One of the most commonly repeated experiences of following boxing for a while is being made to feel old. Those of a similar age to me can probably remember the tail-end of Muhammad Ali’s career and would have lived through the Benn and Eubank days, the highs and lows of Mike Tyson, Naseem Hamed and all the other marquee names of the eighties, nineties and noughties. Newbridge’s Joe Calzaghe, a true modern great of the British ring, seems to occupy a much more recent place in boxing’s collective memory. We even share the same year of birth, so the fact that his peak performance happened a decade ago on Friday is a sure sign of the years slipping away.
It is easy today to forget the hype with which Jeff Lacy came into the WBO, IBF and Ring Magazine unification match, billed as ‘Judgement Day’, with the Italo-Welshman. Injuries and defeats saw “Left Hook’s” career slowly disintegrate afterwards, yet on the night he was undefeated and the overwhelming betting favourite, even in Britain. An incredible physical specimen, aggressive and powerful, with a passing facial resemblance to the rapper ’50 Cent’, one promoter had described him as ‘the saviour of boxing’ and another as ‘a miniature Mike Tyson’.
The general perception was that Lacy, an unbeaten champion on the rise, was the coming star. He was contrasted with Joe who had faced personal problems and came into the bout off the back of several mediocre and uninspiring defences. Scrappy points wins over the likes of Kabary Salem and Evans Ashira had done little to advance Joe’s global stock. His hands were fragile and there were doubts over his ability to sustain a career at the highest level much longer. This was still an era in which top American fighters were considered superior simply by virtue of their nationality and probably 90% of pundits predicted a knockout victory for the slugger from Tampa Bay.
From first bell to last, however, Calzaghe handled his man with ease, making him look like an unwieldy amateur. He rose to the occasion to win every single round and make a mess of Lacy’s face in the process. His in-and-out movement was too much for the American and his rapier-fast hands slashed at the target with his trademark ‘slappy’ hooks, often putting together eight, nine or ten punch combinations with dazzling accuracy. Lacy was in trouble regularly from the third round onwards and was finally put down for the first time in his career in the 12th. He got up and clung on until the bitter end, but cut a battered and forlorn figure. “Not bad for a slapper!” Joe said at the beginning of his post-fight interview.
The judges’ scorecards reflected Joe’s unbelievable performance. 119-105, 119-107 and 119-107 told the story of a three way shut-out, marred only by a point deduction for hitting around the back of the head. Sugar Ray Leonard commented on Calzaghe’s display by saying, “Within two rounds I was a Calzaghe supporter, I stood up in front of the TV shouting, ‘Wow, look at this guy’! The performance he produced was amazing. It was Joe’s great accomplishment, to reach that level, to scale that peak.”
In one-night Joe Calzaghe elevated himself from the status of regular world champion and a British ring icon, to international boxing legend. He would go on to defeat Mikkel Kessler, Bernard Hopkins (a victory made all the more impressive for what Hopkins continued to achieve afterwards) and a shopworn Roy Jones Jr, to cement his place in the boxing firmament before retiring undefeated having won every major super-middleweight world title – a career supreme.
In a reflection of the beauty and cruelty of the fight game, on that same night, Joe also destroyed the confidence and mystique of his opponent. Bad boys never seem so bad once they’ve been publicly humbled. Lacy continued boxing until as recently as last year, but lost five of the eleven fights he had post-Calzaghe and looked a shadow of the brute who terrorised the 168lb division before 2006.
For those who have not seen it before, sit back and enjoy a true virtuoso performance, delivered by a modern master, which incredibly took place ten years ago this week.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
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