Undefeated WBO super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe has outlasted Harry Potter. The question now is can he do the same with Mikkel Kessler, the undefeated WBA and WBC champion who will square off with him Nov. 3 at Millenium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales?
When the 35-year-old Calzaghe first won the 168-pound title on Oct. 11, 1997, the first Harry Potter novel had just been published. Earlier this year the seventh and final tome in that remarkably popular series by British writer J.K. Rowling was issued and Harry Potter was finished. Joe Calzaghe, meanwhile, fights on.
To put some perspective into just how long Calzaghe has held some form of the super middleweight championship consider that neither DVDs nor iPods existed when he first snapped a world title belt around his waist by defeating Chris Eubank in a fight he still considers the most difficult of his career. Now iPods and DVDs are staples of daily life. In Wales, and in the super middleweight division, so is Calzaghe.
That being the reality of the matter, weighty issues will be settled come Nov. 3. By the end of that night the world will know who the best 168-pound fighter on the planet is and British boxing promoter Frank Warren is hoping the population will be interested enough in that to break the European record for indoor attendance at a sporting event. The house has been set for 63,000, with more than half the seats already sold, so it is clear this will be one of, if not the, biggest event in British boxing history. Expectations are high, but for what exactly?
Calzaghe (43-0, 29 KO) has long ruled his division by the deft use of angles, his southpaw stance, a sharp right jab and a fragile but dangerous left hand that carries with it more of a wallop than his critics think. Not considered a knockout puncher despite having stopped 11 of his 20 challengers, Calzaghe is seen by many in boxing as a slap hitter who, in trying to protect those fragile hands has developed a style not conducive to sitting down on his punches to do maximum damage.
The WBO champion has heard this and a lot of other criticism for many years and so he no longer takes offense when people around Kessler question his ability to match The Great Dane's punching power. He heard the same thing a year ago when he fought then IBF champion Jeff Lacy. Lacy was supposedly a mini-Mike Tyson. Unfortunately for Lacy, that turned out to be the case for when Calzaghe stood up to him, he folded like an accordion.
"Look at Lacy's face after our fight," Calzaghe said recently when questioned about his punching power. "He looked like he'd been run over by something, you know? All smashed up. If I can slap that hard I'm pretty happy with that.
"I don't really take much notice but I suppose Ali slapped, Roy Jones slapped. All fighters slap sometimes, you know? That's just the way it is. You throw a dozen punches in a couple of seconds, not every one's going to be a correct punch, so to speak. A lot of them are going to be half-arm punches but that's my style. Maybe it comes across like I slap sometimes but I don't care. At the end of the day I get the job done. Look at my record. On the day, I'm going to slap Kessler pretty hard as well."
Certainly Calzaghe can do considerably more than slap and he frankly will have to because Kessler (39-0, 29 KO) is himself a pressure fighter who is always looking to come forward and land a solid left hook to the body and hard right hands to the head. He stands several inches taller than Calzaghe and at 28 is seven years younger, thus giving him both a size advantage and all the blessings that youth provide.
Kessler fights in the traditional European style, which is to say upright and behind a solid jab that he throws to set up his right hand behind it in combination. This has worked well for him to this point, making him clearly the young lion on this night and one of the few fighters at 168 pounds that anyone would give a chance against Calzaghe. But he is also far more predictable than Calzaghe and despite his youth lacks the same kind of handspeed, two problems he will have to find ways to nullify. Power, of course, would be the easiest way to do that but he landed blow after blow on the head of Librado Andrade in March and never was able to wobbly him or dissuade him from continuing to come forward. He beat him handily but his failure to hurt Andrade despite the punishment he dealt out makes one wonder what will happen when he hits Calzaghe and then gets hit back.
With youth and his sheltered boxing existence in and around Copenhagen (where he's fought all but two of his 39 fights) comes a relative lack of experience because despite his record Kessler has never faced the kind of opponent Calzaghe at his best can be or stood under the lights in as hostile an environment as the Millenium Stadium figures to become on that night.
Calzaghe is cunning in the ring, a fighter who will use angles, distance and the difficulty all left handers pose to lure an unwitting opponent into spots from which he cannot emerge feeling the same as when he entered there. That is Calzaghe's greatest advantage in this fight because he believes he is the one best able to adapt to what ever will become necessary in the wee hours of Nov. 4 in Wales. When the knock on the door comes a little before 1 a.m. and the two of them must leave the safety of their locker rooms to face each other one will come with youth and all the brimming confidence that 39 straight victories provide. The other will come with something more.
