Hall of Fame 2014: Joe Calzaghe – Perfection
The following story originally appeared in THE RING Magazine. To subscribe — both the print and digital versions — click here. You can also purchase the current issue on that page.
Joe Calzaghe still remembers the first one 31 years ago. And he’ll never forget the last one even though it has been 23 years since they raised the hand of a Romanian amateur named Adrian Opreda instead of his own. He remembers them all, which might be why there were so few of them.
This weekend, Calzaghe will join Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad in the latest class of inductees into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, an honor he neither pursued nor thought much about until last year. What he thought about was not crying, or at least not putting himself in a position where he knew his tears would flow.
“I cried every time I lost a fight,” Calzaghe recalled recently while on a skiing holiday in Bulgaria. “I always felt empty when I lost. I lost my first fight. I was 10, and I cried even after my coach told me one of the judges was the other boy’s father. I can’t remember most of the amateur fights I won (110 of 120), but I still remember what losing felt like. I beat that boy five times after that, so I guess that’s been well paid back.”
Calzaghe focused on keeping his tear ducts from flowing by constantly training inside an unheated, hardscrabble shack in Tre Celyn, South Wales, a barely standing building with a corrugated tin roof that his father and lifelong trainer, Enzo, called the Newbridge Boxing Club. That tottering building would produce no hot water, but would build three world champions and one fighter time will not forget.
The road from that dank place with a carpet for a ring mat to boxing immortality was a long march littered with a string of injuries to his hands and very few times those hands weren’t raised at the end of a fight. The latter happened just enough to keep someone whose biography would be titled No Ordinary Joe focused on making sure that would be the case. Joe Calzaghe, in the end, would be anything but ordinary.
“If I have one regret, it’s not going to the Barcelona Olympics in 1992,” said the 41-year-old former undisputed super middleweight and light heavyweight champion who finished his pro career 46-0 (with 32 knockouts). “I won my first schoolboy title when I was 13. I weighed about 30 kilos (66 pounds). I still remember to this day what that felt like to be a winner, to be champion of something. From that day I dreamed of being world champion.
“I won four schoolboy ABA titles and three consecutive senior ABA titles in Britain [between 1990-1993]. I was ranked No. 1 in my weight by the ABA in 1992, but they took Robin Reid to Barcelona instead of me. They said it was because I hadn’t fought in an international tournament because of an injury.
“My wrist was already bothering me, as it would my whole career, but I hadn’t lost since the  European Junior championships [in Prague]. It was a disappointment.”
It was also the last time anyone would defeat him. That the details remain as fresh to him today as they did then sheds some light on why it never happened again.
“Adrian Opreda,” Calzaghe says immediately when asked if he can recall his opponent’s name. “He was Romanian. It was one of the first times I’d ever worn headgear. I hated the thing. I didn’t even use them in sparring, but they were required in Europe. I wasn’t used to it, and I spent most of my time fiddling with my headgear while he kept putting his left foot on my right foot and tapping me like he was fencing. He just kept one long arm out there.
“It was close, but in those days the Soviet bloc still existed, and the fight was in Czechoslovakia, so you knew what was going to happen. I thought the decision was a bit dodgy. When it was over I cried my eyes out. I was absolutely gutted. When I got back to Wales, I told myself I wouldn’t lose again. Then I had a long run.”
Indeed so, a run that didn’t end until he retired in 2009, three months after soundly defeating a fighter he’d long admired, Roy Jones Jr. It was the 46th and final professional victory of a 15-year career in which he had successfully defended the super middleweight title 21 consecutive times over a 10-year reign and then moved up to 175 to defeat two legends of their sport, Bernard Hopkins and Jones, before deciding he’d had enough.
Yet when asked about victories, Joe Calzaghe first recalls defeat. One might think its sting would be long faded by now, erased by a professional career so brilliant he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. But for Calzaghe it is victory that fades quickly while defeat lingers, a dark reminder of a feeling he never wanted to experience again.
“Not going to Barcelona was probably a blessing,” Calzaghe says now. “I remembered that just as I remembered every loss. It made me train harder. I trained like a challenger even after I was world champion. I never wanted to feel the way I did when I was 10 again. I never wanted to feel the way I did in Prague.
“Would I have been as determined if I’d gone to Barcelona and maybe won a gold medal and been given a million dollars to sign? No, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t.”
Instead of gold Calzaghe signed with Britain’s biggest promoter at the time, the late Mickey Duff, for less than a pittance in September 1993. He made his debut less than a month later against Paul Hanlon, who didn’t last a round with him, at Cardiff Arms Park on the undercard of the Lenox Lewis-Frank Bruno heavyweight title fight, which was one of the biggest British promotions of the time.
“I turned pro for a 3,000-pound loan,” Calzaghe said, laughing at the memory. “I was on a wage for 21 fights. I didn’t spend much money because I didn’t make much money. I was in the gym training and trying to pay off the mortgage on my house. And it was a small house!”
Three years later he would sign with promoter Frank Warren, who had once managed Nigel Benn, a world champion with one of the best nicknames in boxing history. “The Dark Destroyer,” Chris Eubank and Steve Collins would together engage in some of the most stirring super middleweight title fights of the mid-1990s. So it came as a shock to British boxing fans when Warren announced upon signing Calzaghe that “Joe is a far better prospect [than Benn had been].”
Four fights and 18 months later, Calzaghe would prove Warren right, winning the vacant WBO super middleweight title by defeating Eubank after Collins chose to retire claiming an injury prevented him from going through with an already arranged title defense against Calzaghe.
In the days leading up to the fight, Eubank made a promise to Calzaghe, which all these years later Calzaghe admits he delivered on.
