By Cliff Rold
It shouldn’t matter, but it did. Logic said Joe Calzaghe, while only three years younger, had too much in the tank to be troubled much by a man who still looks like Roy Jones Jr. (52-5, 38 KO) but doesn’t fight much like him anymore. Boxing though is a sport where passions and memories run deep and seeing is believing. Beating big names is often as important as beating better challenges without them. The nature of Calzaghe’s win over Jones, sans logic, is forcing tons of conversation about his place in history which really made just as much sense a week ago.
Following the win over Jones, HBO Boxing analyst Emanuel Steward stated that Calzaghe may have to be considered one of the all-time greats. It’s a statement worth examining. Whether retirement is truly imminent or not, as Calzaghe has hinted back and forth on, there is no doubt Calzaghe is nearing his end. After eleven years as one of the sport’s best, the question is asked:
How good is Joe Calzaghe, measured against all-time?
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
Competition Not Faced
Reaction to Adversity
What’s Left to Prove
With that in mind, let’s head to…
The Tale of the Tape
Homeland: Wales, United Kingdom
Turned Professional: October 1, 1993 (TKO1 Paul Hanlon)
Record: 46-0, 32 KO
Titles: WBO Super Middleweight (1997-2008, 21 Defenses); IBF Super Middleweight (2006, 1 Defense); Lineal/Ring Magazine Super Middleweight (2006-08, 3 defenses); WBC & WBA Super Middleweight (2007-08, 0 Defenses); Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight (2008-Present, 1 Defense to date)
Record in Title Fights: 24-0, 11 KO
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 8 (Chris Eubank, Robin Reid, Richie Woodhall, Charles Brewer, Jeff Lacy, Mikkel Kessler, Roy Jones Jr.)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 2 (Byron Mitchell, Bernard Hopkins)
Calzaghe began his career like many fighters, working through a series of no-hopers and veterans before defeating a 44-2 Luciano Torres to make his way towards an October 1997 shot at the WBO title vacated by Steve Collins. Matched with the vastly more experienced veteran Chris Eubank, a WBO titlist at Middleweight and Super Middleweight before two close losses to Collins in 1995, Calzaghe arrived on the World level with a dominant display. He dropped Eubank in the first round, winning ten rounds on two judge’s scorecards and eight on another in only his 23rd fight to begin his time near the top of the Super Middleweight class.
At that point though, it was only near. Like Bernard Hopkins eight pounds below at Middleweight classic, winning a belt was only the beginning of a proving process which would take years. A 2000 victory over power-punching Omar Sheika began to open eyes and see Calzaghe rated more universally as the division’s best, a spot he’d trade back and forth with undefeated IBF titlist Sven Ottke until about 2003 when Ottke began to show serious slip.
Calzaghe would endure, recognized as the best at 168 lbs. but with the world unsure what that meant as he defended against a slew of average fare. Across the Atlantic, 2000 U.S. Olympian Jeff Lacy was being developed as the future of the class. Knockout wins over respectable opposition like Robin Reid, Syd Vanderpool for the vacant IBF belt, and Rubin Williams had many picking Lacy, some five years Calzaghe’s junior, to ascend in a 2006 showdown with Calzaghe. Instead, the world found out it had been missing out on a special talent. Calzaghe dominated Lacy for almost every second of twelve rounds.
Yet another younger world class foe had emerged at the same time as Lacy, capturing first the WBA title in 2005 and then adding a WBC title in 2006. Some seven years younger and clearly in his prime, Mikkel Kessler of Denmark ran through quality opponents Anthony Mundine, Markus Beyer and Librado Andrade to make his case as the world’s best. In front of 50,000-plus fans in Wales, Calzaghe and Kessler battled on equal terms early in their November 2007 showdown only for Calzaghe to find additional gears and dominate the second half of a memorable war in what would his final showing at Super Middleweight.
