Joe Calzaghe: Staring down a record defense, retiring undefeated, and still a shoddy legend

29.11.06 – by Gabriel DeCrease: Joe Calzaghe’s long-awaited unification showdown with Jeff Lacy finally began to lighten the black cloud that long-hung over The Pride of Wales. It seemed as if Calzaghe was finally ready to step-up and prove the claim he’s been sticking to for years as he has proclaimed himself, time-and-again, the king at 168-pounds.

And now, that optimism is quickly diminishing. A date has been set for a fight with “The Contender” runner-up Peter Manfredo Jr. Calzaghe has been stripped of the IBF belt for failing to fight mandatory challenger Robert Stieglitz. As Calzaghe says, not that he is to be trusted, “It’s disappointing to give up the IBF but Stieglitz doesn’t mean anything out of Germany,” Nevermind all that. The alphabet soup is spoiled, and Stieglitz is untested and short on talent anyhow. But the point remains, Manfredo is not much better. He is simply vastly more famous Stateside because of national media exposure that had nothing to do with ring prowess. “The Prince of Providence” is a natural middleweight, who dropped two of his last four fights to a good-but-not-great Sergio Mora—winner of the tournament-final on “The Contender.”

And his pair of wins at 168-pounds came over an utterly shot Scott Pemberton and an embarrassingly under-prepared Joe Spina who actually had a significant size advantage on his side. Both men looked resigned from the opening bell to one, inevitable reality: They were going to get knocked out. Both were. Both in the third round.

All things considered, it is easy to dismiss the sad fact that if Calzaghe gets over on Manfredo, he will have tied a record for world title defenses. Calzaghe says, “Equaling Holmes and Hopkins means a lot to me and it’s a great incentive to train hard for this fight.” Here’s to hoping the injury-prone Welshman can do something to stave off getting-old-overnight or injuring his hands and, at least, flatter the public by quickly dispatching Manfredo without too many delays or last-minute cancellations.

It is sadly ironic that the old Calzaghe-bashing mitt fits, well, like a glove so soon after his turnaround performance against Lacy whose formidable punching power and rodeo-bull aggressiveness were disarmed and laid to waste by a show of class, solid technical ability, and great ring generalship by Calzaghe. When Joe watches the tape of his triumph over a top-quality fighter doesn’t it make him want that glory, or legitimacy again? If not, shouldn’t it?

Calzaghe had previously become infamous for taking on fighters that were generally green, overripe, or otherwise outside the division’s top tier. Names like Mario Veit, Charles Brewer, Robin Reid, and Omar Sheika haunt his record like ghosts that moaned something in the night about Calzaghe being a craven title-hog, a man obsessed with maintaining a spotless record, or a protected fighter who would not find himself risking anything in the ring. Calzaghe beat some good fighters–no doubt of that. And—in all fairness—the division was scrounging for talent during a good spell the Welshman’s title reign. But there were a few fights to be made in the early days of Calzaghe’s dubious divisional lordship. A date with Markus Beyer might have been the best. But there were reasons that never materialized: money, squabbling promoters, sanctioning bodies, and, of course, the seeming fear of a bloodbath with the hard-headed, hard-punching Beyer. If not Beyer, than why not opponents who were at least dangerous and would make watchable fight-fare? Danny Green? Christian Sanavia? Even Anthony Mundine? Anyone but Richie Woodhall, Will McIntyre and Evans Ashira.

I know that the knowledgeable fight fans among you might question some of Bernard Hopkins opposition as a counter to this treatment of Calzaghe. And you could make a decent case for Calzaghe’s whipping-boys being roughly equivalent to some of Hopkins’. But it seems the fairer judgment to favor a hit list that includes impressive wins over Felix Trinidad, Glen Johnson, Antwun Echols, William Joppy, Howard Eastman, and an undersized but tough and tricky Oscar De La Hoya. Not to mention Hopkins laying it on the line—twice—in his golden-years against the excellent-and-still-developing Jermain Taylor, and then moving up in class to dominate light-heavyweight favorite Antonio Tarver.