"I've seen him fight," Calzaghe said of Kessler. "He's a very good, European style, upright fighter. Very good power with either hand. But you see one tape, you see two tapes, he looks the same. He boxes basically the same way (all the time). I believe that he's not adaptable. I don't think he looks to adapt to what I have to give him. He's never faced anybody remotely in my league as regards to my ability and also my adaptability.
"It's still my time. I'm 35 and obviously he's hoping I'm going to be slowing down and so on. The good thing is he's going into this fight thinking I can't punch. I'm really looking forward to wiping that smile off his face on fight night because both my hands have been really strong in training. The only time my punching power is lacking is when I break my hands or had a hand injury but for this fight my hands have been strong. I'm looking to unleash some power punching on Nov. 3."
So is Kessler. The man known throughout Denmark as "The Viking Warrior" will bring a simple but dangerous approach with him to Wales. He will seek the shortest route between two points, looking to arrive in Calzaghe's face with powerful body shots and a sometimes looping right hand that carries with it concussive power. If he finds that route he will immediately be the most dangerous opponent Calzaghe has ever faced. Finding it consistently will be the hard part.
Kessler is physically strong and used to dominating his opponents with that stinging jab and a right cross or straight right hand behind it, the traditional combination that has always been the most dangerous in boxing when thrown with the right timing and at the correct distance. He also likes to push his opponents harder than they are used to, eventually eroding their ability to stand up to his constant pressure. That may be a more difficult task than Kessler is used to against Calzaghe however because of the WBO/RING magazine champion's own ability to control space in the ring with his jab and deft sliding movements that effectively have blunted his previous challengers' ability to find the proper attacking distance.
Yet for all the respect he has for Calzaghe, when Kessler looks at the long-time champion he sees nothing he can't handle. No one to make him believe he can't do in front of 60,000 roaring Welshmen what he has done to so many others in the friendly confines of smaller arenas in and around Copenhagen.
"Joe's a great champion but I'm going to beat him," he said calmly one day in New York, where he'd flown to spend 48 hours hyping what will be an HBO prime time event. "Technically, he's a good boxer but when he comes forward he tends to look down. You can catch him with a punch he doesn't see. That's how Kabary Salem put him down. I'm going to be 200 per cent better than my last fight (the one-sided beating of Andrade in March) He's going to get a big surprise.
"He's never fought a guy like me before. I hit straight. I hit directly. And I hit hard. I understand this is the biggest challenge of my career but I'm not so sure Calzaghe will be my toughest opponent."
Some of Kessler's confidence probably stems from what he did to another 35-year-old southpaw champion last October. That's when he knocked out the German Markus Beyer to win the WBC title with one crushing counter right hand that dropped Beyer in a heap. Beyer looked like a fence post under which the ground had eroded when he got up, tottering on legs no longer willing to keep him upright after he'd spent more than 10 seconds on the floor staring blankly at referee Guido Cavalleri as he was counted out.
In Kessler's mind, it would seem, Calzaghe is little more than a somewhat better version of Beyer but that is a mistake. Beyer was one of those well-protected products of the German boxing machine and a well shot one at that by the time Kessler got to him. Calzaghe is cut from a different, and more dangerous, cloth. Kessler certainly is younger and probably stronger but Calzaghe still has faster hands, a high work rate and a hunger that is difficult to imagine for someone who has held a world title for so many years.
The latter is something born from having been denied too long what he believes he earned years ago - acceptance by the larger, and mostly American, boxing public. That lack of respect for what Calzaghe has done has again been made evident by the fact only three American boxing writers are scheduled to be in attendance at ringside that night.
"His record speaks for itself," Calzaghe says of Kessler. "He's undefeated. He's young. He's at his peak. He's 39-0. So of course all the statistics add up to this being potentially my toughest fight. But potentially being the toughest fight and actually being the toughest fight is two different things.
"I'm 100 per cent confident I'm going to win. It's why I picked this fight and pushed for this fight. I think I can do a good job on this guy. As long as I prepare like it's going to be the toughest, it won't be the toughest.
I've watched him about three times. I saw his fight against Andrade. I've seen most of the fight against (Anthony) Mundine and I saw the Beyer fight, which was pretty useless. I'm not a person to sit down for hours and hours and hours and go concise into an opponent. What he does and this and that. I just look through a few tapes, watch him once or twice and put them away.
