding his career with a flourish in America that consisted, like it or not, of two victories over opponents with a combined age of 82 years, one of whom, Jones, revealing himself to be utterly shot from the third round onwards.

Driscoll also campaigned in America, where the locals were soon won over by the sweetness of his style, one in sharp contrast to the prevailing fashion there for much more overt aggression. Peerless Jim fought 571 rounds as a professional and lost four times in 77 fights. It is different strokes for different times, of course, but if part of the reason for Calzaghe's elevation is longevity and an unbeaten record in 46 fights, only two of which happened in America, what chance would anyone give him of going another 31 fights, against the toughest possible opposition, without any blemish? It would be an impractical demand on even the formidable gifts of Calzaghe. If you say the past is the past, and no longer has any relevance to the present, what then can we anticipate in the future, if not still more blurring of the verities of time?

No one can really blame Calzaghe for riding his success, nor the complaints he made about his previous exclusions before winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. He was right to speak up for his hard trade and his own contribution to it, and perhaps he did that in the nick of time when we note the boiling controversies involving the current claims of such as Olympic stars Rebecca Adlington and Chris Hoy and the apparently inevitable triumph of Lewis Hamilton.

The worry is that we are now far gone in a sports culture where the headlines of today tend to obliterate the meaning of some of the greatest achievements in the history of sport, and so many of the standards they created.

None of this was any concern of Calzaghe when he emerged on a brilliant Manhattan Sunday sporting the wounds acquired when Roy Jones Jnr produced his one moment of authentic menace, a first-round knockdown which had disturbing implications for the Welshman no longer, it seemed, than it took him to clear his head, a feat comfortably accomplished by the end of the round.

He spoke of the pleasure of a man fulfilled – and also dismissed talk of a possible last fight against his most potentially challenging opponent, the 26-year-old unbeaten world light heavyweight champion Chad Dawson.

"They're talking about Dawson but that doesn't get me so excited," said Calzaghe. "He's won a couple of fights and beaten [Antonio] Tarver, a shot fighter."

Here, though, Calzaghe cast something of a shadow over the meaning of his American adventures.

Tarver will celebrate his 40th birthday in a few days' time, it is true, but then that makes him a mere two months older than Jones. It gets worse from the point of view of Joe's deification. Three years ago Tarver outpointed Jones. Six months later he blasted him away in two rounds. A few weeks ago Dawson knocked down Tarver before making him look like an irredeemably old man in a unanimous points decision.

Mere details, of course, but when you put a few of them together they make a rather different mosaic to the one produced by Barry McGuigan in the television studio. McGuigan's picture is at odds with reality, and why is it so? Why have recent judgements been so inflated? It is no mystery, of course. It comes with the requirement to sell almost every morsel of our sport and if the major victim is truth, who, these days, really cares?

The point is that if someone like Barry McGuigan, with all his achievements and available perspective, is not fastidious about the truths of his most demanding sport, from whom can we expect proper care?

Praising Joe Calzaghe, acknowledging his talent and those occasions when it was required to be fully exercised, is no hardship for anyone. But at various stages we encounter the problem of an excessive price to pay. One of them is wiping away the achievements of a man like Jim Driscoll. That, no doubt, was not Barry McGuigan's intention, but who can say it was not the effect?

You cannot say that Joe Calzaghe is the best without diminishing so many who went before him. Surely, it cannot be done.