By Thomas Hauser
Visually, the upcoming fight between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins looks like a confrontation between a concert violinist and a street thug. The combatants’ personalities are vastly different too.
Conversing with Hopkins is like clocking time of possession for a football team that has a dominant ground game. At the end of an hour, Bernard has talked for 57 minutes and the other person for three.
Hopkins is self-reverential. Respect is enormously important to him, but also he wants to be liked. He’s one of boxing’s best self-promoters, speaking his mind and then some. Unlike some people in the business, he understood the power of the Internet a long time ago. “The reality show got big for me the last couple of years,” he says.
Listen to Bernard for even a short time and a self-portrait emerges: “I’m an argumentative person . . . People respect me, not only for my accomplishments in boxing but because I’m a humble man . . . Fighters all got egos. Some are in check and some aren’t. Mine is . . . I’m a different fighter than any other fighter that came in my era. Come April 19th, people are going to have to put me in a whole new different category; maybe that icon thing. Legend, I already got. Icon would be really special to me.”
In the ring, Hopkins projects an aura of invincibility. He’s still fighting at age 43 and doing it well. “What makes me different from other athletes my age,” he says, “is that the desire is still there. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke. Being in the gym is my intoxication.”
Does Hopkins need boxing to impose discipline on his life? Is it a necessary release for the demons within him? No one (except possibly Bernard) knows for sure. But late last year in quiet conversation, he offered a window onto his psyche. “I got $20,000,000 in the bank,” he told this writer. “And outside of harm to my family, there’s only one thing that I’m afraid of. Going broke.”
Calzaghe, in contrast to Hopkins, is soft-spoken with an almost gentle manner about him. He conjures up images of a guitarist in a British rock band more than a professional fighter. Looking at him, it’s hard to imagine that he has been undefeated as a boxer in the amateur and pro ranks over the past seventeen years.
“I grew up in a secure world,” Calzaghe says, when asked about issues beyond the ring. “It frightens me to think what my children and grandchildren will face. We’re destroying the world. Global warming is a terrible threat. I disagree with what’s happening in Iraq. Too many innocent people are being killed. For what? I believe in fighting terrorism; but our being there only provokes more terrorism, not less.”
As for his family (Calzaghe shares custody of two sons with his ex-wife), he says, “Joe [the older boy] wants to be me, but I’d rather he not fight. Boxing is a hungry sport, and he’s not hungry.”
Calzaghe is boxing’s longest-reigning current champion. As with Hopkins, his most impressive credential is his longevity.
Bernard won the IBF middleweight title with a seventh-round knockout of Segundo Mercado in 1995 and made twenty successful title defenses before losing to Jermain Taylor in 2005.
Calzaghe won the WBO 168-pound crown with a twelve-round decision over Chris Eubank in 1997 and has made 21 successful title defenses. He has fought his entire career as a super-middleweight (although the Hopkins bout will be contested at 175 pounds). The level of Joe’s opposition has been largely undistinguished. Super-middleweight is not one of boxing’s “classic” divisions, and there have been few inquisitors for him to face. Still, he’s 44-0 with 32 knockouts. His signature victories were a twelve-round shut-out of Jeff Lacy in 2006 and a dominant decision triumph over Mikkel Kessler last year.
“In the 1960s and ’70s,” Calzaghe observes, “there wasn’t much money and there was only one title. You had to mix it up every few months and get busted up. Now it’s easier to be a world champion, but the belts don’t mean as much. This fight is for the money. After years of plugging away, I’m getting the rewards I deserve. But this fight is also about my legacy. People talk about pound-for-pound, but talking about who’s the best in the world pound-for-pound is fantasy. No one knows, really. A legacy is something else. A fighter secures his legacy by winning difficult fights against tough opponents, and that’s what I plan to do against Hopkins.”
Hopkins-Calzaghe can only add to Bernard’s legacy. If he wins, it gets bigger. If he loses; hey, he’s 43 years old.
Calzaghe has more at stake. If he loses, his legacy will be diminished. And if he wins?
Hopkins fills in the blanks. “I’m fighting a champion,” Bernard says. “Calzaghe is fighting a legend. To have my name as a victory on his resume does more for him than having his name on my resume does for me. He could have an American icon on his resume.”
“He calls himself a legend,” Calzaghe responds. “He’s old enough to be a legend. On April 19, we’ll see who the legend is.”
And there has been one more twist in the pre-fight build-up. An ugly one.
For Hopkins, every fight starts early. This one started before the contracts were signed. On December 7th (the day before Mayweather-Hatton), Hopkins and Calzaghe came face to face in the media center at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Initially, the banter was good-natured and revolved largely around who was ducking whom and who would win if they fought one another. Face to face became nose to nose. Joe was unrattled. Bernard turned to walk away, then turned back and declared, “I would never let a white boy beat me.” An hour later, he tried to engage Calzaghe in further dialogue onstage at the Mayweather-Hatton weigh-in, but Golden Boy personnel stepped between them.