"I go on a general idea what his style is and that's it. Same with Lacy. Same with other fighters. At the end of the day, they've got to make plans for me. I'm not going to alter my style or go in with too many plans. I fight the way I fight and I do my thing. I let him make a plan. At the end of the day he's going to have to deal with what I've got for him.
"This fight is all about movement. This guy likes to fight in straight lines. He's more of a straight puncher. So when I throw my combinations it's important for me to stand off to the side and throw from different angles, hitting him so fast he thinks he's surrounded, you know?
"I know his style. He's an upright fighter, a straight puncher. He likes to come out in the center of the ring. He doesn't fight good going back and he doesn't like to fight inside. Those are two things I like to do. He likes to go forward on a straight line so that's why I have to use my speed and my angles and my fast punching combinations.
"Obviously he's a very good fighter. You can't not be impressed with him. He's the second best super middleweight in the world. But I say second best. Obviously a lot of people are making out that he's the power puncher in this fight but at the end of the day he couldn't knock out Mundine. He couldn't knock out Andrade. He threw everything but the kitchen sink at him and couldn't do it.
"You're only as good as your opponent allows you to be. We'll see if he can get those punches off as he did against Andrade. I don't think he will and he's going to get caught a hell of a lot more with me than he did against a clumsy Mexican guy."
There was no need to ask who Joe Calzaghe felt is the one man superior to Mikkel Kessler. It is the man who hasn't lost a fight since 1990, when he was an amateur losing a decision to a Romanian fighter in Prague on only the second occasion he'd ever worn head gear. It's the man who was already world champion when Kessler made his professional debut in 1998. The man Mikkel Kessler feels he's been chasing all his life.
"Joe was already the champion when I made my debut," Kessler said. "I've always felt his presence. He's the guy I wanted to fight always. That's why we pursued this fight so hard."
That pursuit was a lengthy one Kessler's promoters, Mogens and Betinna Palle, at times doubted would ever lead to what is coming on Nov. 3.
"He never wanted Kessler," Bettina Palle claimed. "Our first meeting after Mikkel won the WBA title we thought we had a deal but nothing was really ever there." Kessler's people still believe Calzaghe wanted no part of Kessler but was forced into it by HBO and the reality that he was the only fighter he could make money with at 168 pounds now that Bernard Hopkins has moved up to the light heavyweight division and Jermain Taylor reduced his selling power when he was knocked cold by Kelly Pavlik in what he said was to be his final fight as a middleweight.
What they seem not to understand is that in fact it was Calzaghe who pushed Warren to make the fight by refusing several lesser opponents Warren was hoping to convince him to face first. Those are the actions of a man intent at 35 on only one thing â€" convincing the larger boxing world that he is who he says he is. To do that he knows he cannot stumble now.
"At the end of the day it would have been a lot easier for me to pick some easy fights and keep going along unbeaten Joe with easy fights but the way I look at it I'm better off going out and fighting the big fights," Calzaghe said. "I picked the biggest fight at super middleweight with Kessler. Then I want to fight the biggest fighter at light heavyweight. This is a great platform.
"This is what I've always dreamed about. Now I'm finally where I wanted to be five, 10 years ago. I'm so determined to get in that ring and fight my best fight. You know, put on a performance to show what I'm all about.
"I've always had this hunger to remain undefeated. I think it's the fear of losing. I think I lost nine or 10 amateur fights. I remember every single one of them defeats. So the fear of losing drives me on. That fear motivates me to keep on winning. This fight with Kessler in prime time viewing on HBO is an excellent opportunity to showcase my skills. I think it's got the ingredients to be maybe the fight of the year and I think I'll have a platform to go on from there and finally get a massive fight, possibly in the States, with somebody like Hopkins. This is a massive fight for me and there's not one ounce of doubt in my mind who will win."
Whatever his reasons, Calzaghe is now ready to do what Mikkel Kessler felt he would not. He's ready to put a string of title defenses on the line against a younger, stronger man who no one doubts is, at his worst, exactly what Joe Calzaghe says he is. At the worst one of these two fighters is the second best super middleweight in the world. Now all they have to do is prove which one isn't.
"This is what I've always dreamed about. Now I'm finally where I wanted to be five, 10 years ago. I'm so determined to get in that ring and fight my best fight. You know, put on a performance to show what I'm all about."
HBO WCB - Nov. 3, 2007