Home Boxing News The Welsh Dragon: An analysis

The Welsh Dragon: An analysis

 

The moment Joe Calzaghe’s name was read out as the winner minutes after going toe to toe with Chris Eubank, I knew he had the skills to be something very special. Blessed with dazzling speed, a high work rate, a solid chin and concussive power in the years before his brittle hands forced him to settle for laborious points decisions, Calzaghe went on to become known as one of history’s greatest boxing super-middleweights!

 

Born in 1972 to parents Enzo and Jackie Calzaghe in London, Joe was raised in Wales from the age of two years old. Calzaghe took up boxing at the age of nine years old, winning four ABA schoolboy titles and three British ABA’s.

On the undercard of one of the biggest British fights in history, Lewis vs Bruno which took place in 1993, Calzaghe made his professional debut, beating Paul Hanlon in the first round. Two years later, Calzaghe won the British super-middleweight title, stopping Stephen Wilson inside eight. By 1997, Calzaghe was known as something as a bit of a knockout specialist after only having to go to points once in twenty two fights. That particular fight turned out to be an eight round scrappy affair with Bobbie Joe Edwards. Edwards was content to clinch and amusingly try to keep Joe busy by showboating with not so fancy footwork.

While Calzaghe was climbing through the ranks, Irishman Steve Collins was taking on all comers in defences of his WBO title after beating Chris Eubank twice in 1995 to finally rest  him of the championship. Apart from making one defence against Eubank in a high profile domestic rematch, other defences meant very little with the exception of two publicised battles with Nigel Benn. Benn retired after the fourth round in their first fight in July of 1996 after suffering from an ankle injury in which he fell awkwardly after throwing an over hand right. Benn tried to fight on but his lack of mobility got the best of him as he turned his back on Collins to signal that he wanted to no longer continue. In the rematch in November later that year, Collins again made Benn retire but this time in The Dark Destroyer’s own corner when he failed to come out after the sixth. That was to be Nigel’s last ever fight after a bruising career. It is probably important to note that Benn never really psychologically recovered after beating Gerald McClellan in their 1995 classic in which the American sadly suffered a brain injury that rendered him paralysed, a night that haunted Benn for many years until a televised reunion in 2007 between himself and McClellan in London in which the former WBC middleweight champion told Benn to forgive himself.

Steve Collins’ final defence came in 1997 against American Craig Cummings. Both fighters hit the canvas in the first round. Collins was down moments after the first bell rang but rallied back to floor Cummings with a right hand just before the final minute occurred. Another right from Collins in the third wobbled his challenger and the referee stopped the fight.

Calzaghe was soon the mandatory WBO challenger but an injury, apparently to do with Collins’ brain, forced him to retire from the ring. The WBO belt was vacated and a match between Calzaghe and Collins’ old foe, Chris Eubank was arranged. After being floored in the opening moments, Eubank quickly got up, looking more embarrassed than hurt. Although losing rather widely on the scorecards, Eubank fought bravely, stunning Calzaghe in the final moments of the fight before the final bell.

After winning the WBO crown, Calzaghe was quickly back in the ring to blast out Branco Sobot in three rounds. In February 1999, former WBC super-middleweight champion, Robin Reid challenged Calzaghe. The Runcorn fighter was coming off a TKO win over Graham Townsend after being beaten by Sugar Boy Malinga in Millwall in 1997 for his former title. Reid’s lack of effort against Malinga turned the home crowd against him as they booed the fight.

Champion Calzaghe immediately bought it to the attention of Reid that he was not particularly fond of him, a dislike that went back to their amateur days when Reid was chosen for the olympics instead of the Welsh resident. Their spat took an amusing turn as the two boxers then began to focus their attention on who was the better looking of the two. Reid used his male modelling and career starring in pornographic movies to show that he had the superior looks, while Joe drove his red Porsche to their press conference to show that he had a touch of ‘Hollywood’ in him. But things were serious on fight night as Reid shouted his way to the ring, calling out the champion.