Calzaghe made light of the exchange. “It was good fun,” he said afterward. “Hopkins’s comment wasn’t in good taste. But Hopkins isn’t a good-taste person, is he?” Later, Joe added, “I don’t think he’s a racist. I think he said a stupid remark that made himself look stupid.”
Others were less charitable. Summoning up righteous indignation, Frank Warren (Calzaghe’s promoter) proclaimed, “I’ve heard some disgusting trash-talk in my thirty years in boxing, but that’s the lowest of the lows.”
The British press had a field day, wondering what the reaction would have been had Calzaghe said, ‘I would never let a black boy beat me.” And inevitably, Richard Schaefer (the CEO of Golden Boy, which promotes Hopkins) was drawn into the fray.
Prior to the 2006 fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Ricardo Mayorga, Schaefer was disturbed by Mayorga’s homophobic rants and noted, “I’m not pleased to be associated with a person like Mayorga, but this is boxing so I guess we have to do it." Now, in response to Hopkins’s comment, Schaefer acknowledged, “It was not appropriate, and I wish it hadn’t been said.”
However, one person refused to distance himself from the remark. Hopkins has an extensive vocabulary, but the phrase “I was wrong” doesn’t appear to be in it. “What I did in Puerto Rico [throwing a Puerto Rican flag on the ground prior to fighting Felix Trinidad] and what I said to Joe are all part of boxing,” Bernard declared.
That was followed by, “People say the world has changed, but not that much. I’m just telling it like it is. I don’t regret saying what I said. I was right; and I was profoundly right.”
Finally, at a press conference in London, Hopkins advised the media, “I said what I said. People who know me, know me. It doesn’t matter what I regret or what I don’t regret. Come April 19th, it’s up to Joe to prove me a liar.”
Meanwhile, Bernard was moving away from “I would never let a white boy beat me” to focus on the United States versus the United Kingdom. “I’m not just representing myself,” he announced. “I’m also representing my country. I’m gonna make this thing so patriotic; everyone’s gonna say, ’We’ve got to team up and support the American.’”
Still, the residue of Hopkins’s “white boy” comment lingers. We’re now at a point in the racial dialogue where neither side should get a free pass on comments of that nature. And it’s disappointing when Bernard drops to that level because he’s capable of so much more. Unlike some trash-talkers, he’s smart enough and verbal enough that he doesn’t have to fan the flames of prejudice to express himself. And more significantly, he holds himself out as a role model.
If Bernard wants to be a role model, he shouldn’t talk like a bigot. As John Dillon wrote in the Sunday Express, “A full retraction and an apology would have been the wholesome course.”
As for the fight; Calzaghe opened as a 2-to-1 favorite and the odds have risen slightly since then. Part of the reasoning behind that is Bernard’s age and part of it is Joe’s skills.
Calzaghe is a southpaw with quick hands and a good sense of anticipation. “I throw more punches and I land more punches, “ he says. “That’s what it comes down to. That’s the basics of boxing.”
Against Mikkel Kessler, Joe showed a solid chin and his non-stop assault was particularly impressive in light of the seven-year age differential between them. The 36-year-old Calzaghe didn’t just rely on experience and skill against Kessler; he relied on his heart.
Calzaghe isn’t taking Hopkins lightly. “He’s forty-three,” Joe says. “But he’s still an excellent fighter. You can’t take that away from him. Against Winky, the last fight [in July 2007], he moved very well and he used the right shots at the right time. He retained a lot of good movement. His work rate wasn’t bad. The guy can still fight.”
Still, over the past few months, the prospect of a Calzaghe victory over Hopkins has been stated most forcefully by Joe himself:
* “Hopkins is not as good as he thinks he is. He knows what it’s like to lose. He’s lost four times. I’m a winner, a champion, undefeated for seventeen years. I’ve beaten everyone they put in front of me. I’ll dominate the fight.”
* “Hopkins is a bully; simple as that. He’s a messy fighter; he’s a dirty fighter. But I’m not intimidated by him. I just find it funny that a grown man carries on the way he does. He can be the bad guy now, but I’m going to be the bad guy come April 19. Let’s see who’s doing the talk after the fight.”
* “Sometimes you win pretty; sometimes you win ugly. I go with the flow in each fight. I’ve always done better against tall guys, so that works in my favor. I normally carry around fourteen stone [196 pounds], so [moving up to 175 pounds] should give me more punching power and I won’t have to struggle to make weight.”
* “He’s confident, but so am I. I don’t just want to win. I want to put on a show and smash him to bits. He’s never been in the ring with someone like myself with my hand-speed and my work rate. I don’t see how he can possibly beat me. I would have beaten him ten years ago and I’ll beat him now. Joe Calzaghe is better than Bernard Hopkins.”