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26 NOVEMBER 2014

 




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Joe Calzaghe: The Legend Beater


Joe Calzaghe: photo by Holger Keifel
Joe Calzaghe: photo by Holger Keifel

By Thomas Hauser

In boxing today, fighters fight for bogus world championship belts bestowed upon them by money-hungry sanctioning bodies in exchange for sanctioning fees subsidized by television networks that demand “title” fights.

Joe Calzaghe versus Bernard Hopkins was a fight for the real light-heavyweight championship of the world.

Hopkins-Calzaghe moved front and center on boxing’s radar screen last November when, moments after defeating Mikkel Kessler, Calzaghe declared, “Bernard Hopkins; let’s do it. He wants a big fight. Fight me. I’m here, man.”

At the post-fight press conference, Frank Warren (Calzaghe’s promoter) seconded the challenge, saying, “Hopkins can pick the weight. He can pick the date. He can pick the site. We don’t care; we want this fight. We’ll fight him in his backyard, if that’s where he wants it.”

A week later, the 43-year-old Hopkins responded, “I’m excited and elated that a guy who is supposedly at the top of his game wants to call out an old man. So after I picked up my cane and put my teeth in, I got up and stood in the middle of the room and thought, ‘Well, maybe I still got it a little bit.’”

The posturing had begun.

The first issue to be resolved was where the fight would be held. Hopkins voiced the view, “I’ve accomplished some profound things in my career, but beating Joe Calzaghe in Yankee Stadium would be super-duper.” That sounded good to Bernard. However, the would-be promoters (Golden Boy and Warren) understood that Hopkins needs a popular dance partner to sell tickets and a less ambitious venue was in order.

Calzaghe had never fought in the United States before, but it was clear from the start that the fight would be in America. Bernard stated as much when he proclaimed, “I’m not Charles Brewer; I’m not Byron Mitchell [two Americans who fought Calzaghe in his native Wales]. Me, go across the pond? For what? There’s an edge when one guy stays home while the other has to come across the ocean. I’ve fought my whole career to gain home-court advantage. I’m not about to give it up now to Calzaghe.”

Then, for good measure, Bernard added, “Joe’s known but he’s not well-known, and there’s a difference. You’ve got to leave your neighborhood and fight the best guy in another neighborhood to prove you’re the toughest guy out there. Calzaghe is a neighborhood champion. So he has to step out of his crib in Wales, where he’s got his bottle on one side and his pacifier on the other, and set foot on my soil so that we can get this on.”

The other issue, of course, was money.

“My offer,” Bernard announced, “is sixty-forty; fifty-fifty being out of the question. But we can talk.”

So they talked.

“I’ll give it to Ol’ Popkins,” Calzaghe said. “He’s the king of talk. He’s boxing’s version of Oprah Winfrey. They should give him his own TV show because he loves the sound of his own voice. The guy can talk forever but that’s all he can do. How about putting a little bit of fighting behind those words.”

In the early negotiations, Calzaghe priced himself out of the fight and Golden Boy wasn’t offering enough money to make the deal work. “Hopkins wants to have home-field advantage,” Joe reasoned. “He has to give up something financially to get it.”

“Besides,” Calzaghe added in a private moment, “it’s bargaining, isn’t it? You can always come down and ask for less. But it’s hard to turn around in the middle of a negotiation and ask for more.”

Then Mayweather-Hatton happened and Hopkins made his infamous “I’ll never let a white boy beat me” comment (which he later said was designed to stir interest in the promotion rather than a mark of prejudice). Presumably, Bernard thought that being a racial profiteer was somehow better than being a bigot (although the two often go hand in hand).

Regardless, Calzaghe later acknowledged, “Going to the weigh-in [for Mayweather-Hatton] and seeing the tremendous reception that Ricky got; it was absolutely incredible, the sight of all those thousands of fans. I had a buzz off that. I wanted to get a bit of that for myself before I retired.”

Negotiations in ernest followed with the Hopkins and Calzaghe camps settling on a fifty-fifty split. HBO agreed to pay a $6,500,000 license fee, while Setanta purchased UK television rights. Each network decided to televise the fight as part of its monthly subscription package rather than on pay-per-view. Planet Hollywood provided the most substantial piece of the financial puzzle when it purchased the live gate for $11,000,000. “In order to be taken seriously in the gaming industry,” Robert Earl (Planet Hollywood CEO) told the media, “we have to get into the fight game.”

Tickets were also a negotiated part of the contract, with Calzaghe-Warren accorded the right to buy 5,000 of them. That was in keeping with the theory that the fight would be a continuation of Mayweather-Hatton, where ticket-brokering engendered millions of dollars in side profits.

