HBO WCB - Nov. 3, 2007

Joe Calzaghe vs. Mikkel Kessler

Joe & Enzo's Undefeated Bond

Just as remarkable as Joe Calzaghe's 10-year reign as super middleweight champion is the story of how his father Enzo, a second-rate musician who had never fought in a ring, took a son who was an ordinary football (soccer) player and turned him into an extraordinary boxer. In fact, the two stories cannot be separated. The Calzaghes wouldn't have it any other way.

If it wasn't for a rolled up carpet and a simple speedball, Joe Calzaghe says he would be punching a clock in a factory today. There really weren't a lot of options for a Welsh working class kid who didn't excel in school and lacked the foot speed to make a living as a football midfielder.

Sometimes if you don't have a life calling, life calls on you.

Boxing came into Joe's world in the most casual of ways. Joe liked to horse around with boxing at home, so his father would roll up the living room carpet, bring out some gloves and "we just played around with it," Enzo says. Neither seriously considered that boxing could be a career for Joe. At least not until the speedball entered the picture.

On a whim one day when Joe was nine Enzo went out and bought a cheap speedball, which is a punching bag attached to a platform. He gave it to his son as a present. It turned out to be the gift of his life.

Because a speedball moves rapidly and erratically, boxers use it to develop their hand-eye coordination. Enzo immediately saw that Joe had an innate ability to make that bag sing. "He showed me he had a great eye for contact," Enzo said.

Enzo had never boxed himself, but he knew more than a little about fighters. Enzo had come from a family of boxers in his native Sardinia and grew up obsessed with the sport. His father Joseph, who boxed professionally, taught his son the basics, but Enzo fancied himself a football player and participated in leagues.

"I would go to all the fights, listen on the radio and watch them on our little black and white TV," Enzo recalled.

So when Enzo found he had a young son not good enough in football or school, he decided to give him a crack at boxing in a gym.

"He was nine when I took Joe to the local boxing club (Newbridge Rugby Club), which was run by a man named Paul Williams," Enzo said. "We went in and I told Paul I wanted Joe to start boxing."

Williams put Joe through a one-hour training session. It would mark a major plot point in the story line of the undefeated world champion Joe Calzaghe.

"When it was over, Paul come up to me and said, 'Where has he been training?' I told him he had never trained. He said, 'Well, if he never trained he looked pretty good. You have a chance with Joe to have an open class boxer.' I didn't even know what an open class boxer was so I asked him. He said, 'It means he is a bit special.'"

Against all odds and logic, Enzo decided to train his son himself. To this day, Enzo believes his lack of experience was a positive.

"It was a gift that I never boxed," Enzo said. "That way I had no bad habits. I had to come to my training methods fresh. I studied three boxers' styles. Hagler for his southpaw stance. Leonard for his speed, and Ali for his jab."

At the beginning, Joe was not nearly as keen on boxing as his dad. So Enzo did what parents are warned not to, he became a "stage father."

"It was a gift that I never boxed," Enzo said. "That way I had no bad habits. I had to come to my training methods fresh. I studied three boxers' styles. Hagler for his southpaw stance. Leonard for his speed, and Ali for his jab."

I don't believe in the story that a parent shouldn't push his children. If you believe your son is special, whether it is boxing or music or studying, you should push them. If they turn out good, they'll thank you, and if they don't they'll blame you for ruining their life," Enzo said.

Enzo made a pact with his son which would be the beginning of a lifelong father-son bond. "I pushed Joe, but I never asked him to do anything I didn't do myself, and the same is true today. If it was raining out, I wouldn't tell Joe to go out and run while I watched TV. I went out there and got wet with him. If I asked him to spar, I sparred with him. I'm 58 and I still run and spar with him," Enzo said.

Two years after he had walked into that tin-sheet clad gym in Newbridge, Joe confirmed what his father and Paul Williams had suspected. He was indeed special.

"Joe was 11 the first year I put him into the equivalent of your (American) Golden Gloves. He won the Welsh national championship, and then the British Nationals, all in his first year. From 1991-93 he won three straight British ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) titles in three different divisions, welter, light middle and middle."

Joe was only the second boxer in British history to record the feat, and by now he had fallen in love with the sport. Joe set his sights on the Olympics, but because of a technicality, the Welsh Amateur Boxing Associated did not nominate him for the Olympic team. His dream dashed, Joe and his father decided it was time to turn pro. He was 21.

On Oct. 1, 1993, Joe made his debut, winning a first-round TKO in a Cardiff rugby stadium. It is now 42 fights later and Joe Calzaghe has yet to lose. He won the super middleweight title in 1997, beating former world champion Chris Eubank, and has successfully defended it 20 straight times. Should he beat fellow unbeaten champion Mikkel Kessler on Nov. 3, he will tie Sven Ottke for fourth place on the all-time list for consecutive defenses, behind Joe Louis (25), Dariusz Michalczewski (23) and Ricardo Lopez (23).

