It is difficult to fathom that two athletes boasting a combined age of 79 can legitimately claim to be two of the top 10 participants in any sport this side of horseshoes and shuffleboard, but such is the case with 43-year-old Bernard Hopkins and 36-year-old Joe Calzaghe.
On April 19 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, "The Pride of Wales" (44-0, 32 KO) will make his debut on U.S. soil when he fights "The Executioner" (48-4-1, 32 KO) for Hopkins’ Ring Magazine light heavyweight title. Calzaghe is a 2 ½-to-1 favorite to make his American invasion a successful one.
Hopkins and Calzaghe are two members of a very select group: Champions who have compiled reigns of more than 10 years encompassing 20 or more title defenses. In recent years, each has achieved his success with vastly different approaches, and the contrast in styles is just one element of several that makes this match an intriguing one.
Calzaghe has prospered with a dynamic high-volume offense that emphasizes hand and foot speed as well as unpredictable punching sequences from the unusual angles produced by his southpaw stance. This was most evident in his landmark 12 round trouncing of Jeff Lacy on March 4, 2006 in Manchester, where the longtime WBO super middleweight champion bedazzled his IBF counterpart with unceasing blizzards of combinations. Calzaghe averaged 79 punches per round – 58 of which were power punches – en route to a massive 351-116 connect advantage overall and 280-100 power punch bulge. Calzaghe’s constant work limited Lacy’s offense considerably as he managed just 37 punches per round (18 below the divisional average of 55). While Calzaghe landed 41 percent of his power punches, Lacy could muster 28 percent accuracy.
Calzaghe set the tone in the first three rounds as he went 103 of 271 (38 percent) to Lacy’s 31 of 139 (22 percent), an advantage that included an 83-27 gap in power connects. From there the dominance grew as Calzaghe never fell below 21 connects in a round while Lacy never went higher than 14. And just as Calzaghe dominated the first three rounds, he did so in the final three as he out-landed a discouraged Lacy 74-22 overall and 64-19 in power connects.
In his most recent outing against WBA/WBC super middleweight king Mikkel Kessler, Calzaghe again used overwhelming offense to wear down the Dane’s resistance in the middle and late rounds en route to a convincing unanimous decision before more than 50,000 adoring fans at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium.
Calzaghe averaged 84 punches per round (285 of 1,010, 28 percent) to Kessler’s 49 (173 of 585, 30 percent), but the big difference between this fight and the Lacy encounter was Calzaghe’s increased use of the jab. Against Lacy he averaged 22 jabs per round (71 of 262) but against the more fundamentally sound Kessler he unleashed 46 of them per round (137 of 550). The results were twofold: The first was that Calzaghe controlled the pace and distance and the second was a more balanced offensive approach. Against Lacy, the split between power punches and jabs was 73-27 in favor of power shots while against Kessler the distribution was 55-45 in favor of jabs.
Hopkins’ approach in recent years could not have been more different than Calzaghe’s high-octane style. If Hopkins were a football player, he’d be a shutdown corner. If he were a basketball offense, he would be Pete Carril’s at Princeton, where his players lulled opponents to sleep before killing them with an endless succession of back-door lay-ups.
And if Calzaghe is a high-revving racecar engine, Hopkins is engine sludge.
Consider what havoc Hopkins wreaked on the offenses of his last three opponents: Jermain Taylor, Antonio Tarver and Ronald "Winky" Wright:
Taylor (against Daniel Edouard, William Joppy and Raul Marquez)
Punches thrown: 49.8 per round
Overall accuracy: 42.9 percent
Power punch accuracy: 52.6 percent
Landed jabs per round: 9.3
Landed power punches per round: 12
Taylor (in two fights against Hopkins)
Punches thrown: 35 per round (29.8 percent fewer)
Overall accuracy: 24.9 percent
Power punch accuracy: 29.6 percent
Landed jabs per round: 4.2 (54.9 percent fewer)
Landed power punches per round: 4.6 (62.7 percent fewer)
Tarver (against Roy Jones III, Glen Johnson I and Glen Johnson II)
Punches thrown: 64.6 per round
Overall accuracy: 28.9 percent
Power punch accuracy: 34.6 percent
Landed jabs per round: 5.4
Landed power punches per round: 13.2
Tarver (against Hopkins)
Punches thrown: 36.4 (43.7 percent fewer)
Overall accuracy: 17.8 percent
Power punch accuracy: 22.7 percent
Landed jabs per round: 2.5 (54.7 percent fewer)
Landed power punches per round: 4.0 (69.7 percent fewer)
Wright (against Ike Quartey, Jermain Taylor and Sam Soliman)
Punches thrown: 64.1 per round
Overall accuracy: 34.5 percent
Power punch accuracy: 44.1 percent
Landed jabs per round: 7.7
Landed power punches per round: 14.4
Wright (against Hopkins)
Punches thrown: 51.5 (19.7 percent fewer)
Overall accuracy: 27 percent
Power punch accuracy: 24.4
Landed jabs per round: 7.2 (6.5 percent fewer)
Landed power punches per round: 6.7 (54 percent fewer)
The good news for Hopkins is that Calzaghe is somewhat "sludge-able." While Calzaghe thrives against orthodox styles, he has had trouble with fighters who throw off his timing. For instance, Season Three "Contender" champion Sakio Bika limited Calzaghe to 51 punches thrown per round (as opposed to the 82 he averaged against Kessler and Lacy) and 30 percent overall accuracy (33 percent against Kessler and Lacy). Meanwhile, Bika stayed competitive in the power-punching department (120 of 403 for Bika to 129 of 355 for Calzaghe). Hopkins would also do well to study the footage of Calzaghe’s October 2004 fight with Kabary Salem, who used roughhouse tactics to unsettle and anger Calzaghe. While Salem lost a point for an intentional head butt in the third round, he scored a knockdown in the fourth and induced Calzaghe to suffer a point penalty in the 11th for his own intentional butt.
Prediction: The Bika and Salem fights proved that Calzaghe can be rattled by unusual and/or dirty fighting, a staple of Hopkins’ game during this Archie Moore-like stage of his career. Though Hopkins is perhaps the most cerebral fighter in the game, the fact that he has fought just two times since December 2005 can’t be helpful. Calzaghe, while not the most active of fighters, has fought four times in that same stretch. If this fight had taken place in 2004, when Calzaghe struggled with Salem and Hopkins stopped Oscar de la Hoya, Hopkins would be the easy choice. But considering the inactivity, Hopkins’ advanced age and Calzaghe’s recent form, the Welshman will emerge with a unanimous decision victory.