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April 19, 2017

The Battle of the Planet: Hopkins vs. Calzaghe

by Matt O'Brien

Author’s Note: This article was written on 17th April, 2008, and was my first ever attempt at a full-length boxing article. I’d like to extend a huge thanks to Thomas Hauser and T.K. Stewart, who kindly took the time to read it and offer feedback and words of encouragement.

After a combined total of 44 world title fight victories including two of the longest title reigns in the history of boxing, culminating in both fighters becoming undisputed champions in their respective divisions and one of them a two division champion, finally Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins and Joe ‘The Pride of Wales’ Calzaghe will meet in the squared circle. The fight will determine not only who can call himself the best light-heavyweight in the world, but which man can claim supremacy over an entire era. Most likely niether fighter will remain in the sport of boxing long after Saturday’s contest, regardless of the outcome. So as another of boxings era’s draws itself to a close – with the likes of De La Hoya, Roy Jones, Mosley, Trinidad, Barrera and more all likely closing out their hall of fame careers in the near future – so two more legends of the modern era duke it out to decide just who can ride off into the sunset with his pride in tact; his will executed.

This Saturday’s ‘Super Fight’ at the Thomas and Mack centre in Las Vegas is likely to be just that – a super fight – but in stature and intrigue rather than in all out-action and excitement. These two men did not remain unbeaten for two decades between them in consecutive world title fights by interpreting the noble art with reckless abandon.

“Boxing’s an art. It’s about hitting and not getting hit” – Joe Calzaghe

Here are two fighters that understand this fundamental maxim of their trade better than most. It is, then, likely a match to be enjoyed by the purists and not the slugfest junkies of the modern ‘entertainment’ business. Strategy, cunning, defence and ring generalship will likely take precedence over punching-power and all-out aggression in resolving the outcome of this contest, slated for the Ring Magazine’s Light-Heavyweight “World” title belt, and more importantly recognized by all those who follow the sport as determining the true champion of the 175lbs class.

This description of the stakes may be somewhat disputed by the combatants of last weekend’s double header in which four fighters battled it out for two portions of the “World Light-Heavyweight Title”; Antonio Tarver defeating Britain’s Clinton Woods and Chad Dawson defeating Glen Johnson for the IBF and WBC titles respectively. Such is the climate of current world boxing.

There is however a simple solution to this quandary of elite fighters all of whom lay claim to be the ‘true’ champion of his division’s throne. You see, if we follow the royal bloodline back just a few years, we find that once upon a time there was a champion named Roy Jones Junior. He was the Undisputed champion of his division (in the literal sense of the word – no one disputed his position). Roy Jones was knocked out and defeated by Antonio Tarver. In turn Antonio Tarver lost and then regained the title from Glen Johnson, and thereafter was decisively defeated by Bernard Hopkins, who has since not been defeated himself. All hail the King of the Light-Heavyweights, for all other claimants to the throne can be rejected as mere pretenders. It is that simple.

Joe Calzaghe is however no pretender. He hails not from those same shores, and instead arrives as the Undisputed King of his dominion – the 168lbs class – and attempts to usurp the throne of the American. Talk of thrones and dominions have appeared as more than just metaphor in the run-up to this contest – billed as the “Battle of the Planet”. In a pre-fight skirmish at the Ricky Hatton-Floyd Mayweather bout in December of last year, Calzaghe and Hopkins traded verbals watched on by the world’s media:

Calzaghe: “I’ve never lost a fight”

Hopkins: “That’s cuz’ you never left Europe”

Time and again we hear the Americans assert their favourite war-cry: “He’s never left his backyard! He just fights in the comfort of his home! He’ll never make it here.” Just the other day Hopkins was seen in an open-media work out stating boldly: “I’ve fought all over the world, unlike Joe, in other peoples’ countries”.

And what should we make of this? Well, first of all, let me provide one interesting fact for the American scribes out there in retaliation to their favourite ‘war-cry’ against us pesky Brits: Four of the greatest Americans of the modern era – Oscar De La Hoya, Shane Mosley, Roy Jones Junior and Floyd Mayweather Junior – have currently fought as professionals outside of their beloved homeland a combined total of zero times. In the last six months alone British fighters Ricky Hatton, David Haye and now Joe Calzaghe will all have contested world titles on foreign soil. Food for thought.

Another interesting fact: Despite Bernard Hopkins’ claims to have ‘fought all over the world’, he has in fact fought exactly two professional fights outside of his homeland; once in the boxing fortress that is Paris against Anibal Miranda, a man with a record of 8-8-1, winning on points over ten rounds; and once in Ecuador for the IBF middleweight championship, drawing over twelve rounds against Sergundo Mercado. So whilst he has certainly travelled, I doubt ‘The Lonely Planet’ will be contacting Bernard any time soon for advice.

Calzaghe, meanwhile, has competed in bouts in Germany, Denmark, Scotland and England. So whilst Joe is also not going to be stealing Glen Johnson’s “Road Warrior” alias anytime soon, the fact remains that he has fought as many professional fights abroad as Hopkins. Thus proving Bernard’s statement factually incorrect.

