GQ, Feb 2007
Undefeated in 18 fights and world champion for nine: Joe Calzaghe is Britain’s best boxer. Now his eye-catching record and eye-watering ability are set to help him conquer America – without trading the valleys for Vegas.
On April 7th, at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, the best boxer in Britain will be reduced to fighting the star of an American reality TV show. Admittedly, the show is The Contender and not American Idol, but the result would hardly be more predictable if Paula Abdul were gloved up in the opposite corner. After all, Joe Calzaghe hasn’t lost a fight since 1989. He’s the unbeaten and undisputed super middleweight champion and has been for over nine years – the longest reigning champion in the sport today. A victory would place him in a class of only six other fighters in boxing history who have successfully defended their title 20 times – including Bernard Hopkins (20 times), Larry Holmes (20) and Joe Louis (25 times).
His opponent, Peter Manfredo, on the other hand, didn’t even win The Contender.
In no other sport would such a lopsided a match even be considered. But in boxing, it makes sense. Each fighter has what the other needs – Manfredo has a US following and Calzaghe has credibility. Manfredo is widely expected to get battered, so he need only lose bravely to raise his stock. Joe, on the other hand, stands to break America at long last. It’s about time – every British fighter with an eye for the big purses and the history books gives it a bash eventually. Naz did it, Lennox did it, Ricky Hatton’s working on it. Somehow Joe hasn’t got around to it and he’s 35 already, so he’s only got maybe two or three years tops. So he’s hatched a plan with Frank Warren – destroy Manfredo in spectacular style and get the Americans all revved up for the kind of career-making bouts he’s been waiting for all his life, against superstars like Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor. If it all works out, this could be the biggest year of Joe’s career.
The question remains, though – why isn’t Joe already well-known in the States? What’s taken him so long? He has a flawless record, a fast, exciting style, and he’s been champion since the days of Naseem, Eubank and Benn, British fighters who became household names on both sides of the Atlantic. But he lags behind in terms of public recognition – even in Britain. Frank Warren reckons it’s partly down to his reluctance to make a show of himself.
“He’s introverted. He doesn’t like the bright lights,” says Warren. “Had he the personality of a Eubank [whom he beat in 1997], he would have been a megastar, but he’s a bit of a homeboy, keeps to himself. We’d arrange things to promote him but he just didn’t make an effort. Once M&S wanted him to do an underwear campaign but he said, ‘I’m not doing nothing in pants’. So I said ‘Joe, nearly every photo of you, you got boxing shorts on. What’s the difference?’ Cut a long story short, he agreed to it two weeks later but by then it was too late. They got Freddie Ljundberg instead.”
Even setting up this interview was a shambles. Most top athletes are repped by big PR firms or corporate sponsors like Nike or Adidas. Not Joe – his media liaison is a bloke called John, his best mate from school. And John tends to get flustered. At first, the interview was supposed to happen in London, but Joe cancelled the day before. So John suggested we drive from London to Gwent for a nine am meeting with Joe at a little country hotel in Blackwood, even though he was planning to head to London immediately afterwards to meet Frank Warren. Couldn’t we just meet him after he met Frank? “No, he’ll be too angry then, because he’s got to talk to Frank about money, see.” So he came up with plan C – to meet Joe for dinner the night before. But then calls went unanswered, messages were ignored and Joe didn’t show up for dinner. John claimed he had no idea where he was. “He doesn’t always return my calls,” he said. “Because he lent me some money and… anyway, doesn’t matter. I’ll call you if I hear anything.”
When Joe arrives in the morning, it feels like a miracle. And I’m a little apprehensive – I’m expecting this pissed-off, interview-shy fighter who doesn’t like journalists. Instead he looks cheerful enough, just a bit bleary and confused. “Where’s the clothes?” he says. “John said there’d be special clothes for the pictures.” Sorry Joe, no one said anything about clothes. “Oh he’s a right cock isn’t he? He’s my best mate, but he’s a cock. He told me there’d be clothes.”