Reid started anxiously, holding his foe and trying to calm the storm but Joe was successful with his fast flurries. Reid was warned by the referee for punching on the break and excessive holding more than once. But the fifth round saw The Grim Reaper have success as he began to connect with his big right hand that stunned Calzaghe several times throughout the fight. The two boxers fought to the final bell and Calzaghe won by a split decision in what turned out to be a classic domestic encounter.

It was around this time that the hands of Calzaghe began to take their toll. His brittle bones began to tell that they could no longer suffer the impact of hitting the hard skulls of his opponents. Calzaghe made a defence of his WBO crown against David Starie on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s British debut against Julius Francis and unfortunately did not entertain the crowd as he had to fight his way to a distance victory although in fairness, Starie also blew away his chance by continuously holding and spoiling the bout.

Omar Sheika was up next in a fight that turned out to be one of Calzaghe’s finest! After three failed attempts at getting the fight on, the fourth time was the charm and it was set for August 12th, 2000. Sheika claimed that Calzaghe was ducking him and was yet another challenger who had a disliking for him. As the two fighters were being introduced, Sheika was shouting to the champion and had to be restrained until the bell sounded. Sheika could never really land his big shots. They either missed or Calzaghe held his opponent and set his own rhythm. The end came in the fifth when two big left hooks from Calzaghe landed that rocked the American, and the contest was halted.

In 2002, Calzaghe met Charles Brewer, the former IBF champion of the super-middleweight weight class. A fight that was beamed to US audiences, Calzaghe etched out a points decision over the tough Philadelphian. Calzaghe elected to hold in the second half of the fight after hurting his hand in the eighth round, but nevertheless got the win. Unfortunately his plan to impress the American audience did not go as smoothly as he would have liked.

The next year in 2003, Calzaghe found himself in unfamiliar territory as he was knocked down for the first time in thirty six professional fights against Byron Mitchell in another routine defence. Calzaghe looked like he was in for an early night as he began to tee off on Mitchell but a short right sent him down on all fours. Calzaghe got up but looked a little shocked. He battled back, throwing them famous flurries that forced Mitchell half way across the ring and he was rescued by the referee moments later.

By 2005, Calzaghe had made his 17th defence of the WBO title, the last of the year being against Evans Ashira. Calzaghe won every round on each of the judges scorecard’s but his hand injuries would plague him again as he had to fight with a broken left hand. Actually, he rarely fought with it as he managed to deal with Ashira, who amazingly was unaware of  the issue, mostly one handed. By this time, promoter Frank Warren shifted to terrestrial television channel ITV and Calzaghe was given maximum domestic exposure. Former world light-welterweight champion, Ricky Hatton was also slated to appear but left Warren around the time the deal was signed. ITV had not shown any British boxing since Benn’s win over McClellan that resulted in the said severe injuries, but they returned once more when they were impressed by the 6.3 million viewers they attracted when they broadcast the olympic match between Amir Khan and Mario Kindelan. Warren left ITV in 2007 to sign another deal with Setanta Sports, but not before giving Joe one of the most defining fights of his career!

The moment Calzaghe felt his hand go when he fought Evans Ashira, he knew that his proposed bout with IBF champion Jeff Lacy had to be put on hold. Their fight was scheduled for November 10th before 2005 was up, but that was not to be. Lacy became quickly sceptical of the injury and his promoter Gary Shaw said that he would be surprised if the day came that Joe would walk to the ring to face his guy, a  hard hitting puncher whose style reminded many of Mike Tyson. Lacy had feasted on former Calzaghe victim Robin Reid when he knocked him out in seven rounds, the first fighter to do so in August, 2005, but also failed to do as great a job on Omar Sheika, having to settle for a points win.

Calzaghe was again tempted to pull out of facing Lacy once again due to fears that his hands may let him down in the unification match but a word from Warren and his father, Enzo persuaded him to take it and silence his doubters once and for all. The fight was eventually signed to take place in London on 4th March, 2006, and this was a date that would stick!

Calzaghe said, “It has been my dream to unify titles since I won the WBO crown against Chris Eubank over eight years ago and this fight against Lacy is the one that will secure my legacy.”

Warren was convinced that the Calzaghe vs Lacy fight would be the biggest fight of 2006.

