It has been a long time coming. Years in the wilderness of WBO mandatories, late replacements and injury induced postponements left Joe Calzaghe close to “pound for pound” obscurity. Despite an unbeaten record, a dazzling fighting style and acceptance as the premier fighter at 168 pounds it required victories over Jeff Lacy, when decapitation was widely predicted by the American press, and rock hard Dane Mikkel Kessler in an unification bout to introduce Calzaghe to the major leagues. There remained a caveat to his new found status; his record lacks an opponent of historic significance. By April 20th, that will all change.
The night before Calzaghe tackles Bernard Hopkins, the gnarled, snarling veteran with a gift for self-promotion, an incredible appetite for competition, money and a monastic aptitude for physical preservation only Archie Moore could better. Despite his age, the self-styled Executioner turned 43 this month, Hopkins will be Calzaghe’s most qualified and decorated opponent since he beat Chris Eubank in 1997 to claim the WBO Super-Middleweight title.
Hopkins really is a physical phenomenon. 43 years of age and still accepted as the premier Light-Heavyweight following victories over Antonio Tarver and more recently, Winky Wright. Performances facilitating the former undisputed Middleweight champion’s return to the pound for pound elite following inconclusive but nevertheless, back-to-back defeats to Jermaine Taylor at the 160lb limit. Losses presumed to close off Hopkins’ Hall of Fame career.
Few would dispute his punch output has grown increasingly selective and reactive, in short, he’s isn’t the force he was, but such is his stubbornness and ability to suffocate the gifts of his opponents in the dark, unspoken alleyways of inside fighting in which he thrives, that he remains a genuine threat to Calzaghe pretensions of greatness. The pre-fight psychological warfare will also be a new experience for Calzaghe, no spring chicken himself at 36, to overcome. His first taste of the acidic barbs he will be subject to can be seen at the foot of the page, Calzaghe was out-maneuvered and out-thought in the verbal trade off but, for the optimists, didn’t take a backward step.
The jump to 175 pounds is largely irrelevant for Calzaghe, the trouble he had squeezing down to 12 stone is well documented – claiming as far back as 2001 that making the 168lb limit would soon prove to be magic trick he could no longer perform – and the additional pounds will presumably only strengthen and reinvigorate his punches. Certainly, in Hopkins he isn’t facing a huge Light-Heavyweight or a knockout puncher either. I think as a factor the two fighters’ effectiveness at the weight is a diversion, both will be more comfortable than they were at their preceding limits. True, Hopkins will be having his third consecutive fight at the weight, but Calzaghe has long been entering the ring well above the limbo bar of the Super-Middleweight limit he was making for weigh-ins and in Kessler fought a man stronger and bigger of frame than the Philadelphian veteran.
Personally, I think the outcome boils down to Hopkins’ ability to keep pace with Calzaghe’s incredible punch output and hand speed and Calzaghe’s ability to avoid Hopkins’ cute, stiff counters as he comes in. Calzaghe showed tremendous adaptability in beating Kessler and there is some potential for the bout to become very tactical, a pace that will suit the wily Hopkins. Recent performances suggest Hopkins prefers to fight in bursts, not a luxury Calzaghe can afford to extend or is likely to, regardless of the risk implicit in taking the initiative.
To win, Hopkins has to discover an intensity we’ve not seen for while, though moving from southpaws Tarver and Wright to Calzaghe is an astute step – Hopkins will be well briefed on facing a left-handed fighter although Tarver and Wright are both light years removed from the Welshman’s fighting style. Calzaghe simply needs to replicate much of the performance he delivered versus Kessler; fast, adaptable and throwing lots of punches.
The form-line is with the younger man despite the superficial luster of Hopkins victories over Tarver and Wright, I believe both were well timed and shrewd contests; Tarver appeared disinterested and rusty, Wright was debuting well above his optimum weight, and those results, on reflection, could flatter Hopkins.
Being Calzaghe’s American debut and the inevitable changes to his pre-fight routine could prove an intangible factor, alongside the mind-games Hopkins will doubtless try to employ there is scope to believe Calzaghe may struggle for the focus he’s demonstrated versus Lacy and Kessler. I don’t buy wholly in to that, but Calzaghe has been reckless in the past and isn’t too much of leap to think he may try too hard early to stamp his authority and get clipped – Hopkins is a precise and hurtful counter puncher after all.
Despite reservations, Calzaghe remains strong favourite for me. Such is Hopkins’ guile, cunning and repute, that the fight – despite the age and mileage of the two protagonists – will resonate with American and British audiences more than the fresher challenge of Kessler did.
No mean achievement, given 50,000 turned up to see that fight.
And it is that resonance and meaning to which Calzaghe is drawn. If he departs without a victory over the likes of Hopkins, Jones, Johnson or Tarver a small asterisk will always remain on his otherwise commendable career. A strange paradox given the quartet mentioned are all close or beyond 40 and years removed from their physical prime.
In that regard, the fight is a necessary and overdue charade but the proud Welshman knows he must succeed against the senior chorus line of American boxing to reap the respect and remuneration he craves.
On April 19th he’ll belatedly get his chance.