After thinking it over for a few months, Joe Calzaghe is calling it quits.
It’s easy to have some hard feelings toward Joe if you’re a boxing fan these days, since the last taste he left in our mouths was a pronouncement that the sport was “dying,” when in fact it’s on more of an upward arc than anything, and his complaints about too many belt holders in the sport, when he reinforced the very alphabet belt system he denounced for much of his career.
But set all that aside for a moment and look at his career. It’s been an amazing one, even if you can find flaws in it. By any measure, his career has to be called remarkable, even though it is really only in the last few years that he has pushed himself into several elite clubs.
The first is that Calzaghe retires undefeated in 46 fights. I don’t put that much of an emphasis on being undefeated — what matters most is that boxers fight the best and come out winning more often than not. By that standard, Calzaghe’s undefeated record is more impressive, because especially in the late stages of his career, he fought literally the best opponents he could, and he won each time. Boxers who take on the caliber of opponent Calzaghe has don’t often retire undefeated. So this absolutely deserves praise, with an asterisk that I’ll get to in a bit.
On a maxi-level, Calzaghe has to be considered the greatest super middleweight (168 lbs.) of all time. He had a 21-fight title reign with one of his alphabet belts, and we’ll get into who he beat in another moment, but it lasted nearly 11 years and was nine months away from the longest title reign ever, although it must be said when Joe Louis set the record, there was only one champ. Calzaghe also held the Ring magazine lineal title belt in the division, and added the light heavyweight (175 lbs.) version of the Ring belt in 2008. Of course, the super middleweight division didn’t really get any recognition from an official body in the sport until 1984. But even if you called someone, say, “the best heavyweight of the past 25 years,” well, that’s quite a compliment. And Calzaghe lays down a marker that will be hard to surpass any time soon. So it’s a reign that’s going to continue for a while even following this retirement.
Where does Calzaghe rank in his own country? I think there’s very little dispute that he’s the greatest Welsh boxer of all time, and I think only Lennox Lewis gives him a strong argument in th race for best British fighter since World War II. I’d favor Calzaghe. He’d certainly crack the top 10 list for all-time great Brits, although since Great Britain essentially pioneered the sport, he might have trouble busting into some folks’ top five. He’d make mine, although I’m not sure where I’d put him exactly, because we’re talking about comparing him to guys who fought in 1916, when the sport was just a tad different.
Three of his four most noteworthy wins, over Jeff Lacy, Mikkel Kessler and Bernard Hopkins, came between 2006 and 2008, with the fourth coming over Chris Eubank in 1997. There are folk who will diminish each and every single one of those wins, and they are wrong to do so. Lacy was an undefeated young titlist who’d been hailed as a Mike Tyson-like heir and came in against Calzaghe as the betting favorite. Lacy was very good — check out the constant replays of his fights on ESPN Classic if you don’t believe me. But Calzaghe was so much better he contributed to the ruination of Lacy’s career. People give the most props to Calzaghe for his win over Kessler, because Kessler was his clear #1 challenger at the time, but you’ll hear the occasional snark about Kessler having never beaten anyone, even though he had. Hopkins, the knock goes, was freaking 42, but let’s not forget that even at his advanced age, B-Hop was considered a top-5 pound-for-pound fighter at the time, and he was Calzaghe’s introduction to a new weight class, and he looked pretty good afterward against Kelly Pavlik, didn’t he? And Eubank may have been a bit over the hill, but he was still pretty good when Calzaghe beat him. The win over Roy Jones, Jr., while I diminish it some because Jones was definitely done by the time Calzaghe got a hold of him, nonetheless added to his list of wins over other top-10 divisional foes, and that list is fairly lengthy.
The biggest knock on Calzaghe, I think, has to be that he essentially wasted his talent on good-but-not-great opposition for the majority of his career. Fights with Jones and Hopkins should have happened far sooner. If he had fought one or both of them when they were closer to their primes, would he have been undefeated? Almost certainly not. Thus the asterisk. Might he have become a better fighter earlier for having fought and learned from them? Almost certainly. So it’s an opportunity lost, but a record protected. A variety of factors contributed to this. He apparently had a serious fear of flying that he was only able to overcome late in his boxing life, and honestly, if I was Jones in his prime, I don’t think I would have felt it necessary to fly to the U.K. to take on the dude. He also had a few injuries that derailed big fights at times, and his brittle hands were a liability in a lot of ways.
Another knock is that his fighting style left a lot to be desired for some fans. He hit fairly hard despite his strange looking slappy punches, but you either fell into one of two camps on his approach: A. That ain’t boxing, that’s just dumb; or B. What he brings to the ring is unique, and unique is good television. I tended to fall into the second category. I saw some bad Calzaghe fights, but for the most part I was interested in watching him ply his craft. And that’s even though more often than not he rubbed me the wrong way with his hypocrisy on boxing “dying” and other matters, like the whole incident where he claimed Kelly Pavlik wasn’t good enough to fight him after he beat Jermain Taylor twice, when in actuality he had tried to make a deal to fight Pavlik before those wins.
If Calzaghe had stuck around, I would have loved to see him in against Chad Dawson. I think he should have taken that Pavlik fight last summer. There’s more he could do yet at as a 36-year-old man who really had just arrived at the top of his game. And he left the tiniest door open to the possibility he might not stay retired. Simply because he had more he could have proved — Isn’t there always more one could prove, no matter what he says? — doesn’t mean I have any problem with him retiring at this juncture. If he was getting tired of boxing, which he said he was, then he shouldn’t keep fighting.
I don’t miss Slappy Joe yet. I may not ever. We’ll see how time going by changes the way people perceive him. But you have to give the man his props. He contributed to a renaissance of interest in boxing it Great Britain; the queen honored him, for crissakes. For a brief period of time after Floyd Mayweather, Jr. retired, I considered him the best fighter on the planet. It was a truly great Hall of Fame career, and it’s just too bad it took so long for Calzaghe to really challenge himself, because we might have found out in myriad other ways just how good he was.