“It will be the biggest fight of the year in Britain and certainly one of the most highly-anticipated fights on the world scene in recent years.”

Gary Shaw felt the fight was great for the super-middleweight division.

“This is the single biggest fight in the super-middleweight division since James Toney fought Roy Jones Jr. It will breathe life back into the division.”

The build up was generally amicable with one exception. Lacy made the accusation that Calzaghe “slapped” his punches on opponents.

“He thinks he’s a puncher, I don’t see that,” Lacy told BBC Sport. “He hits with his hands open, slaps with certain punches, and throws winging shots.”

Byron Mitchell was the last opponent before Lacy to accuse Calzaghe of “slapping” his opponents and paid dearly in that second round! But on March 4th, Lacy was to feel the wrath of Joe Calzaghe’s punches, and not him or anybody else would be uttering the word, “slap” or any variation of it for much of the remainder of Joe’s career.

Joe entered the ring wearing black shorts with white trim with simply ‘Calzaghe’ written across the front, while Lacy came in wearing the American flag on his, showing off his muscular huge frame. Calzaghe started with the jab but Lacy rushed forward in the second minute trying to land one of his big shots but Joe came back, hitting Lacy from different angles. Lacy was already bloodied up by the third round and he never attempted to adjust his gameplan for the remaining twenty seven minutes. He continually came forward trying to land one big shot, almost reminiscent of a mid 90’s lazy Tyson who was convinced that he only needed one punch to complete the job! But Calzaghe was too mobile and too brilliant for the one dimensional Lacy as he rained punched on him to head and body, taking steps back and clinching whenever Lacy attempted to charge forward.

Lacy must have felt that he was being repeatedly hit with a wrecking ball as he could not find a way to land one of his big hooks and uppercuts. Gary Shaw, who was sitting ringside, looked on with folding arms wearing a frustrated expression as his fighter was battered from pillar to post by the British boxer, and it was debated that perhaps the bout should have been stopped by the ninth round as Lacy’s right eye almost swelled shut and blood oozed out of his mouth.

The first minute had not passed in the final round when Joe hit Lacy with a left hand that sent the American down on his back. Lacy rose and was controversially allowed to continue to be  a punch bag for Calzaghe and when the bell rung, it was never in doubt as to whose name would be called the winner. Unlike a number of dodgy decisions in high profile fights, this one would go smoothly from start to finish as MC Jimmy Lennon Jr read out scores of 119-105 and 119-107 twice for Joe, who added the IBF championship to his WBO.

Jeff Lacy would never quite be the same fighter again. He would win three consecutive comeback fights but another shut out defeat to Jermain Taylor in a WBC eliminator and being stopped by a faded Roy Jones Jr in 2010 told everybody and probably himself that his career came to an end the night he met the ‘Welsh Dragon’.

Calzaghe was cut for the first time in his career when  he was butted by the difficult Sakio Bika in his first defence of his IBF. His WBO belt was also on the line for the nineteenth time. Bika tried to trade with Calzaghe from the opening but the fight turned into a bit of a stinker as the native Australian held on for the remainder of the bout, unable to cope with the intensity that Calzaghe routinely set in his fights.

A “media match” between ‘The Contender’ star Peter Manfredo Jr was next and Calzaghe won in the third in what was thought to be a premature stoppage of Manfredo. Calzaghe vacated the IBF title he won against Lacy for refusing to face Robert Stieglitz in what was supposed to be a mandatory defence but that did not seem to matter as another big title fight was on the horizon!

Mikkel Kessler, the then undefeated Danish WBA and WBC champion, was 39-0 and was widely considered to be the best of the weight class beside Calzaghe. Kessler had compiled wins over the likes of the hard jawed Librado Andrade, Markus Beyer and and Anthony Mundine. Calzaghe vs Kessler was set for November 3rd, 2007 in Cardiff at the Millennium stadium, and he would be the final worthwhile champion in Calzaghe’s current division.

Joe thought highly of the Dane, saying, “This is the only fight I want, because a victory over Kessler will mean the most to my career at this point.”

