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Joe Calzaghe: ‘You lose fights when you start underestimating opponents, if you behave like a champion, believe the hype and like your own reflection too much’

Joe Calzaghe
Joe Calzaghe looks back on the pivotal moments of his boxing career – some famous, some not – and thanks his parents for the huge part they played in his legendary journey

AGAINST Roy Jones, I was counting down the rounds in my head. Seven… Eight… I’m winning every round by now. A kid from the South Wales Valleys. Nine… Ten… I was dropping my hands, I was enjoying every moment. Eleven… Twelve… I looked out to the crowd and the bright lights. I soaked up the noise and the atmosphere and I took it all in. Here I was in Madison Square Garden, top of the bill. Living the dream. My last fight. My last round. I’d done it all. Forty-six and 0.

It was July 1990, 18 years before I headlined in New York, when I last lost a fight. It was against Adrian Opreda in the old Czechoslovakia and Paul Williams was my main coach. It was at the time when judges were getting thrown out for being biased but it is what is, I lost. After that, my dad Enzo took over as my main coach and I didn’t lose a fight again: Three senior ABA titles at different weights and a world champion as a professional for over 10 years.

It didn’t start as well as it finished. I lost my very first fight. After that I remember crying in the ring, head in hands, completely inconsolable. His name was Chris Stock and funnily enough his father was also a judge. Strange that. But that loss really hurt. I never forgot how that felt and I wanted to be a winner. I beat Chris four or fives times after that.

I loved football as well. I used to skip boxing training if I had a football match on the Wednesday. I’d lost three or four of my first 20 fights. But I remember it suddenly clicking. I was training very hard in the gym, I won the Welsh title but nobody gave me a chance in the Schoolboy ABAs. I went on to win that at the Assembly Rooms in Derby. It was 1985. From that day, at the age of 13, I was a champion.

My dad gave me the belief. Even when I lost he’d tell me I would go on to be a world champion one day. Just recently I found this video clip. It’s my dad and he’s saying to me, ‘Tell them you’re going to be world champion.’ I looked at the camera and I said, ‘I’m gonna be world champion!’ I hadn’t seen that for 30 years and I look at it now and I’m like… wow. It was the way my dad said it. He believed it. Because of him, I 100 per cent believed it. I was very lucky to have someone who believed in me like that, who could instil that sense of belief and confidence in me at a young age.

Injuries soon started to play a part. They never really went away. I had a chronic wrist injury when I was 17, I couldn’t throw a punch for 16 months and during that time I wondered if I’d ever do so again. The doctor told me I probably wouldn’t box again but I kept training. Even to this day I have a weakness in my wrist. I can’t do press-ups with my hands out-stretched, I have to use my knuckles.

I got back to boxing. My wrist started to feel a bit better. I was robbed of a place in the Barcelona Olympics, that still hurts, but it was a great feeling to turn professional in October 1993. Imagine being on the undercard of a world heavyweight title fight between Lennox Lewis and Frank Bruno! Well, what you imagine might not be exactly what it was like. The reality was I was one of the first in the ring, nobody was in the stadium and it was p**sing down with rain. I just wanted to get in and out.

My opponent was Paul Hanlon and what I remember was he was f**king dirty. He came in with his head and butted me. I’m holding him and I’m looking at the referee thinking, ‘Are you going to say break?’ I was still in the amateur mode. I was waiting for ‘Break! Watch your head!’ But the referee just told us to fight on. So I thought, ‘F**king okay then! I’m liking this professional lark!’ I gave him some of this and some of that, got him out of there quickly and it was a nice little win. Happy days.

I never experienced nerves. It was adrenaline. There was the fear of losing, I suppose, it’s what drove me. By the time I fought Stephen Wilson for the British super-middleweight title I was already adapting my style because of my hands. I was using speed a lot more, I wanted to preserve my hands. I was too strong for him, I ground him down.

What felt like the first real step-up was the Mark Delaney fight in 1996. He was 21-0, it was in Brentwood and even though I was the champion and had two bus-loads of fans coming from South Wales, I was the away fighter. He went into the ring first. I walked in and I was getting sworn at, spat at. I loved it. I really did. They were shouting, ‘You Welsh f**ker!’ I just thought, ‘Your boy is going to get a beating.’

