FOR Joe Calzaghe, a sigh is worth a thousand words.
Even now, in retirement, memories of a certain night will trigger a wide-eyed look followed by a nervous chuckle and, finally, a sigh. He will feel tired all of a sudden, drained and overworked, just as he did during 36 minutes of what he describes as “hell”; a prizefight in which he found himself pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, before in the end entering a “very dark place”. It’s why when asked about it he remembers it vividly and why he calls it the toughest night of his seemingly perfect 15-year professional career.
A step up in class, Calzaghe, the betting favourite, was at the time undefeated in 22 fights but had yet to go the full 12-round distance. His power, predominantly carried in left hands thrown from a sprightly southpaw stance, wound up both a blessing and a curse; responsible for ending fights emphatically, yet culpable for stunting his progress, at least in terms of rounds completed and experience accrued.
In terms of that, experience, the best a 25-year-old Calzaghe could offer back then was an eighth-round stoppage of Stephen Wilson in his 14th bout, which landed him the British title, as well as a first and successful defence against the undefeated Mark Delaney in April ‘96, a fight stopped in the fifth. Standout moments on a flimsy resume, neither result would be considered ideal preparation for what would await him in bout 23.
After all, his next opponent, one Chris Eubank, possessed a staggering 21 world title fights to his name and had travelled the full 12-round distance on no less than 16 occasions. At 31, he had experienced all there was to experience in the sport of boxing; wins, defeats, draws, distance fights, quick blowouts and everything in between. He had felt confident in fights, concerned in others, and nervous, anxious and tired in most. Calzaghe, on the other hand, had that all to come, and was so far only familiar with the sweet scent of victory, often early and one-sided.
Success begets confidence, though, and in the months leading up to his first world title shot, Calzaghe showed no signs of trepidation. Rather, he believed he was now ready for the jump in class, apprenticeship served, the 22 bouts under his belt deemed plenty.
Initially, the plan around that time was for him to fight Steve Collins in Sheffield. However, somewhat frustratingly, the battle-hardened Irishman eventually withdrew from that proposed fight because of injury. This then paved the way for Eubank, followed by a headache and some deep-thinking; in going from Collins, a swarming brawler, to Eubank, a canny counter-puncher, Calzaghe’s ability to adapt had never been more valuable, nor tested.
“Collins pulled out and in stepped Eubank at 13 days’ notice,” said Calzaghe. “And even though Collins had twice beaten Eubank, I felt Eubank would give me the tougher fight; you didn’t know what to expect from him. Collins is one thing – quite direct and orthodox – whereas Eubank was the complete opposite. Eubank might stink the place out, or, as he usually did in big fights, might raise his game to the next level and spring a surprise. That’s what I was worried about. I was knocking everybody out in the first couple of rounds, so was a bit cocky and brash. I’d gone eight rounds twice, but that was it.”
Still, a lack of rounds wasn’t necessarily an issue for Calzaghe going into the contest, not when he prided himself on being super-fit and thought nothing of throwing hundreds upon hundreds of punches at bags or pads inside his Newbridge boxing gym. It wasn’t quite fight experience, granted, but all the same his ability to operate at a high pace, for round after round, would, he believed, stand him in good stead against the premier fighters in his weight class.
“Chris came in at 13 days’ notice, but was supposed to be fighting on the card anyway, so was in great shape,” he recalled. “I didn’t worry too much about the difference in style – I never did. My idea was to let my opponent worry about me, not the other way round. I’d go away, prepare as I always did, and just do my thing. Then they’d have to deal with me on the night.
“Eubank was no different. Yes, he was completely different from Collins in style, but I was still just going to be me. And I truly believed that would be enough to win the world title. Also, I knew I could adapt in fights if need be. If a fight wasn’t going my way, or if I was feeling something wasn’t working, I’d have the ability to try something else. I was very adaptable.”
Forget the change in styles, of far greater concern to Calzaghe was the sheer suffocating pressure that comes as a by-product of any big fight, with or without a title on the line. Because, after 22 straight wins, all secured with relative ease, he now felt his career was about to really get started. He could suddenly picture a clear trajectory and, at each road stop, he envisaged large cheques being there for the taking, made out to “J. Calzaghe”. Stumble early, however, and those cheques would either be fed through a shredder, thus making them null and void, or they’d be saved for the next hot-shot coming through with an unblemished record, more than happy to take his place.
“I remember feeling really nervous because everything I’d trained for was on that one night,” he said. “How nervous? Well, put it this way, I normally get in the ring at twelve-stone-ten, but that night I was twelve-stone-four. I was a bag of nerves and that nervous energy had made me lose weight.
“It wasn’t just about winning the world title, either. I needed to win the fight so that I could afford to pay my mortgage and look after my son, who was around four months old at the time. Everything was riding on that fight and, in many ways, it was about more than just the fight. If I won, I’d be able to move to the next level and make better money. If I lost, the journey would almost be over before it had begun. I hadn’t felt pressure like that before and I haven’t felt it since.”
A new type of pressure also reared its ugly head 13 days out from the contest, thanks, in no small part, to the surprise presence of Eubank, a name synonymous with big fights and grand occasions. For if anybody was equipped to take the pressure of a big fight night in his extravagant stride, it was the eccentric from Brighton, and Calzaghe, having grown up on a diet of Eubank title defences, was only too aware of this.
Far from entering the unknown, then, the challenger was effectively swamped by information, and was having to process it all in less than two weeks. First he had to contend with the switch in styles – going from Collins’ incessant scrapping to Eubank’s staccato counter-punching – and then he had to get his head around the kind of mind games his new opponent tended to employ both before and during fights. If Collins was pure black and white, Eubank dipped his brush in and utilised every colour available.
“With Eubank it wasn’t just about fighting a great fighter and a world champion, it was about fighting a personality, an icon, someone I’d grown up watching on television,” said Calzaghe. “I had to deal with his character and the psychology of it all. It was different from just fighting some foreign fighter brought over here for me to beat up. Eubank knew all the tricks, he knew the mind games, and he also new I was just a young fighter with limited experience. What better place to try his tricks? So that’s why he’d give me the strange looks and he’d get in my face. He thought I’d be an easy target for that sort of thing.”
Calzaghe’s knowledge of Eubank led him to believe he’d be in for a hard night’s work. But his own experience, that of knocking over opponents in double-quick time, helped construct an air of invincibility that meant even the tougher fights sometimes turned out to be easy.
Indeed, even in the face of Eubank, a durable former world champion, there was never any doubt in Calzaghe’s mind that he’d walk away with both the victory and the championship. He only feared what he might have to do and where he might have to go to get it.
“People say the best possible scenario is knocking your opponent down in the first round, but, for me, it was the absolute worst thing to happen,” Calzaghe said, shaking his head as his mind drifted back to October 11, 1997; round one; fifteen seconds gone; arms and legs stiff with excitement.
While regret might be the overriding feeling for Calzaghe now, many years after the event, there was certainly no hint of despair when his hard left hand landed on the jaw of Eubank and sent him skidding across the ring on the seat of his yellow pants in round one. In fact, with only 15 seconds gone in the fight, it seemed that, despite Eubank’s reputation for sturdiness, Calzaghe’s run of 12 straight stoppage wins was about to be extended.
Sensing this as well, the crowd inside the sold-out Sheffield Arena hushed as one. Eubank didn’t appear hurt, no, more momentarily stunned, yet the fact he’d been pinged on to the canvas by his challenger’s opening left cross suggested the Welshman’s power was legitimate and that more shots, of similar power and ferocity, would also take aim and land in due course.
Still, Eubank, as nonchalant as ever, was up at the count of two and grinning. Then, while posturing, he nodded towards his heavy-handed opponent as if to say, “Yep, you got me there, kid.”
“I came out of the corner for round one smiling,” said Eubank. “I was moving around and sizing up the terrain, when ‘Boom!’ Calzaghe hit me with a huge shot that literally came out of nowhere and knocked me down. A first-round knockdown had never happened to me in my entire career. As I picked myself up from the canvas and brushed myself down, I thought to myself, You’ve got your work cut out tonight, guy.”
Calzaghe, meanwhile, buoyant in a neutral corner, certainly didn’t require Eubank’s approval, nor did he need a sign that his power was now a factor in the fight. He just couldn’t wait for the count to be over so he could resume his early onslaught.
