The Evening Standard

Joe Calzaghe just cannot figure it out. The man who won every fight in his 16-year long professional boxing career still does not know why the dance floor defeated him.

“You learn something new about yourself all the time,” he says mournfully. “I can’t understand it myself – how nervous I was when I took the floor for Strictly Come Dancing.

“I walk out with 50,000 people gathered in the Millennium Stadium to fight Mikkel Kessler in the unification fight for the super middleweight division in 2007 and I feel great . . . and here I am, wearing tight pants and Cuban heels, and freaking out.”

During one of his performances he was so phased that dance partner Kristina Rihanoff said to him: “I am looking at you Joe and you are not there.”

Calzaghe adds: “I was scared. I was out of my comfort zone.”

It did not help that, for the first time in his life, Calzaghe encountered criticism. The remarks of one judge, Craig Revel Horwood, still hurt.

“I was ripped apart. Craig described my dancing as rigor mortis.” Welcome to show business, Joe.

The Strictly angst is all the greater, not only because he was thrown out of the show just when he felt he was starting to relax, but because it robbed him of his most precious treasure: the right to decide when he leaves the stage.

He was afforded that right when he called it a day from boxing. Calzaghe actually decided to quit a year before his last fight against Roy Jones at Madison Square Gardens in November 2008.

The exit was so well choreographed that, even as he fought the American, Joe was already “in another world” thinking of life beyond boxing.

“It was surreal,” he says. “Even though he was cut in the seventh round, I didn’t want to knock him out. For me, it was my last ever 12-round fight and, in the last three rounds, I was looking around and saying, Joe, this is it man. Time is up for me’.”

But, if Strictly dented Calzaghe’s ability to plan his exit strategies, he has no regrets about giving up boxing. We are sitting in the office of his PR adviser and Calzaghe reminds me that it is a year to the day he revealed he was going to retire.

“Fighters never realise when it is time to walk away,” he insists. “They can’t leave the buzz and adoration that surrounds being champion.

“Ricky Hatton, for instance, who has made an amazing amount of money, has nothing to prove but he wants to fight again. It is in their blood. I’m one of the few who has been able to walk away.”

Given how often boxers make a comeback – even the great Muhammad Ali could not live without the art of pugilism – is there no way, I ask, that Calzaghe, at 37 and still very fit, could be tempted back?

His answer makes you realise how much being Britain’s only undefeated world champion means to him.

“What,” he asks, “is the difference between 46 and nought and 47 and nought? If something were to happen, though, and you lose, it becomes 46-1 and you are like everybody else.”

And that is the reality of the sport: a single punch can turn a good boxer into a brain damaged one and this proud Welshman is only too well-versed in the strange twists of fate which have shaped his life.

In particular, but for a bottle of 20-20 wine his father Enzo drank some 40 years ago on the road to Dover, we might never have heard of Calzaghe.

Enzo, brought here from Sardinia as a child by Joe’s grandfather, had decided to follow his aunt back home.

“Dad was heading for Dover from Cardiff,” recalls Calzaghe. “On the way he gets a bottle of 20-20, gets completely drunk and lands on the wrong side of the road. He is hitchhiking and the lift, instead of taking him to Dover, brings him back to Wales. The next morning he says, What the hell – I’ve been brought back, I might as well live here’. But for that he’d never have met my mum.”

His parents met in a Wimpy bar in Cardiff where Jackie was a waitress.

“My father was a cocky, long haired musician, a song writer. He upset my mum. He said, I want this, I want that.’ My mum said to the other woman working there, You serve this arsehole, he is doing my head in’. Two weeks later they married.”

Joe, the eldest child, was born soon after and it was Enzo who turned him into a boxer.

“My dad has been the massive influence,” Calzaghe says. “We had nothing, no money when I was young. We lived in a council house.

“My dad struggled, my mum struggled. But that made me what I am. If I had everything on a plate from the start maybe I would not have been a champion for 11 years.”

