It’s 15 years since Wales’ Joe Calzaghe, 51, outpointed the once great Roy Jones Jnr to retire with a record of 46-0. He reflects on his remarkable career, the challenges he has since faced, and those early days in the gym, with Declan Warrington
BN: It’s 15 years since your last fight, at Madison Square Garden against Roy Jones Jnr…
JC: It’s scary. Time just goes so quick when you retire. Fifteen years – where the fuck has time gone? I don’t really think about it now – it’s nice people remember certain fights. You see a post and it’s, “Really? That feels five years ago”. People still talking is a great thing. That’s the one thing that mattered to me when I was boxing – legacy. Probably more than fame and money. People still talk about the [Jeff] Lacy fight – that was 2006.
I had a good catch up with Roy in Saudi [Arabia, at Tyson Fury-Francis Ngannou]. We did that fight ourselves. It was easy to make, and there was something romantic about it, after where I started – where I come from on a council estate – to finish off at the Mecca of boxing… It wasn’t just about money, it was about finishing at Madison Square Garden, against one of the greatest fighters of all time. It was a great night – something I’ll always remember.
The first round wasn’t the best, getting dropped. But after two rounds I was enjoying the fight. I respected Roy – the things I was doing wasn’t planned; people go on about dropping your hands – I was having fun. I knew that was going to be my last fight. I spoke to my dad, and after the [Mikkel] Kessler fight [in 2007] and being champion for 10 years and doing what I’d wanted to do, there were two things missing, and that was going to America and to win a second title [at a second weight]. After the [Bernard] Hopkins fight [in 2008] I’d done everything I wanted to achieve. I was 36; I was injured all the time, and it was important to have one more fight and except for the first round I was really happy with that performance.
It was quite surreal. I remember going to The Garden in the afternoon and being quite emotional. They were putting the ring together; just taking it all in and saying to myself, “Joe, this is it now – enjoy it”. Even in the fight. “Three rounds left; two rounds left.” The 12th round – “This is it; this is your last round ever”. A lot of fighters retire but very rarely they stay retired – for me, this was it.
BN: By comparison, Jones Jnr fought again at the age of 54 earlier this year…
JC: There’s certain things I miss from boxing, but with Roy, he just loves to fight. As long as he’s not stepping too far ahead of himself and fighting proper fighters and getting hurt, that’s okay, but it’s not nice to see fighters keep going. Someone like Roy Jones – he’s such a legend; a great fighter – he could fucking wipe the floor with nearly every fighter there is today; everybody knows that and how great he was. But certain other fighters it’s sad to see them keep fighting, because it’s a dangerous sport.
BN: It’s no secret you initially struggled with retirement. Are you at peace in 2023?
JC: It’s been rocky, I’m not going to lie. When you retire, and something you’ve done all your life is stopped – in boxing, nobody really prepares you for afterwards. Even though I retired on my own terms, you do get lost. I was champion. I always had that drive of getting in that gym, and it’s for your mental health and everything – keeping in the gym, training and having that euphoria of winning, and adrenaline, and pain, since the age of nine… All of a sudden that’s gone. You’ve got money; you’re still young, and you’re retired. It’s that cliché – people say “Do something else you love”. “Okay, well what am I going to do? I’ve dedicated my whole life to boxing.” I tried to do a bit of acting – that didn’t work out too good. I didn’t realise – I’m not really good at rejection [laughs]. I was down; I had struggles and so on; it’s quite normal with high-end sportspeople. I’ve had a very, very tough time the last few years, losing my dad and my mum [Enzo and Jacqueline]. The relationship I had with my dad – he was my hero; my best friend – and my mum, it’s been a tough few years, but now things are good. I’m blessed with another son – a 10-month-old son; another Enzo in the family – and maybe I’ll make him a champion.
You get waves when you feel good, and [when] you feel down. It took quite a few years. When you’re out of boxing you’re a different person altogether. You’re not the boxer anymore. With age and with time you become a more chilled character. I’m a family man. I’m lucky to have a good woman in my life; I’m a grandad as well now. Life is beautiful. You thank God that I was blessed to be able to do what I did beyond my wildest dreams and came out with nearly everything intact. My body’s busted up a bit from all the injuries to my hands and that, but I feel good.
I’m pretty content. I’m enjoying being a dad to my boys and having a little baby – he’s a blessing. Life is calm – it’s good. I’m secure – I can’t afford to buy three, four, five Ferraris, but I’m happy. I’ve invested in properties, so that’s what I do as well. I don’t live a crazy life.