He left the division as the most accomplished in its quarter century history, having amassed a record-tying 21 WBO title defenses; having captured every available title in the division; and having earned the right to truly stand out as undisputed king of his domain. While the entirety of his reign was not undisputed, 20-plus defenses remains one of the rarest of feats in Boxing.
This year has seen him capture popular (if not entirely lineal) recognition as Light Heavyweight champion, wresting Ring’s honors from Bernard Hopkins and adding the Jones victory.
The who and what of Calzaghe’s accomplishments summarized, it turns to the quality of the competition he’s faced. Coming off wins against Kessler, Hopkins and Jones, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t long ago his competition was widely, and rightly, derided. While foes like Mger Mkrtchian and Tocker Pudwill had good records on paper, they didn’t look very good on canvas. Patience became virtue for followers of Calzaghe. By the time he was done at Super Middleweight, the wheat and the chaff could stand together in equal measure.
Eubank, Reid, Brewer, Mitchell, Lacy and Kessler were all former or current titlists and only Reid ever really came close to defeating Calzaghe, losing a split decision in a tough fight. There were other quality wins as well. Sheika was flawed but dangerous; Richie Woodhall was a former Olympic medalist; and Sakio Bika continues to be a handful for any Super Middleweight.
The Jones win adds a spectacular name to his resume, and the nature of the win will excite many, but considering where Roy was in his career it doesn’t merit recognition above Kessler or even Eubank. The Hopkins win looked to some in April like a case of Hopkins age as much as Calzaghe’s quality but, following the 43-year old Hopkins drubbing 26-year old Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in October, raises in estimation to the level of other of Calzaghe’s biggest wins. Making it more impressive, Calzaghe stands out as the only man ever to dominate Hopkins over the second half of a fight. Not even a young Roy Jones could do that, instead splitting the final eight rounds of their 1993 bout after sweeping the first four rounds on all judge’s cards.
Stacked against the measure of history, Calzaghe’s competition falls short of legendary names like Sam Langford, Harry Greb, and Ray Robinson. To his fortune, so does the competition of everyone else in his time. Modern Boxing boils most careers down to a handful of fights in separating the elite from the very good whereas in other times it boiled down to series of fights against fellow elites and stronger supporting casts. Calzaghe won his handful and most of them comfortably. Fighters like Kessler and Lacy continue with their careers and their successes could add to his legacy. Greatness in this era is a sort of balanced equation pitting who a man faced versus who they didn’t in determining how great a career was really had. The campaign from Lacy to today make the equation look strong in Calzaghe’s favor but…
Competition Not Faced
There were notable fighters who Calzaghe didn’t face over his career and younger versions of Hopkins and Jones top the list. The why of those fights not happening earlier is and always will be open for debate but in terms of history, it’s irrelevant. They didn’t happen then and beating a 2002 version of Jones or Hopkins would mean more to his resume than 2008 versions, particularly in the case of Jones. To Calzaghe’s credit, he’s shown that a win against a prime version of him is as absent from their records as the opposite is true for his own and he at least can say he defeated both when opportunity knocked.
There are more beneath those legends. Ottke retired with 21-defenses of his own, an undefeated 34-0 record and was better than often remembered. With almost no power, he befuddled tough outs like Charles Brewer, Glen Johnson, and Mads Larsen. History won’t and shouldn’t regard Ottke as Calzaghe’s equal, but for the two to have almost twin accomplishments in terms of title defenses and never fight makes him a significant miss for Calzaghe.
As noted above, Calzaghe’s win over Eubank didn’t make him best in class in many minds, American Frankie Liles and his WBA belt instead assuming the top rung. Liles, also then the lineal champion traced back to Chong Pal-Park, captured the title in 1994 but suffered for lack of fights too often. Wins over Michael Nunn and, in one of the division’s best fights ever versus Tim Littles, showed the former amateur rival of Jones to be a serious world class fighter, dangerous both in terms of speed and power.
There was also Frenchman Bruno Girard, a largely forgotten but capable WBA titlist after Liles who won belts not only at 168 but also 175.