I dropped him in the first 20 seconds and then dropped him again. His brother Gary Delaney was banging the canvas and I just winked at him. That was a good win, it was my first TV fight and it was my time to step into the spotlight. But I was getting frustrated with Mickey Duff and Terry Lawless, I felt I wasn’t getting the opportunities.

I joined up with Frank Warren. I was happy to sign with him. He told me, ‘Three fights and a world title fight’ and that’s what happened. I was supposed to be fighting Steve Collins and then he decided to retire just days before so in came Chris Eubank who was scheduled to fight Mark Prince on the same bill. I was more wary of Eubank than I was Collins. I was a fan of his, I knew when he was being written off he was at his most dangerous. Collins’ come-forward style was perfect for me but Eubank? Not so much.

John Gichigi /Allsport

I dropped him really early but I was gassed after six rounds. That was my toughest fight, getting through the 12 rounds. It got to the end of the sixth and I sat down on the stool and I looked up. I was in a dark place. I could see the round-card girl showing everyone the seventh round was next. F**k, I’m only at halfway. I was completely knackered and this guy ain’t going anywhere. I really earnt the title that night. I owe Chris Eubank a lot, it put me in good stead for the rest of my career. It taught me to pace myself. I often wonder if Eubank hadn’t have got up in that first round, would I have been as good a fighter?

The injuries were getting worse. I was fighting injured in every fight. My hands were gone. By the time I fought Omar Shieka in 2000, it was make or break. Before that fight I sparred for the first time in two years and my timing was out, I’d also had an elbow injury. That was like coming back because before that, it was stop-start after I’d beaten Eubank. Omar was lively, he was a good opponent. I beat him in five rounds. I felt like the old Joe again.

After that came Richie Woodhall and that was peculiar. I looked up to him. A seasoned amateur, an Olympic medallist and a good friend. I got on with Lenny, his dad, and he got on with my dad. I knew he was an excellent and dangerous fighter but because we were so close I couldn’t get psyched-up for the fight. After the press conference we stopped at the services for a coffee and there’s Richie and Lenny. “Hey Joe, come over here!” I was supposed to be fighting him in 10 weeks and we’re all sitting here having a coffee together. We had a conference call with the press just before the fight and we’re asking each other how our kids are. It wasn’t right.

I caught him early on in the fight and then he came back into it in the sixth and seventh. There’s a time in the fight I remember, he hit me. Then he hit me again. Ggrrrr! And again. I just thought, ‘Richie, we’re not f**king friends anymore.’ I remember chewing down on my gumshield, blood on my face, and going after him. I was happy to win that and I’m happy to say that Richie is still a good friend of mine.

The Byron Mitchell fight in 2003 is another I’m proud of. From the age of eight or nine, I’d never been dropped. The first round and everything was beautiful. I was hitting him with everything. I came back to the stool and my dad gave me a kiss on the head. I come out for the second and I get dropped. I threw a shot to the body then came up with my left hook but he caught me. My own momentum, and his punch, spun me round. As I went down, you’d have heard a pin drop. Was I really down? I got up, looked at my dad and he was shocked. He’s open-mouthed, Did you just get dropped? F**k, I did get dropped! I saw Byron coming to me and I thought, ‘Here we go.’

Until you’ve been down you don’t know how you’re going to respond. I got up, I traded with him, dropped him and stopped him. It was another box I’d ticked.

That said, I tried to entertain, I always did, but that’s not always the way to go. I watch that fight back and I wince. After being dropped we’re going toe-to-toe and we’re missing each other by millimetres. That goes to show the fine margins of boxing.

Before every fight a needle was going into my hands. In the end, you have to worry about the long-term effects of that. It was wear and tear and there was not a lot I could do. My hands might feel okay and then you’d put little 10oz gloves on and as soon as I’d hit the head or the top of the head, my hand used to go. It was frustrating. In the Evans Ashira fight, before I fought Jeff Lacy, I caught him with an uppercut and cracked my metacarpal. I fought eight rounds with one hand. It was agony. Gary Shaw, Lacy’s manager, saw me with my cast on. But I had to take that fight with Lacy and I’m so glad I did. That’s the fight changed everything.

