Nat Gottlieb on the trials of British fighters crossing over the Atlantic and talks to Lennox Lewis on whether or not it's as important today as it was yesterday.
Lennox Lewis and Joe Calzaghe have a few things in common. Both are British. Both have been world champions. Both are considered all-time British greats. And there the comparison stops. In terms of the way the world regards these two fighters, there is literally an ocean separating them.
Although Brits have had a spotty record when crossing the Atlantic, beginning with their first attempt to fight in the States in 1776, Lewis successfully conquered America.
After winning the super heavyweight gold medal at the 1988 Olympics -- the only Brit heavyweight to do so in the 20th Century -- Lewis fought 12 of his first 15 fights in England, two in Canada and one in the States. Then, after beating Tommy Morrison in Atlantic City in 1995, Lewis fought 13 of his last 15 fights in U.S, defeating the best of his generation.
Lewis is considered one of the world's all-time greats.
On the other hand, Calzaghe, the long- reigning super middleweight champion from Wales, is 42-0 and has fought 39 of his fights in either England or Wales. He ventured from home for one fight each in Scotland -- he could have ridden his bicycle there -- Germany and Denmark.
Not coincidentally, no one has yet proclaimed Calzaghe one of the world's all-time greats.
The generally accepted opinion is that until Calzaghe fights in the U.S., he will never gain the kind of world status normally given to an unbeaten fighter with 19 straight successful title defenses, a feat surpassed only by five boxers: Bernard Hopkins and Larry Holmes 20; super middleweight Sven Otke 21; light heavyweight Dariusz Michaelczewski 23, and Joe Louis 25.
Lewis, however, is not so sure he agrees with the notion that Calzaghe must fight in the U.S. Although Lewis has personally urged Calzaghe to come to America, he admits to having ambivalent feelings about how necessary it is for his countryman's legacy.
"When I started boxing, the general attitude was that if you wanted to be a true world champion, you had to fight in America," said Lewis, an HBO commentator. "Even the British press focused that way. In order to be recognized by the fraternity of boxing around the world, you had to come to America and be judged by American crowds and writers."
Lewis, who retired in 2003 after successfully defending his championship against Vitali Klitschko, doesn't feel that kind of thinking is as relevant today.
"I am starting to wonder a bit if people really have to go to America because there are so many champions in Europe," Lewis said. "The money is not the issue, because a European boxer can fight at home, have a big and loyal following like Joe and the money will be very good. The whole money landscape is changing in Europe because networks are making deals with other networks to buy the distribution rights."
For several years, Calzaghe has been talking the talk about crossing the Atlantic, but has yet to make the walk. After he stunned American fans by demolishing fellow champion Jeff Lacy last year in a fight televised in the States, Calzaghe had the perfect springboard to cross the Atlantic with some buzz. But, instead, Calzaghe chose a stay-at-home fight against Glen Johnson, which was scheduled for July 8 before Joe pulled out with another of his career-long nagging injuries. When Calzaghe finally made it into the ring last year in October, it was in Manchester against little-known Sakio Bika. Same old Joe, the tough Brit media said.
Meanwhile, his promoter Frank Warren says he had tried to make fights with Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins when both were in their prime, but negotiations fell through -- largely it is believed because the powerful promoter wanted the Americans to fight in England.
Last December there was seemingly credible talk of Calzaghe fighting this summer against middleweight champ Jermain Taylor in America. Taylor's promoter, Lou DiBella, said he had talked to Warren and both were on the same page for the fight. Then, after a draw with Winky Wright and a victory over blown-up junior middleweight Kassim Ouma -- two fights in which Taylor did not appear to make much headway in polishing his flaws -- suddenly Calzaghe fell off DiBella's radar.
Calzaghe, however, continued to talk up America. He told the British media that he was trying to make fights with Hopkins, who had announced he was coming out of retirement, and also against Jones, who appears to be fighting in a permanent state of retirement. Jones balked, and Hopkins walked when he took a fight this summer with Calzaghe's fourth American choice, Winky Wright.
One is tempted to cue up the 1960 hit song by Joe Jones:
"You talk too much you worry me to death,
You talk too much, you even worry my pet
You just talk, talk too much"
At least now there is a ticking clock on Joe Calzaghe's talkathon. While nobody has ever beaten the 35-year-old Wales fighter, Father Time could win a technical decision against Calzaghe's "dream" of fighting in the States.