“After I dropped him in the first 15 seconds, I got excited and thought it was going to be easy,” he admitted, putting his hands up and mimicking the flurry of punches he launched Eubank’s way. (Fists jutting back and forth, they still move at a rate of knots, even now, as a man in his forties.) “I threw absolutely everything at him when we started punching again. And I had so much nervous energy and adrenaline rushing through my body, it all seemed to empty there and then in my punches. I was loading up and trying to knock him out with every single punch.”
Despite his best intentions, especially in the final minute, the knockout never arrived. Instead, three minutes of the first round whittled down and eventually the bell rang. Eubank then retreated to his corner on unsteady legs and Calzaghe, who ended the round performing something vaguely resembling an Ali shuffle, headed in the opposite direction towards his. The battle was over, at least for now.
Eubank, sat on his stool looking more pensive than usual, offered an exaggerated shrug of his shoulders. He recalled: “My constitution was strong enough to soak up the damage that punch might have done in the longer term, so once I had regained my poise, I thought to myself, I will knock on your door in the 10th or 11th round but, boy, am I going to have to take some stick in the meantime.
“I had no problem with being in the trenches for a while; after all, in some fights, not least [Michael] Watson 2, I had lived in there permanently. Calzaghe had very fast hands and an awkward southpaw style, so he proved to be quite a handful.”
After the second round, another one Calzaghe dominated, Eubank stared across the ring at his foe and leered. Calzaghe had already turned his back by then, so missed the gesture, but it was certainly not one of kindness. Rather, it seemed to be Eubank’s way of simply telling the younger man things were only just getting started and that if he had any designs on beating him, he’d have to work hard for it. Naturally. He then decided to pace up and down the side of the ring, chest puffed out, eyes on those at ringside, perhaps now showing everybody, not just Calzaghe, that he was still upright and mobile. Still very much alive in the contest, that is.
Calzaghe, of course, needed no reminders. He felt Eubank’s presence each and every time he cracked the former champion with a hard left cross or right hook, and he also felt the full impact of the veteran’s staying power when wearily slumping down on his stool following each of the early rounds.
“Believe me, after a few rounds, I was fucked, completely spent,” said Calzaghe, who started to feel the impact of a Eubank body attack in the third round. “I remember sitting on my stool between rounds feeling sorry for myself, and my dad trying to wake me up, shouting things at me, trying to put some life back into my body. I then saw Eubank strolling around opposite me, banging his gloves together the way he used to do, and almost smirking at me. That was when I knew this was going to be a long, long night.”
Eubank had no choice but to try and match Calzaghe’s work-rate, and this, in turn, eradicated some of the stalling and posturing of days gone by, allowing him to flow freely and let his hands go in unison with his opponent. Kicking laziness to the curb, if the younger man got off first, Eubank would dig him to the body with left and right uppercuts, just to give him something in return. And so, while Calzaghe may have been shouting louder, Eubank was there whispering in his ear, always a presence.
More and more this happened, too, and soon Calzaghe was being forced to plot his attacks with a greater degree of thought. He started meeting Eubank in the exchanges and then pushing the former champion backwards, either through sheer strength or the velocity of his combinations. At one point in the fifth round, they met head-on, both giving and receiving massive shots, and neither dared contemplate the option of retreat. Only the buckle of Eubank’s legs suggested Calzaghe got the better of the trade.
It was a sequence replicated a few times in the sixth as well, a round in which Eubank decided to stop, look up at the ring lights and invite a bemused Calzaghe on to the tip of a scything right uppercut. Yet the recipient, unaffected, merely returned the favour in the form of dozens of heavy, chopping punches to head and body, crowding Eubank like a gang of thieves, probing from all directions and angles.
“If you look at it,” said Calzaghe, “I didn’t really box all that much against Eubank. It was just forward, forward, forward. I was throwing punches at all times because I knew he needed a rest. He’d always take rests in fights. That was his thing. He’ll have a little walk, he’ll do a little showboating, and it would buy him time. So I didn’t want to allow him the chance to do any of that stuff. I wanted to be on him at all times and I wanted to make him work for every second of every round. I wanted to suffocate him with my punches and movement. But to fight that way you’ve got to be prepared physically and mentally, because it certainly isn’t easy.”