Kessler, perhaps stating more out of hope than what realistically would probably happen said, “He’s always been in great physical shape and is by no means an old man, but he’s 35 and that could be a weakness. Calzaghe’s a great fighter but I’m more focused and youthful, he may tire.”

Out of the 50,000 that turned up for the fight, 5,000 piled in to support Kessler. Kessler took the first two rounds as he landed two rights to the head even though the round saw relatively little.  Calzaghe did better in the second but a Kessler right sent Calzaghe into the ropes. Kessler slipped to the canvas in the third much to the delight of the crowd and Joe began to move in and out, landing fast shots upstairs and down. Calzaghe did more of the same in the fourth but was caught with a right uppercut that made him stand off. Both fighters traded intelligent shots until the seventh when Joe landed straight lefts and rights that had Kessler reeling on the back foot but the heavily tattooed Dane fired back with right hooks. A series of right hooks to the body had Kessler holding in the eighth, and it was perhaps because of referee Mike Ortega’s intervention to warn Calzaghe of hitting behind the head that stole his opportunity for a potential finish. Kessler faded in the final three rounds and could not match the speed of Calzaghe, who used his superior footwork to get away from Kessler’s assaults, only to fire back at clear openings.

Although Calzaghe did not have it all his way as he more or less did against Jeff Lacy a year earlier, he won by a unanimous decision, winning by four points on two judges scorecard’s and six on the other. Undisputedly, Joe Calzaghe was now the super-middleweight King!

At the weigh-in of the much anticipated Floyd Mayweather vs Ricky Hatton fight, Calzaghe and light-heavyweight Bernard Hopkins faced off against one another to announce their fight for April 19th, 2008 before Mayweather and Hatton made their entrances. Hopkins’ now infamous line “I will never let a white boy  beat me” did not go down well with fans, who were quick to label him a racist.  Hopkins already gained the reputation of being a boring fighter although his achievements spoke volumes about the warrior that he is. Hopkins was IBF champion for seven years, making defences that were largely unnoticed until he faced Felix Trinidad in 2001, beating and knocking him out in the final round to get a larger amount of recognition. However, it would be another three years, not until 2004 until he became a “boxing superstar” when he faced Pay Per View King, Oscar De La Hoya in a unification match that included the middleweight WBO championship. Hopkins knocked out De La Hoya in the ninth round when he delivered a shot to the liver to stop the six weight champion for the first time in his career. He would make one more successful defence before losing his titles to unbeaten Jermain Taylor. Taylor won their rematch.

People expected Hopkins to retire after the second Taylor loss but ‘The Executioner’ stepped up to 175lb, the light-heavyweight division, to beat the ‘Legend Killer’ Antonio Tarver on points and grab another divisional win over Ronald Wright that unimpressed most. But Bernard Hopkins was considered to be ‘the man’ at light-heavyweight and Joe Calzaghe had already completed business at super-middleweight. Calzaghe vs Hopkins was staged at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, and unfortunately for both guys, the fight did very little to raise their stock! Hopkins knocked Calzaghe down with a huge right hand in the first round to shock the viewing audience, but he could not capitalise. As Calzaghe tried to set his usual frantic pace, Hopkins complained that Calzaghe was fouling several times. When Hopkins was not on the floor complaining of being punched low, he caught Joe with some crisp counter punches that, to this day, convince some that Hopkins was the actual winner. You decide on that one! Whatever the case may be, it was an ugly fight but Calzaghe came away with the victory by a split decision. Adalaide Byrd was the only one to score it for Hopkins by a single point.

The curtains were fast closing in on Joe Calzaghe’s career but one more former legendary fighter was standing in the way between Joe and that hanging nail. Roy Jones Jr was running a consecutive three fight winning streak for two years since his defeats to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson in 2004 and 2005, respectively. Despite mentioning that Jones Jr was a faded fighter, Calzaghe surely must have seen the amount of money he could make from a potential fight with him because one struggles to see any other reason, given how faded Jones Jr was after that first shock knockout defeat to Tarver at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Felix Trinidad came out of retirement to face Jones Jr in what was really a gimmick of a match in January, 2008. Trinidad, whose abdominals only faintly showed through what was mostly flab, received approximately $14 million to face Jones Jr, plus nearly $9 million from Pay Per View sales. That $23 million must have been worth it to him because Trinidad was never in the fight! Jones played with ‘Tito’, knocking him down twice and voiced to the crowd in the post fight interview that he was wanted to take on anybody that was worth a chunk, including Oscar De La Hoya. Jones Jr stated he was willing to go down to 156lb to face him, something that was too ridiculous to believe. Eventually, he settled for the Calzaghe vs Hopkins winner and the fight between Calzaghe and Jones Jr was originally slated for September in 2008 at Madison Square Garden in New York, but a wrist injury put the fight back by two months. The fight garnered so much interest that ’24/7′, the HBO reality boxing show, covered the fight for three episodes.

