By Thomas Gerbasi
After 34 wins and no losses, and a reign as champion over two divisions for over seven years, Ivan Calderon shouldn’t have been surprised by the reception he got in his native Puerto Rico after he finally suffered the first defeat of his career against Giovani Segura last August.
“Everybody in the streets still tells me ‘you’re still our champ, you gave your best for us,’ and ‘you lost to another champ. You didn’t lose to a nobody,’” recalled Calderon. “They said ‘You got your loss, but it was the best fight you did in all your fights.’”
“I always wanted to have that Fight of the Year, but I didn’t imagine that I was gonna have the Fight of the Year in my loss.”
Some figured he wasn’t going to lose. He was that good for that long, coming out of the 2000 Olympics and turning into perhaps the best defensive boxer we’ve seen since Pernell Whitaker. For purists, there was nothing better than an Ivan Calderon fight, and even as he approached his mid-30’s (a danger zone for fighters in the lighter weight classes), his two fight series with Hugo Cazares proved that he still had it.
Then came Segura, a Mexican bull with the type of pressure that not only busts pipes, but tears the whole house down in the process. In their August bout in Guaynabo for the WBO and WBA junior flyweight titles, Segura and Calderon went to war in a Fight of the Year candidate that probably would have clinched the honor if it were contested above 135 pounds. But regardless, the two 108 pounders delivered the kind of effort you want to see in all championship bouts, and the contrasting styles added even more drama to the proceedings.
In the eighth round, Segura finally caught up to Calderon, and his crushing body attack sent him to a knee, where he took referee Jose Rivera’s ten count. For Calderon, it was the wisest course of action, and his family agreed.
“My mother said that she was glad I made that decision when I got hurt because she didn’t want to see me get more hurt, like other fighters,” he said. “She told me that I did what I had to do and that I’m a good warrior and that I could come back and get another win and that they still love me and that I’m still their champion.”
But for the first time since he defeated Eduardo Marquez for the WBO minimumweight title in 2003, he was without that title bout around his waist, and he took his first loss since the Olympics in the same breath. Such a series of events could crush a fighter mentally, yet “Iron Boy” lived up to his nickname.
“When I lost this time my mind was prepared,” he said, comparing his defeat against Segura to his Olympic loss to Indonesia’s Masara La Paene. “I took it calm and I took it easy. I knew that I was going to have the opportunity to come back for a rematch and seeing other fighters lose and coming back to be champions, that’s why I didn’t get too hurt.”
What was expected after Calderon’s defeat was that the 36 year old southpaw would regroup, maybe take a tune-up or two, and then make another run at Segura or whoever would be holding the belt at the time if the Mexican moved up in weight. Not good enough, said Calderon, who insisted on stepping right back into the ring with his new rival.
“When that fight finished I told my promoter, Peter Rivera, that I wanted to go straight for the rematch,” he said. “I didn’t want to have a fight first and then go for Segura because I knew he couldn’t hold the weight too long.”
He also knew he had unfinished business to tend to.
“I was sure that it wasn’t me that fight,” said Calderon. “I was not the Ivan everybody knows that boxes a lot. I was not that trained for that fight, I had a lot of pain in my legs and I had a lot of things happen for that fight. I was almost gonna suspend the fight, but I said ‘nah, let’s take the fight, it’s my opportunity to unify the titles’, so I took the fight.”
Some would say he paid the price for such a decision, but oddly enough, if it was the kind of fight that every boxer needs to experience, a true dogfight in which sometimes, you don’t come out on the winning end. Sure, perfection is nice if you can get it, but as the fan on the street told Calderon, his loss may have been the most exciting fight of his career. And the way he sees it, we may be in for more fireworks when the rematch travels to the Auditorio del Estado in Mexicali on April 2nd.
“It’s gonna be the same fight with a different decision,” he said. “I know it’s gonna be a war. I know people may be thinking that I should do what I always do, box a lot, but people don’t understand that with Segura, I can’t use too much boxing. I gotta fight with him because I think I can beat him toe to toe. In the last fight I was moving a lot and that’s when I was receiving the punishment to my body, and when I was standing up straight, toe to toe, I was getting the best part.”
More to the point, with an unorthodox pressure fighter like Segura, your gameplan pretty much goes out the window as soon as the bell rings.
“People don’t understand that you can’t prepare for people like Segura,” said Calderon. “It’s like you gotta invent something that day in the ring because he’ll come throwing punches at you all crazy and you won’t know what to do. You always look better when you fight fighters that really know how to box. When you get guys like (Ricardo) Mayorga or Segura, it’s so difficult to plan how to fight them. You just gotta be in good condition, try not to get tired, and go round by round.”
In Calderon’s mind, it’s time for war. Sure, he’s got the love of his people and the recognition that comes with 18 title fight wins, more than fellow Puerto Rican legends Felix Trinidad and Wilfredo Gomez, but for a man who has been at the top so long, it’s hard to be anywhere but at the pinnacle of the game. So that means the second time around, it’s all or nothing for Calderon, and if it means digging deep and going to places no fighter wants to go to, so be it.
“I would like to go there and fight the fight that I know how to do, but if I’ve got to brawl with him like I did in Puerto Rico, I’m not scared or nervous to do it because this time I’m more prepared and in better condition,” he said. “And I don’t mind the boos. Like I told my people here in Puerto Rico, when I was an amateur, I went to a lot of places and it was just like that when I went to Cuba and Mexico. I heard all kinds of booing, but I just think about my opponent, about winning, and I don’t hear nobody when I’m up there.”
And when it’s over, Calderon will leave the ring knowing that he did everything he could have done in the gym and the ring to get the victory. At that point, the end result really doesn’t matter.
“I still love this and I still know that I can do a lot of things,” he said. “I know people always talk about my age – I’m 36 years old, but I turned pro when I was 27. I still love it, I still have the feeling that I can keep on fighting, and I know I can win this fight because I trained hard for it this time. I trained like I did for Hugo Cazares, I’m sore, I’m doing my best for this fight, and if he beats me this time, then I’ll just shake his hand and say he’s the better fighter.”