Calzaghe doesn’t look like a fighter. A slim six foot with small hands, he has a straight nose and normal ears. He looks like a footballer, which is what he wanted to be as a kid, until his dad Enzo got him a speedball, aged nine, and it was clear where his talents lay. He started out at a gym just down the road in Newbridge, where he’s lived his entire life, in the misty valleys of Gwent. This is where he trains too, running up and down the rainy hills. His gym is essentially a shed in a field.
“I love it here. It’s so peaceful and chilled out,” he says. “Fresh air. My dad’s near, my sisters, Farmer Giles… It’s like League of Gentleman here, we got a local shop and everything. But it’s nice. I get left alone. People don’t hassle me.”
There was a time he considered moving to London, to raise his profile, but he thought “nah fuck it – train’s only two hours, Newport to Paddington.” As for moving to America temporarily as both Lewis and Naz did at one time, both hiring legendary trainer Emanuel Steward – two of the richest boxers this country has produced, incidentally – Joe opted to stay with his dad in Newbridge.
“In hindsight, if I moved to America I’d probably be as big as Oscar de la Hoya,” he shrugs. “Honestly, in America, how many white fighters are there? The reason de la Hoya’s worth over $100 million is because he’s a Hispanic American. Obviously I’m half Italian, [his mum’s Welsh and his dad’s from Sardinia] so you can imagine what would have happened.”
But so much for ‘would-have’ – Joe stayed in Wales. And now he’s fighting Peter Manfredo, who’s also half-Italian, sort of. “He’s saying all that bada bing shit about how he fights like Jake la Motta and his favourite film’s The Godfather,” Joe laughs. “It’s a joke. He don’t know where he’s from in Italy. He don’t speak Italian. I asked him. And he can’t fight. But in the States, they don’t care, they get behind ’em anyway. Look at Adamek, the Polish guy – he can’t fight and he’s selling 20,000 tickets. John Duddy’s another one – can’t fight, sells tickets to all the Irish. So yeah, being from Wales is a handicap for me, course it is.”
Still, the tide is turning for Joe in the US, ever since his dismantling of Jeff Lacy at the MEN arena in March of last year. The fight was aired on Showtime – a lesser platform than HBO – so the audiences were smaller. But American fans widely expected Lacy, the ripped, knockout puncher to put Joe on his back. Lacy himself dismissed Joe, as so many fighters have over the years, as being a ‘slapper’, because of his cuffing style of punching. He ought to have listened to Chris Eubank who ranks Joe as the hardest puncher he’s ever faced – not Benn, not Watson, not Collins. In the end, the Welshman didn’t just win – he dominated in every department for every round. He was faster, stronger, slicker; he beat him up on the inside and from range. And he showed no respect for the American’s supposedly ‘heavy’ hands. He gleefully told his dad Enzo between rounds, “he can’t punch for shit!” Over 12 rounds he robbed whatever Lacy had as a fighter – his power, his confidence. It was like what Marco Antonio Barrera did to Naseem, but worse.
“When you get the shit smashed into you, the confidence goes,” says Joe. Not that he’s ever experienced such a thing. “It’s worse for a puncher. They have to believe in their power to psyche the other guy out. So he’s fucked. I fucked Lacy up. He’ll never be the same.”
After Lacy, Joe flew to New York for his follow-up fight against Sakio Bika, his HBO debut. And for the first time he was stopped by Americans in bars for autographs and pictures. “Yeah, it feels good, but not because I want to be a superstar or anything. I’m a pretty private person. I don’t go to the opening of an envelope like Eubank used to do. But it was nice when Leonard said it was one of the best performances he’s ever seen – he’s one of my childhood heroes.”
