Given the tremendous hype surrounding their upcoming Light Heavweight duel, it seems a little strange to me that more boxing journalists aren't devoting more pages to what has been a burning question in my mind for about ten years now:
"Who is Joe Calzaghe?"
Now, I know that in the year 2008, the question seems a little audacious, and probably rankles a few of my friends across the pond. And, more likely than not, many more believe the question was, if not completely, than at least partially answered in last year's highly touted 168-unifier against a game Mikkel Kessler. And if that answer was that Joe is a fast, voluminous lefty with smart footwork and a spoiler's instincts, I'd have to whole-heartedly agree. And honestly, I already knew that.
But if the question is broadened to ask what the Welsh Dragon means to the sport, I have to confess I'm still a little stumped.
On paper -and minus the fine print- Calzaghe's accomplishments seem to speak for themselves. A 10-year unbroken streak, which, if he conquers Hopkins, may extend to eleven. And, let's not forget - Joe Calzaghe is the Undisputed Super Middleweight Champion of the world. Thanks to his win over Kessler and his entertaining smacktalk with that Prince of Headgames, Bernard Hopkins, he has easily become one of the most recognizable faces in the sport.
But then, of course, there's that damn fine print. For 9.5 of his 10 year streak, Joe has defended a single alphabet belt - the WBO - which, though gaining steam, seems unlikely to ever eclipse the fourth fiddle slot in the international fancy-clothing-accessories market. The WBO reminds me of the early 90's U.S. network television wars; a "FOX-like" alternative to the holy trinity of NBC, ABC, and CBS. In any case, their vintage is about the same. While it has certainly gained in prestige enough to be a belt worth fighting for, it's still kind of difficult not to think of it as "Oscar's belt" - more the product of marketing ingenuity than evolving from changing dynamics of the sport. Formed in 1988, the organization itself had originally claimed to be the product of a sort of Great Schism of Boxing, bent on reforming outdated rules and corrupt sanctioning practices. I'll leave it to someone else to decide how well the WBO's conscientious "reform" movement worked out.
But leaving aside the relative prestige of the body itself, the fact remains that in 1997, Joe Calzaghe fought Chris Eubank for an open belt that hadn't yet reached it's tenth birthday, in a division that had just barely had. In any case if you added those two ages together, you still wouldn't match Eubank, who at 31 found Calzaghe at the end of a bumpy 2-1/2 year crusade to regain the belt that Steve Collins kept denying him. For me, Collins is the more memorable of the two, if for nothing else than having driven the final nail into Nigel Benn's coffin in fights that saw Benn's body just fail on him.
Collins, of course, decided to end his WBO line less than a year later, and the WBC title that Eubank had insufficiently challenged Benn for would quickly acquire a whole crime lab full of fingerprints on it before the millenium was out. With the WBO up for grabs, a twice-denied Eubank would find the cock crowing yet again, as a hot up-and-comer named Joe Calzaghe made Eubank look blind and ancient for twelve rounds. And suddenly, a new line had begun.
After Joe, Eubank jumped up to Cruiserweight to close out his career. He would fight (and lose) two more fights, both to Carl Thompson. Now, the Cat wasn't a pushover, and from 1995 until the end of 2005, he spent much of his time in the mix for an assortment of b-level belts like the IBO, as well as a plethora of more exotic extension cords like the BBBofC belt and the vaunted EBU, which at times seemed more vacant than a Britney Spears B-side. (In deference to my European friends, the Americas have their share of worthless trinkets.) Counting all the "me-too" trophy fights, Thompson had a decent record in championship outings. But his relationship to the WBO crown was the one I find the most fascinating. Like Joe, the Cat first contended for the belt when it was vacant. He lost that scrap when a German named Ralf Rocchigiani kayoed him in the final frame of their fight. It would take more than two years for Thompson to avenge himself, in a yet another head-scratcher of a Germanic SD. But no matter how you sliced it, the tyrannical WBO reign of the great Ralf "Rocky II" Rocchigiani had ended. Yes, that was really his nickname. And, yes, his legendary boxing career mysteriously vanished directly following that fight. I was starting to detect a pattern.