Sure enough, signs of tiredness emerged during the seventh round, when both men seemingly made a silent pact to trade clinches rather than punches, and their earlier intensity made way for scrappiness. Right on cue, too, Eubank fist-pumped the air with both hands at the end of the round; messiness meant the pace had slowed to his liking.
Punches flowed again in the eighth and ninth, though, albeit more ragged than before, and Calzaghe made certain he touched every bit of available flesh he could find. Sometimes he’d even cup Eubank’s head with his right hand and then fiendishly work away with his left, if only to show his opponent, and the three ringside judges, that he was the one still working through the crippling tiredness taking hold of both men.
In the 10th round, Calzaghe cuffed a reckless Eubank with another left hand, which forced him to touch down while off balance. Eubank obviously claimed a slip, but referee Joe Cortez was in no doubt that it should count as a knockdown, so up went his fingers until he stopped at eight. Eubank, of course, was upright almost immediately. He was also now desperate, aware that a large deficit was building on the cards and that victory would only arrive via knockout.
This desperation caused him to frequently steam in with his head, or behind sneaky right hands, and to stumble around the ring in pursuit of the pay-off punch. He had in time been reduced to a solitary, wayward right hand, shuffling in and out of range and crossing his feet when attempting to throw it, and a look of glum acceptance followed him back to his stool between rounds 11 and 12.
There was no let-up on Calzaghe’s part, however. In fact, though many rounds ahead, and now well in control, he decided to end matters the way he began, throwing a smorgasbord of punches in the hope of putting an exclamation mark on an already impressive showing. It was a dangerous tactic, no doubt, one that could have seen him hurt or even wiped out by any of the right hand counters Eubank chucked his way, yet it also revealed the mind of the man. Not content with just winning, and getting on his back-foot to solidify this victory, Calzaghe instead wanted to end the night having made an emphatic statement.
And he did, too. He walked through flush, damaging right hands as though they were merely pats on the back and he continued throwing leather until only the final bell told him to stop. After that, tiredness inevitably made way for relief.
“That was by far my hardest ever fight,” he said, all these years later. “I’ve never been so exhausted and I’ve never been asked so many questions. I know my will and hunger were the only things that got me to the bell that night, and I know I was completely running on empty for the last couple of rounds. I wasn’t able to think about what I was throwing.
“But, after it was all over, I realised it would stand me in good stead for the future. I knew I had experienced a real test – one that had pushed me past the pain barrier – and had come through it. I was still alive to tell the tale. I went through that fight and showed all the ingredients you need to have to become a champion.”
Although he had been in tough fights before, both as an amateur and professional, this one felt different to Calzaghe.
“Before the fight I’d hear people talk about going to some dark place and I never really knew what they meant,” he said. “You could talk about it and you could imagine what it would be like, but, until you’d been there yourself, you could never truly relate or understand what they were saying. After spending 12 rounds with Chris Eubank, though, I knew exactly what these boxers meant by a dark place. And I knew what it looked like and what it felt like. I found out.”
Once free from this dark place, Calzaghe received some light via the judges’ scorecards, which read 116-111, 118-110 and 119-109, all in his favour. He had remained unbeaten and was crowned the new WBO super-middleweight champion, picking up the same belt Eubank had successfully defended 14 times during the nineties. Some called it a passing of the torch, while others preferred to wait for time to be the ultimate judge. One thing’s for sure, though, nobody guessed Calzaghe would go on to not only match Eubank’s lengthy run of title defences, but obliterate it completely, bettering those numbers by more than a half a dozen.
“Eubank was a great acid test for me,” Calzaghe said. “Because of the fight he gave me, and because of the lessons it taught me, I have a lot of respect for him to this day. I’ll never forget what it felt like to look across the ring at him, knowing I’d already dropped him, and just feeling like the rest of my night was going to be sheer hell. That was a real make or break moment for me in my career. Luckily, I didn’t let it break me.”
It was an experience Calzaghe wanted to remember but never repeat. Meanwhile, Chris Eubank was an opponent he had beaten but, for all his trying, been unable to break. “That’s what it felt like hitting Chris Eubank’s head,” he said, knocking his fist gently on the wooden table at which we both sat. “You try doing that over and over again and see if you don’t get dispirited or tired. It’s not easy.”
Nor did anyone ever say it would be.