Last year Calzaghe told the British Boxing Writer's Club at a luncheon in his honor that he wants to fight just three or four more times before retiring. Recently, he told the Wales website, icWales, that he was losing hope of ever getting a chance to fight in America. In so saying, he tempered his frustration by getting in line with Lewis's thinking: Calzaghe acknowledged it was no longer such a great priority.
"There wouldn't be a massive gulf missing in my career if I didn't fight in the States," Calzaghe said. "I'd like to fulfill a dream and fight at Madison Square Garden or in Las Vegas. If the fight can't be made, however, then so be it. The fighting world has changed anyway. America isn't what it used to be -- it's not the superpower of boxing anymore."
Comparing Lewis' journey to Calzaghe's may also be somewhat unfair. Both come from very different backgrounds.
Calzaghe was born in England, raised in Wales and has lived most of his life in that country. Lewis was also born in London, but his family moved to Canada when he was 12. He fought as an amateur out of Canada, traveling the world and making several trips south to the States for tournaments. Lewis said all the traveling gave him a broader view of the world than Calzaghe.
"Joe has had no exposure to the world," said Lewis, who currently lives in Florida. "I traveled around the world as an amateur and it opens up your mind to see the way different people live. Fighting in all those tournaments in different countries made me realize how much more there is to boxing."
When it came time to turn pro, Lewis returned to England, largely because hockey is the undisputed champion in Canada. Fighting in England, Lewis admits he felt the same kind of comfort zone as Calzaghe and fellow Brit champion, Ricky Hatton. But Lewis knew he couldn't remain a homebody and realize his full potential.
"When I fought my early bouts in England, I was perceived as a British boxer," Lewis said. "It was said that I would fight horizontal and that my skill level would not be as good as Americans. America was thought of as the Mecca of boxing. I knew if I wanted to be the best in the world, that meant I had to go anywhere in the world. That's one of the reason I went to Africa (a loss to Hasim Rahman in South Africa). I wanted to follow Ali's path, the way he fought in Zaire."
Another difference in their careers was the state of the division each has fought in.
"When I was fighting, all the heavyweight stars were in America, so I had to go," said Lewis, who would achieve worldwide acclaim for beating Evander Holyfield after a first fight draw, and later score an 8th round knockout of Mike Tyson.
Although Americans never seemed to completely warm up to Lewis, they did pay to see him. Lewis sold out a half-dozen megabucks shows in Las Vegas, six in Atlantic City and three in New York. His fight with Tyson in 2002 had a near record 1,930,000 pay-per-view buys, second only to the 1997 rematch between Holyfield and Tyson, which sold 1,990,000. Lewis-Tyson still holds the record for highest grossing pay-per-view fight, $112 million.
Unlike the cavalcade of stars Lewis had to pick from, the super middleweight division has been devoid of big names since the early 1990s, when James Toney, Britain's Nigel Benn, Michael Nunn and Jones held titles. Jones, who was super middleweight champ from 1994-96 before moving up to light heavyweight, is the last elite, internationally recognized fighter to have fought at 168 pounds.
"The super middleweight division is sparse," Calzaghe said. "The problem is America has no top super-middleweights. Lacy was the man. He ruled the castle, but I completely destroyed him and there's no one left."
Peter Manfredo Jr. might disagree with that. The former "Contender" TV series star has a date with Calzaghe April 7 on HBO's World Championship Boxing, and has vowed to knock the champion out. And oh yes, that fight is in Wales.
The only "big" bout on Calzaghe's horizon would seem to be with unbeaten champion Mikkel Kessler of Denmark, who disposed of his mandatory, Librado Andrade, in impressive fashion March 24 on HBO.
But here's the rub. Of Kessler's 39 fights, all but two have been in his native country. Like Calzaghe, the 28-year-old Dane so far has been a homebody. To his credit, however, Kessler has said many times he would love to fight in America. Then again, so has Joe.
Both champions have also stated firmly that they would not travel to the other's country for the fight. Even before negotiations can begin for a possible showdown, Calzaghe already has his talking points down:
"Americans want fighters they know, and they don't know Kessler," Calzaghe said. "Kessler doesn't want to leave Denmark and I'm not fighting over there. If he'd come to Wales, maybe. If America wanted me to fight Kessler (in the States), I'd do it."
Cue up the Joe Jones song again, please.