x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

World champion is no ordinary Joe

To some it is a barbaric spectacle that should have been abolished a century ago, to others it remains the most noble of ancient arts, but whatever your opinion of boxing, there can be no argument that Joe Calzagahe is the type of man that gives his "sport" a good name.

To some it is a barbaric spectacle that should have been abolished a century ago, to others it remains the most noble of ancient arts, but whatever your opinion of boxing, there can be no argument that Joe Calzagahe is the type of man that gives his "sport" a good name. A thorough gentleman on the outside of the ropes, the Welshman becomes Smokin' Joe whenever the bell sounds even while bringing dignity and decency to a frequently undignified and indecent profession.

At the age of 36, Calzaghe has traded violence with the best and remains unbeaten. His brilliant points victory over Roy Jones Jr for the Boxing News light-heavyweight championship of the world in Madison Square Garden on Saturday extending his winning run to 46 fights. "My ambition," he says, "is to retire undefeated like Rocky Marciano." The Joe Calzaghe story bears more than a passing resemblance to that of another Rocky - Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa - beginning as it did with his father's arrival in the UK from Sardinia in the Sixties as a strolling troubadour with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder and a Simon and Garfunkel songbook (oh, yes, including the lyrics of The Boxer) in his pocket.

Wearied of life as a wandering minstrel, Enzo Calzaghe was on the point of returning home to Sassari when he met his future wife, Jackie, and settled in Newbridge. "Which was just as well for me," smiles the issue of this Italian-Welsh Valleys union. An avid fight fan and historian, Enzo has been the inspiration behind his son's ascent to ring greatness despite the constant calls from countless 'experts' that the champ ditch his dad and employ a recognised trainer such as the legendary Eddie Futch in his stead.

"I owe everything to my dad. Without him, I don't know what would have become of me. I was a reasonably good footballer, but strictly second or third division standard if I'd been lucky, so I wouldn't have become another Ryan Giggs." Enzo's Sardinian blood clearly courses through his son's veins because loyalty means everything to Joe Calzaghe, who still chooses to train in a humble gym in his home town of Newbridge rather than in Miami or London.

"It's maybe not the kind of flash gym you'd expect to find a world champion in, but I've been there for the best part of 30 years and it's like a second home. I'm just Joe to the rest of the lads - not 'Champion Joe' - and I wouldn't feel as comfortable anywhere else. "As I said, without dad's guidance and encouragement, I don't know what I'd be doing today because I was deeply unhappy at school."

The youthful Calzaghe was the prime target for a posse of playground bullies who sneered at his dedication to boxing, of his nights spent in the gym in preference to assorted vandalism. "I won the first of my Amateur Boxing Association titles when I was 12, but I was very small and some of the other kids made my life hell. It was mental rather than physical but it became so bad I even skipped my GSCE exams because I couldn't concentrate under the constant threat of the bullies. I can smile now when I see one of them but I wasn't smiling back then."

Having been encouraged to take up boxing by his father, would Calzaghe be happy to see his own sons, Joe, 13, and Connor,10, follow him into the ring? "Hopefully not. They're receiving a good education and I'd like them to grow up appreciating the fact that I fought so they would never have to do likewise." You may be among those who do not admire the "sport", but there is much to admire in Joe Calzaghe.

rphilip@thenational.ae