Stacking who he didn’t fight against who he did, the ratio ultimately favors Calzaghe because of his longevity and ability to dominate younger men like Lacy and Kessler. The old adage is that a fighter can only fight the men available and Calzaghe fought more of them than he did not. However, any or all of the names missed, particularly younger versions of the legends he eventually did face, would have added extra shine to his record and bolstered him in debates about his historical standing.
Reaction to Adversity
Calzaghe has proven himself well in terms of how he’s dealt with adversity, both in and out of the ring. There can be no doubt Calzaghe would have liked to have had his biggest fights earlier and was frustrated for years. He didn’t really want the Pudwill’s of the world any more than the rest of the world, not with millions lying beyond his grasp against better challenges. And yet, Calzaghe kept winning, kept showing up. There were nights where he didn’t bring his best stuff, but never so bad that he let himself lose the “0” on his record when a single loss would have been a devastating setback. Calzaghe showed a discipline, focus and inner fire few have when their careers get stuck in neutral. It’s a trait he shares with Hopkins and one that adds to both. Calzaghe waited his turn and then blew through the turnstiles of opportunity like Charlie with a Golden Ticket.
Calzaghe’s also shown tremendous inner stuff in the ring. He’s been on the floor four times; he’s won all four of those fights. But more than getting off the floor to win, he’s the rare fighter who gets up and fires right away. Against Mitchell, an Ernie Shavers sort of fighter with right hand bombs which could almost override vast technical flaws, he went down like a bullet in the second round and yet won the fight within the same frame. He rose from the deck in round four against Kabary Salem two fights later and won almost every other round, dropping Salem in the final round. The results against Hopkins and Jones, both of whom dropped him in round one, are fresh in the collective memory. It’s an example of excellent recuperative abilities and a will to win which has yet to be broken. If Calzaghe does decide to retire, it never will.
What’s Left to Prove
Calzaghe, given his age, reign at 168, and 2008 U.S. campaign, really has nothing at all to prove. He’s done everything he can to make his case as a great fighter. He can’t lose that at his point. However, if he decides to continue, he can add to his legacy and perhaps increase his place in history.
The biggest challenge available in that regard has been name dropped regularly in the moments and days since the Jones victory. IBF Light Heavyweight titlist Chad Dawson (27-0, 17 KO) is a decade his junior, probably faster than Calzaghe at this point, and has racked up quality wins against the likes Antonio Tarver, Eric Harding, Tomasz Adamek and Glen Johnson. Of the batch, Johnson (47-12-2, 37 KO) was the only one to make a case for victory over Dawson in a savage war. If Calzaghe opted to continue without Dawson, he could stay in his age group with the 39-year old Johnson and suffer no critics, even one upping Dawson to a degree by fighting someone the young titlist hasn’t seriously touched on granting a rematch. Calzaghe himself isn’t big on rematches but if he were a second Hopkins bout in 2009 wouldn’t be out of the question.
Thinking outside the box, there are also two other fighters whose names could be viable. Given Calzaghe’s long affiliation with the WBO, their Light Heavyweight titlist could be a factor. Zsolt Erdei (29-0, 17 KO) would be a big fight in Europe and, with a strictly semantic argument as the lineal World champion at 175 lbs. tracing back to Virgil Hill-Henry Maske I, would allow Calzaghe to make concise his claim to the World Light Heavyweight title. If not Erdei, look to December 11 and the state of New Jersey. Steve Cunningham and the former WBC Light Heavweight titlist Adamek will do battle for the IBF and vacant Ring Magazine Cruiserweight title. Calzaghe-Cunningham would be wildly unlikely; Cunningham presents many of the same problems match-up wise Dawson does and extra size to boot. However, if Adamek could pull the upset, he matches up well in Calzaghe’s favor. The chance to pick up a third world title, and third Ring belt, in his third weight class might just appeal to a veteran looking for another mountain to scale.