But what's all this fuss about belt pedigree? This is Boxing, after all, not a damn fashion show. Zags certainly isn't the first fighter to dust off a young, hand-me-down belt. And these days, the WBO has certainly grown "buzzworthy" enough to lure big fighters to the stage. And yet, in ways that are difficult to grasp, a glance at the WBO's Super Middleweight evolution over the course of Joe's reign feels radically underwhelming. Is it possible for a belt to die around a champions waist?
If a championship label has any meaning at all, it can be measured by the quality and quantity of those who actually contend for it. In other words, belts are not absolved from the immutable laws of supply and demand. And, in a more fundamental sense, belts are symbolically tied to history and bloodshed. Ali racked up a string of memorable victories wearing the NABF, and one could say the esteem of that award was elevated just from Ali himself having wore it. But, with a couple of notable exceptions, the level of competition that rose to contend the NABF paled in comparison to those that squabbled over the WBC and WBA crowns. As a result, the NABF is a belt that many good and great fighters have worn, but only briefly on their journey to a larger stage.
Winky Wright is a pretty good example of this phenomenon, I think. He first grabbed it from around the waist of Bronco McKart in an IBF eliminator, and dropped it on the side of highway less than a year later. But The NABF fight wasn't the first time Wright had met and beaten McKart. That had happened more than four years prior, around the same time that Joe Calzaghe was training to fight Eubank. Like Calzaghe, Wright was a young fighter, and also looking to capture and hold a newly-minted WBO belt. Like Calzaghe. he mostly defended the belt against lackluster, overmatched competition. Winky would lose the belt in South Africa a couple of years later, amidst one of the more curious scoring incidents in boxing history. Of course - being that it was "only" the WBO belt - Winky didn't look back, and instead kept manuevering himself towards the holy trinity and big fights with the likes of Sugar Shane, Tito, Jermaine Taylor, Ike Quartey and the Executioner himself.
But what about Harry Simon? The fellow who took the WBO belt from Wright in Africa? Needless to say, he didn't set the world on fire. Indeed he never contended for anything other then WBO honors during his brief career. He dropped the 154 and even managed to drop the 160-lb belt before a car accident took him out of the game in 2002. For some reason, even the Harry Simons of the World felt the WBO wasn't worth protecting against the likes of Rodney Jones, Enrique Areco and Armand Krajnc. Go figure.
So, then, Joe.
Much has been said about the class of competition Joe has faced over the past ten years (certainly, even Joe's most ardent fans probably can't find a good reason for Joe to fight Mario Veit TWICE). But what about the belt itself? Languishing in the corner as a tide of Kabary Salems, Mger Mkrtchians, Charles Brewers and Peter Manfredo Juniors vie for it's affections? The line from the WBO super-middleweight crown is short and broken, and at times, seems written in chalk. Since its birth, there have only been three other men to wear it. One was Chris Eubank, who lost it. The other two were Steve Collins and a forty-year-old Tommy Hearns. Even Old Man Hearns dropped the thing like it was poison. Likely, he saw it as a sort of "gold watch" and The Hitman wasn't ready to say goodbye quite yet. Collins then swooped in. He clung to the belt for three years, guarding it against the ghosts of Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank and nobody else. Then, of course, he dropped it too, and his boxing career as well. Collins, I think, was simply bored stiff with it, and Hearns didn't even know what the fuck it was. But in the end they both kissed it goodbye.
Why didn't Joe?
And, since he didn't, has Joe really done enough over the past decade to elevate the prestige of his WBO title? Or, given the recent vint of both his title and his weight class, has his reign served to make each of them a little less meaningful?
Which brings me back to my question. Who is Joe Calzaghe? At the end of the day, we can only define his worth as a champion by who he fought. The list is the subject of an ugly, ceasless debate, where valid viewpoints about the lack of international diversity in calling someone a "name" fighter is intertwined with the sort of tribal chest-thumping that has always been a part of the sport. Often, I'll hear fans of Joe quote his American competition as examples of "marquis" victories. Ironically, Charles Brewer - a marginal fighter who very early in his career found himself banging his head against a low ceiling - has found a near-adoring audience in Joe Calzaghe's fan club, who use him as example of Joe's supernatural mastery of the division. (I'm sure the Hatchet would be gratified, but then again the poor guy got knocked out by Mario Veit. He's probably changed his name and moved to Calcutta by now.) The notion that Zags took a fight against Brewer rather than go after Brewer's conqueror, Antwun Echols, spoke volumes to me about the cage his camp seemed to be building around him.