Throughout his rise to the top of the boxing world, Joe never lost track of the main reason he had gotten there. "If it wasn't for my dad, I wouldn't be boxing in the first place. He's been with me from day one and made me who I am today as a fighter," Joe said.

Despite their success, the reign of the two Calzaghes has been far from a total feel-good story. The Calzaghes -- especially Enzo -- have had a long-standing love-hate relationship with the British media, which until recently never really gave Joe his due. Enzo makes no bones being bitter about it.

In fact, when I called his cell phone in Wales and asked if I could speak to Enzo Calzaghe, the man who answered the call said "Enzo has gone out." Only after I identified myself as an HBO boxing writer, not one of the Brits, did he say: "Okay, this is Enzo."

What embitters Enzo is that he says his son has received faint praise and vigorous criticism by the British media over the course of his entire championship reign.

"In England, people are not known for loving their leaders," Enzo said. "No matter what Joe accomplished, they criticized him. They condemned his victories and praised his opponents, If he won all 12 rounds of a fight, they'd say what a bum he fought. I think Joe was too good for his own good."

An acrimonious relationship turned into an all-out war in 1999. After Joe beat Rick Thornberry handily but in uninspiring fashion for his fourth title defense, the media began pushing Joe's promoter, Frank Warren, to bring in a more experienced trainer to replace Enzo.

"The press was saying Joe needed a new trainer to take him up to the next level," Enzo said. "What next level? I had already made him a champion. But they were unhappy with Joe's performances so they blamed me. I never let it upset me, it was like water rolling off a duck's ass. The media wanted me to go, but I believed in my ability. The day comes when I don't believe I can do the best for a fighter, you won't have to push me out, I'll quit."

There were whispers at the time that Warren had put the press up to it, but Enzo knew better.

"It had nothing to do with Frank Warren. Frank had no doubts about my ability. It was just the press. You never can satisfy those bastards. Frank believed if something isn't broken, why fix it. The media likes to built you up and then kick you down. That's all they do."

The episode took a toll on Joe. "He handled all the criticism pretty good, but sometimes it was hurtful," Enzo said. "He would say to me, 'Dad, I won a world title, why do they say I boxed nobody?' Well let me tell you, Joe has fought six (former) world champions -- Eubank, Reid, Woodall, Veit, Mitchell and Lacy -- and beaten them all."

The criticism dogged the Calzaghes all the way until last year, when Joe dominated unbeaten American wonder boy Jeff Lacy in spectacular fashion. After that fight, the British media suddenly embraced Joe, but Enzo was not forgiving.

"The night before the Lacy fight, I was at the hotel where the fighters and the media were staying. None of the media came up to talk to me. They thought Joe was a loser, that Lacy would thrash him. After the fight, they licked my boots!" Enzo said.

Today, Enzo no longer hears criticism of his ability as a world class trainer.

"Early on, when Joe was winning all his fights, they would say about me that it was a fluke, that anybody could make a boxer like Joe a world champion because Joe was blessed. I had to live with that stigma for the seven or eight years of Joe's professional life," Enzo said. "Now I train three world champions, I have top class fighters and they are all feeding off each other the way it was at the old Kronk in Detroit."

Besides Joe, Enzo trains cruiserweight champion Enzo Maccarinelli and Gavin Rees, a newly-minted junior welterweight champ who is only 5'3. He also has Bradley Pryce, the Commonwealth junior middleweight champ, and Gary Lockett, who is 29-1 and the No. 1 ranked challenger for one of Kelly Pavlik's middleweight title.

Through it all, the one constant has been the fierce bond between father and son.

"Joe and I are good friends, that's why it works," Enzo said. "We talk the same language. We like the same music and movies, play soccer together and go to a pub for a pint. We love each other very much."

When asked to look back at one memory that stood out above all the others, Enzo said: "It's not one memory, it was just seeing Joe show the whole world that he was numero uno. He's the best I've seen in my generation. One of the best ever. Joe is something more unique than Ali or Hagler or Leonard. They were all great fighters, but always fought in the same way. But Joe has so many tools, he's like a chameleon in the ring. He can react to each opponent's style by changing everything he does."

In his autobiography published this year, "No Ordinary Joe," Joe said:

"When I win, Dad always gives me a big sloppy kiss on the lips. He's the first guy in the ring and tries to lift me on his shoulders. That makes me more nervous than fighting because I'm sure he's going to drop me one of these days. Afterwards, we'll go for a pint or something to eat. Nothing extravagant. I don't go for the high life. And I don't need people telling me I'm great. I've got my family and that's all that matters."

In a sport where loyalty and love are in short supply, Joe and Enzo Calzaghe have forged a rare relationship that will last well after the gloves are hung up. That is every bit as great an accomplishment as Joe's success in the ring.

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