Joe Calzaghe (b. 1972) is undoubtedly the greatest fighter produced by Wales since World War II, and arguably the finest from the UK.
With a 100% career record showing 46 wins and an 11-year reign as world champion to his name, it is difficult to believe that the right of the Newbridge man to lay claim to such honours can ever have been doubted.
But the late-career plaudits earnt by Calzaghe hide the story of how long it took for his talents to be recognised.
The future champion was born in Hammersmith to his Welsh mother and Sardinian-exile father, Enzo Calzaghe.
They soon returned to mother Jackie’s Welsh valley roots where, at the age of nine, Calzaghe took to the ramshackle Newbridge gym then run by trainer Paul Williams.
Enzo followed his son there and began to learn the ropes as a trainer, laying the groundwork for one of the most famous and successful father-son relationships in the history of boxing.
A tough and talented southpaw with dazzling hand speed, Calzaghe was a natural and began to build a remarkable amateur career.
He won four schoolboy ABA titles, then three consecutive senior ABA titles at three different weights – the first man to achieve that feat since Fred Webster in 1928.
In 1990 the fast-rising youngster lost a highly contentious decision to Romanian Adrian Opreda at the 1990 European Junior Championships in Prague. It would be the last time he ever tasted defeat in the ring.
Despite his remarkable successes, though, Calzaghe was denied the opportunity to represent Great Britain at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics because of politics and petty vindictiveness from Welsh amateur officials, who refused to put him forward.
The decision still rankles with both Calzaghe and his father, although Joe has credited it as a possible spur to his future sustained success.
When he turned professional in 1993 his potential was known to those in the sport, but he was no Olympic hero and hence unknown to the public at large.
The super-middleweight would spend the majority of his career as a hungry fighter, forever striving for the recognition and financial rewards that his talents deserved.
The debut-maker despatched Paul Hanlon within a round, and continued to show impressive power in stopping 21 of his first 22 opponents (10 in the first round), picking up the British title along the way.
Promoter Frank Warren had manoeuvred the 25-year-old into line for a WBO world title shot, but champion Steve Collins – who had unsuccessfully chased a big-money bout with Roy Jones Jr – chose to retire rather than face the fast-rising youngster.
Former champion Chris Eubank stepped in to contest the vacant belt with Calzaghe at the Sheffield Arena.
Eubank was past his best and struggled to make the weight at short notice, but the old warrior lived up to his promise to take the young challenger “into the trenches”.
An adrenaline-fuelled Calzaghe made a spectacular start, a huge shot dropping his opponent in the first round for the first time in his life.
Struggles as a champion
The spectacular fight should have set Calzaghe up for superstardom, but his first five defences saw a sharp decline in the quality of his work and, after a controversial split-decision win over Robin Reid, the points victories over Rick Thornberry and David Starie were two of the worst of his career.
The champion was plagued with hand problems throughout his career, but at this time was also hampered by an elbow problem that stopped him sparring.
When he overcame that ailment, he bounced back with a furious fifth-round stoppage of Omar Sheika, the man touted in America as the future of the super-middleweight division.
Yet Calzaghe remained on the fringes, a victim of boxing’s age of alphabet titles. Rival title holders in Germany and the US knew the Welshman’s ability and – as he didn’t have the profile to deliver them a multi-million pound purse – stayed well away from him.
The WBO champion had to keep doing it the hard way, fighting still-hungry and dangerous ex-champions such as Charles Brewer and Byron Mitchell.
In such fights, Calzaghe could have used his skills to stay out of trouble and claim easy wins, but a combination of his fighting heart and the fact that he always had to try to win over the doubters meant he was drawn into thrilling dust-ups.
He kept winning, but – as the years passed by without the career-defining fights he craved – Calzaghe encountered difficulties including failing motivation, renewed injury worries and a messy divorce.
The glory years
The problems contributed to the belief that Calzaghe’s best years were gone, and in 2006 young IBF champion Jeff Lacy saw his chance to pounce.
But Calzaghe took him apart, finding the perfect mix of boxing and brawling in a display described as perhaps the greatest ever by a British fighter.
After uninspiring wins over Sakio Bika and Peter Manfredo Jr, the long-reigning champion took the toughest fight that was out there for him, a clash with the young, dangerous, undefeated WBA and WBC champion Mikkel Kessler.
But he dug deep to exploit his superior variety of boxing skills, sapping Kessler’s strength with attacks to the body and closing out a unanimous points win. The fight helped him secure the vote as 2007 BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
He went on to land the big-money US bouts he craved, moving up to light-heavyweight to conquer America in 2008 by out-pointing living legends Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas and Roy Jones Jr in New York’s Madison Square Garden.
He was named as an inductee to the International Boxing Hall of Fame at the first opportunity (five years after he stopped boxing), joining the likes of Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya in the class of 2014.
Calzaghe v Wilde
Comparing champions across the ages is notoriously difficult.
If he had endured the breathless schedule of the likes of fellow Welsh Hall-of-Famers Jim Driscoll, Freddie Welsh and Jimmy Wilde, it is unlikely that Calzaghe could have maintained a 100% record through a long career.
But Calzaghe’s greatness as a champion is beyond dispute.
He mastered the art of boxing in his era and always found a way to win, meaning he deserves to be ranked alongside Wilde at the very pinnacle of Welsh sport.
- Joe Calzaghe’s career record
- Wikipedia – Joe Calzaghe
- Joe Calzaghe on Twitter
- Joe Calzaghe’s career in photos
- Calzaghe’s 10 career highs
See more of Joe Calzaghe on YouTube