After the Detractors: Calzaghe deserves some credit, after all

joe calzaghe10.04.07 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Before I dive into the fray of the heated and long-standing Joe Calzaghe-debate that has had pundits beating each other’s brains out in a brutal war of words on the pages of every boxing publication in the civilized world, let me say, I have—as many of you know—been a vocal depreciator of Calzaghe for years. I have said—of the pre-2006 Calzaghe—that he was sloppy on defense, prone to occasional, loose-fisted slapping, tentative against hard-punchers, and sometimes unwilling to hunker-down and get physical enough to finish a beaten or sub-par opponent.

That said, the press and public are, in the wake of his unsurprising easy-bake victory over Peter Manfredo Jr., denying Joe the praise he rightfully deserves and focusing completely on Manfredo’s lame-duck performance in which he looked less like a top-tier boxing contender, and more like a guy that played one on television. Hmmmm? There are also, naturally, those cries that the stoppage was outrageous and premature—that Manfredo was denied a fair shot at champion-status.

All the talk is about Manfredo: the questions about his credibility as an opponent, and about the credibility of the stoppage. None of the talk is about Joe, so I am thus compelled, despite myself, to take the occasion to deal out some kudos to Joe Calzaghe.

If the fight itself is to be viewed separate from the various preliminary controversies surrounding the two fighters, what is to be seen? A well-conditioned, fresh-looking, smooth-moving Calzaghe felt out his opponent in the first-stanza. Manfredo—looking uncomfortably-soft in his 168-pound body—appeared to be utterly off-kilter, and unwilling to swim the deep-waters of a world championship boxing fight. It was obvious immediately that several rungs on the ladders of quality and talent separated champ from challenger. Calzaghe was not instantly dominant, but it was the little things, the sweet, well-oiled machinery of Joe’s punches, and the fear and shaky-trepidation in Manfredo’s posture—it all seemed to lay the groundwork for landslide domination. This was not Evander Holyfield v. Dwight Muhammad Qawi in 1986. No. Calzaghe v. Manfredo looked, from the outset to be much more like Bernard Hopkins v. Morrade Hakkar in 2003. But, I should note, the unified, synthesized, fearsome ability of the champion represents half the humiliation-equation in such mismatches. It was Calzaghe’s a-game that kept Manfredo punk’d and back on his heels from the start. If the champ gave any indication of vulnerability, the challenger (and the referee) might have been motivated to let it ride.

In the second, Joe started to increase his productivity, putting together those sharp, chopping combos while moving in-and-out before Manfredo could concentrate enough to properly defend or gather the gumption to think about countering. An emboldened Calzaghe really took hold of his prey in the third and began to land at will. Joe backed Manfredo up and worked him over against the ropes with busy, if not fully-loaded flurries. Manfredo did not answer back and seemed utterly without an answer to any of the punishment he was taking. He was tagged a few times, but probably not seriously rocked. But, Peter, if you are not out on your feet, then you are probably able to punch back, and probably should or, as you now know, the referee might get the wrong idea that you need saving. Ref Terry O’Connor probably could have let the fight go on, but I do not call the stoppage an erroneous judgment. Manfredo gave him nothing but calls to watch for the need to intercede from the opening bell. And Calzaghe, the boxing champion, was dominating a fighter who seemed not to want to be there. If Calzaghe were looking less sharp, and Manfredo were looking more game, a different light might have been cast on the stoppage.

After the fight, Manfredo responded to the question of whether or not the stoppage was premature, “Of course it was. Did…my legs buckle? The referee didn't even say: 'Throw some punches or I'm going to stop it.' There were no warnings, just a 10-second barrage by him, if that. I was starting to duck and move out of the way and come back to hook.” Manfredo’s account seems to overlook the fact that it is not up to the referee to warn you that he might wave off your boxing title shot while you are otherwise distracted by the punched bouncing off your forehead and ribcage. “The Pride of Providence” went on, "I'm a fighter. I'm a gladiator. I want to get killed to get out of that ring. [O’Connor] had no right to stop the fight. I wasn't hurt. I'm still in shock. I can't believe he stopped it that quick.” The sentiment is admirable, but not enacted by Manfredo when he was actually in the ring. That is, not to say, he was not trying, or he is a tomato can. That is not the case. He was being dominated, much to his surprise, by a supremely-conditioned, veteran world champion, who—though no one seems to have noticed—was fighting at his slick, quick-fisted best, not that he needed to.

Calzaghe said of the stoppage, "It could have been slightly premature. I'm not the referee, I'm just in there throwing punches. It's not my call.” He is right, and though he oversimplifies and reduces his effort, he makes a good point. He was throwing punches in bunches, and well. Manfredo was not.

In what fight there was to watch, Calzaghe was spry and vigorous as a much younger fighter, and showed the ring-generalship of a much more stiffly-tested champion. He was imposing his own game-plan, his own twelve-round story-arc, on Manfredo without allowing the challenger the opportunity to protest. Manfredo simply wrote himself out of a tale that seemed to prohibit a happy-ending in which he would leave the arena victories. In this way, Calzaghe answered some questions that have been hanging over his head like dark clouds threatening to dampen his legacy. Joe’s tepid decision win over Sakio Bika had the masses wondering if that career-defining domination of Jeff Lacy was a fluke, or perhaps a late flash of brilliance for an aging, protected boxing champion that had since began to rust at the hinges. He claimed a hand injury was to blame and folks immediately started wondering if injuries would slow him down in subsequent fights. For my part, I am willing to take what he showed against Manfredo as a down-payment on proof that Joe has a considerable amount of gas left in the tank and has recuperated from injuries-past sufficiently to go into a fight without being nervously aware of some hair-trigger brittleness. Barring some training disaster or sudden biological-breakdown, he’s ready for whatever comes next.

Diverting slightly, I must also defend Joe against some of the criticisms that were heaped upon him after the Bika fight. All the detractions seemed to focus on the larger issues of Calzaghe’s career. No one was interested in Bika before, during, or after, the fight in question. But they damn well should have been. Even without the injury, Bika would have been a handful. It was not that Calzaghe was unmotivated, or under-performing. It was, in fact, that Bika, unheralded and untested as he was, rose to the occasion. What Bika lacked in fistic-technique and balance, he made up for with a combination of drive, determination, chin, pressure, and innate ruggedness. “The Scorpion” even appeared to accidentally fall into the role of ring-general at times as a byproduct his aptitude for using pressure-punching to cut off the ring against a quicker opponent.

The fight should be seen as a credit to Bika, not a subtraction from Calzaghe’s late-surge onto the world-stage. In fact, Calzaghe should be lauded, lightly, for brawling effectively—with an injured hand—on the inside, taking more leather than usual to enable his hobbled hand speed in spaces that accommodated his injury.

There, painful as it was, I upheld Joe Calzaghe’s banner, and perhaps, to some degree, his honor. He earned it, this time, and seemed to be getting the shaft. But his legacy remains incomplete. His doubters are many, and, despite this latest tribute, I stand with no shortage of company on the periphery of the doubts that seemed an indelible stain on Calzaghe before he made mincemeat of Jeff Lacy on worldwide television. If the purses and paychecks can be agreeably negotiated—which is, at present, not likely—the destiny of the boxing division could be determined in a single unification clash between Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler. Keep your fingers crossed. In such a fight, Kessler would have the opportunity to dethrone the old Welsh dragon in his late-glory and become a unified champion with the international recognition that has so far evaded him. And Calzaghe could, if he won, end his career by letting the heir-apparent know his predecessor is not to be outdone and make a closing statement of his willingness to take hard, precarious fights against top-competition.

Article posted on 11.04.2007

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