Nice one Joe! – A tribute to the 2007 Sports Personality of the year - Joe Calzaghe

joe calzagheBy Andy Olson: The choice of Sports personality of the year will come as a surprise to most. Surprise that is in that it has a deserved winner. Louis Hamilton, the guy who didn’t win the formula one world title, was pipped to the post (again). Ricky Hatton, who surely would have received a surge of last minute votes and claimed the award if he’d beaten Floyd in his big fight just hours previous, managed a respectable third.

So who does that leave? Well at last, Joe Calzaghe has taken his deserved place in contemporary British sport. A place that looked beyond him, on many occasions prior to the ceremony last night. This article looks back at arguably the most successful career in British sport, to date anyway. It also attempts to highlight the difficulties Joe had in claiming the accolades said career has deserved.

A respected and successful amateur, Joe Calzaghe made his debut in 1993, with a forth round stoppage on the Undercard of the Lennox Lewis- Frank Bruno world title showdown at the old Cardiff Arms Park. Under the tutlalige of his father Enzo, and fighting out of a tiny gym in Newbridge in Wales, Calzaghe would chalk up several victories, versus the traditional hand-fed modest opposition, under the legendary manager Mickey Duff. Under Duff’s guidance, he became British super middleweight champion, destroying previously unbeaten Mark Delaney in five rounds, in April 1996. Duff’s standing in the fight game had declined, and Calzaghe made the decision to sign with Frank Warren. No doubt a substantial deal with Sky TV, which Warren negotiated, served to make his mind up. His early promos “I am gonna be big. Real big!” suggested he had no trouble telling us of his talents.

Calzaghe’s self promotion can be seen, with hindsight, to be justified. What exactly has he said about his talent which he hasn’t proved in the ring to be correct? At the time however, Calzaghe was unable to prove a great deal. Looking good versus 11-22 Carlos Christie confirmed very little. Nor too did a one round stoppage of an American clubfighter, who somehow entered into the ring as an undefeated fighter. Sky’s Ian Darke embarked in a memorable on-air debate with Frank Warren, as he put the point across that Calzaghe had again proved nothing by destroying his opponent in mismatch number 3, a three round blowout of someone called Luciano Torres.

Yet this was enough for the WBO to make Calzaghe their number 1 contender. Very few felt he’d earned this status, and cited his promoters’ considerable sway with the Puerto Rico based organisation as the reasoning for this. Not that becoming the champion would be anything in terms of an easy task; the belt’s incumbent at the time was none other than the “Celtic Warrior”, Steve Collins. Many gave the Welshman little hope, and that Collins’ experience would prevail. Those who felt Calzaghe could do it cited the Irishman was aging, and that youth would prevail over experience.

Neither claim would ever be proven to be correct. Collins saw a problem with the challenger, said problem being that his name wasn’t Roy Jones Junior. He had wanted Jones and Jones only for a long time, and at the press conference announcing the Calzaghe fight, he publicly claimed he had “no intention” of going ahead with the contest. Calzaghe instead found himself up against Chris Eubank, of whom Collins had relieved him of the title two years before. Calzaghe became the favourite, the consensus being that Eubank was finished. Indeed the Welshman did prevail, but Eubank showed he was still a force, putting up a valiant effort in defeat (as he would on two more memorable occasions, in cruiserweight battles with Carl Thompson before retiring). Calzaghe showed flashes of sheer brilliance, and even made people wonder what Collins could have done to stop him that Eubank didn’t.

Sadly, Calzaghe’s PR skills weren’t on a par with his boxing. In a previous article on here, I noted how Robin Reid fumed at Calzaghe’s comments on the night of the Runcorn native’s first title defence (February 1997). Asked his views on the fight, Calzaghe ignored the question, offering instead “put him in with me, and I’ll knock him out”. The night of the Eubank fight, England faced Italy in Rome, needing to draw to advance to the 1998 World cup finals. The Welshman of Italian heritage stated bluntly “I hope England lose” in the build up. Clearly not a good idea, comments like this meant that it would take a while before the undefeated yet unproven fighter endeared himself to the public.

Despite the Eubank victory, Calzaghe had yet to prove that his chin was up to world title standard. This was mainly that he had yet to take much in terms of a solid, troubling head shot. Such questions became answered when Calzaghe and Reid faced off, in a superb fight in February 1999. To this date, Reid is the only fighter who can legitimately claim that he should have been awarded a decision over Joe. In no way a robbery, two of the judges preferred Calzaghe’s class and hand speed over Reid’s power and pressure. The other judge upheld Reid’s claim to victory in a classic example of subjective scoring.

