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45 Greatest Fighters Of The Last 45 Years – 23: Joe Calzhage

Joe Calzaghe

In the history of professional boxing, there are only three southpaws definitively greater than Joe Calzhage. They are Marvin Hagler, Pernell Whitaker and Manny Pacquiao. Calzhage is also one of the few world champions in boxing history to retire undefeated. Add this to his incredible 24-0 record in world title fights firmly places the Welshman as the 23rd greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

Calzhage started his career at 168 pounds and defeated several British contenders before winning the British Super Middleweight crown. He was 23-0 before fighting British legend Chris Eubank for the vacant WBO Super Middleweight Title on October 11, 1997. Calzhage was originally scheduled to fight the reigning champion Steve Collins, but Collins pulled out and retired as his only interest was a fight with Roy Jones, Jr. that never materialized. The then 25-year-old Calzhage dropped Eubank in the opening stanza and totally dominated Eubank in winning an unanimous decision and the title.

Calzhage was a nightmare to fight; he was an outstanding boxer who happened to be southpaw. He gave Eubank headaches all night with his movement and pinpoint jab and left cross. It was a testament to Eubank’s granite chin and conditioning that the fight went the distance. For the next 10 years, Calzhage would dominate the division in one of the greatest title reigns of any division in boxing history. Despite the dominance, Calzhage was a huge underdog going into his 18th title defense and 168-pound unification title fight against Jeff Lacy on March 4, 2006. It would be one of the greatest performances by a boxer in the last 20 years.

Lacy was a 2-1 favorite. The IBF champ stylistically was patterned after Mike Tyson complete with the paralyzing left hook. I told several of my coworkers and dudes from the barbershop where I got my haircut that Calzhage was an incredible boxer who could easily dominate Lacy as Lacy’s style was tailor made for him. Also, Lacy’s over reliance on his left hook made him too one dimensional for a ring general like Calzaghe. Everyone I knew scoffed at my analysis. They were so in love with Lacy’s left hook. The next left hook Lacy lands will be the first left hook he landed against the brilliant Welshman.

Round one was a precursor of what Lacy was going to face all night long. Calzhage came out boxing brilliantly, doubling the jab and making Lacy miss. Then, midway through the round, he staggered an overly aggressive Lacy with a vicious left cross. The rest of the fight saw Calzhage completely have his way with the American slugger, landing at will and at times toying with him. Lacy’s face at the end of the 12th and final round looked he was hit several times with a brick. Lacy was never the same after suffering this brutal beating. He would only win six of his last 11 fights.

After unifying the WBO and IBF 168-pound titles, Calzhage defended those titles two more times before engaging in another 168-pound title unification fight on November 3, 2007 against the undefeated WBA and WBC champion Mikkel Kessler of Denmark. Although the fight was very competitive, Calzhage’s superior skills were too much for the Danish power puncher. It was an even greater win as the fight was held in Calzhage’s backyard of Cardiff, Wales. Despite the incompetence of the IBF stripping Calzhage of his title, Calzhage came out of that victory with all the other sanctioning bodies’ versions of the super middleweight title. Calzhage made five million in this fight, and with the Welshman looking to continue making big paydays, he relinquished all the titles to move up and face two of the greatest fighters of the last 45 years in 2008.

On April 19, 2008 Calzhage, for the first time in his professional career, fought in the United States to face the reigning Ring light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins. Although Hopkins was 43 and significantly past his prime, he still possessed a ring intelligence that was far superior to the vast majority of fighters who were active at the time. Even though I knew Hopkins was still cagey and relatively skillful, I felt deeply that he had no shot to defeat the Welshman who was seven years his junior. Shockingly, Hopkins dropped Calzhage in the opening stanza with a counter right cross. Late in the fight, Hopkins again briefly stunned Calzhage with another counter right cross. That would be the highlight of the cagey veteran’s night as Calzhage dominated the rest of the fight by boxing on the outside behind a sharp right jab and not engaging on the inside where Hopkins would attempt to wear him down with his strength. Calzhage would win a clear cut decision and in doing so became a two-division world champion. This would set him up to defend his title against another legend in Roy Jones.

Roy Jones should’ve retired four years earlier after his two spectacular knockout losses to Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson. The soon to be 40-year-old Jones, in my opinion, had no business stepping into the hallowed ring of Madison Square Garden on November 8, 2008. Calzhage was the much sharper and younger of the two all-time greats that night. Once again, Calzhage was knocked down in the first round by a counter right cross. The Jones of five years earlier would’ve put Calzhage in the hospital. Unfortunately, the knockdown was the sole flash of Jones’ once vaunted power and greatness. Calzhage proceeded to give Jones a terrible beating for the next 11 rounds. I couldn’t believe that referee Hubert Earle allowed this one sided massacre to continue. Round one was the only round all three judges gave Jones as Calzhage won by a lopsided unanimous 12 round decision. It would be a fitting end to the Welshman’s career.

Joe Calzhage ended his career undefeated in 46 fights, 44 of which took place at super middleweight. He was a fighting champ who successfully defended his title 21 times over the 10 years he reigned. He proved his superiority over each of the fighters the media and fans felt were a major threat. Although both Hopkins and Jones were past their primes when Calzhage convincingly defeated both fighters, he still had to overcome being knocked down in the first round by both fighters to come back and dominate; a career more than worthy of being the 23rd greatest fighter of the last 45 years.

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