It is reasonable, perhaps, to concede Joe Calzaghe is stricken with a more terminal strain of the opposition sickness that has made controversial the careers of so many champions in the middleweight, super-middleweight, and light-heavyweight divisions. Calzaghe and Hopkins are present and accounted for. But we should not forget that in Roy Jones heyday he was often mangled by critics and detractors for his tendency to set-up bore-fests with quitters and no-talent tomato cans. These days Jones is becoming increasingly pathetic as he refuses to get out of the game with his health and dignity intact—and with his relevance to any title-picture so the controversy has vanished. Then, of course, the ultimate dodger, the anti-champion that needs no introduction, Sven Ottke, who fought almost no one who could or would fight, and when he did they were jobbed royally by hometown judges.

At the very, very least Calzaghe’s hope for inclusion in the record books is an insult to Larry Holmes, the man behind the meanest jab in recent heavyweight memory and shareholder in the world title defense record. “The Easton Assassin” bested Ken Norton, Earnie Shavers, Muhammad Ali, Trevor Berbick, Leon Spinks, Renaldo Snipes, Tim Witherspoon, Tex Cobb, and Marvis Frazier before losing the title by a hotly-contested-inch to a prime Leon Spinks. He fought the legendary, the rugged, the dangerous, the awkward, and the slick on his way to his record, which, by the by, has only been topped by the magnificent Joe Louis. No need to go on. Holmes was prime time and made the most of some legendary nights that belong in the permanent collection of the great boxing canon.

Now, in these latter days, if Calzaghe wants his record to look like a bum-of-the-month club—with a notable exception—he’s going to have to make a date with someone who presents a real challenge, and there are choices. Of the division’s super-talented rising stars, Carl Froch and, of course, Mikkel Kessler spring instantly to mind as good matches.

Froch is beatable if Calzaghe could play it cool, counterpunch, wait out the eager and aggressive Briton, and frustrate him into late-round mistakes. “The Cobra” would only ever be standing one punch outside an upset even with the seasoned and patient Calzaghe. Discretion would be the golden rule in this one. Joe would truly have to know when to strap on his swords and do the work, and when to hold the defenses and weather the storm behind his solid guard. A cautious and skillful domination of a solid, dangerous young challenger will come off better than a flash-knockout of an undersized or overcooked or pubescent bum.

A fight with Kessler would be easy to make. Mikkel wants the all-European unification scrap badly, and would hope to skip any additional steps that might come before this fight which could put him squarely in the divisional driver’s seat. Kessler is getting better with every fight, but “The Viking Warrior” wants Calzaghe more than he wants time for further development. Trouble is, after Kessler banged-out Beyer in three, Calzaghe seemed instantly less cavalier about making the match-up happen. Mikkel, from all appearances, is an unpredictable threat. He has a shot at the crown a couple of different ways. His speed when moving laterally in and out is impressive and could give Calzaghe fits considering the heft and quality of punches Kessler lands on his way slickly in-and-out of range—not to mention that long, lancing jab. And it might be a world of hurt if Calzaghe would think to trap the Dane and fight him in close quarters. The risk would be huge, but the payoff would be every bit as big if Calzaghe could find a road to victory. A fight with Kessler offers Joe the chance to silence the naysayers by taking on a dangerous, young-but-developed, big fighter who has a full technical-toolbox. Oh yes, and I imagine the money would not be bad either. The promoters could sell such a fight in an hour flat in Copenhagen, London, Cardiff, or Belfast.

That said; don’t get your hopes up. After his dismissible tango with Peter Manfredo Jr., and assuming he wins, Joe is looking toward a possible fight with Jermain Taylor who suspiciously says he cannot make weight anymore. Taylor says so, but there is some cause to think he is cutting the road work and pumping iron with big ideas about big paydays in heavier ranks. If Calzaghe makes the fight and wins handily all that will be remembered is that Taylor—like so many other Joe Calzaghe challengers—was beaten in advance by the bulk of a new division, and not by the oft-doubted, rarely validated Welshman.

There has even been talk about putting something together with Winky Wright who already looks surprisingly bulky and weighted-down as a middleweight, and would be a joke at 35 gaining another chunk of fighting weight.

Expect Joe Calzaghe’s retirement speech before you expect him to tangle with another tough-customer the way he did with Lacy. In retrospect, was Lacy worse than he got credit for? Does Joe Calzaghe just have a keen pair of eyes for spotting an easy night’s work?

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