The undefeated former super-middleweight champion of the world on achieving greatness – in and out of the ring
You get knocked down. Not just in boxing, in life too. I started boxing when I was nine. My family moved to Wales in 1972. We were pretty poor, I struggled at school, I got bullied. Boxing was my escape. I’d go to the gym and be a new person. I won the schoolboy ABA title when I was 13: first-round knockout.
The ring was my home. I’d forget all my problems outside it. It helped me later in my career, facing opponents like Jeff Lacy and Bernard Hopkins – bullies. Fighters who like to intimidate.
The last man to ever beat me in the ring was Adrian Opreda in 1990. I thought I edged it! I vowed I’d never lose again. My dad took over as my trainer and we won the next 50 amateur fights, then all 46 pro fights. From nine years old until I retired, I trained in mountains and fresh air. I had two sons at a really early age so I had to mature and grow up. I had to fight for my boys. It wasn’t about me, it was about my family.
I said I’d be world champion one day. It was in 1997, against Chris Eubank. It was the most nervous I’d ever been for a fight. I’m like, “I’m fighting Chris Eubank!” I dropped him with a left in the first round. I was shocked, I went back to the corner, looked at my dad thinking it’d be an easy night. Then the third round goes, the fourth round goes, and I was exhausted. It was willpower that got me through that fight.
I held that belt for more than 10 years. I beat six former world champions over 21 defences. I beat good fighters, man. I made it look easy. But I’ve been tested. I was knocked down four times and got back up and won. The last 10 years of my career I changed my style because of my broken hands. I couldn’t throw a left hand with power. That’s why I threw those high-speed combos.
I’ve had to fight for everything. I didn’t always have the best paydays. I got them right at the end. The Lacy fight might be my greatest night. He was touted
as the next Mike Tyson. I wasn’t scared of the guy, I was scared of failure. But when I woke on the morning of the weigh-in, all the nerves went. I was laughing and joking. Lacy was so tense. I won easily. The Mikkel Kessler fight was a great night too, in front of 50,000 fans at the Millennium Stadium. I became the first super middleweight to have held all the major belts. Eventually I had to move up to light-heavyweight.
I went after Hopkins, the lineal champion who was in the top five pound-for-pound. I wanted to fight in the US. I bought my own ticket to Vegas for the Floyd Mayweather-Ricky Hatton fight. Hopkins was one of the promoters. In the press room he told me the magic words, “I’ll never let a white guy beat me.” It sold the fight – in a few weeks it was made.
He always tried to get in his opponent’s head. At the weigh-in he was in my face and said, “Hey, I’m from the street, I’ve been in prison, E Block.” And I smiled, “Hey, what the f*ck does that mean?” He could see I wasn’t intimidated, he took a step back and walked away. He used to always wear his executioner’s mask walking into the ring. He didn’t against me. He knocked me down in the first round, he caught me off balance.
But I came back and won.
Then I wanted to fight at Madison Square Garden. I picked Roy Jones Jr as my last fight, a four-weight world champion.
I knew beforehand that it’d be my last fight. I was 45-0, I had nothing left to prove. I was 37 at the time, everything was hurting, the legs were creaking. I had to listen to my body. I wanted to do 12 rounds. I didn’t look for the knockout. It was magic, boxing there after where I’d come from – all those leisure centres! It was surreal, I was just enjoying myself, counting down the rounds.
I’ve never been tempted to make a comeback. I achieved everything I wanted to. I’ve got an MBE, a CBE, a BBC Sports Personality Of The Year. People see what I’ve achieved. I spoke to Emanuel Steward before the Jones fight. He said, “If you quit, Joe, you’re going to be remembered as a great world champion. People won’t appreciate you now, but they will.” He was right – people don’t appreciate you until you’re gone.
Mr Calzaghe is at cinemas, and available on DVD, Blu-ray and download now
(Photography: Andrew Shaylor)