CARDIFF, Wales – If there were any doubts that Joe Calzaghe is the finest super middleweight in the world, he erased them with a brilliant performance Saturday against Mikkel Kessler before a roaring crowd of 50,014 of his closest friends at Millennium Stadium.
If there were any lingering questions as to whether Calzaghe belongs in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, he answered those affirmatively by making the adjustments he had to make to defeat a man who on this night might have beaten nearly any other fighter alive.
It's not so simple, though, to say that Calzaghe will get the marquee bout he so desperately craves against ex-middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins.
He deserves a match against Hopkins or someone of similar stature, but there simply aren't many of those out there.
Calzaghe proved Saturday he's alone in a small group at the top, along with Floyd Mayweather Jr., Manny Pacquiao, Hopkins and Juan Manuel Marquez.
Wanting a fight with Hopkins and getting it, though, are two entirely different things. Calzaghe promoter Frank Warren tried to bully Hopkins into it during a giddy performance at a post-fight news conference in the wee hours of Sunday morning.
Warren so badly wants the fight for the man who has helped make him the sport's leading power broker in Europe that he said he is willing to cede every advantage to Hopkins.
"He can pick the weight. He can pick the date. He can pick the site," Warren blustered. "We don't care. We want this fight. We'll fight him in his back yard, if that's where he wants it. Joe Calzaghe wants that fight and he deserves it."
Hopkins was several thousand miles away and not in a position to answer Warren's challenge.
And HBO Sports executive Kery Davis, whose network would presumably help fund such a match, said his initial reaction is that he'd likely much prefer Calzaghe to next face the winner of the Feb. 16 rematch between middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor.
"Either guy would make a good fight with Joe," Davis said of Pavlik and Taylor, who are fighting their rematch at a catch weight of 166 pounds.
Negotiating with Hopkins is difficult when one holds all the cards, but after basically offering to give Hopkins everything but the right to name his nephew as the referee and his cousins as the judges, Warren may have made arranging the fight more difficult than landing a date with Jessica Alba.
Clearly, there is no one within the 168-pound division who can compare to Calzaghe. He could have found tougher fights a lot of nights in a cemetery than some of the victims on his 44-0 ledger, but it's hard to argue against a guy who's as dominant as he is when he faces a challenge.
In his first title unification fight about 20 months ago, he dismantled then-IBF champion Jeff Lacy and won every round.
On Saturday, he faced a more difficult and more versatile opponent and predictably had a more difficult time. But two of the judges gave him eight of the 12 rounds and the other scored nine of the 12 for the Welshman.
Calzaghe threw 1,010 punches, an astonishingly high figure for a super middleweight. And though Kessler conceded he was hurt by a body shot in the middle of the fight, he said overall that Calzaghe isn't a knockout artist.
"I don't think the power is all there, but it confuses one when he's throwing so many punches," the vanquished champion said in tribute to his conqueror.
Calzaghe conceded he could have made the fight easier by fighting the first five rounds the way he did the last seven, when he circled to his left, away from Kessler's power, and kept a persistent jab in the Dane's face.
It was a wise move, given the thudding uppercuts Kessler was using to spin Calzaghe's head in the first five rounds. They were hard enough and frequent enough that they elicited audible "ooohs" from the massively pro-Calzaghe throng.
The quality of Calzaghe's chin had been questioned in the past because of several trips to the canvas against less-than-imposing punchers, but he proved Saturday that those were mere flukes and lapses in concentration than anything else.
Kessler hit him with at least a half-dozen thudding rights, but they never deterred Calzaghe from resuming his attack.
"I felt I was dominating the fight and my jab was working right there from the start," Calzaghe said. "Like I do a lot of times, I got a bit careless. I hurt him with a body shot in the fourth round and I shook him up a little bit and then I got careless. But I suppose that's what makes fights exciting."
It was a marvelous night at the fights, both because of the atmosphere in the arena with the enthusiastic and surprisingly well-behaved crowd as well as the performance of the fighters.
The real fight began, though, after Michael Buffer announced the judges' scores and had declared Calzaghe the winner.
Warren began the hunt for Hopkins' signature, while Calzaghe said he just wants a big event.
One of those big events, though, won't be a rematch.
"I don't really like rematches, especially against a guy like this," Calzaghe said, nodding to Kessler, who was seated next to him. "He's young and he's going to get better."
Calzaghe, 35, said he'd welcome a fight with Pavlik, but said he believed he'd knock him out.
His heart, though, seems set on Hopkins, a bout that was nearly made for Showtime several years ago.
"Honestly, if I had my pick and it was up to me, Hopkins would be the guy," Calzaghe said.
Warren did his level best to get Hopkins angry enough to take the fight. Hopkins, though, is far too sly to fall for any of Warren's tricks.
If the bout is to happen, it will only be after a long, protracted and frequently painful negotiation. Warren, though, didn't become one of the world's elite promoters by giving up easily.
"Bernard Hopkins is a great fighter and a great athlete, but I'll tell you what," Warren said. "Go back and think of the great fighters and the great boxers of the States, the Ray Leonards, the Tommy Hearns', the Marvin Haglers. They fought everybody. They didn't do their best to duck. They didn't duck. All those big fights happened.
"Joe Calzaghe will go to the States. He will fight Mr. Hopkins in his hometown. He'll go to Philadelphia to fight him. He will fight him anywhere it takes to get the fight on. If Bernard Hopkins is the warrior he says he is, then make the fight. Make that fight with Joe Calzaghe."
Calzaghe is unbeaten and largely unchallenged in his brilliant career, but simply finding a way to get Hopkins' name on a contract may be the toughest test he's faced yet.