Hopkins, a master of pre-fight psychology, is unfortunately not so masterful in his command of the facts of his and his opponent’s career history (and this despite claims that he has read Joe’s recently published autobiography). Neither is he (and I might add many an American writer) quite so masterful in their geographical knowledge of the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe. Joe Calzaghe is Welsh – not English (yes, they are different countries. If you doubt this try walking into a bar in Cardiff and asking the locals how proud they are to be English. You might want to call the ambulance before you ask the question though). So whilst fighting Jeff Lacy or Mikkel Kessler in Manchester or Cardiff might constitute ‘home advantage’ for the ‘Pride of Wales’ (it’s all in the name, really), fighting against Chris Eubank in Sheffield or Mark Delaney in Essex (in England) gives Joe about as much of a home advantage as a Japanese war historian lecturing at a Beijing university. Not much at all.

It might be difficult for those across the pond to appreciate the difference of a few miles and a border ruled over by a common queen and government. Let me tell you though that if a Welsh sports-star publicly states that he’d rather Italy win the football (sorry, soccer) world cup than England, well that has a tendency not to inspire those English fans to rally around their Welsh counterpart with untempered glee. As an example, please allow me to share with you a brief conversation I had with a fellow English boxing fan in my local pub prior to Calzaghe’s unification fight with Mikkel Kessler:

Me: “I like Calzaghe, I think he’ll do it.”

Mr X: “Yeah but he’s a f****** Welsh c*** though in’t he.”

And whilst our fellow Americans might be forgiven for lacking intimate knowledge of the nuances of local Great British rivalries (I doubt many would appreciate, for example, the intensity of an old firm game) it is surely unforgivable to lump our historical continent as one big friendly home turf. “You fought all your fights in Europe” Bernard cries, as though that place in itself constitutes some kind of homogeneous entity united in a common cause and entrusted with the task of denying the United States world title belts. If Joe Calzaghe fighting Mark Delaney in Essex can be called ‘staying in the comfort of your own home’ you might as well argue that Bernard Hopkins fighting Sergundo Mercado in Ecuador also constituted a comparative ‘home comfort’ – it is after all, on the same side of the world, right?

What Bernard fails to explain in his grand-unified-theory-of-Europe is just exactly how fighting in that one continent helped Joe win twenty-two world title fights. How did fighting in Europe help Joe knock opponents like Omar Shieka senseless? To shut-out and embarrass odds-on favourite, future superstar Jeff Lacy? To survive and win a war with Chris Eubank? To dominate a double world champion in Mikkel Kessler? Point the argument towards Sven Ottke and I agree it holds some clout; the guy has more gifts in his pocket than Santa Claus. The only decision even approaching controversy across Joe’s reign, meanwhile, came against Robin Reid: an English fighter in England with English judges scoring the bout. Hardly a case for a home-town decision.

The bright lights of Las Vegas might indeed be the economic Holy Grail of the sport of boxing for any fighter in the world, but Bernard’s claims against Calzaghe are not that he hasn’t made money, they are that his accomplishments in the ring are somehow diminished by the longitudinal location of the ring at the time his fights were fought. And this, we can see from simply viewing the bouts in question, and taking a quick glance at the number of stamps on Bernard’s own fighting passport, is a somewhat ridiculous assertion. But then Bernard Hopkins is hardly striding into new territory there.

Although he might make ridiculous claims, do not take this to mean he is a foolish man though. He is nothing of the sort: “I’ll never lose to a white boy” might be a ridiculous statement to make, but it is not a stupid statement to make. In fact given the media attention it drew to the fight and the potential economic consequences on the fight it was a rather ingenious statement to make, if distasteful. Hopkins though is likely to be less concerned with tastefulness and more concerned with gaining a pre-fight edge and selling a few extra tickets. It is this same shrewdness and ingenuity that has helped Hopkins to so many victories, and which – if he is successful – will undoubtedly prove pivotal in his voctory on Saturday night. For although he may like to portray himself as ‘The Executioner’, the moniker is nothing more than a part of Hopkins formidable pre-fight psychological ammunition. Hopkins is an executioner of superb fight strategies – not of opponents’ lives.

Not everyone in the fight game concurs with Hopkins’ lofty assessment of his own ring achievements though. They are undoubtedly magnificent; but recently Hopkins is referring to himself more and more as something out of the ordinary realm of Great Champions and into the mystical set of men who have immortalized their names into the fabric of our sport. It is this to which I also have to disagree. For whilst B-Hop is a certainty to enter the Boxing Hall of Fame, his record is not immune to criticism.

A closer look reveals that during his long title winning streak, no less than three of his contests were against the same man – Robert Allen. And fighting Robert Allen three times (including one no-contest when Hopkins was pushed out of the ring accidentally by referee Mills Lane and injured his leg) hardly puts him in the LaMotta-Sugar Ray/Basillio-Graziano bracket of middleweight rivalry greatness. His biggest title victories came against great welterweights – men whose careers peaked at thirteen pounds below his own title belt limit. Let us not further forget that the biggest occasion of them all – the lottery ticket that was fighting Oscar De La Hoya – was contractually obliged to take place at two pounds under the middleweight limit, and so technically was not a middleweight fight at all.

Following his unification triumph over Felix Trinidad, Mr. I Am Legend consolidated his reign of terror on the division by besting – wait for it – Carl Daniels and Morrade Hakkar. Who…? Exactly. Larry Merchant wasn’t the only person asking questions about the latter contest. When we add to this that when defending against a young, undefeated, genuine middleweight contender Hopkins was beaten twice – and by a man who has subsequently been knocked out by Kelly Pavlik – the legend that is Bernard Hokpins seems to retreat further down the all-time ladder. At over forty years of age his latest two victories are nothing short of excellent, but again they are not without fault. Winky Wright was one more fighter that was simply out-weighed and out-muscled by Hopkins (Winky was fighting sixteen pounds above his optimum weight class of light-middle), and though he can’t admit it for fear of diminishing his own ring achievements, Antonio Tarver was weight-drained and lethargic after bulking up to face Rocky Balboa.

Joe Calzaghe’s title reign is not without its faults either. Lacklustre performances and sub-par opponents such as Rick Thornberry, Tocker Pudwill and David Starie spring to mind. To be fair to both champions though you cannot look a million dollars every fight, and you cannot fight the best opponent every bout. I am reminded of a quote from Norman Mailer’s book The Fight, when Muhammad Ali comments on the magnitude of the contest awaiting him compared to previous lesser opponents in his career:

“Of course, I didn’t train for any of them the way they trained for me. I couldn’t. If I trained for every fight the way I did for this, I’d be dead.” – Muhammad Ali

Hopkins is right when he states that Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler had none of the skills that he possesses; but then we might also say that he himself lacks precisely what made those fighters dangerous: youth, undefeated confidence, power and punch out-put. I don’t think the reverse is true though: Calzaghe possesses everything that made Tarver, Wright, Trinidad and Taylor dangerous – and then some more on top.

Calzaghe will not fade or be intimidated (like Taylor did). He will though be faster, more experienced, and stronger. Calzaghe will not be out-worked, out-thought and out of shape (like Antonio Tarver was). He will though be fresher, more diverse and more cunning in his approach. Calzaghe will not be out-muscled, out-hustled and out-worked (like Winky Wright was). He will though be just as awkward, just as difficult to get to, and even harder to master.

There was a time when Winky Wright was universally acknowledged as ‘the world’s most difficult southpaw’ – and perhaps the most difficult style to face of everyone not named Floyd Mayweather. Not now though. Hopkins’ second favourite tune to trumpet before this fight is the ‘I’ve beaten eleven southpaws’ number. But didn’t Jeff Lacy tell us how easily he could deal with southpaws, having sparred ‘endless’ rounds with Winky Wright? Yet the outcome was chilling. Dan Birmingham, Lacy’s own trainer, speaking after the fight proclaimed, “that was the best performance I have seen by any fighter in the world tonight. Calzaghe was a master of distance and timing.” No small praise. After watching the fight myself I remember thinking that comparisons being made by commentators with the great Sugar Rays – although perhaps slightly exaggerated – were not in the realm of ridiculous, and that in itself is a major statement. People forget just how good Calzaghe was that night. It is easy to forget though when the career of the man he beat is now in tatters, the fighter never likely to be the same again.

Thinking of a Hopkins victory where he displayed such all-round mastery and domination of an opponent in such scintillating fashion is somewhat more problematic. Remembering a significant fight that Hopkins won against an evenly matched opponent without breaking at least a dozen of the Queensbury rules is more difficult still.

“Boxing is like geometry, measuring angles and space and calculating where to position yourself so that you can strike your opponent and make him miss.” – Joe Calzaghe

Hopkins understands such subtleties of the sweet science just as well as his opponent and perhaps as well as any fighter of his era. That is precisely what makes him dangerous. His ability to impose his will onto a fight, to dictate his own strategy over his opponent and his excellent counter-punching punctuated with a dangerous overhand right will undoubtedly provide Calzaghe with formidable obstacles to overcome. Factor in Joe’s own tendency to fight down to his opponents level when they are not one hundred percent willing to engage, and his penchant for occasionally being susceptible to the over-hand right that will be Bernard’s bread and butter in this fight (see Byron Mitchell, Kabery Salem and Mikkel Kessler), and we have an intriguing contest on our hands indeed.

Joe’s statement that he will be more powerful at the higher weight and is looking to dominate, hurt and eventually knock out the ‘Executioner’ as opposed to merely collect the ‘W’ on his résumé also has the potential to backfire: we shouldn’t forget the many problems Joe has faced with his fragile hands in times past.

Outside of cuts, injuries and fouls determining the outcome though, I cannot see anything other than a Calzaghe victory in a hard-fought, tactical battle with both fighters having their moments of ascendancy, but with ‘The Pride of Wales’ ultimately proving too quick, too busy and finally too good for the age-old wily champion, who will close out his career in honourable defeat at the top of the sport that he has dedicated the best part of his life to.

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