But Calzaghe’s fans don’t travel like Hatton’s, and Bernard’s fans rarely travel at all. Thousands of Brits came to Las Vegas to see Hopkins-Calzaghe, but the demand for tickets was finite. Thus, somewhere along the line, Golden Boy and Warren agreed to cut $2,000,000 off the $11,000,000 that Planet Hollywood had initially pledged. One explanation for the reduction was that Earl decided just before signing the contract that the price was too high and negotiated a lower number. An alternative scenario was that ticket sales were so poor that Golden Boy and Warren agreed after the signing that a refund was in order.

Either way, the battle was joined and Calzaghe acknowledged, “All great fighters want to fight in Las Vegas in a big fight. This is what I’ve been waiting for. It’s a challenge in itself to go to America and win. It would be a shame never to experience it first-hand.”

Then the build-up began.

Hopkins is a typical Welsh name. Unlike Anthony Hopkins (the Welsh-born actor who played Hannibal Lecter), Bernard doesn’t claim to be of Welsh extraction. But he does display some Lecter-like qualities.

“Anytime someone signs a contract to fight me, it’s personal,” Bernard said. “Calzaghe got extradited to the United States. Pressure from the public and the media forced him to come here. So let’s not dance around this matter. I have a licence to kill Joe Calzaghe. I’m not saying that’s what I want to do, but it happens. This is not something I take lightly. It’s what we’ve both chosen to do. You don’t have to be forty-three years old to get hurt in boxing. You can get hurt anytime.

One of Hopkins’s many boasts is that he has “never lost a press conference to anyone.” He also gives the impression that there is no line he won’t cross as long as he feels he can get away with it. And he observes, “People don’t get in Bernard Hopkins’s face.”

But as the fight neared, Calzaghe put him to the test. Among the words of wisdom that Joe offered were:

* Hopkins tries to get into opponents’ heads. I’ve seen him do it in the past. But believe me, he’s barking up the wrong tree with me. It may work against a 22-year-old kid who’s in awe, but not against me.

* He’s not a legend. He’s a B-side fighter, who depends on big-name opponents to attract fans to his fights. I’m quite tired, really, of all his talk. And that’s all it is; talk. He’s a St. Bernard; all bark and no bite. All of his blathering sounds like he’s trying to convince himself he can beat me. Let’s see if he can back it up on Saturday night.

* Look at my face. It tells you, doesn’t it? I always seem to come out right. His nose is flat across his face. So much for a great defense.  He must have walked into a lamp-post to get a nose like that.

* He thinks he can intimidate me because he’s been to prison for robbery. So what? So you burgled somebody, you brave boy. That makes you a thug, not a fighter. It makes you an idiot.

Enzo Calzaghe (Joe’s father and trainer) seconded his son’s confidence. “Hopkins can think what he wants about himself,” the elder Calzaghe said. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion about himself. But Joe is faster; Joe is younger; Joe has more moves and power. Let Hopkins think that Joe slaps. That’s what Jeff Lacy thought. How much power does Hopkins have? One knockout [against Oscar De La Hoya] in five years.”

“Boxing is music,” Enzo continued. “Music is timing and notes and how you express them. Boxing is timing, a few punches, and how you express them. In the ring, Joe makes beautiful music. One way or another, Joe will win.”

Team Hopkins, of course, had a different view. Bernard is a fistic marvel. The first thing a fighter loses isn’t his speed or reflexes. It’s his desire to train hard. As a boxer succeeds, he also learns how to cut corners and is less likely to stay in shape between fights than he was before. Hopkins is always prepared, physically and mentally, and leaves as little as possible to chance.

“It’s not magic that I’m doing,” Bernard says. “It’s discipline. It comes from the way I treated my body; not just now, but when I was in my twenties and thirties. I haven’t had a beer in twenty-three years. I haven’t drunk alcohol in twenty-three years.”

Mackie Shilstone (the conditioning expert who Hopkins brought in to work with him in the weeks leading up to the Calzaghe fight) bolstered that thought and told the media, “I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing more than three thousand pro athletes. I have never met a more disciplined man than Bernard Hopkins. Bernard is 43 years in age, but that doesn’t equate to a performance age. His age is much younger from the standpoint of performance; probably in the neighborhood of 27 to 28 years old.”

Freddy Roach (Hopkins’s lead trainer) further stated the case for victory. “The name of the game is hit and don’t get hit,” Roach said. “It took me a while to figure that out, but now I know. Bernard is a textbook fighter. Hands up, chin down, perfect balance. Now look at Calzaghe. He throws wide punches and punches over the top, which leaves openings for a good counter-puncher. And Calzaghe is predictable; his style isn’t hard to figure out. When Bernard makes certain moves, Joe will make certain moves in response and Bernard knows what they are. Bernard will control the fight.”