My boxing gym is still going; the Calzaghe Academy is still running; you’ve got amateur boxers there. My sons Joe Jnr  and Connor  run that gym; they’re trainers; Joe’s got his pro [trainer’s] licence as well so, who knows, maybe in the future we’ll get another champion one day. They both love boxing – they’ve been around it all their life.
BN: What’s the closest you came to returning?
JC: I’ve never been close. The closest I’ve come is I go in the gym, I train for a couple of weeks, lose a bit of weight, and my hands would be fucked and my back, and I’m thinking, “Mate, come on, you’re too old for this”. This run I used to do – where I lived was my camp; there’s hills everywhere; fresh air – I’d be halfway up and I’d be like, “Fuck – I can’t do this anymore”. To come back, what would I have to prove? You’re always going to get fighters come through. It’s a big deal to make money, but legacy was always my number one.
BN: After watching Bernard Hopkins beat Kelly Pavlik, did you think you should also have fought the undefeated Pavlik before retiring?
JC: After the way I saw Hopkins deal with him, at the time, yeah. The only issue was there was no way I could make super middleweight anymore – I had to lose 36lbs for the fight with Kessler and I was so drained. I wanted to fight at light heavyweight but he was a middleweight, so the catch was what weight would I fight him? I don’t think he’d have stepped up two weight divisions. But, looking back, because he was a top guy at the time and I always thought I’d do a number on him, yeah, and Hopkins looked excellent, didn’t he? Pavlik would have been a great fight for me.
There were people saying “Why didn’t he go to 49, 50-0 – he still had a lot in the tank?”. I remember speaking to Dad some years after – and he was always right – “Dad, should I have went to 50?” and he went “Yeah” [laughs]. “Bit late now, Dad – I’m forty-something.” But only people behind the scenes know what I was going through with injuries, and I’d started to lose that train-like-a-challenger mentality. My kids were growing up; I got dropped [in my final two fights] as well; is that a coincidence or your body telling you something?
I remember him saying that to me, and him just giving me this smile, and, mate, he was always fucking right. He was right about everything. He just knew me. He knew every style that worked for me. He said what would happen with the Lacy fight – 90 per cent of the press wrote me off, which I took personally. I was going to pull out [with a hand injury] and he said, “Joe, you have to fight this fight”, and what would happen and how I’d dominate him from the first round to the 12th round. “I’m telling you now, this is gonna fucking make you a superstar.” He was correct. That catapulted me to get the fight with Kessler and to go to America on that performance. Maybe he was right – maybe I should have stayed in there for another four fights.
BN: After you retired you briefly entered boxing promotion…
JC: I didn’t realise that promoting was such a pain in the arse. It’s a lot easier going in the ring and knocking somebody out than trying to do promotions and shit. It’s one of them things. I wasn’t in the frame of mind, as you can imagine, soon after boxing; we had a little go; done a couple of shows with dad and my ex-agent, and it was a lot harder than I anticipated. I was doing other stuff at the time – it was a short-lived excursion.
BN: You and Darren Barker have since entered management…
JC: Me and Darren – it’s quite a new company; ISG [International Sports Group] – we’ve got a couple of fighters. It’s early days – we’ll see how it goes with that. It’s quite tough when you’re starting off. You’ve got the big dogs; the big promoters; your Eddie Hearns; your Frank Warrens, and the big guys. You need the money; the backing; you also need TV, especially buying up top amateurs, which is fair enough – the top amateurs want TV exposure.
I should have done a bit more [in boxing] when I retired, but because I’d been involved for so many years it was nice to take a break. Now I’m older, it’s nice to go to shows, but I took my eye off the ball for quite a long time.
BN: How much did it mean to you to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame?
JC: That was one of the best moments in boxing – to be inducted first ballot as well. I remember the pride in my family; my dad – that’s one of the proudest moments of his life – and also to be inducted with two great fighters in [Oscar] De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. It’s one of my proudest moments, definitely. It was the icing on the cake for everything I achieved. That’s something that will live with me forever – [my dad] was so proud. It wasn’t just for me; it was for him. Without him I never would have become a champion; he trained me as a young kid and made me believe I would be great one day. The power of that positive attitude had me believing in myself. He dedicated his life to me.
BN: More recently, Carl Froch joined you there…
JC: He had a great career. It would have been a great fight – I say I would have won; he thinks he would have won. But he had a great career, and getting inducted into the Hall of Fame, you gotta give him respect for that. Congratulations to him.
BN: At the same gym there was you, Enzo Maccarinelli, Gary Lockett, Bradley Pryce and Gavin Rees – do you think Welsh boxing will ever experience something like that again?