Enzo’s song-writing career was not without success. He supported Bucks Fizz, played at London’s Apollo Theatre and is at present recording an album in the studio at Joe’s boxing gym.

But early on, he decided his son needed boxing gloves not a guitar. That was the family’s one sure way out of their Cardiff council house.

“My father wanted me to succeed,” Calzaghe reveals. “He didn’t want me to go into music. My singing is on a par with my dancing, even karaoke would be a problem.

“My dad pushed me into boxing. He had boxing gloves and a speedball in the sitting room. He would get the cushion off the settee and hold it against him. At the age of nine I could throw combinations, knew how to move, double jab.”

When Enzo took Joe to a gym, the trainer was surprised by the skinny youth’s boxing skills. Sparring with his son did cost Enzo a broken nose. “Yes, I landed a punch but he got paid well in return,” Calzaghe laughs.

Enzo has not only guided Joe’s career but also helped him make the crucial decisions. For instance, not ducking out of the fight with Jeff Lacy when, in Manchester in March 2006, Calzaghe took on and beat the IBF champion.

The fight, orginially scheduled for November 2005, was called off because Calzaghe had suffered a break in his left hand. Four months later, on the eve of the fight, he was receiving cortisone injections in his wrist and wanted another postponement.

“I talked to my dad. He said, Joe, you are a chicken if you pull out. Don’t worry about sparring. You are going to beat this guy up. You throw five punches before you move. He moves five times before throwing a punch.

“You can fight him with one hand. I don’t care if you lose. It has taken nine years to get this unification. This fight will not come back. If you pull out Frank Warren [then Calzaghe’s promoter] will not get you the fight. This is your destiny.’ That was it. My dad inspired me. He laid down the law.”

Calzaghe’s recollection differs sharply from Warren, who told me in an interview last month: “His father rang to say that Joe had a hand injury. We had postponed the fight twice. So I said I will get on to him. The press had built up Lacy but I told Joe, You can beat this guy with one hand.’ He agreed to fight and in the fight he threw out 1,000 punches.”

Warren and Calzaghe are now locked in a bitter court battle with Calzaghe suing Warren for nearly £2million, which he claims he is owed for the Hopkins fight.

The battle has already seen Warren’s Sports Network go into administration. Calzaghe’s decision to pursue Warren personally could see a High Court hearing in June.

Interestingly, the Hopkins fight is the only one he would want to restage. He feels he was wrong to chase Hopkins too much early on. Without that he thinks the victory would have been more decisive than the split decision he secured.

Other than that his boxing career is free of any “what ifs” and, despite the trauma of Strictly, his post-boxing life also seems headed that way.

Next month, he will host a charity dinner hoping to raise £500,000 for injured soldiers. He has developed a punch bag which, linked to a computer, can monitor the strength of punches.

Calzaghe explains: “I took it to Hedley Court [the defence medical rehabilitation centre] and spent a day with the injured soldiers there. The dinner proceeds will go to help these heroes from Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Calzaghe is aware that the war divides the nation but he will not be drawn on the politics.

“I have my own personal beliefs but it is not a matter of whether you agree with the war or not. I want to raise money for people who go out there, do a job and come back injured. A lot of them don’t get the right support.”

Such a charitable role is, of course, what we demand of our celebrities. But, while Calzaghe realises that fame comes with a price, Strictly also brought him dividends and dancing partner Kristina is his new girlfriend.

Having married very early – he had a child when he was 22 – he frankly confesses: “My marriage was a bloody pain in the arse.”

And post Strictly life will be very different from his old life. Calzaghe has always been proud of the fact that he was different from other boxers in resisting the lure of London.

“I stayed in Wales,” he says. “I have always had the same friends. I never got into the high life or came into London for the clubbing scene.”

Now, though, he is based in London and wants to act in films, emulating Vinnie Jones. “I don’t see myself as the new Al Pacino but tough guy roles I can do naturally.” So, could this be Calzaghe as the new James Bond? He laughs and replies: “Shaken but not stirred!”


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