They said it was the most important super middleweight fight since Roy Jones Jr.-James Toney in 1994. But virtually nobody thought it would mimic it.
In a performance that was every bit as dominant as Jones' career-defining victory over Toney 12 years ago, Welshman Joe Calzaghe outclassed – no, make that embarrassed – Florida's Jeff Lacy Saturday in Manchester, England. He scored a knockdown in the final round and pitched an impressive shutout to unify the WBO and IBF super middleweight titles.
The final scores were indicative of the massacre. Calzaghe won by margins of 119-105 and 119-107 twice.
After 18 defenses and nine years as champion, the unbeaten Calzaghe, 41-0 (31 knockouts) – who has always been a star in the U.K. – showed the American fight fans that a great champion doesn't always have to come in an explosive package.
Sometimes he comes in short, fast, powerful bursts of energy.
"I should be in the top-10 pound-for-pound, and I needed a fight with Jeff Lacy to show my skills," Calzaghe told Showtime's Jim Gray afterwards. "(I knew) the only chance that Jeff had was to stand toe-to-toe and land big bombs."
Lacy, a slight favorite going in despite having 19 fewer fights, never got a chance to land his bombs. Calzaghe was on him from the opening bell, firing pinpoint-accurate combinations – five, six, seven-punches at a time – that had Lacy in a defensive posture from beginning to end.
The 33-year-old Calzaghe's hand speed and seasoning simply overwhelmed the harder-punching Lacy, who showed an inability to handle his opponent's southpaw style.
"I was off my game, and didn't execute my game plan and he was remarkable," Lacy told Gray. "He fought his fight and he fought the perfect fight tonight. Joe is a great champion, he's number one, he's the ringleader, and I take my hat off to him.
It all started from the Calzaghe's long, dart-like jab. From there, he unloaded every punch in his arsenal.
There were straight lefts that split Lacy's gloves and caused swelling and a large cut over his left eye. There were right hooks that opened a gash above his right eye. There were wicked right uppercuts that sent sweat spraying into the M.E.N. arena, and rattled the 28-year-old Lacy's brain.
And, when the fight went into the trenches – previously regarded as Lacy's residence –Calzaghe pummeled him there, too.
He'd land two, three, four punches – often capped off by a whistling left uppercut – before tying his man up and smothering Lacy's offensive.
Everything – upstairs, downstairs and in between – was delivered in blinding, rat-a-tat-tat fashion.
"He threw me off my game on the inside," Lacy said, “and I couldn't find my rhythm.”
It was obvious in the first round that Lacy was in with the likes of someone he had never seen before. After landing one of his patented left hooks, he pursued Calzaghe – who countered with a left hand that shook Lacy and backed him up.
It set the stage for a masterful performance, a clinic in the mold of Salvador Sanchez-Wilfredo Gomez and Roberto Duran-Davey Moore.
By the fourth round, Lacy, 21-1 (17 KO's), was perplexed, and defenseless. When he went on the attack, he was counterpunched to death – almost to the point that he was reluctant to punch.
In the seventh, Calzaghe trapped Lacy on the ropes and worked him over, stunning him with a flurry of shots that had him covering up and looking much like a miniature Mike Tyson against Buster Douglas 16 years ago. A brutal left hook hurt him, and it appeared for an instant Lacy wouldn't survive.
But he did.
The ninth round brought more of the same for Lacy, who was useless against the hailstorm of punches coming from every direction. It was so one-sided that, at one point, Calzaghe wound up with a fake bolo punch – almost toying with his foe.
And, as much as Lacy tried to get something going, it was obvious from very early on that his only chance would be a lucky punch.
And even that seemed unlikely.
So, for 12 brutal rounds, Lacy courageously accepted everything Calzaghe had to offer. It wasn't until the final round, when he went down from a left hand, that his body began to weaken. But, even then, he readily found his feet and soldiered on.
It was an admirable display of guts for Lacy just to make it to the final bell. But it was a crushing blow to a fighter who was regarded as one of boxing's rising superstars going into the fight.
"I came here thinking I was going to knock him out," Lacy said. "I didn't think he could handle my pressure."
Instead, it was Calzaghe who was muscling the bulkier Lacy. And, now, he'll be throwing his weight around the 168-175-pound ranks.
Calzaghe, who shot holes through the "He's getting old" theory, has plenty of outstanding future options. He could hop up to light heavyweight and challenge the winner of June's Antonio Tarver-Bernard Hopkins showdown. Or he could stay right where he is, and call out the winner of June's middleweight title fight between Jermain Taylor and Winky Wright.
Whatever happens, Calzaghe will no longer be ignored by either the American boxers or press. After reigning since 1997, he saved his best performance for the most important fight of his life.