‘I knew my hands were gone’: doctors told him to throw in the towel, but first Joe Calzaghe had to conquer America
From Newbridge to New York City, the Welsh Dragon beat all 46 opponents on his way to securing his legacy and leaving the ring on his own terms
He’s desperate to finish his career unbowed. Losing his prized “0” at this point will kill him. He doesn’t want for much. He’s financially comfortable and his family is healthy. It’s his own body that is failing him.
And then there’s his legacy. He finally earned the respect he craved and felt he deserved. On his finest night, he unified all the titles against the guy they said was the best around. The guy who was finally going to hand him his first loss. The guy who had walked through everyone. The guy didn’t walk through him, though. On his crowning night, his own people cheered him and held him aloft. His vanquished opponent applauded him. The media glorified him. Finally.
Now, his body failing more and more after each war, he has one last ambition to fulfil. He can retire content if he shows “those so-called experts in America”.
There they still say he’s dodged the biggest challenges. He wants them to eat their words.
But the pain. It eats him now. He knows he can’t go on much longer. The doctors have all told him it’s time to stop. But his legacy gnaws at him. He has to finish unbowed.
“It was a massive thing for me to keep that ‘0’. I was 37. I’d been dropped a couple of times. I still felt great, but I knew my hands were gone.”
Joe Calzaghe can talk about it now. He can even smile about it. The way it was. How much he cared. Those days are gone. It’s been almost 10 years. Nearly a decade since he hung up his gloves. Has it really been that long? It’s over now, and as one of the greats told him they would, they all respect him now that he’s gone.
Today, he’s back in the ring. It’s the first time in a while, but Calzaghe is standing, holding up pads, while a group of awed youngsters patiently wait for their turn to throw a punch at a living legend. This is how he fills his time now. A patron of charities, he travels a bit and supports youngsters. His own son is a fighter. It makes him proud, but he’s more pleased that his son loves the sport.
“My boy boxes. He’s made up – he won last week,” he smiles. “I never really wanted to push him into boxing but he loves the sport and I’m gonna be helping him out.”
Calzaghe’s own father helped him. Crazy Enzo, the musician who never boxed but became one of the finest trainers in the world. From his modest gym in rural Wales he created the best in the business.
“He had four world champions because of his energy in the gym. That little tiny town having Nathan Cleverley, Enzo Maccarinelli, Gavin Rees ... How often does that happen? Call it a miracle or whatever you want.”
Joe says he owes all of his achievements to his father.
“I won three consecutive ABA [Amateur Boxing Association] titles and went on to win 46-and-0 [as a professional]. What can I say? It’s amazing to have that, but also to have that glory with your father ... But he deserved it. I owe everything to him – kicking me up the arse. We came up on a council estate, we didn’t have much, but he allowed me to focus on my dream and become a world champion.”
After his greatest night against the “Viking Warrior” Mikkel Kessler when he became the pride of Wales, he knew the end was in sight. He wanted to start writing his final chapter. Two fights in America. First was light-heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins – “The Executioner” was one of the greats. And then, his dream finale: Roy Jones Jnr, perhaps the best of all time, at Madison Square Garden, New York, the Mecca of boxing.
“I knew before that fight that it was the end. I didn’t tell anybody but me and my dad knew that it was my last fight. I think that’s the reason I went the distance; because I was enjoying myself and I was literally counting down the rounds. I was thinking: ‘This is the last round you’ll have, enjoy it.’ Crazy, but very emotional.
“I remember going in the ring and being almost close to tears. I’m somebody from a little tiny town, who had boxed in leisure centres, and my last fight was in Madison Square Garden against one of the greats. What a great way to finish off.”
When the euphoria of that triumph wore off, he had to accept that it was the end. Boxing was all he had known. From eight years old, he had fought for almost 30 years. He had been champion for 11. He had beaten the best out there. And his legacy was secured.
“That was my time. Legacy was more important to me than money. Of course, I would have loved to have made more millions. Who wouldn’t? But the fear of loss ...
“At the end of your career you go, ‘I’m gonna be able to retire undefeated and be one of the very, very few people in history to do it.’ People were saying I should try and get to 50-0, but my number was 46 – that was it. I could have kept trying, but one loss would have spoiled everything.”
When the end finally came it was hard. Hard for him. Hard for his supporters. Hardest for his father.
“Dad was emotional. It was a big loss for him. He suffered because we were a team and the euphoria, the buzz – training other fighters wasn’t the same as training with his son. It was an end of an era for him as well. He struggled with it. He thinks I could have gone on. He says: ‘Joe, I think you retired a little bit too early. But son, I respect the fact that you know your time was up.’”
Knowing your time has come is the hardest thing to admit; when even those closest to you can struggle to understand the decision. Many boxers exit the sport without the ability to look back and remember their greatest days. If retirement isn’t forced upon a fighter, the public wants more. The cost, perhaps, of being able to walk away from the ring and not having to be carried out on their shield.
“I embraced every struggle because it made me the fighter I was. Simple as that. Even the bad fights that we don’t mention, I won. That’s all that matters. I thank God that I had such an amazing father who was my trainer as well. Wow, what a ride. Sometimes I pinch myself to realise that was me.
“I beat the biggest names around; Kessler was number one, Hopkins was the top light-heavyweight, and Roy Jones Jnr was the biggest fighter of all time.” But Joe from Newbridge, trained by his musician father, even with his shattered hands, he beat them all. And he finished unbowed.