Why Calzaghe deserves his place among the greats
When multi major-winning golfers retire, no-one feels the need to discuss whether they were 'great'. They went toe-to-toe with the best, week in, week out, year after year. They imposed their will on the biggest stage. Of course Nick Faldo was 'great'. The only pertinent question is: 'how great?'
Greater than Colin Montgomerie. There are facts to prove it. Faldo won six majors to Montgomerie's none. Faldo glowed like a rod of iron in the heat of battle, while Montgomerie so often wilted.
But greatness is more difficult to quantify in boxing than in other sports. So many imponderables, so many unanswerables. Too many 'ifs' and 'buts'.
The story of any sportsperson's career is littered with 'ifs' and 'buts', and the story of a boxer's career even more so. As one boxer once told me, "if 'if' was a drug, every fighter would be as high as a kite".
Joe Calzaghe's career has far too many 'ifs' and 'buts' for some people's liking. But Chris Eubank was past it. But Roy Jones was shot. If only he'd fought Nigel Benn. Forty-six wins and no defeats, 21 world title defences at super-middleweight, world titles at two different weights. Still not good enough for some. Have a look on the 606 messageboards if you don't believe me.
Part of the problem is boxing's. Boxing is perhaps the only sport in which it is possible to go year after year, ostensibly at the highest level, without competing against the best. Roger Federer, whose greatness is beyond doubt, is unable to turn round to his masters on the ATP Tour and say, "you know what chaps, I don't fancy playing against Rafa and Andy this week, I think I'll try my luck in the Parsons Green Lawn Tennis Club singles instead".
As I have mentioned on this website before, why Calzaghe never got round to fighting Roy Jones or Bernard Hopkins earlier, or the dangerous German Dariusz Michalczewski, or indeed his charmed compatriot Sven Ottke, we may never know.
But it is boxing's scandal, rather than Calzaghe's, that five world title holders in and around the same weight class were able to go fight after fight, year after year, without facing each other.
The proliferation of weight classes also means it is possible for a modern fighter to spend years rattling around in a sparsely-talented division, and it was Calzaghe's bad luck - or good, whichever way you want to look at it - to come along at a time when those marquee names of the British boxing scene had either just hung them up or were fading.
Just as the blossoming of Rafa Nadal has in no way diminished Federer's greatness (as BBC Sport's Piers Newbery recently wrote on this website, "Nadal has made the value of any future major wins [for Federer] so much greater"), then the brutal series of fights between Eubank, Benn, Michael Watson and Steve Collins only served to enhance their legend.
As Calzaghe puts it, "it wasn't my fault that I couldn't fight guys like Nigel Benn, they were just before my time". The flip side is a fighter like Kevin Finnegan, who went 45 rounds with future world champion Alan Minter, another 16 with Marvin Hagler, and never even got a world title tilt. Finnegan died last year, poor, unappreciated, largely forgotten. If he had been fighting at middleweight today, there's a chance he'd have been an undisputed champion.
But let's not get too maudlin, for Calzaghe's is a talent to celebrate. For my money, he would have beaten Benn and Collins. Too slick, too accurate, every bit as tough.
Calzaghe has admitted the bigger fights should have come sooner ("I thought America and the big-money fights had passed me by," he told BBC Sport last year, "I was struggling to fill the Cardiff Ice Rink, fighting guys whose names I was struggling to pronounce"), but when they came, he dazzled in the spotlight.
Against Jeff Lacy, sent across the Atlantic to sort out the uppity Brit, Calzaghe was beautiful. Many good judges called it the finest post-War display by a British boxer. It gave boxing a good name.
Against the Dane Mikkel Kessler, tipped by many to end Calzaghe's unbeaten run, the Welshman showed off deep reserves and tremendous adaptability to weather an early storm and end up a comfortable victor. Calzaghe calls it his finest hour.
The result of his bout with the 43-year-old Hopkins, his first on American soil, was debatable - and, my, did people debate it. But Hopkins' subsequent mauling of middleweight king Kelly Pavlik revealed the old fox was far from finished.
Calzaghe's valedictory fight against Jones in New York last November proved little, other than that Jones had turned to vinegar while Calzaghe was still fine wine. Still, it was an old score settled, and the right time to go. Little left to prove, and no-one around to prove it against.
'Ifs' and 'buts' cling to all four of them like barnacles. However, it would take a brave person to argue against Calzaghe's 46-fight unbeaten run, his 21 world title defences, his 11-year world championship reign.
If you're really intent on seeking out the tragedy in every story, you might want to point out he retired never really knowing how good he was. But tucked away back in Newbridge, admiring his belts, I'm sure he'll cope with your doubts just fine.