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Calzaghe's proving ground

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

LAS VEGAS – A horde of British boxing writers squeezed into a knot around a makeshift ring at Planet Hollywood on Tuesday, treating super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe as the superstar he is in the United Kingdom.

Included in their midst were but four American boxing writers, which says a lot more about Calzaghe and the state of the game than the presence of the dozens of British journalists ever could.

Calzaghe is 44-0 and has been a world champion for more than a decade. He's got looks, wit and skills. If this guy were from New York, there would be more than four American boxing writers hanging around when he ventured outside to take the trash to the curb, let alone a few days before inarguably the most significant fight of his splendid career.

Ticket sales at Planet Hollywood are abysmal for his bout on Saturday at the Thomas & Mack Center on the UNLV campus with light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, a rare match between a pair of future Hall of Famers.

On Wednesday morning, one could purchase eight prime seats, in Row J in the ritzy $1,500 section, simply by clicking a few buttons on the Planet Hollywood website.

When guys such as Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, tickets aren't available in Row J 10 minutes after they go on sale. For Calzaghe, months after the fight was announced and only a little more than 72 hours before a fight that matches perhaps the best super middleweight ever against the reigning light heavyweight king, great seats, as the saying goes, were still available.

It should be a match of epic proportions, but instead it's dying an agonizingly slow and painful death. Promoters already returned $2 million of the $11 million site fee that Planet Hollywood owner Robert Earl had paid. Earl's looking at a loss of an easy $5 million, perhaps more.

Part of the problem, clearly, is the ludicrous ticket pricing. There are few boxing matches that can support a $1,500 top ticket and this clearly is not one of them, particularly in this economy.

Even in what has long been touted as recession-proof Las Vegas, times are tough. The town's largest casino company, MGM Mirage, laid off 450 middle managers earlier in the week because, a spokesman said, folks aren't spending as much money as they did. They're clearly not spending $1,500 for a ticket to a boxing match, particularly for a match involving a guy they've not heard of.

And Calzaghe's handlers haven't helped, keeping a guy who is charming and thoughtful hidden away from a media desperate to introduce him to an unknowing American public.

If the fight between Calzaghe and Hopkins were held in Wales, where it should be, there would be more than 60,000 fans in attendance and it would be the biggest story since the Prince Charles-Lady Di engagement was announced. But here in the U.S., it's largely an afterthought.

Calzaghe is largely to blame for his anonymity in the U.S. For years, because of a fear of flying, he wouldn't travel to the U.S. to help build his name in the place where the bulk of the world's significant fights are held.

He's also had enormously bad luck; hands as fragile as chop sticks forced the cancellation or postponement of numerous fights.

And, he's been frustrated as men such as Hopkins, Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver have declined to fight him when it seemed like a deal was imminent.

Promoter/manager Frank Warren said he had a deal several years ago for a Calzaghe-Hopkins fight in which he was prepared to pay Hopkins $3 million. The next day, Hopkins came back and asked for $6 million.

"The easiest way to avoid a fight is to price yourself out of it and that's exactly what Hopkins did," the Hall of Fame-bound Warren said on Tuesday.

Hopkins, prior to an open workout before a few hundred Calzaghe supporters Tuesday at Planet Hollywood, didn't deny Warren's allegation, as might have been expected.

"I ain't going to dispute that, right or wrong," Hopkins said. "The bottom line is the best time for us to do it is now, obviously. I've achieved things in my career. He's achieved things in his career. Why talk about the past? That's spilled milk. I'm going to say the opposite of what Frank Warren says. We should get beyond that stage. It's four days before the execution and we're still talking about yesterday when the future is in our face. To me, it's like you're treading water, backwards."

Calzaghe has only a handful of fights remaining in what has been, outside of the U.K., a far too unappreciated career.

Calzaghe has fast hands, is one of the game's most active big men, and has a genius for adapting as the fight progresses.

In his last outing, against then-unbeaten Mikkel Kessler, Calzaghe eliminated the uppercut that was successful for Kessler early. He moved away from Kessler's power and kept a stinging jab in the Dane's face.

He'll undoubtedly need to make significant adjustments at some stage against the 43-year-old Hopkins, who is one of the most unorthodox fighters in the game as well as one of the most wily.

Hopkins isn't above using his head or, ahem, an inadvertent elbow or low blow to his advantage. Those are all things that are difficult to prepare for, but Calzaghe's ability to recognize what is happening and make changes on the go will make him as equipped as anyone to deal with the vast arsenal of Hopkins' tricks.

"At the end of the day, I can combat any style," Calzaghe, 36, said. "It's up to me to not let myself get drawn into that sort of fight. I've got the speed, by far. As far as I'm concerned, I'm by far the better fighter. I'm younger. I feel stronger, faster, more skilled.

"If I allow myself to get drawn into that sort of a fight, it's my mistake. At the end of the day, I can make it as easy or as hard as I want to make the fight. If I keep my distance and use my speed and use my southpaw skills, and as long as I can fight to the standard I showed against Kessler, against (Jeff) Lacy, it's over."

If he's able to do as he says, he'll make a place for himself in boxing history with a skeptical and unaware American public.

His father/trainer, Enzo Calzaghe, doesn't believe his son has anything to prove to anyone, believing the body of work he's accumulated over the last 17 years speaks volumes.

And, nearly stomping up and down, Enzo Calzaghe said his son's lack of visibility in the States is beyond his control.

"Joe has been clamoring to go to America," Enzo Calzaghe said. "You've been offering paltry money, knowing it would be unacceptable. Joe has been the best pound-for-pound fighter for the last seven years or more. Why does Joe have to fight somebody to cement his legacy? Joe is a legacy."

But at this stage, his legacy is as a great boxer who wasn't appreciated for his vast skills. He's got nothing to prove inside the ring, but he's got plenty to prove outside of it.