Wales’ Joe Calzaghe had been a professional boxer for nearly 15 years and had fought 44 times, all in Europe (42 in the United Kingdom and once each in Denmark and Germany), when he finally came to the United States for his first ring appearance on U.S. soil, against Philadelphia’s ageless wonder, Bernard Hopkins, on April 19, 2008, at Las Vegas’ Thomas & Mack Center.
The trip across the Atlantic Ocean turned out to be a dream come true for the long-reigning super middleweight champion, and not just because he returned home with a 12-round, split-decision victory over Hopkins in a non-title light heavyweight matchup. (Calzaghe would add a one-sided points nod over Roy Jones Jr. in his final fight seven months later, in Madison Square Garden, to finish 46-0.) The future first-ballot inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (2014) had announced to the world, or at least America, that he was indeed the real deal. It is a quest for more widespread recognition that many Britons understand they must eventually undertake, and usually do so with hope and excitement, albeit with some degree of trepidation.
As it was for Calzaghe, so it had been for former super lightweight and welterweight champion Ricky Hatton of Manchester, England, who sought the last missing piece of a puzzle that cannot be put together entirely until the U.S. is stormed, if not always conquered.
“Brits, in order to prove themselves, always have to go over to America,” Hatton reasoned after he left his comfort zone in England for the first of his six bouts on the other side of the pond, which included victories over Luis Collazo, Jose Luis Castillo, Juan Urango and Paulie Malignaggi, but also epic beatdowns by Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Filipino sensation Manny Pacquiao.
And so it is for WBO super welterweight titlist Liam “Beefy” Smith (23-0-1, 13 KOs), of Liverpool, England, who defends that strap against Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez (47-1-1, 33 KOs) on Sept. 17 in AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, home of the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Alvarez’s promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, is optimistically predicting a turnout of 80,000 for the bout, the third boxing event to be held in the $1.3 billion sports palace that opened in the spring of 2009. But even if just half that number show up for a bout that will be televised in the U.S. via HBO Pay Per View, it would still mark the largest attendance for a boxing match in this country since Alvarez drew 39,243 paying customers for his unanimous decision over Austin Trout on April 20, 2013, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
Despite being an 8-to-1 underdog, Smith is optimistic his American debut will not only go well, but be a smashing success, perhaps even a faint approximation of Feb. 7, 1964, when four fellow Liverpudlians in a band called the Beatles arrived in New York for an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.
“They shouldn’t be calling me a paper champion,” a clearly miffed Smith said when asked about the slim-to-none chances of scoring the upset that most Americans (and Canelo-adoring Mexicans) are giving him against Canelo. “I’m not just coming for a payday. I’m not an old guy at the end of my career looking for a payday. I’ve got a title to keep. I’m 27. I’m not 32 or 35 and on my way out.
“No one can come to me and say I’m not at Canelo’s level, because they haven’t seen me perform at that level yet. I know I can perform at that level. You will definitely know who Liam Smith is come Sept. 17.”
And Smith’s thoughts on making his U.S. debut after staging his first 24 pro bouts in the UK, including 14 in Liverpool?
“I love the States,” he said. “I want to make a name for myself there. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”
The inescapable fact, however, is that, his status as champion notwithstanding, Smith not only isn’t the “A” side of the promotion, he is more like the “C.” In addition to Canelo, he also is taking a back seat to another fighter who will be conspicuous by his absence in the ring, even if he happens to occupy a seat at ringside. The megafight everyone wanted to witness would have pitted Alvarez against Kazakhstan’s Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (35-0, 32 KOs), but that fell through when the red-haired Mexican voluntarily relinquished his WBC middleweight championship to return to his “natural” 154-pound weight class, rather than to agree to a 160-pound unification showdown with Golovkin. Instead, Golovkin will defend his IBF and IBC titles against England’s Kell Brook (36-0, 25 KOs), the IBF welterweight champ who is moving up two weight classes to swap punches with the seemingly invincible Kazakh this Saturday night at the O2 Arena in London.
Perception often being the equivalent of reality, there is a widespread belief that Alvarez is avoiding Golovkin for as long as he can in order to take “safer” fights, which makes Smith something of a consolation prize for disappointed fans who really want GGG-Canelo but are forced to settle for a lesser attraction. Only the most diehard Smith backers can envision any outcome other than the visitor from Liverpool returning home bruised, beaten and well-compensated for his acceptance of the role of designated victim.
While Alvarez might or might not be paying mere lip service to Smith’s capabilities, the supposedly no-chance Englishman and his promoter, Frank Warren, are fairly bubbling with confidence. And why shouldn’t they? The United Kingdom as a whole is enjoying a spectacular pugilistic revival, with 22 UK fighters either holding world titles or ranked in the top 10 of their respective divisions by The Ring magazine, second only among all nations to the U.S.’s 36.
“(Boxing has) always been a very popular sport here, one of our main sports,” Warren said during a trans-Atlantic teleconference with the American media a few weeks before Smith-Alvarez. “I think the main reason is that we’re good at it. We – myself and other (British) promoters – have invested our time and money over the years in developing talent. The bottom line is, we do have good, quality talent coming through.
“I’ve promoted Liam Smith since he turned professional eight years ago. I’ve always thought he was an exceptional British fighter, and I’ve never seen him so `up’ for a fight. He begged me to get this fight for him. I can assure you that when he gets there, you’re going to see some serious fireworks in Dallas. It might be Mexican Independence (weekend), but it’s going to be a big celebration for the British.”
Warren has been down this path before, and he knows as much about ultimate exhilaration as crushing disappointment. In the end, it isn’t about which flag a fighter waves as the skill, will and determination of the individual in question. When it comes to boxing, America is, and has been, the land of opportunity for a select group of British fighters who have found ways to master the moment.
“A lot of fighters I’ve been involved with were considered no-hopers against great American (or Mexican) fighters, and a lot of my fighters have won those fights,” he said. “Off the top of my head, I can think of Joe Calzaghe. Joe was an underdog against Bernard Hopkins and he won that fight. When Frank Bruno fought Oliver McCall, who had knocked out Lennox Lewis, Bruno was considered a no-hoper and he won that fight. There’s quite a few of them, actually.
“Liam is of that ilk. He comes to fight. He’s one of those fighters that, the bigger the occasion, the more you’ll get out of him. I think with Liam you’re going to see something special.”
Warren also gives a decent chance to Brook to register a similar shocker over Golovkin, for much the same reason.
“I used to promote Kell Brook,” Warren said. “I got him to the No. 1 position. He had 20 fights with me. He’s a capable fighter. I think he’s in for a very, very tough fight against one of the best, if not the best fighter is the world. However, he and Liam are not frightened. They’re stepping up to the plate. They’re fearless.”
Not that it’s going to happen, but what kind of odds would anyone have gotten that Brook, Smith or both might derail the possibility of the Golovkin-Canelo clash that has fired everyone’s imagination? Then again, who would have thought that, 53 years ago, the Beatles would have dethroned Elvis Presley?
Liam Smith / Check out more boxing news and videos at The Boxing Channel.