Cameroon’s Australia based Sakio Bika becomes the 42nd man to try to blemish Joe Calzaghe’s pristine professional record this weekend, when the two clash for the World Boxing Organization and International Boxing Federation’s Super-Middleweight belts at the M.E.N Arena, Manchester.
Whilst belts serve little purpose beyond acknowledging and decorating the victor in any and, seemingly, every twelve round fight these days, there would be little argument, other than amongst Mikkel Kessler’s family and friends, were I to describe this as the Super-Middleweight title and Calzaghe as the champion.
In the glow of his credible and overwhelming success against American contender Jeff Lacy back in early summer, the lack of kudos or appeal carried by Sakio Bika is being tolerated on the assumption Calzaghe will press for more compelling fixtures in 2007. It would certainly be disappointing to see the belated momentum harnessed in the Lacy victory dissipate with further additions to the second and third tier opponents Calzaghe’s collected since he beat Chris Eubank to secure the WBO belt.
Calzaghe’s longevity is certainly commendable and whilst the resulting resume lacks the lustre featured in contemporaries Marco Antonio Barrera or Diego Corrales’ careers; Eubank, Woodhall, Brewer, Mitchell and Lacy represent sturdy if not exalted competition. Now approaching 35, and with numerous fights lost to injury, an apparent reluctance to travel and personal circumstances (longhand for a marriage breakdown), Calzaghe displays greater maturity and a degree of pragmatism when discussing his performances, career and legacy but from time to time the spikiness that characterised his youth resurfaces. This month’s example, his expression of neglect at his annual exclusion from the Sports Personality of the Year award, commenting to BBC Radio Five Live, “The football team loses, the cricket team loses. Listen, I'm a winner, I'm a champion. I don't need no award or recognition, I'm proud of my achievements.”
It is this antipathy and perceived lack of respect that appears to irritate Calzaghe the most and yet any objective observer could summon plenty of evidence to justify his omission. A fighter as demonstrably capable as Calzaghe shouldn’t still be searching for definition and crescendo this late in his career. The Lacy fight proved so one-sided much of the American’s pre-fight legitimacy evaporated. Overeager fans and writers, who’d plucked Lacy from the ‘work-in-progress’ file, were forced to swiftly return him – well it was either there or the scrap heap.
This isn’t to describe Calzaghe as a purely irritable, surly soul. In fact, a preceding comment on the potential for fighting Jeff Lacy again revealed a more humorous side to the Welshman’s character. Calzaghe quipped; “If Lacy gets in the ring with me again I'm scared I will get arrested for aggravated assault!
But the legacy and respect he’s long craved aren’t earned in press conferences, media releases or post-fight interviews. The only place Calzaghe will find it is in the ring, and whilst he may look spectacular this weekend – it’s unlikely he’ll unearth it sharing a ring with Sakio Bika.
Sakio Bika must spend his quieter moments wondering how shots at WBC champion Markus Beyer and now Calzaghe fell in his lap given the glaring absence of quality or substance in his career thus far. Reports suggest Bika is predictably tough, throws heavy shots and will come to fight – a recipe for an entertaining contest – and whilst it would be legitimate to propose Calzaghe will be looking beyond this 19th defence of his title to more appealing contests the Welshman has little history for poor preparation. A commendable quality given the limitations of some of the opponent’s he’s faced during his long reign.
A technical draw with Beyer is being widely used to justify Bika’s selection; plunge a little deeper into his career and the legitimacy of the contest is easily undermined. As recently as last November, Bika was just two pounds north of Light Middleweight. Calzaghe is a big Super-Middleweight, in truth probably a natural Light-Heavyweight in the smaller division, and whilst Bika has the height and reach to compete the resulting assumption is Calzaghe’s natural strength, experience and high-octane offence will prove too much.
There were positive moments in the Beyer fight, according to respected sources, and one or two voices are willing to give Bika more chance than form suggests. With a debut on HBO, live terrestrial coverage on ITV1 in the UK and the potential of lucrative bouts ahead, it seems unlikely Frank Warren’s Sports Network team won’t have done their homework studiously. Calzaghe, with hands in tact, may well stop Bika in the middle rounds, but history suggests a wide points victory the most likely outcome.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve heard the tired mantra ‘next year will be a big year for me’ but it is unlikely to ever have been as essential as it is in 2007. As a fan of Calzaghe’s ability, I hope the backing of HBO will unlock potential fights with Roy Jones, Bernard Hopkins, Winky Wright, Jermain Taylor and, if not, then European clashes with Clinton Woods or Mikkel Kessler are a minimum requirement in Joe’s 14th year as a professional.
Calzaghe commented this week that Bernard Hopkins is the fight he craves, given Hopkins is 41, supposedly retired or with one eye on a challenge for the WBC heavyweight belt it appears – like so many of the potential foes Calzaghe could and maybe should have faced during his career – to already be too late.
For now, Bika will have to do.