JC: Not forgetting you had Nathan Cleverly – he was a product of us; we trained him from the age of 12. That gym – it was an absolutely magical time for us. It was ridiculous. We had a great relationship in the gym; we was all friends; success breeds success and we all believed we could beat anybody, and Dad’s energy was incredible. Do I think that’ll happen again? No, I don’t. I’m not trying to be big-headed, but what me and my dad achieved, especially coming from where we came from, was magical. Nobody give us a chance; nobody respected my dad as a trainer ‘cause he was a musician and people always try to write you off.
BN: Who’s the best super-middleweight in the years since your retirement?
JC: Andre Ward. He’s retired undefeated and he’s beat everybody in front of him. He’s a very cagey, clever fighter; Olympic champion. You can’t knock a guy who’s undefeated – people will try to – but he’s won the Super Six, which I wish they would have had in my day, the top fighters fighting each other. He won everything.
BN: Would you have beaten him?
JC: Of course I would have. It would have a been a tough fight; it’d have been a cagey fight; a thinking fight. The only thing that’s different with me from the other fighters he fought is I’m a southpaw, and my unpredictability and punch output can’t be matched. It’d have been a great fight. It’d have been a hard fight – it wouldn’t have been easy.
BN: What was your toughest fight?
JC: The hardest fight and the best fight are two different things. The hardest fight I ever had, by far, was the fight with Chris Eubank [in 1997], because in that fight, I’ve never been so exhausted. It was inexperience; I was pretty drained before I went in. Normally my weight would be 12st 10lbs on the day of the fight; I was really nervous; it was a big deal; I worked out too much in the changing room on the pads, and I remember jumping on the scales and I was 12st 4lbs.
The best fight, Kessler. Hopkins for his caginess, but Kessler. He hit hard; he was undefeated at the time; he was at his peak; he was a big super middleweight and he was hungry. Kessler was a tough fight – I had to adapt. He caught me with some good uppercuts in the fourth and I started boxing him. “Fuck this – fucking hell, he hits hard.” I’m good friends with Kessler. “Fucking hell, Joe, you come out and you started boxing.” On the end of my jab; feinting; moving. I’d have to say Kessler.
The best I fought – Roy Jones Jnr at his peak was one of the greatest fighters that ever lived. Hopkins was a great fighter, but Jones went and beat Hopkins with one hand [in 1993]. I spoke with Roy the other day and he said he was injured in that fight, and the way that Roy beat him, and the way he beat James Toney [in 1994] – it was incredible. Obviously Hopkins was [also] a great fighter, because of what he’d achieved and what he went on to achieve after I fought him.
I remember seeing Jeff [Lacy] about 2016, and I had a conversation with him. He was a big star [in 2006]. I remember him coming to Newbridge; he was going to do a fight with Tony Oakey [the fight is on neither of their records], which he actually lost ‘cause his shoulder was fucked, and he came to the gym and he sort of thanked me. He said “Joe, you took away my ego. You don’t understand what happened after the fight with you. I locked myself up in a house for about a year; split up with all my friends; split with my missus; I didn’t speak to anybody; I sank into a big depression”; he said he found God, which he thanks me for, because he’s a devout Christian now. I was like, “That could have been me”. I always hated losing – the last fight I lost I was an amateur at 17 and I cried for weeks, I was so upset. The worst feeling in the world is losing. For me to lose that fight, I’m scared to think what would have happened to me. One loss like that can completely change your life. He was coming over to do a six-rounder or an eight-rounder with Tony Oakey, to get a few quid. “The next superstar; the next Mike Tyson.” That’s it. That’s the harsh realities of boxing.
BN: Did you become a better fighter when your hand injuries forced you to stop loading up?
JC: I did have to adapt my style a bit. I was a big puncher in the amateurs; possibly I [also] matured and got a better fighter as I got older because you realise, during fights, you can’t knock everybody out. That fight with Eubank, I’m so happy that went 12 rounds; when you look back that one fight taught me more than I’d ever learned as a professional. Knowing how to pace yourself; that you can’t knock everybody out. He said “I’m going to take you to the well this fight” and he was right and I thank him for that. He seriously took me to a dark place in that fight. That was a long fight for me.
[Later] I couldn’t spar heavy. I had to do more combinations as opposed to just power with my left hand. My right hand was fine; it was always my left, which being a southpaw was my main punch; my left hook over the top. So I had to take that punch out, because with those 10oz Reyes gloves, as soon as I landed a left hook over the top and it lands on the head, my hand’s gone and I’m aware of it in the fight. “Fuck, my hand’s gone.” I had to adapt, and possibly it did make me a better fighter – it made me a more intelligent fighter; a thinking fighter, because I threw more combinations and was more wary of landing combinations as opposed to looking for that big left hook.