Friday, February 6, 2009

46-0. No Ordinary Joe

By Jeff Pryor

Photo © Marty Rosengarten /

He was out of the ordinary in his unique style, out of the ordinary in his accomplishments and talents, and out of the ordinary in the way he has left the sport; undefeated, a champion and apparently content and ready to move on to a new phase of his life after dedicating the vast majority of his 37 years to the sport.

Joe's tremendous hand speed and conditioning, combined with an intense will to win and a higher gear that few would have been able to match, served him well over the years. Though never heavy handed, his was strictly a numbers game.

While he lacked the punch to immediately put away his foe, many a man withered under his endless barrage of punches; tossed from every imaginable angle. To fight Joe Calzaghe must have been like standing in the ocean and facing down the oncoming tide.

His relationship with his father/trainer Enzo Calzaghe appears to be one of the few such partnerships that never went through extreme acrimony at one time or another. As Enzo stated upon his son's retirement, he was there for every fight, and undoubtedly that guidance added immeasurably to Joe's success as a prize fighter.

As Calzaghe wound down his career, with a late introduction to the American boxing public, many felt his talents had been wasted for much of his time in the sport. As though to make amends he started to face challenges he was unwilling or unable to face when he was younger, much like a hesitant fighter who starts to loosen up in round twelve because he knows the fight is almost over.

For all his late career push to emblazon his place on boxing's historical landscape, the issue with Calzaghe was that in relation to his contemporaries, he had some real catching up to do and ultimately faced an insurmountable problem. The names he was beating, did not hold the same quality they did a handful of years ago. A split decision against a 43 year old Hopkins raised as many questions as it answered and a dominant win over a Roy Jones, who may not even be top ten in his division at this point and had been earlier twice put to sleep, didn't really offer anything other than the name.

In Joe's case, should he have had the willingness to try and surpass the legacies of his touted peers, the names that would have meant something are largely gone now. Antonio Tarver a few years ago would have been a meaningful addition, Hopkins beat him to it. Likewise, Kelly Pavlik would have held some value to Joe as a follow up to Roy, but Hopkins snatched that glory too.

Chad Dawson was available, however the name value was not yet tantalizing enough to warrant the danger of facing the young, resilient and dynamic champion. Likewise Glen Johnson was just slightly too blue collar to bring in the paycheck or esteem Calzaghe felt necessary for the grinding fight it was likely to be.

On one side of the coin it was clear that Joe had gone as far as he had a taste for, and there is nothing wrong with quitting while you're ahead. Still on the flip side, his resume lacks some of the luster of his contemporaries, due to the relative lack of impressive names on his unbeaten ledger.

In addition to well past prime Hopkins and Jones Jr., Calzaghe's two most impressive wins come over Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler. While Kessler may still prove to be more than merely a good champ, it's fair to say that Lacy's legacy is pretty well set; that of an over-hyped one dimensional fighter who never fulfilled his promise. In addition, his other most notable win was against Chris Eubank who was at the tail end of his thirteen year career, when he met up with the rising Welshman.

For all of the misleading Hall of Fame gloss that names like Hopkins or Jones Jr. added to his record, Joe's greatest moment in the ring likely came midway through his 168 lb. unification bout with Kessler. When the going got tough and it appeared that Joe had met his match and perhaps more, he kicked his performance level and output into a higher gear he had never had the need to use before. Calzaghe thrust his will onto Kessler and ripped the victory away with sheer determination and continual punching.

Ultimately Joe's legacy is defined far more by his 21 WBO championship defenses, than by the names associated with his unbeaten record. When you can rise to the occasion that many times it's something very special indeed, but the fact that Kessler had positioned himself to be seen as Calzaghe's equal in 5 fights as WBA champ, compared to Joe's 21 WBO championship fights is pretty telling. Lacy's two year championship run was as highly regarded as Joe's ten year run as well. It is a shadow cast over Calzaghe's accomplishments that after ten years of being a champion in one division, he was perceived to have done so little, and that he still had to prove his value so much, that he was the underdog against a two year champ with 21 fights.

Think about that... Joe had almost as many Championship fights as Lacy had fights, period. And yet he was pegged to lose, due to the low esteem that his run as champion was held in.

The other thing Joe has going against him in how he is and will be perceived are the intangibles. The comfort zone of not traveling, not having to catch a flight and stay somewhere strange gives the perception that he took an easier route (or in this case no route at all). In addition, knowing that more than likely the local referee and judges will have your back if things get a little close, is a keen advantage; it may not be something a fighter has in the front of their mind, but having that safety net can affect the way one fights and ultimately benefit the fighter even if it's only a mental edge, which does not show up in an overt way. Joe was unwilling to leave home for all but 4 of 46 fights.

All this nitpicking aside, and admittedly it is such, as his career surpasses that of all but the very cream of the boxing crop; Joe is a great fighter. He deserves mention with many of the other great fighters of this era. Is he among the very best? The top 2 or 3 guys? No. Talent wise he may have been, but he didn't really give himself the opportunity to prove it. He is in that vast pool of greats just below.

The fact that he will likely be in terrific health, in comparison to other boxers who did not know their own limits or aspirations, is perhaps his greatest victory. What his admirers always knew, and what even his nay-sayers must admit too, is that Joe was a unique talent; no ordinary Joe.

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