(Written April 2011 by MJ Law)
Rating boxers is an odd process. There is no exact science for it and it basically boils down to a personal opinion. Yet it is addictive and fun, and just about every boxing fan has compiled lists of all-time greats at least once. Such lists that appear in books or magazines can range from sensible to bizarre to confusing, and everywhere in between. It's also surprising how different lists can be. For example, consider the status of heavyweight legend Jim Jeffries, who reigned from 1899 to 1905. Boxing historian Tracy Callis (who's a guy, by the way) ranks Jeffries as the greatest heavyweight champion ever. But Bert Sugar, another renowned historian, doesn't even put Jeffries in his top ten heavyweights of all-time. Talk about discrepancy! Both Tracy and Bert are knowledgeable on the fight game for sure, but they have vastly polarized views on Jeffries.
Some fighters are easy to rate. Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Willie Pep, Benny Leonard and Roberto Duran would all have consensus support as being true boxing immortals. But there are other former champs, such as Lennox Lewis and Floyd Patterson, who are more difficult to rate and are open for conflicting interpretations. One expert could consider Lewis to be a smart technician with a solid jab and a devastating right cross. But another expert could consider him to be a slow, lumbering plodder with questionable stamina and a suspect chin. He could appear high on some top ten lists and not at all on others. Joe Calzaghe seems to fall into the category of a fighter who is difficult to rate. On the positive side, he had a sparkling unbeaten record and became only the third Britsh fighter (after Bob Fitzsimmons and Freddie Mills) to become a genuine lineal world light heavyweight champion. On the negative side, he padded his record with plenty of wins over nobodies and has-beens, and he nearly always fought on home territory. Let's take a look at his career and see if he does deserve to be regarded as an all-time great.
Is Joe one of the best British fighters ever?
To begin with, we'll put aside the fact that he spent most of his career boxing in the needless super middleweight division. The views on this ill-conceived weight class are expressed elsewhere on this website. Calzaghe made his pro debut on 1st October 1993, scoring a 1st round KO over Paul Hanlon in Cardiff. Just over two years later he won the British title on 28th October 1995 with an 8th round KO of Stephen Wilson. However, the first notable name on his record is that of Chris Eubank, against whom he won an alphabet belt on 11th October 1997. Eubank himself was not anything to get excited about in terms of boxing skills. He had limited power and spent most of his time in the ring posing and posturing. He had won a couple of alphabet belts himself and milked them for all they were worth (which is not much) against a few softies. On a domestic level, he exerienced quite a lot of success and was able to defeat some decent opponents in Tony Thornton, Michael Watson, Nigel Benn and Lindell Holmes, but none of these guys would appear on a ballot for entry into the International Boxing Hall Of Fame (unless the criteria drops drastically). Eubank had never dominated the division on a worldwide scale and was basically overrated. By the time he squared off against Calzaghe he was past his prime and had lost two of his previous six bouts. Calzaghe beat him on points.
Now the possessor of an alphabet belt of his own, Calzaghe proceeded to defend it on a pretty regular basis over the next eight years. The best opponents he faced during this span were Charles Brewer and Byron Mitchell, neither of whom would be considered knee-trembling obstacles to overcome. Brewer was a hot-and-cold performer and had lost two of his previous four fights (including a 3rd round stoppage loss to Antwun Echols) when challenging Calzaghe. As for Mitchell, he had just lost to the dreary, crude Sven Ottke before facing Calzaghe.
It is a shame that Calzaghe appeared to waste so much time during these eight years. His victories over British rivals Richie Woodhall, Robin Reid and David Starie may have been satisfying on a national level but these guys had not really made a splash on the world scene. The rest of Calzaghe's victims were obscure no-hopers such as Branko Sobot, Will McIntyre, Mario Veit and Kabery Salem. Who the hell were they?
By the end of 2005, Calzaghe had yet to face a genuinely outstanding world class opponent in his prime. There had been talk of him being matched with a legitimate big name, such as Glen Johnson, but it had ultimately always been nothing but talk. At this stage, his record was 40-0, which was at least impressive on paper. Although he was born in London, he had grown up in Newbridge, south Wales. A total of 38 of his professional contests had taken place in the UK, including sixteen in Wales (thirteen of which were in Cardiff). He had fought abroad twice; once in Denmark and once in Germany. Whether true or not he certainly appeared reluctant to leave his home turf. Of course, many title-holders prefer to defend at home and who can blame them? But there often comes a time in a champ's career when he has to break away if he wants to elevate his status. Other British boxers, including Lloyd Honeyghan, Lennox Lewis and Ricky Hatton all did it. In the two or three years preceding 2005, Calzaghe came across as reluctant to break away.
Joe is astride a famous movie prop
In 2006, a breakthrough occurred when Calzaghe was matched with Jeff Lacy in a unification match. Calzaghe held the WBO title and Lacy held the IBF title. This was by far the most significant bout of Calzaghe's career at this point, but ask yourself this: would it have taken place if Lacy had not been willing to come to the UK? There is real reason to believe that only Lacy being accommodating allowed it to go ahead.