Jones Jr started well, knocking Calzaghe down with a right hand as Hopkins did in Las Vegas seven months earlier. Calzaghe looked a little hurt as he found it mildly difficult to get to his feet but managed to do so. This would be the most success Jones Jr would have as the youth and speed of Calzaghe was too much for the 39 year old. Jones Jr had no answer for those blazing flurries even though he had his hands down and walked forward, showing supreme confidence. Round seven saw a cut opening by  a defensive Jones Jr’s left eye. It seemed that from the early rounds, any fight Jones Jr originally had in him left rather quickly as he was content to just survive and cover up for the majority of the fight while Calzaghe worked him over. By the final round, specifically the final ten seconds, referee Hubert Earle went down on the canvas, himself, after slipping in Jones Jr’s corner, an original sight by this point. Calzaghe won on all three scorecards by the same scores of 118-109.

Max Kellerman, the then relatively new HBO commentator and interviewer, asked Joe if he would be interested in facing Chad Dawson, the speedy light-heavyweight sensation. Calzaghe responded that there was always somebody coming through in boxing, an answer that maybe subtlely told everybody that his time in the ring was over.

Joe Calzaghe announced his retirement from boxing on February 5th, 2009, three months after facing Jones Jr. His record stands at 46-0 (32 KO’s)

Calzaghe said, “I’ve been world champion for 11 years. I’ve got no other goals to go for. That’s why I am calling it a day.”

When the subject of Joe Calzaghe is mentioned, more often than not, the point that he should have faced more prime quality opposition is always made. Perhaps Joe could have done without fighting the Branco Sobot’s of the world, and it is this writer’s opinion that he left it a bit late to elevate his legacy even more than the position it is in now. But let’s not forget that he made twenty-one championship defences which is quite a feat in itself! After only being floored four times in his career, Calzaghe could take the punches from the best of the best of his time and did not know how to lose. As he showed against Mitchell, Hopkins and Jones Jr, when faced with difficulty his spirit would not wilt, which his opponents soon found out when it was them that were wilting under pressure in the later rounds, baffled and amazed at Calzaghe’s seemingly unstyled way of boxing.

When Carl ‘The Cobra’ Froch called out Calzaghe around 2008 people forget that his name meant little in the boxing world and Joe was at a point where he was targeting primarily major fights involving major opponents. A faded Roy Jones Jr was about as big as he could have possibly got in 2008, but Froch would have been only a hardcore “fan’s fight”, even though stylistically I predict it would have been a very good one! Chad Dawson at the time had trouble selling out 5,000 seat arenas and not many wanted to see him fight. I guess there was very little business to be made with him although things are a little different now here in 2012!

When thinking of Joe Calzaghe, one will feel the sensation of frustration at the thought that will inevitably pop into people’s heads that he never raised his game in the early part of the 21st century but he eventually stepped up to face the “elites” of the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight division. Often, I see people state that Jeff Lacy was “overrated” but fickle fans often forget their train of thought before the fights took place. According to many experts, Lacy was supposed to bomb out Calzaghe and expose him for the fraud that he supposedly was but quite the opposite happened. Mikkel Kessler is still fighting today and has captured two more world titles. Talks of a rematch between him and England’s current finest super-middleweight Carl Froch have been mentioned recently.

Like the career of Roy Jones Jr, Joe Calzaghe’s will always remain controversial but you would have to be literally crazy if you cannot call Joe Calzaghe a great fighter.

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