Joe Calzaghe: How does his legacy compare to his American peers?

Joe Calzagheby Mark Gregory - Following Joe Calzaghe’s dominant points win against 39 year-old Roy Jones Jnr last Saturday, there has been much analysis and re-analysis of what the victory means for the Welshman’s legacy. Given that, after initially appearing to backtrack on his retirement claims, Calzaghe looks very likely to quit the sport, now seems like an appropriate time to try and put his legacy into some sort of perspective.

One topic of debate, raised largely by his 2008 victories over Bernhard Hopkins and Jones Jnr, is how Calzaghe’s career stacks up against his great American peers. There is a certain symmetry between the careers of Jones Jnr, Calzaghe and Hopkins. Whilst Jones Jnr was dominating at 175lbs, Calzaghe was ruling the roost at 168, and Hopkins was in the midst of a long reign as middleweight champion.. There are even more parallels between Hopkins and Calzaghe; both men won a vacant title, defended a single belt against less than stellar opposition for a number of years, unified late in their careers, and only got those big, career-defining fights well into their twilight years in the sport.

For many US-based fans, to even begin to compare Calzaghe to Hopkins and Jones Jnr is an insult. According to many, Calzaghe’s career only really began with his 2006 win over Jeff Lacy, and his recent achievements – out-pointing his esteemed contemporaries within the space of 8 months – are given only grudging respect due to the advanced years of Hopkins and Jones Jnr. However, given that Calzaghe has reigned as a champion for over a decade, has been the man in two weight divisions, and looks set to leave the sport with a perfect 46-0 record, it is worth asking where Calzaghe stands in relation to Hopkins and Jones Jnr.

Let me begin with the man who on Saturday became the most recent victim of Calzaghe’s reign at the top of the sport, Roy Jones Jnr. Jones Jnr in his best was an absolute joy to watch. His speed and reflexes were almost without compare, he threw unorthodox punches from all angles, and had good power in the straight right and left hook. In spite of recent question marks about his chin – caused by two stunning stoppage defeats to Glen Johnson and Antonio Tarver – Jones Jnr was rarely troubled during his best years, and whatever some may say he did have to take the odd shot from time to time.

What of Roy’s level of competition? Well, he won his middleweight title against Hopkins and his super-middleweight title was won against James ‘Lights Out’ Toney, both of whom are two of the biggest names in the last twenty years of the sport. Hopkins was, however, a little green when they fought, having not faced a top contender and with only 23 fights to his name he would not reach his peak years until a lot later. As for Toney, although he was considered one of the best fighters in the world at the time the match was made, the Toney that showed up to the weigh in and subsequently the fight was far from peak condition. Toney’s now notorious struggles with the weight meant he had killed himself to make 168lbs, and the fight was a one-sided beatdown in favour of the Floridian. That is not to take anything away from Jones Jnr; he too was still a relative novice when he beat Bernard, and his performance against Toney was superb.

It was, however, not until Jones Jnr moved to light-heavy that he really established himself as one of the greatest fighters of the last quarter of a century. Where his reigns at 160lbs and 168lbs had been relatively short and devoid of any attempt to unify, his reign at 175lbs lasted for almost 8 years, and at one time saw him holding a frankly ridiculous 7 title belts, but importantly he unified the WBC, WBA and IBF belts in emphatic style. Before his reign was brought to an end by Tarver in 2004 – and in between times he had become a heavyweight champion by defeating John Ruiz – he had lost only one fight, by controversial disqualification to Montell Griffin. This was also the only fight in Jones Jnr’s dominating reign that he lost more than a couple of rounds. He was, quite simply, a class apart.

But then, who did he fight in that time? He never met his biggest rival, Dariusz Michalczewski, and every title he won – bar the WBC strap, which was vacant when he fought for it – had been held and vacated by the German-based Pole. Whilst Jones Jnr thoroughly cleaned out the division, it was a division that was largely devoid of talent. The biggest name on his slate is an old – and above peak weight – Mike McCallum, and other than Virgil Hill, there are few standout names from his long reign. Tarver presented the first significant test he had faced for many years and in spite of other factors in the fight – the weight loss, the inevitable decline of his speed and reflexes – this has to be considered a big part of why he struggled so badly when faced with a hungry and talented contender. The three consecutive defeats, two to Tarver and one to Johnson, were followed by comeback wins that did nothing to add to his legacy, and then one – hopefully last – big fight with Calzaghe followed. He will retire a four weight champion and nailed on Hall of Famer.

As for Bernard Hopkins, after being clearly out-pointed by Jones Jnr in his first shot at a world title, he then fought for the belt vacated by Jones Jnr against Segundo Mercado. After surviving tough conditions and two knockdowns to take a draw in their first fight, Hopkins clinically stopped him in the 7th round of the rematch. There then followed 6 years of defending his IBF belt before the unification tournament that Don King had hoped would see Felix Trinidad crowned undisputed middleweight champion. Hopkins dashed those hopes with a complete schooling of Trinidad, having virtually shut-out Keith Holmes for the WBC belt in his previous fight. The way he dismantled and then brutally stopped Tito was hugely impressive, and some 13 years after he had turned pro, Hopkins was finally established as a major player in the sport. After following up with a win over modern legend Oscar de la Hoya, Hopkins then lost two razor thin decisions to Jermain Taylor. At the age of 40, most people thought Hopkins was done. Instead, he moved up to 175lbs and dominated Antonio Tarver. A win against Winky Wright followed, before his defeat to Calzaghe. With many declaring Hopkins to be ‘shot’ after that performance, he came back to recently put on a boxing clinic against the much-touted middleweight champion, Kelly Pavlik.

