EVEN as he slugged it out with Roy Jones Jr in the biggest fight of his career, Joe Calzaghe knew that was it. He savoured every jarring blow, every trickle of sweat and every decibel of clamour, because his mind was made up. Calzaghe, arguably the greatest boxer ever to emerge from these shores, was, after 46 fights without a single defeat and 11 years as a world champion, mentally preparing to retire.
“It was surreal,” he recalls. “In my mind I was saying ‘four rounds to go, three rounds to go, two rounds to go’. I dropped my hands. I was laughing, smiling. I cut him badly in the seventh round, but I didn’t feel like knocking him out; I actually wanted to do the 12 rounds. I knew in my heart this was it.”
Calzaghe, whose nimble footwork has since graced Strictly Come Dancing, had in fact decided to bow out months before beating American three-weight champion Jones at Madison Square Garden in November 2008. A full year after formally retiring, the Welshman of Sardinian extraction radiates conviction his decision was the right one. In that light, talk of coaxing him back to the ring seems fanciful, futile even, yet it cannot be avoided.
Yes, the 37-year-old misses “the buzz” of vanquishing challenger after challenger, 32 by knockout – “there is nothing like it in the world” – but, with pragmatism rather than egotism, says he has nothing left to achieve. Victory over Chris Eubank in 1997 ushered in a decade of super middleweight dominance, including a division-unifying win over Mikkel Kessler, before a triumphant step up to light-heavyweight and lucrative Stateside showdowns with Bernard Hopkins and Jones. Then, in 2007, Calzaghe was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year – an honour he speaks of with reverence.
His 46 wins leave him tantalisingly close to Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight great who retired after winning all 49 of his contests, but Calzaghe points to his own superior number of title defences. Besides, the figure that obsesses him most is the zero in the losses column; a figure he cherishes jealously. “It’s a big difference between 47-0 and 46-1. If I did lose, that one loss would destroy everything I’ve done; I’d never forgive myself. Why would I want another fight? It’d mainly be for money – that’s the wrong reason.”
Calzaghe humbly refers to himself as “lucky” to have quit while ahead and seems anxious not to tempt a change of fortune by dusting off the gloves. Risk of serious injury is a factor but perhaps more unnerving is defeat itself. “I tried to visualise, if I lost, how it would affect me. And it would really affect me. I remember my last loss, as an amateur, when I was about 17. It bugged me for months. I used to cry and I was really angry.”
Could nothing entice him back? After a few seconds’ thought he says, half-joking: “How many zeros can you write on the end of a cheque? I don’t think so. It would have to be something huge.”
Having boxed from the age of nine, he hankers after the focus of training for the next fight, and is striving to stay busy. His two sons ensure that, as does a long-running legal battle with his former promoter Frank Warren, while a property portfolio helps to “fill in days”. He is rapidly losing interest in his own promotion business – “it’s a pain” – and recently dabbled in modelling. His immediate attention, however, is on a testimonial dinner next month, which will feature fellow Valleys-dwellers the Stereophonics. Calzaghe, who has friends in active service, will give all profits to Help for Heroes, the charity for injured soldiers.
Strictly Come Dancing, the BBC’s celebrity ballroom jamboree, was a lightning rod for his energies for several weeks last year. “I enjoyed the focus of it, I just didn’t really like the live show; it did my head in. I got really nervous doing that.” He has not kept up his tango, but it whetted his appetite for showbusiness, and the gangster movie devotee is now taking acting classes and in film talks with a view to emulating Vinnie Jones. “He may not be Al Pacino or De Niro but he pulls off a certain role,” he says of the footballer-turned-thespian. “I don’t think I’ll win an Oscar but I can play a badass, because I’ve been a badass all my career.”
Although relaxed and charming in conversation, a restless energy appears to burn within Calzaghe, who lets off steam by shadow-boxing during the photo shoot. He admits to “itchy feet” and has not punched “for a few weeks” but works out most days and loves six-a-side football (he is a striker). “If I don’t train for a week I have aches and pains and feel down.”
He is spending more time in London now but, when home, trains at the Newbridge gym where his father and coach Enzo, who cajoled him to greatness, still works. The dynamic between the pair was always an intriguing backdrop and he talks of love and “unbelievable chemistry”, but says Calzaghe Sr dished out the “kick up the arse” he needed, especially as his motivation waned towards the end. “He might not be the perfect trainer for everybody but, for me, he’s the perfect trainer.” Retirement has changed little: they argue less but speak every day. “When something pisses him off he calls me to have a rant,” he smiles.
Calzaghe’s retire-at-the-top strategy is perfectly contrasted by fellow Briton Ricky Hatton, whose determination to end on a win will see him fight again this year, against the advice of most observers. “It’s sad Ricky can’t walk away, and even sadder that people around him, who should tell him to hang his gloves up, allow him to keep fighting. He’s a lovely guy. I don’t want to see him knocked out by a fighter who shouldn’t even be in the ring with him.”
Hatton aside, of the country’s current crop Calzaghe praises David Haye, the Londoner crowned heavyweight champion when he beat giant Russian Nikolay Valuev late last year. “He’s a good looking guy, he’s got charisma, he can fight and he’s vulnerable, which always adds excitement.” He also rates light-welterweight champion Amir Khan’s “tremendous hand speed” and tips him to beat Mexican Juan Manuel Marquez this year, if the seemingly-abandoned fight is revived.
Do not, however, expect kind words about Carl Froch, the Nottingham super-middleweight champion who unsuccessfully tried to tempt Calzaghe out of retirement. “He won a title that I gave up and hasn’t stopped bitching about everybody. Because he’s not making as much money and not getting on TV I think he’s bitter against the whole world. He’s like a spoilt little bloody bitch,” he says, adding: “I don’t mind saying that either, that’s OK, keep that in there. He’ll like that one.”
Asked what he will be doing in 10 years, Calzaghe reiterates a desire to act. More immediately, he will travel to Manchester in April to support his friend Haye against John Ruiz. Aside from that, his ambitions comprise a simple mantra whose punchline comes as little surprise: “Be happy, be healthy, stay busy – and don’t make a comeback.”
To purchase a table or individual tickets at Joe Calzaghe’s UNDEFEATED Gala Dinner in support of
Help for Heroes to be held on 22nd March at London’s Grosvenor House hotel, please visit www.joecalzaghe.com