Oct. 11, 1997 – Joe Calzaghe UD 12 Chris Eubank, Sheffield Arena, Sheffield, England
It was never going to be easy for the unbeaten Joe Calzaghe. The promising lefty from Wales was initially matched up against the incredibly durable Steve Collins for his first world title shot, only for the Irishman to relinquish his crown and retire from the sport, with only one week until fight night.
The Calzaghe camp was desolate but a replacement was sourced and talk about the substitute from hell.
Former two weight world champion Chris Eubank had been scheduled to appear on the same card at 175 pounds, but promised to lose the necessary weight and fight for the vacant WBO super middleweight title. Calzaghe, with the unquenchable confidence of youth, promised that the switch from one established warrior to another would make little difference.
Looking back, this showdown was interesting for a variety of reasons. Firstly, it was not a main event, because Prince Naseem Hamed was the hometown attraction, in a featherweight title defense against Jose Badillo. The Prince may indeed have fought first that night, but the event was sold and marketed as a Hamed show.
Secondly, this was the ultimate changing of the guard. Nigel Benn was gone, Steve Collins was gone and Chris Eubank was the last man standing, in a weight division which he had dominated for almost four years. Yes, the timing on this Old Lion vs. Young Lion encounter could scarcely have been better, and the action did not disappoint.
In the opening 20 seconds Eubank rushed Calzaghe, thought better of it, backed off and was decked by an explosive left hook from the rapid fire southpaw. Eubank was up in a flash and, like only he could, chanted across to his fired up opponent “good shot”. It definitely was but Calzaghe often regrets scoring that knockdown so quickly.
“In a way it was the worst possible start,” said Calzaghe years into his title reign. “After scoring such a heavy knockdown I felt that I could knock Eubank out easily, and for several rounds I loaded up, couldn’t finish it and wound up completely exhausted.”
Calzaghe was only 13 years of age when his opponent turned professional and, as a result, fell victim to a huge disparity in experience. Eubank was masterful at breaking down a twelve rounder and even at that early stage was determined test the younger man late on. Furthermore, he had the experience and fortitude to put that plan into action.
Calzaghe had never been beyond eight rounds and Eubank knew it.
By the seventh Eubank was well behind on points but he was giving as good as he was getting, pounding his man with full blooded power shots. Calzaghe, undoubtedly fatigued, was counting down the minutes to his second wind and was finally rewarded for all the roadwork he had put in on the Welsh valleys.
In the 10th Eubank was woefully off balance after throwing a wild right hand and Calzaghe threaded home a sharp left hook counter, which caused “Simply the Best” to touch down. A decision win was now impossible, so Professor Eubank would give the student his final exam during the championship rounds.
Calzaghe would get off to a great start in the eleventh and twelfth, but Eubank would not succumb to the punishment and fired back with massive bombs of his own. Many a young contender would have flunked the test but Calzaghe, displaying the hunger and determination which later become his hallmarks, would not be denied.
The decision was unanimous for the Welshman, 116-111, 118-110 and 118-109.
To this day Calzaghe acknowledges that this was, without question, the hardest fight of his career. Eubank put forth a sensational effort and, unlike many of Calzaghe’s future opponents, took the Welshman’s hardest shots before significant hand damage forced him to hold back on his power punching.
This bout is also more comparable to Froch vs. Groves, than any of the others. Firstly, this weekend’s fight features an established warrior against a confident, but untested challenger. Secondly, if Groves is to prevail then he will likely have to earn his world title in a battle of attrition and venture into dark places where he has never been before.
Photos / Alex Livesey-Getty Images, Bob Martin-Getty Images, Holly Stein-Getty Images, THE RING, John Gichigi-Getty Images
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and has contributed to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing