What I Learned from Calzaghe vs. Kessler

Yes, that Joe is a total badass. I think any sane boxing fan knows that now, and it more or less goes without saying: Joe's the peerless champ at super-middleweight, a division-defining fighter for the ages, who has cleaned the division up utterly and left nothing to prove at 168. Only the most narrow-minded of American nationalists could think otherwise.

But what about the more subtle things? What did we learn about Joe as a boxer? As brilliant of a performance as it was, Joe himself admitted that it was not flawless. What weaknesses may have been exposed? What strengths reinforced? How has this career defining fight altered the legend of Joe Calzaghe as a boxer as opposed to as a champion?

I've already detailed my opinions about some of Joe's strengths, and they were on display throughout the bout: his punch output (over 1,000 punches thrown!), his awkwardness, and the amazing variety of punches of which he is capable. True, a number of those punches are his rather pawing jabs, but even these add up when thrown in such number, and if nothing else, they confuse opponents--as Kessler admitted after the fight.

What I learned, though, was more about Joe's defense than his offense. I don't think we have emphasized enough on this site that Calzaghe is an absolute master of the clinch. Indeed, I don't know if I've ever seen a boxer use the clinch as effectively as Joe did last Saturday. For Joe, the clinch is both an offensive and a defensive tool. It allows him to always keep moving forward, as those quick clutches that so often concluded his flurries put Joe too close for comfort and thoroughly disrupted any boxing flow that Kessler tried to mount. The announcers talked about how Kessler couldn't seem to put together any combinations. The clinches are the reason why. As soon as one of Kessler's strong uppercuts landed, Joe was on him.

But not long enough to get annoying, not, say, in the manner of a John Ruiz, whose endless clinching  appears cowardly, spoiling not only his opponents' boxing game, but our own. Joe has absolutely mastered the ability to clinch just long enough to achieve his immediate goal. Then, just before his opponent can figure out what's going on, Joe releases and almost always lands a few backing away. Sometimes Joe threw too fast and rabbit punches a little bit, but even here, Joe was too smart to get caught for it (being merely warned and not penalized).

Joe's clinches are defensive not in the sense that they allow him to take a needed break, but in the sense that they become a rhythm-defining defense against his opponent's sense of direction and flow. His clinches are offensive in that they are integrated with a constantly forward-moving assault--they are not so much a break in Joe's offense, but a punctuation of it.

Second, we learned for certain that Joe has one hell of a chin. Lacy never got the chance to test it, but Kessler did, and it got him nowhere. No matter what Kessler did, Joe just kept moving forward. What will B-Hop do when Joe eats his best shot and doesn't so much as pause?

But as I said, it wasn't a flawless performance. Joe scared me repeatedly with his hands-down showboating and his lunging head movement. I guess he must have been supremely confident at that point, but still, the hands-at-the-waist taunting strikes me as a bad gameplan. What, besides a few cheers, does it get him? What if some ring general, someone like Hopkins, plays Joe into doing that again--only this time, what if, unlike Kessler, Joe's opponent is just waiting for that moment to pounce?

The heads-first lunging is problematic too. Against Kessler, Calzaghe was able to weather the storm. He never stopped the lunge, but he learned to protect himself better with his hands as he did it. But not before Kessler landed some solid punches. But what happens with an even bigger puncher? If those uppercuts had been delivered by Pavlik instead of Kessler, would the bout have been so one-sided?

None of this is really criticize Calzaghe's performance. It was masterful, no doubt. The good things we learned were definite and the bad things are mostly hypothetical. And it is this awkward and in some ways "unsound" style that makes him so much fun to watch, that makes Joe not only a champion and master craftsman, but also a supremely original and entertaining fighter for our time.

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