By Lyle Fitzsimmons
At the time, 10 years ago this past Thursday… it was a giant pain in the neck.
Waking up early to schlep 90 miles to an airport in Jacksonville. Gathering supplies to make the trip with an 8-month-old son. Enduring the “it seemed like a good idea, cost-wise” drive from arrival in Center City Philadelphia to accommodations two states away in New York.
And in early November, when autumn temperatures had dipped to levels no longer tolerable for a northerner-turned-southerner… I was wishing I was anywhere else.
But now I’m glad I went.
If I hadn’t, I would have missed the career swan song of a true ringmaster.
And, unfortunately, I’m not referring to Roy Jones Jr.
When he announced his retirement a couple months later, Joe Calzaghe retroactively made a chilly night at Madison Square Garden quite significant to both my journalism career and the sport’s history.
The jazz-reared Welsh import was at his free-form best in a stirring Gotham premiere, summoning scat-style weapons from Jones’ best days and using them with virtuoso skill after climbing off the deck against a faded but dangerous foe.
That he won as a clear betting favorite was hardly a surprise.
That he won by sweeping the final 11 rounds after a first-minute stumble surely was.
And though we Yanks didn’t know it at the time, it was the final high note of a brilliant career.
“(After the fight) I felt it, I knew that I was ready to call it a day and to move onto the next phase in my life,” Calzaghe said. “I confided in a few people that I trusted that I felt it was all over and then when I met the British press the next day I made it clear that I was pretty sure I was done.”
While largely unappreciated – and some say protected – for his initial 13 years on stage, a masterful Calzaghe surged to an undeniable crescendo over his last three years, improving his mark to a pristine 46-0 before a voluntary bow-out.
A 36-minute undressing of Jeff Lacy was followed by a workmanlike rub-out of Sakio Bika in 2006, then by a three-round erasure of Peter Manfredo Jr. and a gritty vanquishing of Mikkel Kessler in 2007.
Opening-act foes in Bika and Manfredo? Perhaps.
Legitimate headliners in Lacy and Kessler, though. As clearly evidenced by their title belts and perfect records prior to pursuing unification.
Revisionist history notwithstanding.
Still, all were a mere prelude to 2008’s new British Invasion.
The near shutout of Jones came seven months behind what’ll be recalled as Calzaghe’s most significant win – a clearer-than-announced split nod over Bernard Hopkins in Las Vegas – in which the Welshman got off the floor to win 23 of 36 rounds on three ringside scorecards.
I scored it 8-4 and thought – as American debuts go – it was Beatle-esque.
In Hopkins, he interrupted a renaissance that’d seen the old man topple Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright and Kelly Pavlik while returning to consensus pound-for-pound prominence.
And in Jones, he convincingly handled a still world-class fighter – though admittedly one living largely off past glory – at his heaviest career weight.
Bottom line, if anyone within 10 pounds had a better 36-month finale than his… I couldn’t recall it.
“I have taken my career as far as I can,” Calzaghe said. “Anything else I did now would seem meaningless. I have beaten every great fighter in the world today who I could possibly face and I am happy to bow out with an unblemished record.”
Naturally, the departure was met with the mandatory “he’s ducking so-and-so” claims from naysayers convinced he’d need to move to heavyweight and simultaneously whip the Klitschkos before being deemed preeminent between 168 and 175.
It’s the same nonsense that greeted Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s 2008 sabbatical announcement, when – in spite of a victim list that included Corrales, Castillo, Gatti, Judah, Baldomir, Hatton and De La Hoya – the blathering masses cluelessly claimed the unbeaten Pretty Boy “hadn’t fought anybody.”
But that doesn’t mean we smart folks have to listen.
To his credit, a classy Chad Dawson – though Calzaghe was clearly at the top of his 2009 wish list – gave the abdicating champion his props on the way out, thanking him for leaving a competitive blueprint to challenge as he began his own reign as light heavyweight monarch.
“I applaud Joe’s decision,” Dawson said. “Timing is everything, and to leave center stage at his peak is rare and certainly comparable to the retirements of Rocky Marciano and Jim Brown.
“Joe left on his own terms. What could be better? He has been a man for all seasons and will be an inspiration to me as I look to meet and beat his records. On behalf of all your boxing fans I say, ‘Thank you, Joe.’ And now I am ready to succeed (him) as the new king.”
History proved him not quite ready for ascension.
As for Joe… not only do I again applaud a professional job well done, but I thank you for making an otherwise taxing trip to Manhattan completely worthwhile in retrospect.
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This week’s legit title-fight schedule:
WBO junior welterweight title – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Maurice Hooker (champion/No. 8 IWBR) vs. Alex Saucedo (No. 1 WBO/No. 18 IWBR)
Hooker (24-0-3, 16 KO): First title defense; Fighting in ninth state (MO, TX, LA, NY, CA, TN, MS, NV)
Saucedo (28-0, 18 KO): First title fight; Has never fought beyond eight rounds
Fitzbitz says: While no one suggests Hooker has faced any Aaron Pryors at 140, he’s still got a quality of opposition edge that’ll matter in crunch time against an untested foe. Hooker by decision (75/25)
Last week's picks: 1-0 (WIN: Usyk)
2018 picks record: 78-32 (70.9 percent)
Overall picks record: 998-336 (74.8 percent)
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full-fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.