Leaving aside the absurd "American Boxing Stars" like Brewer and Manfredo, the smattering of local talent, and the stream of hideous, barn-storming shams like Veit, Salem, Ashira, Sabot, Jimenez, Sheika... what's left in the crucible?
Here are Joe's belt-defining fights, as far as I'm concerned:
Tocker Pudwill - In my recollection, Pudwill got a call on the Batphone at 3am the morning before the fight. It's clearly not Zags fault that his original opponent, Thomas Tate, couldn't show, but picking Tate in the first place certainly was. Positively Brewer-esque in stature, Tate made a career out of wandering to far-off lands to lose to local tin-pot champions - including once to the mediocre Silvio Branco and twice to Sven Ottke. Calzaghe seemed to want a piece of that semi-action, but in the end he had to settle for driving Pudwill back to the old folks' home instead.
Byron Mitchell - In the penultimate fight of his career, Mitchell got knocked silly by Joe in under two rounds. No one would confuse Mitchell with a boxing legend, but Joe did some business in this fight, and showed he could hit with purpose against a good fighter. I think of this as one of Joe's biggest "statement" fights. The fact that the statement happened to come against another Ottke war-crime victim is something to ponder, though.
Mario Veit II - As far as career-defining moments go, nothing is more problematic for Joe than the decision to fight Mario Veit again. Veit still stands as a veritable poster child for what's wrong with the international boxing scene. In some funhouse version of affirmative action, Veit got a second giant payday for fighting a man who totaled him inside two minutes of their first fight. The event cast a wide net of dispursion. Who to blame? Joe's camp for inking it? The British fighting public for swallowing it? In the end I decided to just blame the Germans - largely out of habit. Nevertheless, the matchup seemed like the nadir for the WBO belt, which had already been stuck in a turdlike 5 year stretch. It strained credulity to think that Joe couldn't find a way to get someone credible to care about his title, and the ludricrous matchups he was using to tide himself over were only serving to damage that title further. It was a vicious circle, and Joe needed to do something quick if he wanted to be regarded as anything more than Sven Ottke with better hair.
Jeff Lacy - In 2006, Joe found his holy grail in the form of Jeff "Left Hook" Lacy. He was a marketable young American champion who had already slain a few of Calzaghe's own victims. The fight shone a bright light on Joe, emphasizing how the puzzle of a smart, fast lefty with middleweight power could cause fits for decent competitors. He got his paws on a shiny new belt as well, but, as we all know, dropped it like a hot potato so he could fight a real contender. Or, at least, a guy from a reality TV show called "Contender." I'll let that one slide, though, since it might've been the result of some sort of cross-Atlantic language barrier.
Kessler - We all know the drill. Kessler, who is a well-wrought if somewhat predicatable machine, was thoroughly dominated by Calzaghe. There were times late in the fight that Kessler seemed like he was staring at the sun. Ten years into his reign, the Welsh Dragon captured a pair of new belts and respect enough to get a fight made with first ballot hall-of-famer Bernard Hopkins.
Still, it was ultimately Lacy that begat Kessler. But, in a way, I think Joe's coming-out party nine years into his reign was about three or four too late to rescue his mistreated WBO belt from the bargain bin. In his Lacy duel, Joe ripped off the mask of a regional Ottke-esque beltholder and revealed himself to be a potentially dangerous man that was content to drive to his fights for the rest of his life. Signing an established fighter to risk himself against a fast, smart southpaw in his hometown for a belt that nobody of import seemed to care about... I'm thinking that didn't exactly top most managers' "list of brilliant career moves." So, Joe was going to sit on the WBO for another year, devaluing it like a sack of money under a mildewed mattress.
Now, that doesn't mean much for Joe, who is now the undisputed King of both the WBA and the WBC. But, win or lose his next fight, it's likely that the WBO 168-lb belt is, for the third time in its young life, going to be cast aside. And after being tarted around before the likes of Mario Veit, Kabary Salem and Charles Brewer for the past ten years, I gotta wonder if it isn't just damaged goods.