Joe Calzaghe went down in the first round but the pride of Newbridge, Wales had enough to eventually send Bernard Hopkins downhill.
Proving himself for the first time on U.S. soil, Calzaghe ended Saturday night in a familiar posture - with his arms raised in victory after a split decision that kept him unbeaten and dethroned Hopkins for the Ring Magazine and linear light heavyweight championship of the world.
A star-studded crowd at the Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas, along with an HBO television audience, saw Calzaghe (45-0, 32 KOs) get off the canvas for just the third time in his career and then gradually gain his confidence as the 12-round fight progressed.
The Welshman's high-volume punch output was non-existent early but kicked in about the fourth round. And though he didn't hurt Hopkins, Calzaghe's aggressiveness throughout the fight was enough to outweigh Hopkins' strong start in the judges' eyes.
"I found it really odd tonight,'' said Calzaghe, no doubt thrown off his game a bit by Hopkins' deceptiveness. " He caught me in the first round. But I had to dig deep. Bernard's a great fighter. I knew that before the fight. He's wily and very difficult to pin him down. I just had to let my punches go."
The bout was Calzaghe's first at light heavyweight after he dominated the super middldeweight division for more than a decade with a record-tying 21 title defenses. Although he was boxing's longest reigning-current champion, Calzaghe still heard criticism because he had never fought much outside of his comfort zone in the the United Kingdom.
Hopkins (48-5, 32 KOs), who made his name as his era's greatest middleweight champion with 20 consecutive title defenses, had revived his career as a light heavyweight champion, dethroning Antonio Tarver in 2006, after losing his middleweight crown and the rematch to Jermain Taylor in 2005.
At 43, Hopkins accepted Calzaghe's challenge with the vow that "I would never let a white boy beat me" and to take his soul and send him back home.
But after landing a flush right hand to Calzaghe's face in the first round and knocking him down, the Philadelphia fighter visibly tired in the latter rounds and Calzaghe, 36, took advantage with quick flurries .
Asked if he indeed ran out of gas, Hopkins disputed that.
"No, I was just pacing myself for the long haul,'' he said. "I had him down early. I knew I was busting him up. I think it was an execution of the old school."
In the 10th round, Hopkins dropped to his knees from what was called an inadvertent low blow. The crowd booed lustily, sensing that Hopkins wasn't hurt but instead was trying to buy time to rest.
"He knocked my privates outside my cup,'' Hopkins said. "I told (referee Joe) Cortez that, and he gave me five minutes."
Hopkins said the fans will be the ultimate judge of the fight and said Calzaghe's punching performance, while busier, wasn't more effective.
"They weren't landing, I never got hurt in the fight. I never got hit with any of the big shots that I hurt him with. The world seen it. The one thing about boxing, the fans are the judges. I fought a gutsy fight. I have nothing to be ashamed of. I took a guy to school and made him fight my fight for half the fight."
It was "the half" that Hopkins acknowledges wasn't his fight that led the judges to favor Calzaghe. Adalaide Byrd scored it 114-113 for Hopkins, but Ted Gimza 115-112 and Chuck Giampa 116-111 both scored it for Calzaghe.
Hopkins indicated he may still fight again, possibly in a rematch. "I'm going to talk to my partners at Golden Boy (Promotions) and talk to my wife, and let the fans marinate the fight in their minds and show their disapproval."
Calzaghe, no longer saddled with the title of being the greatest champion nobody outside the U.K. knew, says his next move may be a fight against former light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr.
"I may want to be a legend killer,'' Calzaghe said about the prospect of beating Jones after getting off the floor to beat Hopkins.
"Obviously I got caught early, so I was a bit wary of his right hand and he was very defensive. I just had to be patient. . But in the fourth round, I started to loosen up and I thought I was getting stronger. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty. But thank God I won."
Posted 12:00 AM | Apr 19, 2008
HBO WCB - Apr. 19, 2008