There was extra pressure on Calzaghe because, during the previous month, the other two champions trained by his father (Gavin Rees and Enzo Maccarinelli) had both been knocked out in title fights. And two other Brits (Ricky Hatton and Clinton Woods) had failed in recent championship outings.

There was also the matter of the referee.

“Hopkins is a dirty fighter,” Calzaghe has said. “I’m more concerned about being head-butted than being hit with his punches. And there are other things Hopkins does, like hit on the break, hit low, and use his shoulder on the inside.”

Initially, it was thought that Jay Nady would referee the fight. Nady had handled both Hopkins-Taylor encounters and, after studying tapes of their first bout, ran a tight ship in the rematch. Then, for reasons that were unclear, Joe Cortez was designated as the referee for Hopkins-Calzaghe.

Calzaghe was familiar with Cortez. He’d been the third man in the ring when Joe won his first title against Chris Eubank in 1997. More recently, Cortez had aroused the ire of British boxing fans by his handling of Ricky Hatton versus Floyd Mayweather Jr. The opinion in some circles was that he had improperly interrupted the flow of Hatton’s attack while allowing Mayweather to do pretty much what he wanted to do.

“No issue,” Calzaghe said when Cortez was chosen. “He’s an experienced referee, and the world is watching. I don’t do holding and mauling. I come to fight and Joe is aware of that, so I’m sure he’ll let me get on with my job. You have to have faith in the system.”

Still, there was concern in some quarters as to how Cortez would call the fight. A hostile crowd is child’s play compared to a hostile referee. Indeed, there was a school of thought that Calzaghe was like a poor soul who walks into a bad neighborhood oblivious to the fact that he’s about to be mugged. He knows it’s a rough neighborhood, but he hasn’t really come to grips with the reality of it.

“I’m not in denial about what Joe can do,” Hopkins said several days before the fight. “But Joe is in denial about what I can do. Trust me. I’m going to show him things he’s never seen before. I’m a scientific boxer and fighter. You can’t pity-pat with me like Calzaghe does. Wide punches, slapping punches; that’s the kind of opponent I like. With Calzaghe, I’ll go straight down the middle and smash his face. Every time I fight, sooner or later, you hear people say, ‘The other guy is fighting Bernard’s fight.’ This fight will be no different. I’ll take away what Calzaghe wants to do and make him fight my fight.”

One day before the bout, each fighter weighed in at 173 pounds. At the ritual staredown, Hopkins leaned into Calzaghe and, referencing his years in prison, muttered, “D-block, D-block. I’m taking this to the streets.”

On fight night, Calzaghe was the de facto hometown fighter. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Brits are the best supporters in the world. You wouldn’t get ten thousand Americans to come over to the UK to watch a fight no matter how big you are.”

Ten thousand Americans didn’t go to the Thomas & Mack Center either. The announced attendance was 14,213. But a lot of tickets were given away, while others were sold by Planet Hollywood at a steep discount.

The WBC, in its never-ending quest for truth, justice, and sanctioning fees, offered to designate the fight a “special attraction” and give the winner a WBC “achievement” medallion. Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer asked how much that would cost and was told $25,000. He declined the honor. Meanwhile, as the bell for round one rang, the WBC was still seeking sanctioning fees from Calzaghe and Warren despite the fact that no WBC title was at stake. By night’s end, no agreement on that issue had been reached.

The fight started badly for Calzaghe. “Joe is used to winning,” Hopkins had said at the final pre-fight press conference. “I have to change that mindset early.”

He did. One minute into the first stanza, Bernard landed a short sharp righthand, and Calzaghe went down for only the third time in his career. He rose quickly (“It was a flash knockdown; I wasn’t hurt”). But it was an inauspicious start and, at round’s end, Joe was down by two points.

Round two was more of the same. Hopkins dictated the pace; fought hard in spurts; and got off first. The lead right was his money punch. Calzaghe seemed cautious and unable to penetrate his opponent’s defense.

Then the tide turned. Calzaghe kept coming forward. His hands were faster than Bernard’s and he was physically stronger than Hopkins had expected.

By round four, Hopkins was getting chippy. “I know every second where the referee is at,” he has said. “That’s ring generalship.”

In this case, “ring generalship” included following through through with his head or shoulder after punching and numerous infractions in clinches. “He was head-butting me,” Calzaghe said afterward. “Hitting me with low blows, hitting on the break, holding me with one arm on the blind side of the referee, sticking his head in my face. He’s a dirty fighter, but I expected that. I had to keep my composure because I knew that, if I retaliated, I might get a point knocked off.”

But despite Hopkins’s tactics, Calzaghe didn’t get frustrated. And before the eyes of the world, Bernard finally got old in a boxing ring.

Usually, the second half of a fight belongs to Hopkins. This one was different. In the second half of Hopkins-Calzaghe, Bernard showed his age. He circled away from his oncoming foe, trying to lure him in for occasional righthand leads but, in reality, doing little offensively. He fought like a pick-pocket, not a mugger, and slowed the action to isolated engagements while Calzaghe sought an ongoing fire-fight.

