Article first appeared in issue 22 of Knockout London Magazine
Biadu quie ischeddat in palas anzenas*
It is a sign of the passing of time that the heroes we hold most dear are leaving. The great talismanic figures we revere; totems within their chosen landscape, their accomplishments and influence reaching far beyond the lives they physically touch, are, one by one, beginning to depart. Earlier this year, boxing bade a sad farewell to the beloved Irish sage Brendan Ingle and now, with the autumn barely upon us, his death is compounded by the loss of a similarly diminutive colossus; Enzo Calzaghe.
Brendan and Enzo’s lives were entwined and ultimately defined by the achievements of those they coached and nurtured; some triumphs were in the public domain, many of their most important salvations known only to those involved. Despite their apparent uniqueness, echoes of each other’s lives in the happen-chance of their respective migrations, from Ireland and Sardinia, to the warm embrace and black gold of the Welsh and Yorkshire hills are indisputable. The fable of those journeys, which grew ever more colourful with every reprisal, embellished by a natural flare for story telling embedded deep in their bones by the lyricism and folk singing of their forefathers.
Half a century from now, when we conduct similar retrospectives, there will prove to have been great characters and personalities emerging among us about whom people will retain similar affection. However, when characters of Enzo and Brendan’s magnitude depart the vacuum left behind can seem infinite and the circumstances that created them unrepeatable. Their generation, nor the one before, ever own greatness exclusively, but in the passing of it’s most important players the sense another connection to an increasingly distant century has been lost is palpable. The tales and truth of their impact and message will continue to reverberate beyond them and it is our duty to ensure those memories and sentiments are preserved.
They were different characters of course, but in the philosophies Enzo and Brendan held and imparted and in their stubbornness, their defiance of convention, synergies were plain. In life their words, like the grip of their gaze, were potent and the influence on those they encountered lifelong and frequently life changing. In the Winconbank Gym, the floor divided by taped lines, the air by the sharpness and volume of Brendan’s Irish brogue, everyone was welcomed with equality. A cosmopolitan brood of all colours, shapes and varied horizons. Just like Brendan, and his son’s John and Dominic, Enzo and his family invested time, wisdom and love in to every spirit that walked through the doors to his crumbling, leaking gymnasium. A decrepit workshop from where the miraculous became the every day.
Enzo’s most luminous triumph was his son, Joe Calzaghe, of course. An apparent natural, with phenomenal stamina, dancing feet and hand speed few would match across a lifetime of amateur and professional bouts. The real beauty of Joe’s brilliance lay beneath the stardust and in the contrast his style, and those seminal victories over Lacy, Kessler and Hopkins, bore to the humble walls of the Newbridge Gym in to which he first walked as a child, father Enzo prodding him forward. From the first to the last punch of Joe’s career, there remained a glowing honesty in the two ramshackle sheds they inhabited, unspoilt and unvarnished by the prizes their partnership captured.
For all the face slaps, the bi-lingual swear words and the dressing downs Joe and Enzo’s adopted sons, Enzo, Nathan, Gavin, Brad and a few more besides, received, they all loved him. Remaining loyal to his methods and he to them too. In the aftermath of Joe’s retirement, grappling for purpose on the other side of the mountain, Enzo tried to recapture the magic, to unearth another. In the little seen Calzaghe Clan series, which followed Enzo’s life at the time, he said to Jamie Todd, the novice professional he was trying to impress a message upon; “Give me you, and I’ll give you me.” It was the essence of his methodology, of what he, like Brendan, had given to all comers, but the pathos of the piece was the sense Enzo had nothing left to give. Consumed by boxing, by the desire to give back, but himself, the previously irrepressible Enzo, already consumed.
Enzo’s credentials for the job of training a talent as luxurious as Joe were questioned at several points in his son’s career, and the sense of unintentional caricature his ‘fiery, emotional little Italian’ persona presented did nothing to quell the disquiet. Despite attempts at an intervention, Joe stayed. His father’s exaggerated scowls, shoelace moustache and collar length, olive-black hair did too.
The final chapters of Joe’s career saw the cynicism give way to respect as the success derived from Enzo’s singular methods became incontrovertible. In 2007 his nomadic career, in which he’d variously been employed to sing, sell, cook, conduct and wait in his time before boxing, reached it’s pinnacle. He was awarded The Ring magazine’s Trainer of the Year and the BBC’s Coach of the Year too. Timely recognition of his triumphs with Joe, who would retire undefeated the following year, and a WBA Light Welterweight belt won by Gavin Rees. He wasn’t overwhelmed by the recognition, nor bitter about the years he spent proving himself. He would maintain until the end that it was never about him. In the build up to Joe’s final fight, with a tiring Roy Jones Junior, he would remark on his presumed quest for validation; “I don’t want anything. I want it for Joe.”
In interview, as he was in the gym, his voice was unmistakable. Wandering between the hillsides of the Welsh dialect that surrounded him to the language of the Sardinian shores of his teenage years and back again. Pitched from baritone to soprano, scratched with a rasp from the perennial urgency of his message, he delivered every word with passion, desperate to help those in his charge without ego or vainglory. Despite the apparent chaos of the words, his message invariably got through.
Boxing is an opera in to which Enzo’s personality and charisma belonged but also jarred; an old soul in an ever more modern world. He possessed an unerringly accurate intuition for fights and an ability to understand fighters that his lack of boxing pedigree offered no explanation for. Speaking to the Guardian in 2008 he would remark; “[I] Never fought myself. I just fought life. I’m a life fighter. Nothing can damage me. Nothing, No money, piss all. It means nothing. I’m a happy guy. Wake up in the morning with a smile on my face whether I’ve got a million quid or a penny. “
Years spent hoboing around the capitals of Europe with only his wits and a guitar for company, an adventure of necessity that saw him adapt to survive, taught him about people. This ability to ‘read’ faces, body language, to absorb, to identify triggers, strength, weakness and opportunity may have been what enabled him to draw greatness and the type of unlikely triumph from fighters precious few others could’ve summoned.
Certainly, the timeless simplicity of his barked philosophy, delivered swaddled in love and dripping with sentiment and wisdom, drove his son, and his adopted sons, to heights their talent alone may never have taken them.
As a latecomer to the sport, despite the peaks he climbed and the personal respect he was eventually afforded, he appeared forever the interloper. The visitor from another land, the man who could see through the science and the bluster, spot the chancer and the chance and in that regard he was, and will forever remain, an irreplaceable original.
A romantic with enough rascal in him to succeed on sport’s cruellest battlefield.
Especially if you told him he couldn’t.
*Wise men learn by other men’s mistakes, fools by their own.