The Welsh Connection: Calzaghe, Maccarinelli and Rees
04.08.07 - By Johny Oakley: Three recent victories, three world titles, three questions echoing in the valleys, as yet unanswered. The most significant convergence in their respective roads to world title status of all three athletes in question is the Welsh connection. Or, more precisely, the Welsh-Italian connection. Enzo Calzaghe’s recently relocated Newbridge Boxing Club, now housed inside a disused rugby club, is currently the centre of the universe for speculators on British boxing.
Article posted on 05.08.2007
The rugby player was once the chief exponent of the pride of Wales, the hallowed turf of Cardiff Arms Park his domain. Now, jab and hook have supplanted ruck and maul to emerge as the premiere imagining of the pride of Wales, the Millennium Stadium their domain – having replaced Cardiff Arms park as the national stadium.
That Newbridge Boxing Club takes root in the new habitat of an old legacy is not without an element of irony. The grandeur and triumph of aesthetics has defined modernity, reigning over the colossal brute force and muddy realities of the past. Key to its recent success is that Welsh boxing characterises both virtues, over a long history of grit ingrained in the working class psyche and ring skills necessary to complement one another. Freddie Welsh, Howard Winstone, Eddie Thomas and Johnny Owen are symptomatic of, and synonymous with, Welsh boxing heritage. As Welsh rugby and its time honoured familiarity rumble along, with tremors created by big men and big impacts, Welsh boxing has been steered on collision course with the big time. New arrivals of unparalleled empowerment have shattered the seismometer and rejuvenated the international renown of a local sporting tradition. The helmsman responsible for the plotting the new course is Enzo Calzaghe. But who are his first mates, his midshipmen, and his mutineers? And, most significantly, what of the unanswered questions?
First Mate Calzaghe:
With his father as the patron of innovations designed to catalyse change, Joe Calzaghe was next in line in the very fibre of his being, to bring them about. Adopting the Pride of Wales as his nom de guerre was perhaps a harbinger for success that had a tuneful ring of truth about it. The father-son double-act has resuscitated the fistic art once prevalent in the valleys. Unbeaten professionally under the tutelage of his father, a trainer atypically open to new methods, an ordinary Joe he certainly is not. Possessor of tremendous physical talents, southpaw Calzaghe is awkwardly elusive on the move and blurs target-bound flurries of punches, landing three or four before your brain registers the impact of the first. As soon as you think you’ve got a moment’s rest, a brief respite, a blink of salvation in the eye of the storm, Calzaghe comes along and gives you another little reminder, like the post office – he sticks one on you. Joe is notably unflappable. He is immune to trash-talkers, with which boxing is unfortunately well populated, but not to growing excitable and frustrated, more often than not in the same sentence, and going to war. Credited, however, with 21world title defences, he is frightfully consistent and, in the true spirit of Wales, is the choirboy who never hits bum note. Although he has, according to his detractors, hit plenty of bums.
This claim is not entirely unjustifiable. On a record of 43-0 the only genuinely creditable name is that of Jeff Lacy. The defining moment of Calzaghe’s career to date, his 2006 decision over, and humiliation of, the much-vaunted US power-puncher was a complete mismatch. Comparatively slow, the defensively inept and offensively limited plodder possessed only an abundance of heart in terms of championship credentials, as the Welshman couldn’t end Lacy’s challenge, if one can call it that, early and probably didn’t want to. It was his arrival. I didn’t give Lacy a single round. Joe’s latest defence against popular Peter Manfredo, a member of the growing Contender Alumni and specimen of journeyman capabilities, was embarrassingly bereft of action but an effective publicity boost. In accordance with the prediction of Angelo Dundee, a frozen-solid Manfredo ‘took a mansize licking’.
WBO champion Calzaghe, though, has lined up a genuinely world class opponent, and a superfight in the true fundamentals of the phrase, with a unification against WBA and WBC champion Mikkel Kessler (39-0) on November 3rd in Cardiff. The open question posed is twofold: Is the Kessler bout Calzaghe’s flight to the stratosphere or highway to hell? And will Calzaghe struggle for breath should his career achieve such altitude? Whatever, this fight is unmistakably Calzaghe’s calling and the purpose of his career. Kessler arguably boasts a record more sated by names and abilities, but Calzaghe’s intangible steals it on the night, by split decision or close unanimous decision. On the night – people will mark what they were doing and where they were, and those not in attendance will rue being where they weren’t. It will be a classic, after which any achievements on the road ahead are not likely to divert the journey as significantly as victory against the Dane.
