Brian Viner: Calzaghe should learn ropes about quitting while ahead

The Last Word
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The Independent Online

If Joe Calzaghe's mouth were as unequivocal as his fists then we could believe what he says about retirement, but there is already a worrying amount of umming and erring coming out of the Calzaghe camp, with his father and coach, Enzo, now saying that "he doesn't want to make a decision which may prove to have been premature".

But how can the decision to retire, aged 36 and unbeaten in 46 fights, with a vault full of money and respect, and an aquiline nose still intact, possibly turn out to be premature? There is only one decision Calzaghe can make with the potential to backfire horribly and that is the decision to fight on. And it should manifestly not be made on the basis of a victory, however convincing, over 39-year-old Roy Jones Jnr, who in Madison Square Garden last weekend could boast only a face and a name in common with the all-conquering fighter of the 1990s.

Listening to the radio a couple of days ago, incidentally, I heard the betting pundit Angus Loughran telling a nice story about an exchange he'd had with his father, who knows nothing about boxing. "I thought you said the Welshman won," said Loughran Snr last Sunday morning. "He did," said Angus. "But I heard that Jones lost and Calzaghe won," said his father, struggling with the notion that Calzaghe might be the name of the Welsh guy, and Jones the name of the black guy from Florida.

Meanwhile, as betting men like Loughran understand, what Calzaghe faces is the age-old conundrum of the gambler. Do you quit while you're ahead, or do you first try to get a little further ahead? This week has thrown up two eloquent examples of why he should take the first option. One was the grotesque snippet of news that 46-year-old Evander Holyfield, considering his alimony payments more than his dignity, intends to take on the WBA heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev in Zurich next month. The other came in the form of an absorbing TV documentary, Thriller in Manila, which ran on More4 on Tuesday and told the story not just of the famous clash between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in the Philippines on 1 October, 1975, but also of the divergent paths their lives have taken since.

Ali's tragic decline we know all about, but Frazier's story is less familiar. Had I ever thought about it, I would have assumed that Smokin' Joe was now enjoying a comfortable suburban existence, maybe living off his reputation on the after-dinner or ribbon-cutting circuit. Instead he lives over his shabby gym in a tough, tumbledown district of north Philadelphia, training young fighters but sustained mainly by memories, not to mention an enduring bitterness towards his old foe, whose "Uncle Tom" cracks he has never forgiven. While the rest of the world watched with moist-eyed reverence as a trembling Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta in 1996, there was one man in Philadelphia half hoping that he'd fall in.

Despite all that divides them, however, they still have more in common than not. Frazier made a better job than Ali of quitting while he was ahead, but still made an ill-advised comeback in December 1981 when, aged 37, he was fortunate to be given a draw after 10 rounds in Chicago against the less-than-legendary Floyd "Jumbo" Cummings.

Ali's career lasted precisely eight days longer, reaching its shambling conclusion in defeat by journeyman Trevor Berbick in Nassau, the fight that was promoted, laughably to those for whom the Thriller in Manila and the Rumble in the Jungle represented two of the most thrilling contests not just in the history of boxing but in all of sport, as the "Drama in Bahama".

I hope Calzaghe was back from New York in time to watch this poignant tale of two great fighters who went on for too long.

Martina is too good to grub around

Martina Navratilova has done hardly anything in public life that does not command huge respect, from the scintillating quality of tennis that she maintained for so long, to her outspoken campaigning for gay rights in the United States. I dare say that in some quarters she will earn further respect for biting into wichetty grubs on the new series of I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here! that begins tomorrow. But I can't be the only fan of hers who wishes that she had issued a resounding "not on your nelly" to the invitation, leaving the latest collection of relentless self-publicists such as Robert Kilroy-Silk, and those, like Joe Cole's girlfriend Carly Zucker, desperately trying to clamber from rung C to rung B on the celebrity ladder, to tackle their Bushtucker trials without her.

A solution on paper

On Desert Island Discs yesterday the children's author Allan Ahlberg recalled that his own childhood was so poor that his father had to make him a football out of paper and inner tubes. It was great for the reflexes, apparently, because you never knew which way it was going to bounce. Someone should market the idea.