Dawson remains the most interesting. Calzaghe left Super Middleweight having cut off the next generation of the class at the knees. A win over Dawson would allow him to say the same at Light Heavyweight, something the aging very seldom can say in one, much less two, weight classes. It would also make him a stronger case for fighter of this decade where debate exists now between Calzaghe, Hopkins, Manny Pacquiao, and Floyd Mayweather.
Measured Against History
We return now to the original question: How good is Joe Calzaghe, measured against all-time?
Pretty damn good is the answer.
There are different measures of all-time greatness and divisional dominance is one. Calzaghe’s decade in the world title picture at Super Middleweight was remarkable. Even without Ottke, he should be regarded as the greatest fighter in the division’s existence. While its existence isn’t as lengthy or storied as the divisions directly above and below it, wait a while. Super Middleweight isn’t going anywhere and, decades from now, any discussion of its greatest fighter will feature Calzaghe prominently in much the same way a Jack Johnson or Joe Gans still leaps to the fore in debates about great Heavyweights or Lightweights. Calzaghe has set the standard all others will follow.
Should he retire undefeated, it only adds to the full picture of his years in the sport.
Rocky Marciano’s 49-0 is one of the game’s most revered numbers but Calzaghe’s 46-0 would have elements to it Marciano’s did not. Calzaghe was world class in about the same amount of time as the Rock, defeating Eubank in his fourth professional year as Marciano defeated Joe Louis. However, his tenure as a champion is longer, to date, by some eight years. Including his title win over Jersey Joe Walcott, Marciano was 7-0 at the World title level over a three year period before retiring.
Those three years were impressive. Two wins apiece against Walcott and Ezzard Charles, a stoppage of rival Roland La Starza and final fight, off the floor, defeat of Archie Moore is powerful stuff. However, like Calzaghe’s biggest name wins, three of those Rock victims were on the other side of prime when Marciano got to them. In Calzaghe’s favor, he is just slightly less past peak than Hopkins and Jones in his mid-thirties; Marciano was prime.
There remain arguments about Calzaghe’s many lesser foes. Those arguments can be overcome with the example of another former Heavyweight champion in Larry Holmes. He too reigned for years, and twenty defenses, without unification fights or enough opponents who could earn him accolades. He got Ken Norton in a classic, but Norton was already heading for the end. Earnie Shavers dropped him, forcing another exhibition of Holmes’ guts and championship heart. And, with the world watching, Holmes overcame a Gerry Cooney whose hype makes Kessler and Lacy invisible in comparison.
Holmes had a lot of lesser fighters on his record as champion, Lucien Rodriguez’s and Marvis Frazier’s that did him no favors in terms of public respect. Much of that is forgotten decades later, and anyone claiming Holmes as less than an all-time great is rarely invited to adult conversation.
In more contemporary terms, Strawweight Ricardo Lopez retired 51-0-1, dominated 105 lbs. throughout the 90s, joined the 20-defense club, partially unified in a classic second bout with Rosendo Alvarez, and captured another title at 108 lbs. His competition was inferior to Calzaghe’s. He did not fight superior talents near his weight like Michael Carbajal, Yuri Arbachakov, and Mark Johnson, even when they were old, and often defended against unfathomably unqualified competition, including five fighters with less than ten wins on their record. And yet, it is his overall body of work which stands out, which made him a first-ballot Hall of Famer and which makes him a presence in arguments about the greatest little men ever.
So Calzaghe might not ever rate with Harry Greb. Fair enough…but no one can say he wouldn’t have belonged in a ring with Greb or anyone else near his weight. Even more, if a career stands up well next to names like Marciano, Holmes, and Lopez, then that’s good enough. Calzaghe earned his place in history and may build on it before he’s done. He is one of the defining names of his generation, the Greatest Super Middleweight of all-time and one of the sports 50-100 best ever sandwiched on the scale in his day between a Hopkins who rates among the top ten Middleweights ever and a Jones who does the same at Light Heavyweight. That’s a hell of an all-time trinity.
Verdict on Joe Calzaghe: All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest. Next up: Oscar De La Hoya in the week before his battle with Manny Pacquiao.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]