So pressing is the urgency of Enzo Maccarinelli’s ambition that it seems according to follow suit, so straight to the question in this instance: Can Enzo Maccarinelli unify the cruiserweight division? One may answer yes with similar abruptness. The Welsh connection returns with WBO champion Maccarinelli’s recent emulation, albeit significantly less prominent, of Calzaghe’s domination of a most worthy challenger. Former WBC title-holder Wayne Braithwaite was the other half of the clash of two murderous-punching pugs. Most observers predicted the inevitability of an early finish, but Maccarinelli delighted in extending a display the distance. With an exhibition of polished boxing ability when he wanted it and power when he needed it is how he played it, outclassing Braithwaite. With doubters made believers, ‘Big Mac’ could finally exhale, as relief set in like the cement firming his position in the world elite.
However, that Enzo can purge his rival titleholders with the ruthlessness of a nation’s tyrant is more a matter of default than downright and dastardly destruction. ‘Midshipman’ is pun founded in reality. If he were a Premiership football club, he’d be Middlesborough. Product of a post-industrial environment, plenty of overseas quality on paper, thoroughly deserving of top-flight status and both eventually with similar records – perennial mid-to-bottom finishers in top-flight context, with a goal difference that is, frankly, indifferent. Perhaps he is a potentially respected and unified champion, but he is unequivocally not an all-time great. Although stylistically similar, David Haye is the classier of the two, and I harbour serious doubts as to whether Enzo could prevail. Haye’s move to heavyweight is imminent anyway and talk of a Haye – Maccarinelli outing seems to be a no-brainer.
With the inevitable loss of potentially the most destructive cruiserweight competitor to the promise of heavyweight glory, Maccarinelli has Cunningham and probably Mormeck or Bell (in the event of a Haye victory over Mormeck in September and vacation of the belts) to encounter. All three are potentially culpable to defeat against rangy Maccarinelli. Squat Mormeck is an astute purveyor of the chin-down gloves-up style and shuffling goose-step into an opponents kitchen, where by the looks of things he eats the contents of their fridge. He is a broad, powerful and tough thudder, capable of beating almost anyone in the world should the fight be held in a phone box. Probably the toughest nut for Enzo to crack. After these summits in the cruiserweight mountain range, respectable opponents dry up and the peaks fade to plains – desolate, dry and flat. Marco Huck is promising but unproven, after which Wilson, Adamek, and Tokarev are vulnerable and potential scalps.
Lacking suitable opponents is not a viable claim for mitigation in one’s career. Becoming a pirate in alternative weight categories in search of one may lead to, historically at least, the most bountiful of all treasures – the heavyweights. One must assume, comparatively, that some of Enzo’s power, speed and sleight of punch and positioning would not translate to the heavyweight ranks. Enzo’s career will be defined at his current weight, and that seems to leave him in the respected but not revered category of champions.
Last on the list, probably not for the first time in his life, and that may be the source of the little banger’s rebellious streak. Having previously incurred a one-year ban after famously scoring a knockout at a wake, Gavin Rees’ latest victory caused the upset of the year thus far in relieving usually classy French operator Souleymane M’baye of his WBA strap. Unlikely hero Rees’ obvious desire separated the two, as did his stature with the much shorter Gavin giving away a monumental six and one-half inches in height. From the opening bell, terrier-like Rees’, obviously more accustomed to six-round bouts, resembled a butcher’s dog as he began to tear strips off the lanky carcass in front of him. Rees’ considerable desire was matched only by M’baye’s considerable inactivity. The mystifying lack of a jab compounded his inaccuracy as Rees ducked the majority of his albeit infrequent punches. Skydivers have hit less air. Rees ran out of steam towards the close, but held on, quite literally, for the victory. This came as no surprise as Rees seemed to carry a little additional blubber around the edges and looks to be a more natural lightweight. Despite a convincing win, he is not yet a legitimate champion. To place Rees atop the division with Hatton and Witter is absurd, he is nowhere near the calibre of either of his fellow Britons, which begs the question, as yet unanswered: Who will Gavin Rees fight next?
Hatton and Witter are out of the question; even the most ardent fan of Gavin’s should concede that. More realistic is a good class domestic opponent. Colin Lynes, (30-3) British and European champion, is an ideal compromise. He is a wonderful operator and a real gentleman, easily marketable, and is of a solid, although not world-class, standard. Importantly, Lynes is not a dilettante in war as M’baye was, and will test harshly Gavin’s staying power, which the new ruler needs to gain the respect of his empire. Khan laughably indicated his willingness to challenge Rees. Khan needs to graduate from defensive school with honours in keeping his mouth shut before he can consider such a match-up. Hopefully logic, probably that of Frank Warren, will scrap this notion outright. In reality, Rees will probably be on the wrong end of a one-ended thrashing by the first world level challenger he encounters. Lynes is the most suitable option.
The fate of boxing in the valleys rests on the answers provided to their respective questions. The face of British boxing, never consistently attractive, will receive a black in the event of all-round failure. This is unlikely and, on the whole, positive expectation with a firm grounding in reality is in order. More importantly, enjoyment of these, some of the few fistic assets creditable to our fair shores, is top of my list of priorities.
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