Lacy had been a member of the US Olympic team for Sydney, Australia, in 2000 and had earned a bronze medal. He was undefeated as a professional and had won the vacant IBF belt with a victory over Syd Vanderpool, following which he had defended it against Omar Sheika, Rubin Williams, Robin Reid and Scott Pemberton, all of whom were competent but hardly awe-inspiring opposition. Just like Calzaghe, he had not beaten any genuine outstanding world class adversaries. In other words, his competition was good but not great. In this heavily-hyped clash, Calzaghe won an easy unanimous decision and his promoter, Frank Warren, was gushing afterwards about what a wonderful, masterful boxing performance his star had given. However, let's put this into perspective. Calzaghe had totally dominated the fight but his performance was not really "masterful" in the true sense. An example of a masterful showing would be that of a prime Pernell Whitaker, a true artistic wizard. Calzaghe had boxed very well but it was a bit short of masterful. Regardless of that, his stock rose considerably and he was suddenly being lauded as a terrific fighter to such an extent that it was almost a criminal offence to criticize him. But let's be realistic. He had only beaten Jeff Lacy. It was no greater achievement than Honeyghan beating Maurice Blocker in 1987 or Lewis beating David Tua in 2000, and neither Honeyghan nor Lewis were swamped with the same amount of praise afterwards. When reading some reviews it was as if Calzaghe had beaten someone like Bob Foster or Archie Moore! This is not to discredit the Welsh hero's win, but it needs to be put into perspective.
Next came victories over Sakio Bika and Peter Manfredo, a pair of game but beatable contenders, in Manchester and Cardiff respectively. Although he drew huge crowds, Calzaghe did not have a particularly pleasing style to watch. He wasn't a big hitter and he tended to slap with his punches. His finishing skills were also questionable. Witness his stoppage of Manfredo; when trying to finish him off in the 3rd round, Calzaghe looked kind of amateurish. But on a positive note, he had fabulous stamina and an excellent workrate. He never stopped hustling and throwing punches and it was difficult for his opponents to get set and establish any type of rhythm. He could take a solid shot too.
Mikkel Kessler of Denmark presented a major threat. He held the WBC and WBA titles and was undefeated himself. But again ask yourself this question: would a Calzaghe-Kessler showdown have taken place if Kessler did not want to come to the UK? At the time, Calzaghe still preferred a home advantage. Kessler was the best opponent Calzaghe had faced at this point. But let's not get carried away. Yes, Kessler surely had style and talent, but examine his record. Who had he beaten? There was Julio Cesar Green, Anthony Mundine, Eric Lucas, Markus Beyer and Librado Andrade. These guys were all decent, competent fighters but they weren't top class superstars who had dominated the world scene. Kessler had a glossy 39-0 ledger, and had fought only twice outside of his native Denmark (once in Australia and once in the USA). Calzaghe won a deserved unanimous decision in a pretty entertaining fight, though Kessler seemed somewhat passive and forgot all about head movement. It was an impressive conquest for Calzaghe but yet again, we shouldn't get too carried away. In the whole scheme of things, it was not the kind of conquest that creates a legend. It was not as significant as Honeyghan battering Donald Curry in 1986 or Lewis outpointing Evander Holyfield in 1999. Both Curry and Holyfield were in a different league to Kessler.
Calzaghe had a close call against Hopkins
In 2008, Calzaghe hit the big time when he outpointed Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas, USA, to win the lineal world light heavyweight championship. Hopkins was forty-three years old and was not quite the force he once was, but he was still a superb boxer. He had been the lineal world middleweight champion from 2001 to 2005 and was a patient, cunning craftsmen who knew every trick in the book to maneouvre or spoil his way to victory, whichever way was possible. The fight with Calzaghe was an ugly, messy affair which was quite difficult to score. Calzaghe was dropped in the opening round but battled his way back. It remained a struggle until the final bell and Calzaghe was awarded a razor-thin decision in a bout which really could have gone either way. The closeness was illustrated by Calzaghe's trainer (and father), Enzo, between rounds when he looked like he was going to explode. He screamed instructions at his son with a face shining bright red like a glitterball. There was panic there. Ultimately, Calzaghe may or may not have deserved the decision but there is no real loser in a fight this close.
Just one ring appearance followed, which was his only defence of the lineal light heavyweight crown. The challenger was the legendary Roy Jones Jr, who had beeen the lineal champ himself in this division but was now a shot fighter. He had already been knocked out by Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson, both in 2004. Calzaghe got to face Jones in the prestigious Madison Square Garden in New York City and easily won on points. Four months later he announced his retirement.
Undoubtedly, Calzaghe has a record he can be proud of and was never defeated, a fabulous accomplishment. He defeated very good fighters in Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler and a living legend in Bernard Hopkins. So should he be ranked as one of the greatest fighters of all-time? Well, not quite. He spent too much of his career in pointless mismatches and the biggest of his wins (against Hopkins) was a horrible fight to watch and he only managed to scrape by on a narrow decision, so he didn't really shine there. As for Jones, he was finished by the time he tackled Calzaghe and should already have retired. It should be pointed out that in an assessment, having an unbeaten record can be either misleading or overrated. Consider Sven Ottke, who never lost a professional fight. He was dreadful as a boxer and benefited from careful matchmaking, some favourable refereeing and a few questionable decisions. There was also Terry Marsh, who never tasted defeat either, but he never faced anyone of note. Being undefeated is great but it's not an automatic key to greatness. In the ranks of British fighters only, Calzaghe should be behind the likes of Bob Fitzsimmons, Freddie Welsh, Jim Driscoll, Ted "Kid" Lewis, Jimmy Wilde, Benny Lynch, Ken Buchanan, Lloyd Honeyghan and Lennox Lewis. He may or may not just get into the all-time top ten. But hey, he's still in excellent company if he's just outside it.