Friday November 7th, 2008

NEW YORK -- You would think Joe Calzaghe would be just a little bit nervous about the biggest fight of his career. You would think Calzaghe would be apprehensive about the fact that the biggest fight of his career will also be the last fight of his career. You would think Calzaghe would be sweating as he wonders which Roy Jones Jr. is going to step into the ring Saturday night -- the one who looked thoroughly dominant in his last three fights, or the one who looked equally anemic in the three before.

You would think all those things about Calzaghe. You would think them, but you would be wrong.

As the clock ticks toward the final chapter of Calzaghe's brilliant 15-year career, a light heavyweight showdown with Jones (HBO PPV, 9 p.m. ET), the undefeated Welsh champion is a picture of cool. Sitting on a couch inside his tastily decorated midtown hotel room, Calzaghe (45-0) slowly sips a cup of tea and recounts the story of his life.

Flanked by his longtime trainer and father, Enzo, his brother, Sergio, and a handful of other members of his undersized entourage, Calzaghe talks about the long and winding road he has taken to get to this point. He talks about a career spent grinding through the European boxing ranks as he struggled to get a world-title shot. He talks about the lack of respect he received from the public -- particularly the American public -- after he won the WBO super middleweight title from Chris Eubank in 1997 and successfully defended it 21 times. He wonders aloud whether beating Jones (52-4), the face of American boxing once upon a time, will finally earn him the recognition he craves.

Will it? That remains to be seen.

If there is a criticism to make of Calzaghe it's that he sometimes has a warped perception of the skills of his opponents. Ask Calzaghe about his proudest accomplishment in boxing and he will point to his decisive 2006 victory over Jeff Lacy. Ask him to rattle off his greatest in-ring moments and he will invariably list dropping Lacy in the 12th round as one of them. The entire first chapter of his book, No Ordinary Joe, is devoted to the fight against Lacy. At the time, Lacy was considered a rising star in the super middleweight division, a power puncher who was thought of as a pocket version of Mike Tyson. Though Calzaghe completely dominated the fight, Lacy's subsequent performances (three uninspiring decision victories over inferior opponents) have exposed him as a vastly overrated fighter. In fact, at 31, Lacy is facing a make-or-break fight when he takes on Jermain Taylor on Nov. 15.

Similarly, Calzaghe has convinced himself that in the last two years he has challenged the cream of the American boxing crop. But Peter Manfredo, who Calzaghe KO'd in 2007, is one step above a club fighter. Bernard Hopkins, who Calzaghe out-pointed in a narrow split decision last April, was 43 when he stepped in the ring with him. And Jones, by Calzaghe's own admission, "may not be as good as he once was."

But while Calzaghe's own insecurities may haunt him, there is little question as to whether "Super" Joe will go down in history as one of the greatest super middleweights of all time. Just like there is little doubt he will ever fight in that division -- or any division for that matter -- again after Saturday night.

In boxing, fighters retire for two reasons: (1) They can't fight anymore, and (2) they don't want to fight anymore.

Calzaghe is certainly not the former. With movie-star good looks and hand speed that rivals men half his age, Calzaghe is still a superior fighter. Should he beat Jones, there is no question that for the first time in Calzaghe's career he will be a marketable, worldwide star. Fighters will clamor for an opportunity to take him on and Calzaghe would be well compensated for his services.

But Calzaghe doesn't want the millions. "The day you only fight for money is the day you get beat," he said.

And he doesn't want anymore opponents. Calzaghe is not your typical champion. While Jones was the picture of health throughout most of his career (who can forget Jones' memorable KO of Eric Lucas in 1996, when he stepped in the ring just hours after competing in a USBL game), Calzaghe has endured a constant battle with his body. His brittle hands are more likely to break during a fight than not, and a wrist injury nearly ended his career before it even started.

Then there is the fear that most fighters have but few heed. Call it the "Evander Holyfield complex," the fear of staying so long your mind doesn't know how to tell you to quit. During a 35-minute interview last weekend, Calzaghe brings up Holyfield's name twice and also references him in his book.

"I don't want to fight so long that I get beat up or seriously hurt," said Calzaghe. "I don't want to be like a guy like Holyfield. Some guys go into the ring and want to fight a war. I don't. I want to win every time but I don't want to get beat up doing it."

Retirement is a familiar refrain in boxing, but Calzaghe claims he has other things to live for. After splitting with longtime British promoter Frank Warren last year, Calzaghe has started his own promotion and hopes to build an Oscar-De-La-Hoya type of company in Europe. He talks about keeping a promise to quit to his mother, who has been after him to get out of the sport since he first picked it up at the age of 10. And he talks about a desire to get, well, fat.

"I like eating and drinking," said Calzaghe. "I like getting fat. I like doing nothing. I don't want to go to the gym. I'd rather play fútbol."

Calzaghe's decision to retire after the fight with Jones may be ironclad, but he says he has no intention of underestimating his final opponent.

"To underestimate [Roy] is a very dangerous thing to do," said Calzaghe. "He may not be as fast as he once was, but he can punch. And this is only my second fight at light heavyweight. I've never been in with someone as quick as Roy and he's never been in with someone as quick as me."

Still, Calzaghe can't resist the opportunity to throw a preemptive jab at Jones' ego.

"Roy has fought a lot of fighters who weren't anybody," said Calzaghe. "I beat six world champions. Look at my fight with Hopkins. Who struggled the last nine rounds? Was it me? No. Who was trying to cheat late in the fight with the fake low blows? It was Hopkins crying like a [expletive] on the floor."

"Roy beat John Ruiz. I could go out and beat John Ruiz tomorrow. At the end of the day he has lost and I haven't. He has been knocked out. I haven't. This is my last fight and I'm going out in style."

Get a good look at Joe Calzaghe, America. Because you probably won't get another.

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