As Naseem Hamed had discarded/been fired by Frank Warren (the stories continue to conflict to this day), Calzaghe was given a huge push. He didn’t live up to expectations though, and this was down to a couple of reasons. On the undercard of Mike Tyson’s slaughter of Julius Francis, Joe was expected to make a statement to those watching coast to coast in America, and blow David Starrie away. Starrie had other ideas, and ran for twelve rounds. Unable to take the initiative, Calzaghe was awarded a 12 round shutout decision, and many who had just had their first look simply thought Calzaghe was another Naseem Hamed-esque overhyped Brit. To be fair, Joe stepped up the initiative, engaging in wars with Omar Shieka and Charles Brewer, when he had the ability to outbox both and win in much easier fashion.

More wins were to follow, before Calzaghe received a serious gut-check. Byron Mitchell, the former WBA champ, was seen as past his best before his 2003 visit to Cardiff to try and become a world champ again. A moment of carelessness saw Calzaghe receive the first count in either the pro or amateur ranks. Calzaghe rallied, and after two wildly exciting rounds, he managed to stop his American foe. The flooring of the champ, and numerous injuries which would become far more of a nuisance later, suggested he may be ready for the taking.

Calzaghe suffered from injuries to his hands and back. Fights were postponed, or cancelled entirely. Outside of the ring, Joe’s divorce affected his preparation for what seemed a straightforward defence against the Egyptian, Kabary Salem. His opponent seemed to have very little, if indeed any knowledge of the Marqis of Queensbury, or any of the rules of boxing he had bothered to put in place all those years ago. Salem head butted and mauled his way to the twelfth round, taking advantage of another lapse of concentration to put Calzaghe on the deck. Yet there was no doubt who the winner was, with Joe getting the verdict by a wide margin.

Injuries would come to the fore in Calzaghe’s last fight of 2005. Evans Ashira, who was basically a blown-up middleweight, was given the chance of his life to cause an upset. Joes Left Hand went, from a misplaced shot to the challengers forehead in the forth round. Calzaghe simply kept him off with his right jab, and claimed the win. Afterward however, it became apparent that the injury would postpone what many felt would be his career defining fight, against the American Jeff Lacy. Lacy’s camp were furious at the postponing, claiming Calzaghe and his people were simply afraid of their charge.

Looking back, it is still easy to see why Lacy was the betting favourite, when they finally did step into the ring in March 2006. Lacy had looked red hot, destroying the admittedly shop-worn Reid in a much more clinical fashion than the Welshman had 7 years earlier. Add to this Joe’s poor performances and injury issues, and you can understand why they felt Manchester would be the changing of the guard.

Of course, it wasn’t the case. It was clear from the build up that Calzaghe knew he would win. And indeed, it was apparent to Lacy that he was in trouble. We all know what followed. Joe Calzaghe put on a clinical display of boxing, of which Jeff Lacy had no answer to. Seen in Britain by millions on ITV, Calzaghe couldn’t have picked a better time or place to deliver so emphatically. Lacy hasn’t been the same since the 12 round shellacking, it is possible he has yet to get over the 1000 plus punches Calzaghe landed that night.

The seal on Calzaghe’s greatness would come two defences later. Mikkel Kessler came over from Denmark as a devastating puncher, and was vaunted as the man who would finally end Calzaghe’s streak. No such luck, as yet again Calzaghe lived up to his claim of “the better the opponent, the better I fight”. At times, Calzaghe traded with the much younger Dane, but also knew when to keep his dangerous opponent off him, using his right jab to but time/space. A boxing lesson learnt, Kessler may well come back a better fighter for the time in the ring with someone who surely must be regarded as a modern day great.

Currently, there are talks going on with Bernard Hopkins for an April 22 showdown. Calzaghe missed out earlier in his career, with prospective fights against Collins, Roy Jones Junior, and indeed Hopkins (in 2002) falling through. Calzaghe would have been the underdog in all three. There is considerable evidence from the Lacy and Kessler fights that he could well have upset the odds. Also, Enzo Calzaghe (still Joe’s trainer, and himself being honoured for his achievements, having been voted coach of the year at the same ceremony) said on numerous occasions that he knew his son would have emerged victorious in all three contests. Joe concurs with his dad.

And just how many times have they being wrong?

Article posted on 11.12.2007

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