With his last 4 fights coming against genuine world class opposition, Hopkins is finishing his career with a bang. Wins over Pavlik, Tarver, Wright, Trinidad, Glen Johnson and de la Hoya, as well as fights with Jones Jnr, Calzaghe and Taylor, give him the most star-studded resume of the three. However, in some respects his record is a lot like panning for gold – you have to sift through a lot of dirt to find those shiny nuggets. Hopkins has fought Robert Allen – little more than a top level club fighter – no less than three times in his career. Other names that stick out are Andrew Council, William Bo James, Steve Frank, and Morrade Hakkar. Two of those fights (a third fight with Allen, and one with Hakkar) came after he unified and was in a position to make the big fights. There can be little doubt that until the unification tournament, by which time Hopkins was 36, he spent too long in the comfort zone.

And this brings us nicely on to Joe Calzaghe, another man who has been widely accused of spending much of his career not wanting to push himself. Like Jones Jnr he never met his big German-based rival, in this case Sven Ottke. Like Hopkins, he spent a long time – over 8 years – defending just the one title, showing little ambition to unify. Since unifying in 2006 against the massively hyped – and bookies favourite for their fight – Jeff Lacy, Calzaghe has gone on to complete unification of the division against the unbeaten two-belt champion Mikkel Kessler, and beat both Hopkins and Jones Jnr. The last three fights all took place within just over a calendar year, with no marking-time or warm-up fights in between. Like Hopkins, he is ending his career on a great run of form.

In his eight year WBO reign, Calzaghe has been criticised for facing less than stellar opposition. Challengers like Kabary Salem, Branko Sobot, Tocker Pudwill, Evans Ashira and Will McIntyre are hardly household names. However, there are solid wins over former champions Chris Eubank (for the vacant WBO title), Charles Brewer, Richie Woodhall, Byron Mitchell and Robin Reid, as well as defeats of decent prospects like Omar Sheika, Sakio Bika and David Starie, all of whom have given other world champions very tough nights’ work.

In terms of the quality of the names on the record, Calzaghe looks to be lagging behind his American contemporaries by some distance. However, names alone do not tell the whole story. Calzaghe has beaten a total of nine reigning or former world champions, the same number as Jones Jnr. It is also worth noting that the former champions beaten by Jones Jnr had held their titles at weights below where he fought them (in the case of Vinny Pazienza, he was a former lightweight champion). Hopkins has beaten a total of eleven former or reigning world champions, but again virtually all of those titles were won at lower weights. Pavlik, Wright, Simon Brown, Carl Daniels, John David Jackon, Lupe Aquino – all these fighters had only ever been world champions at a weight below that at which they had faced Hopkins, and many had seen better days. Arguably the two biggest wins on his record – Trinidad and de la Hoya – had only just won a version of the world title at middleweight (controversially in Oscar’s case) and had made their names primarily as 147lb fighters. Only Tarver, Holmes and William Joppy were established at the weight Hopkins fought them at. In Calzaghe’s case, Hopkins is the only champion he has beaten who has not held a recognised world title belt at 168lbs or above.

With so many world title belts up for grabs in the modern era, this does not tell the full story either. Many of Calzaghe’s opponents had only managed one or two defences of their titles before losing them, though in Kessler, Calzaghe is the only man of the three to have beaten an established and unified champion. Hopkins on the other hand has beaten genuine legends of the sport in Trinidad and de la Hoya, in spite of their legacies being forged below 160lbs. Roy Jones Jnr has beaten guaranteed Hall of Famers in Hopkins, Toney, McCallum and Hill. Calzaghe struggles in this department, and much may depend on what the talented Kessler goes on to achieve. We should not forget that Calzaghe does also hold those victories over a very good version of B-Hop – a version good enough to derail the sky-rocketing career of Kelly Pavlik – and a less stellar version of Jones Jnr.

In the final analysis, the dominant fashion of Jones Jnr’s reign, his position as the pound for pound best fighter in the sport over a number of years, coupled with his truly extraordinary ability, places him slightly above Hopkins and Calzaghe for me. At the moment, I would also lean towards Hopkins being just above Calzaghe. In the end, it is the sheer number of quality names on his record, in addition to the ability to defy the odds on more than one occasion, that places him ahead of the Welshman. Calzaghe finds himself below these two primarily because he spent too long in his comfort zone. One or two more standout wins earlier in his career and he would have had a real claim to be the best of his era. As it stands, he falls short. Were he to decide to fight on and beat a young champion like Chad Dawson, I would be compelled to reassess my ranking of the fighters. Hopkins’ recent destruction of Pavlik is a big reason for me edging him ahead of Calzaghe.

It is, however, a debate that is worth having, especially as people overlook a number of Calzaghe’s opponents due to them being unheralded or unknown over in the US. As a result, the idea that any sensible comparison can be drawn between Calzaghe and the two great Americans is often rejected out of hand. When the dust has settled and the facts are analysed, all three fighters have had great careers. The only shame is that we did not get to see more of them against each other when all were closer to their prime years, and as a consequence that no man ever got to assert his superiority conclusively in the ring.

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Article posted on 13.11.2008

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