What makes the Lacy episode so poignant is that it could so easily have happened sooner in his career. No doubt, Joe’s had his share of bad luck, beginning when he was denied a place on the British Olympic boxing team, a ridiculous stitch-up with hindsight. He was a brilliant amateur, with three consecutive British championships at ascending weights, a feat that has never been repeated either before or since. But then he also made mistakes of his own, none bigger than signing with Mickey Duff straight out of the gate, instead of Frank Warren. “I was naïve,” he says. “I didn’t even meet Frank. I just came from here to London, met Mickey Duff and signed that very day. I didn’t even take the contracts away. And he never gave me a signing on fee – it was a loan. A few grand.” Which is akin to Wayne Rooney launching his pro football career by paying Doncaster to put him on the bench.
Joe stayed with Duff for 21 fights before he finally got out of his contract and moved to Frank Warren’s stable. He went from fighting at the Goresbrook Leisure centre in Dagenham under Duff, to fighting at the MEN in Manchester with Warren. And it wasn’t long before Warren had him fighting Americans on Showtime, either. Charles Brewer, Byron Mitchell and Omar Sheika were all good fights. Brewer and Mitchell were former champions and Mitchell was, apparently, the hardest puncher that Joe has ever faced. But none of them had the aura or expectation of Jeff Lacy. Mitchell was coming off a loss to Sven Ottke. Sheika has never worn a belt. Perhaps things would have been different had he fought the stars of the era like Roy Jones Jr or Bernard Hopkins, both of whom are calling him out now.
“Well, I’m not saying I wish I fought Jones, because he was one of the few fighters I could have got beat against. He was shit-hot. But then you’ve got the issue – was he on drugs?” Jones was accused in 2003 of using steroids in a fight in 2000 – the subsequent inquiry led to the lab in question being shut down and Jones’s career going into immediate decline. He edged a decision in his next fight against Antonio Tarver in November 2003. Then he was knocked out cold in his next two. “All of a sudden he looked human all of a sudden,” says Joe. “All of a sudden he looked shit.”
Still, Warren tried to make a fight with Jones at the time. Jones just priced himself out. Hopkins pulled the same trick about four years ago. “He agreed to the fight and then the very next day sent a fax asking for six million instead of three,” says Joe. “That’s his way of saying he doesn’t want to fight – ask for silly money. Tell you what, I’ll fight Klitschko for 30 million quid. I’ll get knocked out, resuscitated immediately and then I’ll go on holiday!”
When it wasn’t fighters playing games with money, Joe had problems with injuries. He might have made a name for himself by taking the fight against Glencoffe Johnson, who knocked Roy Jones out, but twice Joe had to pull out because of his fragile hands, leading many to call him a coward. The Lacy fight was headed in a similar direction – Joe hurt his wrist in training and was set to cancel, but then his father Enzo stepped in with some stiff advice.
“He said, ‘you need to fight this fucking fight otherwise you’ll be known as a fucking chicken.’ He said, ‘it’ll be easy.’ I said, ‘fuck you, he’s got 17 knockouts’. But he said, ‘Better off fighting with one hand. And if it goes in the fight, then fuck it, at least you got respect.'”
Critics haven’t always been kind to Enzo. Since he was never a fighter himself his credentials as a trainer have been quietly scoffed at. But now he has a stable of winners out in that shed in Newbridge – Bradley Pryce, Gavin Rees and Enzo Macranelli, all of whom have improved immeasurably under his wing. The Calzaghes have a thing about winning. The last time Joe lost was when he was 17, about 2/3 of the way through his amateur career. “Every time I lost as a kid, it broke my heart,” he says. “The first fight I lost, the father of the guy I boxed was one of the judges. I just cried and cried. I beat him four times afterwards. I hit him out the ring.”
If an obsessive determination to win is one of the hallmarks of Joe’s career, then so is his consistency. Joe has stayed in south Wales all his life and he has kept his father as trainer from day one, when so many fighters chop and change – the if-it-ain’t-broke approach. “One reason I’m consistent is I’m with a woman,” he says. “I’ve had this girlfriend for two and a half years, so I just stay in with her. If you’re on your own, you go out with your mates. You’re open to temptations.”