After I beat Lacy, there’s Sakio Bika. I didn’t have a clue who he was. I’d never seen him fight. People were asking me why I was fighting him. I’ve never been so busted up as I was in that fight and it was all from his head and elbows. I was trying too hard to impress early on and I soon realised he’s not the opponent you can impress against. It was frustrating for me after the Lacy fight, and that performance, to then look like that against Bika. But a win’s a win and he went onto win a world title himself seven years later. It took a while, but I suppose that win looked okay in the end.

Before I fought Mikkel Kessler I told my dad I couldn’t make the weight. I wanted that fight, of course I did. It was for all the titles, it was in the national stadium, and we were a combined 82-0. But the truth is I lost 36lbs in 15 weeks. I’d been champion for 10 years, I was getting older, I was getting bigger. I knew that was going to be my last fight at super-middleweight. What a way to finish it.

I know he was carrying an injury into that fight, but so was I. It was a tough fight, he caught me in the fourth round. He was a great fighter. But I adapted, I was bit like a chameleon in the ring, I could always step up a gear. I don’t know how I did that. I always had a tremendous engine and I was always training as if I was the challenger. You lose fights when you start underestimating opponents and behaving like a champion, believing the hype and liking your own reflection a little too much. I was always tremendously fit, and I made sure of that. I’ve always been able to change my style: attack; box; go back; go forward. I’ve always had that in my arsenal. But my first instinct was always to have a tear-up and after six rounds with Kessler, I knew that wasn’t the way I should be fighting. I was struggling because I was forcing the fight. I adapted, I boxed from the outside and used my jab, I hurt him with a body shot in the eighth and the referee was holding me back, ‘I’ve just hurt him, let me go’, but I pulled away over the last few rounds.

After that, I’d done everything. It was time to close the book.

I wanted to move up to light-heavyweight and fight in America. I bought my own ticket to get out to America and I bumped into Bernard Hopkins deliberately. Then he made that comment about never letting a white boy beat him and I was thinking, ‘Yes!’ The fight was made.

It was a tremendous experience to go out to Vegas and have your name up in lights. It’s every fighters’ dream, especially a Welsh-Italian from the South Wales Valleys.

The fight was not so much fun. I stupidly got dropped in the first round, I was two rounds down already, and he was trying to spoil. I was always chasing, chasing the fight. My fitness and work-rate made the difference but Hopkins was most awkward and cleverest fighter I ever fought. It was tough, I had to keep throwing punches, I couldn’t stop. At the final bell I felt I’d edged it but I was concerned that I might not get the decision out there – then I heard a little whisper that I’d won. But until you hear it announced, you don’t know for sure. Then I heard ‘And the new…’

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I’ll be honest, that was my career finished right there. Before I fought Roy Jones, I knew it was all over. Training was getting harder, my hands were getting worse. But I wanted to fight in America again and I wanted to fight at Madison Square Garden in New York. Top of the bill in New York, wow. My dream.

I was very emotional. I had to go and look at the ring before the fight. All the time I was thinking, ‘This is my last fight.’ I enjoyed myself in that fight, really enjoyed myself. I was dropping my hands, I was having fun and I kept telling myself to have fun and make the most of every last second of my fighting career.

I wanted to fight again even though I knew I wouldn’t. I spoke to people about getting to 50-0 and I knew the money was there. But 46 was my number and I wasn’t going to chase something when I knew in my heart of hearts I didn’t have the same enthusiasm. I was 37, fighters don’t get better at the age of 37. I would never have forgiven myself if I’d have lost. I went out on my own terms, at the top, you can’t buy that. To retire undefeated is the dream, isn’t it? I did that.

I’m content now. I did everything I wanted to. Not many other fighters have that peace of mind, perhaps that’s why some are still calling me out even now. I’m not one for that, I never have been. I’m not a talker, I don’t slag fighters or anyone off. What’s the point? I take no notice of what people say. If fighters want to still talk about me, call me out, I take that as respect. I’m the benchmark for them.

The last two years have been hard. I lost my dad in September 2018. Then my mum on February 21 this year. Then we’ve all been locked down. It’s been tough. It’s been terrible. Looking back on my career she held everything together. I miss them every day and think about both of them all the time.

But I’m so proud that I made them proud. Proud of everything I achieved. If you’re going to share those experiences, what better person to have in your corner than your dad. The guy who made me believe in myself and I shared it all with him. We did the impossible. Father and son who conquered the world. We had 20 years together and we never lost, over 100 fights amateur and pro.

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