THE credit and accolades coming Joe Calzaghe’s way are immensely deserved.
He did himself and his country proud. The 33-year-old Welshman had for years defended his ability and vowed to prove his worth when the right challenge came his way.
When it did – in the early hours of Sunday morning before a crowd of around 12,000 at the MEN Arena – Joe delivered a performance that surpassed the expectation of probably his most trusted believers.
Calzaghe’s victory over American Jeff Lacy was beyond emphatic. He nailed himself down as the best super-middle in the world and undoubtedly the finest since Roy Jones ruled the weight 10 years ago.
His record – 41 straight wins, 18 successful defences, unified champion and champion since 1997 – is impeccable.
The victory over Lacy was so scintillating and convincing he may have scared off potential rivals. I suppose it will weed out the very best – those who seek to establish themselves as the finest of their era will be drawn to Joe. But if there are no takers it will say something for the Welshman.
Lacy (11st 13lbs) wasn’t an ordinary American. The muscular Floridian came with awesome credentials: IBF and IBO champion, undefeated (in 21 fights), at his physical peak, a former Olympian and, according to his promoter Gary Shaw, the future for the sport in the United States.
But Calzaghe (12st) tore him apart, quite literally, and later even revealed he’d done so with a swollen left hand (from about the eighth).
Lacy bled from both eyes and his nose. He was pounded unmercifully for round after round. And when in the last Calzaghe could have coasted to victory, having dominated almost every second of every session, Joe instead opted to shoot for the finish. He knocked Lacy down.
Amazingly, given how many punches Lacy absorbed, it was the only time the American was floored legitimately. Several times he was pushed over.
But for a point deducted in the 11th – when Calzaghe, holding Lacy’s head in a lock with his right arm tried to cheekily throw a punch at the American behind his back using the left – Joe would have scored a shut-out victory.
I had the WBO champ winning by 119-107, as did judges Adelaide Byrd of Las Vegas and Roy Francis from England. Nelson Vazquez of Puerto Rico was more generous than his colleagues, though his 119-105 included a few wider rounds and that was understandable given Calzaghe’s dominance.
I salute Joe for an incredible display, but also Lacy for such immense courage and durability.
Like a man locked in a burning house and engulfed in flames but still trying to find a way out, Lacy refused to concede.
Jeff kept storming into Calzaghe, desperate to land a telling punch that might produce a knockout and one of the most remarkable reversals of fortune in the sport’s history.
But the more Lacy tried, the more Calzaghe bombarded him, and during the last three rounds I thought there was a sensible argument for withdrawing the visitor on compassionate grounds and sparing him further torture.
Lacy may pay heavily for his boldness. I would be surprised if he were ever the same again because this was a ferocious hiding, a beating more one-sided than any I can recall in a contest of this stature during my two decades reporting on boxing around the world. Calzaghe set off at such an intense pace that it seemed he had invested in an early finish and would surely be found wanting if Lacy were still standing six rounds later.
But throwing punches at a rate that even Filipino super-feather Manny Pacquiao would regard as hot, Calzaghe amazingly never once wavered and that is a sharp testament to his extraordinary fitness, confidence (Joe looked so relaxed) and will to win.
Lacy was taken by complete surprise. After three minutes his nose bled. He’d hit Calzaghe with a couple of powerhouse rights and Joe waded straight back, scoring with three and four punches at a time.
That was a trend that was never broken. Throw in a snapping and accurate jab from the Welshman, too, and Lacy, the favourite, was bamboozled. He tried crouching and coming in low, but Calzaghe hit him with fabulous left uppercuts.
The plan was quite straightforward: when Lacy advanced, Calzaghe would let his hands go in fast, flashy but stiff flurries and then spin off to the side.
It was a masterclass. Even when Lacy tried storming into Calzaghe, like at the beginning of the third, Joe was prepared to stand and trade. The Welshman, ducking and countering with greater handspeed, always emerged on top.
The crowd started chanting “Easy, easy” and, in truth, Calzaghe was making it seem ridiculously simple.
He got cocky and waved his left fist before throwing the right.
By the fourth there was no sign of Joe fading. Calzaghe was off his stool for this and the fifth a good 10 seconds before Lacy rose, sending out a dispiriting psychological message.
Lacy was cut on the corner of the right eye (six stitches) in the fourth, probably from an accidental butt.
Later in the round the left eye bled as well as Calzaghe, showing no mercy, turned up the volume and connected so many times that I thought Lacy was sure to go down.
Somehow, Lacy survived. But he let out a deep sigh and marched back to his stool, only to be met by more fusillades in the fifth.
Lacy showed magnificent heart to make it through the sixth. And his sportsmanship was exemplary – he never moaned much about Joe coming in dangerously with his head or shoulder.
Every so often Lacy would land a meaty right, but Calzaghe sprayed the American with blows from all angles and the seventh ended with a tremendous exchange by a neutral corner. Lacy, unable to cope with Joe’s speed, was sent reeling into the ropes at one stage, but continued to search for the haymaker.
Coming out for the eighth, Calzaghe still appeared incredibly fresh. He jolted Lacy with four straight shots, waited for Lacy to advance and then nailed him with a left uppercut. It was superb.
Calzaghe continued to dominate, finishing the eighth and ninth with a blitz of right-lefts. Lacy bled from the mouth. His face was a mess.
Astonishingly, Calzaghe showed no respite, scoring with another fabulous left uppercut in the 10th and later in the round drilling Lacy with nine or 10 shots in rapid succession. Lacy kept trying, but Calzaghe wrong-footed him and sent the
American falling into the ropes, as if adding ridicule to the roasting.
In the 11th, which Calzaghe also ruled, Joe had the point taken away, but it made no difference. Lacy needed a knockout and was sure to give it everything in the last.
Calzaghe met him head on, though, and a series of uppercuts left Lacy on shaky legs but refusing to fall over and attempting to hold.
Once he saw the American flounder, Calzaghe, so accurate as well, pounced and a flurry of blows finally sent Lacy untidily to the deck, rising at four for referee Raul Caiz’s eight-count.
Trying to escape being stopped, Lacy held some more as he came under another furious attack. He pinned Joe’s right glove to his sides using his left arm, but Calzaghe started swiping Lacy with the other.
Following a welcome respite for Lacy – to repair some loose tape on his glove – Calzaghe wanted to finish as he had started, blazing with both hands. Lacy’s legs still looked shaky and a series of uppercuts in the dying seconds nearly spared us the formality of hearing the scores.
This was as good as it gets. Calzaghe had proved his point. Lacy didn’t attend the post-fight press conference and took the morning flight out of Manchester back to Florida to lick his wounds.
But trainer Dan Birmingham and promoter Gary Shaw commended Calzaghe, as did every breathing soul in the arena.
“I thought I’d be here telling you how Lacy was the saviour of boxing,” said Shaw. “I’d have bet my house this wouldn’t have turned out this way. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. But Joe followed his gameplan and Jeff didn’t.”
But if Shaw wasn’t entirely forthcoming in his praise for Calzaghe, Birmingham didn’t hold back.
“Joe was a master at distance and timing. I’ve never seen a better performance from any fighter the world over.”
From the trainer of Ronald “Winky” Wright that’s some compliment indeed, but hardly an exaggeration.