“Around the seventh round,” Joe said later, “I knew he was fading. He was struggling to breathe and couldn’t handle the pace.”

With that in mind, Calzaghe kept the pressure on and hit Hopkins with more clean shots than Bernard is used to being hit with. Hopkins blunted much of the attack with a defense that was largely punch and run, punch and hold, hold and run some more. At times, he looked a bit like John Ruiz.

Then, thirty seconds into round ten, Calzaghe threw a left to the body. Hopkins pulled Joe’s head down at the same time, causing the blow to go low. And Bernard turned thespian; grimacing, limping, and groaning his way through a two-minute “time out” given to him by Joe Cortez.

“What a crap actor,” Calzaghe said afterward. “He looked like he’d been shot in the balls, not hit. He basically cheated and took three [sic] minutes off when he needed a rest. Joe Cortez should have been firmer. I was worried they might say he couldn’t continue and we’d get a technical draw or something. He was gasping for air, and the referee gave him a break.”

The break interrupted Calzaghe’s rhythm and momentum. At 2:28 of round eleven, Hopkins repeated the performance, claiming another low blow that no one saw. That earned him a 12-second respite.

Through it all, Calzaghe maintained his composure. Nothing deterred him; not the knockdown, not the fouls, and not the conduct of the fight by the referee. Joe was as strong mentally as Hopkins was and physically stronger than Bernard had thought he’d be. It wasn’t pretty, but Calzaghe got the job done. He made the fight; he won the fight. And his superiority becomes clearer when one examines the ”punch-stats” compiled by CompuBox.

Calzaghe outlanded Hopkins over the course of the bout by a 232 to 127 margin. Bernard landed ten punches or less in each of the first five rounds and twelve or less in all but three rounds. More telling, Calzaghe outlanded Hopkins in total punches landed and power punches landed in every round.

Adalaide Byrd scored the fight 114-113 for Hopkins. Chuck Giampa (116-111) and Ted Gimza (115-112) saw things more clearly, giving the victory to Calzaghe. This observer scored it 115-113 in Calzaghe’s favor.

As for what Hopkins-Calzaghe means in terms of the larger picture; Bernard won his first world title in 1995 but didn’t get full respect until 2001 when, at age thirty-six, he toppled Felix Trinidad. Calzaghe has been a champion since 1997 and is now the same age that Hopkins was when he beat Trinidad.

Most likely, Joe will enter the ring next against Roy Jones in Cardiff or London this autumn. “I’ve been boxing for twenty-six years,” he says. “That’s a long time. I’d like this to be my last year. The money’s great, but what I really want is to retire without having tasted defeat. It’s easy to have one fight too many.”

How good is Calzaghe?

“I won’t call myself a legend like some people do,” he says (in a pointed reference to Hopkins). “But I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished.”

That’s good enough.

As for Hopkins; there’s only one thing that he hasn’t done in boxing: get beaten up. With that in mind, now would be a good time for him to retire. At the post-fight press conference, he indicated that he would. “You can’t play with age,” he said. “I want to be able to speak and talk like I am now, so why push the envelope? I got a chance to sit back and smell the roses.”

But Hopkins has retired and unretired before. There’s big money to be made in Hopkins-Trinidad II, and Bernard would be favored in that match-up. So even though he says, “I don’t want to go through that flag thing again,” it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in the ring one more time.

Hopkins’s place in history is secure. It might not be as exalted as he’d like it to be, but he would have been competitive against any middleweight in any era. The saddest thing about Hopkins-Calzaghe is that it afforded Bernard the opportunity to leave boxing as a sportsman in addition to having been a great fighter, and he failed the test. If rounds one and two of the fight showed him at his best, the post-fight press conference revealed him at his worst.

Hopkins was conspicuously ungracious after the fight. “I got beat tonight,” he told the media. “But it wasn’t by Joe Calzaghe.” He then demeaned Calzaghe as a fighter and questioned the accuracy of the punch-stat statistics. Finally, a reporter asked in frustration, “Aren’t you going to give Joe any credit for winning the fight?”

“I don’t think he won, so how can I give him credit for winning the fight,” Bernard answered.

Calzaghe took the words in stride (as he’d taken all of the verbal barbs that Hopkins fired in his direction prior to the fight). “I didn’t expect him to be a gracious loser,” Joe said. “He’s still crying about Jermain Taylor. Hopkins should watch the tape and accept that he lost. There were three American judges, and he still lost. He’s just a spoiled little girl, isn’t he?”

It goes back to the streets. In the world that Bernard Hopkins comes from, a good loser is a loser.

But a sore loser is a loser too.

Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com


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