“Steve Collins didn’t want to fight me, so he gave up the title,” Calzaghe said. “Nigel was shot by then, and Steve was old, so I understood his decision. Chris was coming back from losing twice to Steve, but I was more apprehensive about Chris than I would have been fighting Collins.
“I’d never been 12 rounds. The most I’d gone was eight. The week of the fight he told me he was going to take me to a place I’d never been. He was right. I dropped him about 15 seconds into the fight, and I spent the next three rounds trying to take him out. I didn’t pace myself, and by the eighth round I was so exhausted. Those last four rounds were exactly what he promised.
“What got me through was hunger and will. I pushed myself through it. When they raised my hand, I was over the moon. I never thought I’d be champion for 10 years, but it was just the start.”
The start of a run of consecutive title defenses the likes of which only four prize fighters have ever exceeded. Perhaps more significantly, despite constant wrist and hand woes and an inability until the final fights of his career to land the big-money matches he craved, Calzaghe never wavered.
He prepared himself for whomever was put in front of him and he won … and won … and won again until he clearly outpointed then undefeated Mikkel Kessler (39-0 at the time) on Nov. 3, 2007, at Millennium Stadium in Wales to claim the RING, WBC, WBA and WBO super middleweight titles in his 44th fight. Although boxing politics had denied him the IBF strap he’d won in the ring a year earlier, he was universally seen as the undisputed 168-pound champion. He also was a fighter with only one world left to conquer: America.
Despite 44 consecutive victories and an undisputed world championship, Calzaghe had never fought in the United States. It was a blemish some held against him, implying he had been carefully handled to avoid the best U.S. fighters despite the fact he had repeatedly tried to make such fights and in fact had destroyed Jeff Lacy, the American who held the IBF title, a year earlier.
Weary of criticism and his aching hands but still in search of the taste of victory, Calzaghe knew his career needed a final jolt and so he gave it one, moving up to 175 to face Hopkins for the RING light heavyweight title on April 19, 2008, in Las Vegas.
By then Calzaghe was 36 and tiring of the demands of boxing, yet he knew to end his career as he hoped, to be recognized finally for the skills he’d so long exhibited in Europe, he needed to push back against his desire to stop.
“I’d been through so many injuries and so many disappointments, not getting the big fights I wanted,” Calzaghe said. “After I beat Eubank, I couldn’t even spar for three fights because of my elbow, and if you can’t spar, it’s hard to hit a moving target. I struggled in those fights, and people wanted me to get rid of my father and get a new trainer. That’s the only difficult time we really ever had.
“We talked about it, and he was disappointed, but he was going to do what was best for his son. In the end I thought what was best was to stay with him. I always wanted the unification fights but they were hard for us to get. Boxing is politics, and that was a very, very frustrating time for me.
“At one point I’d had wrist surgery and was told I’d never punch again. I didn’t believe the surgeon. I kept fighting and training. I’d have been a good fighter it I wasn’t hurt all the time.
“The last couple of fights I’d started to cut corners. After beating Kessler I knew I was approaching the end. I was 44-0 and had just fought in front of 50,000 people. I felt I’d accomplished all I could. I needed a new goal. I kept believing and I finally got my dream fights at the end. Frank wanted me to fight Clinton Woods in the U.K. but what else was there to achieve? The only thing left was to come to America.
“What a big win [beating Hopkins by split decision] was for me. It was a messy fight. I wasn’t at my best and I know he thinks he won but I fought two American legends and won. It was a blessing to get those fights late in my career.
“All things come to those who wait if they keep working. I was always tremendously fit, and in the ring I was always calm. Even Hopkins, with all the things he tries and all the things he says, he couldn’t get under my skin.”
Nearly everyone but judge Adalaide Byrd had Calzaghe winning handily against Hopkins, the other two judges scoring the fight 116-111 and 115-112, and he dominated Jones in what would be his final fight on Nov. 8, 2008. In his last two appearances Calzaghe had fought in boxing’s two biggest venues, Las Vegas and Madison Square Garden. There was nothing left to do but listen to a message he knew had been delivered to him in those last two fights.
“I knew Jones would be my last fight,” Calzaghe said. “I really wanted to fight in Madison Square Garden, the mecca of boxing. It was really quite emotional for me knowing that after all I’d been through, this was the end of it.
“In the first 25 years I fought I’d been dropped two times. Then I got dropped in my last two fights. Roy really pushed me down, but still I was on the floor. Was that a coincidence or a message? Maybe I could have gone on but my time was up. It was such an honor to fight Roy in my last fight. After that, I’d had enough.”
In the five years that have passed Calzaghe said he has not been tempted to follow the footsteps of so many of his predecessors and come out of retirement, instead opting to remain one of only a handful of world champions to retire undefeated. In the end he had done what he’d always hoped for. He’d left on top.
“I still feel like I can kick the ass of half the guys fighting, but I’ve never been close to a comeback,” said Calzaghe, who now has his own promotional company, has appeared on the British version of “Dancing with the Stars” and become involved in an anti-bullying campaign. “I didn’t punch a punching bag for two years. I’d run and go to the gym, but I never punched a bag. I didn’t want the temptation. With all the cortisone injections in my fists and the bad elbow and all, when I quit I was done.”
Done until his phone rang a few months ago and he was told those fists would have to be balled up one more time for the casting ceremony at the Hall of Fame. On that bright June day in upstate New York, Joe Calzaghe will be happy to do it one last time, the lasting proof he was indeed No Ordinary Joe.
Ron Borges is a columnist for the Boston Herald and hosts “Mouthpiece Boxing,” a weekly radio show on Yahoo!Radio Network Fridays at 10 p.m.