It hurts – really hurts – to be a Pittsburgh Pirates fan.
I was talking to Joe Calzaghe, the wonderful super middleweight champion from Wales who will meet Mikkel Kessler on Nov. 3 in Cardiff for the WBA, WBC and WBO titles, on the phone the other day.
Calzaghe was reminiscing about momentous occasions in his career and got me to thinking of the Pirates.
And so when he began to discuss his first world championship, I got out a calculator and began to calculate the Pirates' futility. What I discovered when I did the math was more horrifying than the surfaces of Pittsburgh's roads.
The Pirates have lost 918 games and have finished last or next-to-last seven times since the night 10 years ago when Calzaghe claimed the WBO super middleweight title with a surprisingly one-sided unanimous decision over Chris Eubank.
You can tell a lot about a guy by measuring him against the Pittsburgh Pirates.
When Calzaghe won that belt on Oct. 11, 1997, the Pirates were still celebrating their unexpectedly good showing that season, when they finished only four games under .500 and in second place.
When he makes the 21st defense of that crown against Kessler on Nov. 3, the Pirates will be celebrating moving within one of the Major League record for most consecutive losing seasons.
Barry Bonds still was a lot more similar in build to those starving kids you see in the anti-hunger commercials than he was to Hulk Hogan. He was close enough to having been a Pirate that fans in Pittsburgh still cared enough to buy a ticket and come out to Three Rivers Stadium to boo him when the Giants were in town.
Calzaghe has been everything in those 10 years that the Pirates have not. It's mystifying why a guy with so many skills and such a variety of weapons is largely unknown outside of the U.K.
But as a test, I went to the Apple Store in Las Vegas earlier in the day and asked four people there if they had ever heard of Joe Calzaghe. I got three blank stares and one incorrect guess (the guy who bothered to make an attempt guessed actor).
This is a guy who is third in the Yahoo! Sports top 10 poll and one who you could make a case for being No. 1 and you can't find someone in the boxing capital of the world who knows who he is.
"I have believed that I'm the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world for quite a while now," Calzaghe said. "And I don't think I'm any kind of a secret over here. But in the States, well, I suppose I haven't gotten the exposure there that a lot of American fighters have and the American fans aren't really that familiar with me."
I could have told him that American fans aren't that familiar with the Pittsburgh Pirates, either. If I'd asked those same four people to name even one player on the Pittsburgh roster, I'm guessing they would be unable to do so.
Calzaghe's streak is one of the most remarkable current marks in sports, but it gets so little attention, it's almost mind-boggling.
He needs only five more defenses – which he admits he won't even try to reach – to match Joe Louis' record for the most consecutive defenses of a title in the same weight class.
It's the boxing equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. If a baseball player in these last 10 years would have put together a 50-game streak, Bob Ley would be doing documentaries on his Little League career and they'd need an airplane hangar to feed all the media who descended upon the ball park to chronicle the event.
But it's boxing and, as it stands now, the only American media members who plan to make the trip to cover the most significant fight of the year from a competitive standpoint are myself, Tim Smith of the New York Daily News and Keith Idec of The Herald News/The Record in New Jersey.
"I don't know why that is, and it's a little bit troubling," Calzaghe said plaintively. "But it's nothing really that I would worry about or even think about. People in America just haven't gotten a chance to know much about my career."
Calzaghe is so good, most of his bouts, even his biggest ones, have been routs. And though a lot of the names on his list of victims since becoming champion are not familiar to American fans, there are a number of excellent fighters on it.
Calzaghe's opponents in world title fights had a combined 45 losses, or an average of just 2.14 per man, at the time he met them. He's beaten two guys who were undefeated since becoming world champion and nine others who had just one loss.
The hardest bout, though, was his title-winning effort against Eubank, and not just because Eubank at the time was one of the world's premier fighters.
"Obviously, in your first world title fight, you have all the nerves that go along with that," he said. "Eubank was a tough S.O.B. He was very strong. I had him on the floor in the first round and I tried to rip his head off for the next three rounds.
"He was a seasoned, mature fighter and he fought his way out of that. I had totally thrown a blitz at him and I fought myself out. After about four or five rounds, I had nothing left. I had to go on with just sheer willpower. I just didn't want to lose."
Losing is something he hasn't done often. His last loss came 17 years ago, sometime in July 1990 in what was then known as Czechoslovakia.
He was beaten by a fighter from Romania in what he said was only the second time he fought with a head guard.
"I hated wearing that and I don't like wearing one even in sparring," he said.
Margaret Thatcher was the British prime minister when Calzaghe last lost. John Major, Tony Blair and now Gordon Brown have resided at 10 Downing Street since and have never seen Calzaghe lose.
He's not going to have more opportunity to lose because he won't fight much longer, he said.
He's not chasing Louis' record and he's not going to fight unknown opponents. Men like light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins and newly minted middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik are on his hit list should he get past Kessler.
"I'm not going to dilly dally around," he said. "I just want big fights. After Kessler, there's nothing left for me at this weight. Kelly Pavlik is the only way I'd stay around at this weight. I'd love to fight him.
"If it weren't him, I'd look at light heavyweight and see if I could talk Bernard Hopkins into a fight. But those are the fights I want. The big ones. The kind where the whole world is watching."
One of the sad stories in boxing is that not enough people in this world have watched Calzaghe to know what a magnificent fighter he has been these last 10 years.
I'll know for sure he's made it when I can find a person in a mall in Las Vegas who can correctly identify him before naming a member of Pirates' starting lineup.
- Joe Calzaghe
- Mikkel Kessler