He’s also in consistently excellent shape, though it’s a mystery how he manages it – he’s hardly the hardest working man in boxing. Between fights he takes it easy, he has a drink, he orders dessert. He takes the kids to Sardinia to see his dad’s side of the family, he plays Playstation. Then 10 weeks before a fight, he goes into training mode – but even then he’s not trying that hard. He only runs five miles a day (most fighters do eight or 10), he hasn’t skipped in about 15 years – “I don’t want to fucking skip,” he says, “I want to box”. And he only does 12 rounds in the gym.
“Loads of people train harder than me,” he says. “I hardly ever spar. Maybe before a fight, I’ll bring in sparring about three or four times a week, but nothing hard. What do I want to go to war in the gym for? I just do it for speed. I never spar big guys because I’m so fast I can just tee off on them and hurt my hands.”
The light regime explains why Joe’s still relatively fresh at 35. He’s no Lloyd Honeghan, all mashed and slurry. In fact, he’s everything that a fighter oughtn’t be at this level of his career – he’s bright, articulate and remarkably humble. While Jeff Lacy had his cars affixed with his “Left Hook” badge, Joe’s the opposite. He was never into the bling, the brashness, the big “I am”. He just wants to win. All too often boxing punishes the fighters who treat it like a sport rather than a spectacle. Certainly the Contender’s more of a popularity contest than a boxing contest. But then maybe that’s the lesson of Joe’s career – if you keep winning, the rewards and accolades will come no matter how long it takes.
It’s impossible not to root for Joe. His approach to the sport is so artless and straightforward, it’s what boxing needs. When we talk about the way fighters badmouth other off before a fight, he shakes his head – “I hate all that Tyson shit, like Danny Williams and Audley Harrison, pushing each other around. Save it for the ring!” I mention that there was a time, seven years ago, when he squared off against Robin Reid after a press conference in Newcastle. He looks immediately guilty. “Yeah, but that wasn’t really me. Back then, I was pretending, because I watched Naz and I thought it was the way to go.”
Now Naz looks like the flipside of what he had always wanted – a big early break in America. “Maybe everything happens for a reason,” he says. “Maybe I would have burned out like Naz. Come and gone. He’s not happy, is he? That’s why I haven’t been beaten, because I don’t get caught up in all the shit. I’m a fighter, first and foremost.”
Certainly today, in this sunny Welsh pub, Joe seems content with the way things are shaping up. Here he is, his faculties intact, with a flawless record and his money well invested in properties as far afield as Dubai (“I got to do something when I retire,” he says). He did have that difficult divorce that saw him in court, fighting to keep his money. “That was when I was most vulnerable,” he says. “When I fought Kabary Salem I was totally distracted. If he could have fought, he would have knocked me out.”
Now with the divorce behind him, he has his children to look after, and an extraordinary legacy to think about. He wants to retire undefeated, his record untarnished. While boxing purists want to see him fight the undefeated Europeans, Mikkel Kessler from Denmark, or the German Robert Stieglitz, he dismisses them both without question. He’s looking across the Atlantic. “No one gives a shit about Kessler,” he says. “I want to fight fights that people are going to remember. No one talks about the time Leonard lost to Camacho. They talk about the fights against Hagler and Hearns.” Those fights might well be against Hopkins and Taylor. Of the two, Hopkins would no question be his hardest assignment. Calzaghe likes a tear-up, he likes opponents who come forward and throw punches. “Hopkins is cagey and defensive. He conserves his energy. He’ll want to win throwing one punch a round.”
Until then, there’s Manfredo.
“He’s not bad you know,” says Joe. “After The Contender, he beat Spina, and Pemberton didn’t he?”
Yes, but Joe, Spina’s crap and Pemberton’s on the slide.
He shrugs and laughs. “I know, I know. I’m just trying to motivate myself.”