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Last Updated: Friday, 6 April 2007, 06:02 GMT 07:02 UK
Calzaghe eyes historic prize
By Richard Hookham

Joe Calzaghe in the ring
Calzaghe celebrates after his famous win over Jeff Lacy
There was a time when the fight game used to be really big on British TV.

During the 80s and 90s Britain's ring warriors got the peak time terrestrial exposure they deserved on both BBC and ITV. Or in some cases, didn't necessarily deserve.

And while the heavyweight division was always seen as the Premiership, often the best action was to be seen down three or four stones.

Hard men with granite chins, lightning reflexes but lethal punch power ruled the roost.

Nigel Benn, Michael Watson, Steve Collins, Chris Eubank - pub big screen darlings and genuine pugilistic heroes campaigning at middle, super middle or cruiserweight.

Their epic battles were the highpoints of an era when playground talk was as much about uppercuts and left hooks as it was about Manchester United and Liverpool.

But just as that age of heavy coverage was coming to an end, a young pretender and knock-out specialist from south Wales was starting to get noticed.

Joe Calzaghe, the only British amateur boxer to hold three ABA Boxing titles at three different weights, was given his chance against an ageing Eubank trying to reclaim the vacant WBO super middleweight title, having twice been beaten by Collins.

After 12 gruelling rounds, the boy born in Hammersmith but proudly hailing from Newbridge was a world title holder. On Saturday, Calzaghe will bid to make the 20th successful defence of his title, against Peter Manfredo Jr, runner-up in the reality TV series "The Contender".

In between those events, Calzaghe has ruthlessly dispatched all challengers to his throne and proudly boasts an outstanding record of 41 fights, 41 wins, with 32 by knockout.

Recently, with promoter Frank Warren having moved to ITV after a long association with Sky, Calzaghe has been given a larger audience and is getting the recognition he deserves.

But as he bids to make a 20th defence of his world title, Calzaghe is philosophical about his standing in modern British sport.

"I really came at the end of that great era and yes, it would have been nice to be around and fight guys like Collins and Benn," Calzaghe said.

I want to keep my legacy intact and remain a world champion until I decide to call it a day, not someone else

"But obviously beating Eubank gave me the title and I've never looked back.

"It was a different time and maybe I've not had as much exposure, but I was still beating everyone who was put in front of me and feel I've earned my place as the top fighter in this division.

"Who knows what would have happened if I'd been around five years earlier, but I would have loved to have been in the mix."

Ironically, Calzaghe's bid for 20 successful defences in front of his adoring Welsh fans at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium on Saturday, will be against a challenger who has probably had more TV exposure than the champ himself.

Manfredo Jr, runner-up in the reality TV series "The Contender", is aiming to capture the title and catapult himself into the big league back in the USA.

Not that Calzaghe is bitter. He looks back on his career with pride and reckons the facts speak for themselves.

Some good opponents, some not so good. But some great ones too.

His epic destruction of Jeff Lacy in Manchester last year to win the IBF belt (since relinquished to fight Manfredo) should go down as one of the great British sporting performances.

Calzaghe in action
Calzaghe's most recent win was over Sakio Bika

Some say it was the defining fight of his career, but that would be to underestimate his other achievements, seen on satellite TV, but otherwise largely ignored by the mainstream media.

"That was a great night and I really felt I was going to do something special," Calzaghe said.

"But there have been some other good Americans along the way and I feel happy that I've been able to beat them, even better knock some out.

"The likes of Byron Mitchell, Charles Brewer, Omar Sheika - they'd been champions or have fought for other titles since, so to beat those sorts of people gives me a lot of pride."

So what does returning to Wales to face Manfredo in Cardiff mean to the local hero?

"I really can't wait," he said.

"Fighting Lacy in Manchester in front of a full house was a fantastic experience, but now I've got a chance to do it in front of 30,000 at the Millennium Stadium and it'll give me extra incentive.

"If I had chosen anywhere to make the 20th defence it would be there, and I'm determined to give the fans something.

Joe Calzaghe on the Millennium Stadium pitch
Calzaghe was a guest of honour at the Wales v Italy rugby match

"Matching the likes of Bernard Hopkins and Larry Holmes by defending a world title for that number of times is a real motivation for me.

"But maybe it will actually make Hopkins or Jermain Taylor think about coming out to fight me."

Defeat on Saturday is unthinkable to Calzaghe, and he has been training as hard as ever under the guidance of his father and trainer Enzo.

"The main thing is when I decide to retire I want to do it unbeaten," he said.

"I don't really know when that will be for sure - maybe after a few more big fights - but I want to keep my legacy intact and remain a world champion until I decide to call it a day, not someone else.

"I've managed to get through my career with my face and mind intact and I intend to keep it that way. Everyone has to call it a day sooner or later and we'll see what comes along."

First, though, he must see off Manfredo.

"No way will I underestimate him but I'll show him what being a champion means," said Calzaghe.

"I'm very proud to of my title I'm concentrating 100% on this fight first.

"I've never taken any of my opponents lightly but I'm determined and convinced I'll beat Manfredo and keep my belt."

SEE ALSO
World stage to inspire Calzaghe
05 Apr 07 |  Boxing
Calzaghe uninspired by Manfredo
25 Jan 07 |  Boxing
Living the dream
12 Dec 06 |  Boxing
Calzaghe relinquishes IBF title
27 Nov 06 |  Boxing
The Calzaghe Record
05 Mar 06 |  Boxing
BBC Wales Sport coverage
31 Oct 05 |  Wales


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