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An explosive changing of the guard: Joe Calzaghe vs Chris Eubank, 20 years later

Remembering Calzaghe v Eubank, 20 years on.

Joe Calzaghe and Chris Eubank of Britain

“Quite simply one of the finest fights in British boxing history.” - Steve Bunce

A glance is enough to see the generation gap. Calzaghe is light on his feet and in constant motion, while the heavy-breathing Eubank plods. This has the makings of a rout. Calzaghe puts Eubank down within fifteen seconds and dominates the opening rounds with a tempo that leaves the older man looking ancient. Somehow Eubank’s chin holds but a humiliation seems inevitable.

The fight wasn’t meant to happen. Calzaghe was supposed to be fighting Steve Collins, while Eubank was preparing for a light heavyweight contest against Mark Prince. With Collins’ injury leading him to retire, Calzaghe suddenly found himself having to prepare for a very different opponent while Eubank had two weeks to drop a weight class.

Even though Eubank had begun to show signs of life earlier, the moment this becomes a battle is in the fifth. Calzaghe has his man on the ropes and is unloading but then Eubank decides he’s had enough. He comes out blasting with power shots and drives back a clearly surprised Calzaghe. The already deafening volume in the arena goes up several notches as the crowd realises that they might just be in for something special.

Not knowing how many more chances he’d get in the spotlight, Eubank takes every chance to play the showman. At the end of the second round, he goes for a casual stroll around the ring, just to show quite how relaxed he is. In the sixth, he foxes Calzaghe by looking up to the ring lights and then slamming him with a right. He even finds time to argue with a spectating Prince Naseem. Calzaghe has moments of swagger as well, unveiling an Ali shuffle early on. Soon, however, the fight gets too serious for fun and games

Remember that nothing about Calzaghe’s later success felt inevitable. Far from being seen as an unstoppable prospect, many pundits felt he didn’t have what it takes to make the step up to. He later admitted that the astonishing pace with which he began the fight was too fast and left him struggling. A combination perhaps of big night nerves and being a little too desperate to prove the critics wrong. If Calzaghe’s most eye-catching work came early on, it was during those late rounds that he proved himself. He could have eased off, boxed from range and carefully plotted a route to victory. Instead, despite exhaustion and receiving heavy shots, the Welshman kept hunting the knockout.

The fight was compelling without ever being tight on the scorecards. Calzaghe took a clear lead in the early rounds and the gap never looked likely to close. Yet the fight felt tense throughout because Eubank was always dangerous; it always felt possible that he could conjure up a moment that would undo all of Calzaghe’s painstaking work. The thudding shot that rocked the soon-to-be-victor seconds before the final bell was a reminder of just how real that threat of a shock knockout was.

In the post-fight interview, Calzaghe looks like the beaten man. He’s shattered and his right eye is almost closed by bruising. He talks as much about his frustration at failing to knock Eubank out as he does about his satisfaction at having claimed a world title. He’s near furious when the overly sentimental interviewer asks him if he “feels sorry” for his opponent.

So many “changing of the guard” fights are sad affairs, with a faded former champ forced to play the patsy to the new star. Eubank was undeniably faded but he was unbowed and delivered on his promise to take Calzaghe “into the trenches”. The night was special because of the spirit rather than the skill. Yes, Calzaghe showed too much quality for an ageing fighter but what was memorable was that he had the guts to hold his own against one of the sport’s warriors. Eubank could so easily have accepted his fate early on but instead he raged and raged against the dying of the light. The young man got his breakthrough; the older man kept his pride.

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