Calzaghe earns Wales time in spotlight

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

LAS VEGAS – The last time a British fighter headed the bill in Sin City, Ricky Hatton's army of supporters commandeered Las Vegas like a marauding battalion of soccer-shirted fanatics who drew their nutrition with liquid lunches and drunken dinners.

But as Joe Calzaghe prepares to square off in his light-heavyweight battle with Bernard Hopkins at the Thomas & Mack Center Saturday night, the estimated 7,000 fans from Wales who have made the trip are taking a slightly more wide-eyed approach.

Many of these men are from the picturesque 'valleys' of the Welsh countryside where the good life means fresh air and a quiet ale and there is less of the bombastic big-city mentality that came with some of Hatton's eardrum-assaulting but passionate group for his defeat at the hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr. in December.

While the clash of styles between two future Hall of Famers in Calzaghe and Hopkins sets the table for an intriguing contest, the atmosphere around Planet Hollywood, the host hotel, is also about a clash of cultures.

Hatton is a man of the people, Calzaghe is a man of his people. He is adored in the Welsh principality and was swift to bark angrily at Richard Schaefer during Wednesday's press conference when the Golden Boy Promotions CEO touted the matchup as 'England vs. the United States' – which is tantamount to describing Hopkins as either Canadian or Mexican.

Wales' small size and population has prevented it from capturing widespread international success in major sports and hopes are firmly pinned to the Calzaghe mast.

With Calzaghe a heavy bookies' favorite against his 43-year-old opponent, the level of expectation is as lofty as it is intense.

This summer will mark 50 years since the Wales national soccer team last reached a World Cup, despite boasting outstanding individual players like Liverpool legend Ian Rush in the 1980s and Manchester United star Ryan Giggs more recently.

Rugby has been the exception, although fans are limited to elsewhere in the British Isles, France and Italy to travel to support the team. The rugby side does regularly tour Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but the cost of reaching those far-flung nations is prohibitive for many.

So Vegas it is for wannabe Welsh sporting tourists, as Calzaghe makes his first venture Stateside in his first light-heavyweight contest after 11 years of dominance in the super middleweight division.

"They (the fans) are fantastic," said Calzaghe. "Thousands and thousands of fans come halfway around the world. It is incredible, it is amazing and I have got tremendous support.

"When I walk in that ring it will be like I am the home fighter and I will take a lot of comfort in knowing that. I am not saying there will be any difference in the result but it will be nice."

Yet although the numbers of pro-Calzaghe travellers is respectable when taken in isolation, they pale into comparison with the 30,000 or so that flocked to the Hatton bout.

Calzaghe draws from a smaller region and Wales remains one of the poorest areas of the United Kingdom. Even so, it is certain that Calzaghe would have more fans if he had taken a different approach away from the ring.

He is not as good a businessman and publicist as Hatton, who is down to earth but also smart enough to realize his selling points.

"It is hard to get Joe to press conferences and things like that," said Calzaghe's promoter Frank Warren of Sports Network. "Once you do get him there he is fantastic but it can be a struggle. He just wants to focus on what he is doing."

When Calzaghe self-promotes, he is charming and articulate, if not always entirely comfortable. He prefers doing his talking in the ring, exactly what he did in a brutal destruction of Jeff Lacy and a clinical defeat of Mikkel Kessler.

But he does not forget his roots, as proven when he ignored the pleas of his father and trainer Enzo to end Wednesday's media session and instead sat down for a final one-on-one interview with journalist Michael Pearlman of the South Wales Argus, the local newspaper that has followed his career from Day 1.

"Joe will never forget where he comes from," said Pearlman. "It is just not in his make-up. He cares about his fans and he has a close bond with the area where he has spent his life."

Those supporters have done their best to make the most of what Vegas has to offer this week.

Grabbing photo opportunities with any passing minor celebrity is the modus operandi of these characters during daytime hours, although the strip clubs and vice girls have still reportedly done a steady trade, with some visitors prepared to test the theory that what happens in Vegas does indeed stay here.

The central bar in the fight hotel always offers a lively insight into the make up and mindset of the boxing crowd.

Three days before Hatton was demolished by Mayweather, patrons at the MGM Grand were treated to the hilarious sight of a potbellied English dwarf (well, 5-foot-2) involved in a scrap with a giant Texan rodeo fan in town for the national finals nearby.

That incident summed up the madness and drama in the build up to 'Undefeated' and the travelling throng provided the color and humor.

At Heart Bar in Planet Hollywood on Wednesday night, Calzaghe's best friend and stable mate Enzo Maccarinelli (who lost his WBO world cruiserweight title to David Haye last month) chatted with fans and a handful of reporters, but admitted even the lively Vegas atmosphere could not spare his thoughts from nervously drifting to Saturday night every couple of minutes.

Most of the Welsh fans share the same opinion: Vegas is a great place to party, but no amount of success at the craps table or with the opposite sex can salvage the trip if their man fails to beat Hopkins.

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