Calzaghe to take on The Contender

Even though he is professional boxing's longest reigning champion, WBO super middleweight king Joe Calzaghe may not be as widely known as his opponent when he steps into the ring Saturday at Millenium Stadium, in Cardiff, Wales, in an HBO-televised event.

Although more astute boxing fans are more familiar with the 35-year-old Calzaghe, 42-0 with 31 knockouts, of Newbridge, Wales, it his adversary - 26-year-old Peter Manfredo Jr., 26-3 (12), of Pawtucket, R.I - who will be most recognized by the American television audience that tunes in to watch the fight, which begins at 2 p.m. and will be replayed at 10 p.m.

The reason for this is the phenomenon known as "The Contender," the NBC reality show on which Manfredo rose to prominence in 2005. The show was so popular and drew such a new fan base that even Calzaghe tuned in and liked it.

"Obviously, it (the show) opens up boxing to the public, not just the sports fan," Calzaghe said last week in a conference call. "I enjoyed it. And you can see what The Contender series has done for Peter. He's got at shot at the world title."

And in a sport full of sanctioning bodies and belts, Manfredo will not be getting a shot at just any world title or strapholder in Calzaghe, who defeated Chris Eubank on Oct. 11, 1997 for the then vacant WBO strap.

Eubank had previously owned that belt and defended it 18 consecutive times before losing it to Steve Collins in 1995. Calzaghe will be making his 20th defense, one short of the division record of 21, set by former IBF titlist Sven Ottke, who retired at 34-0 (6) and held the title from 1998-04.

"Obviously there's pressure on every single title defense. And I think pressure is a good thing," Calzaghe said. "One of my strengths is I don't take any fighter lightly. I take them all very seriously indeed. And Pete's got a massive buildup. But he's a big underdog. He's got a massive opportunity - an opportunity of a lifetime."

Calzaghe remembers the feeling well.

"I know what it's like to be a challenger and to want to win," Calzaghe said. "And for this fight I'm trained tremendously well. I trained very hard to go 12 rounds, if need be."

Although there is a nine-year age disparity between them, the fighters share at least a couple things in common. Both are Italian, trained by their fathers (Enzo Calzaghe and Peter Manfredo Sr., respectively) and have somewhat similar nicknames: Calzaghe is billed as "The Pride of Wales," Manfredo "The Pride of Providence."

"I think he's a good fighter," Calzaghe said of Manfredo. "He's a solid fighter. He's got a big heart. Obviously fighting me is a big step up from the likes of Sergio Mora (who twice beat Manfredo in Contender championship matches) and Joe Spina (whom Manfredo stopped in the third round of their October 2006 fight, Manfredo's last).

"I'm prepared for a tough fight. I'm prepared for anything. I cannot afford to have a 'been there, done it' attitude when I train for a title defense."

Calzaghe, who is coming off an Oct. 14 victory over unsung Sakio Bika, dismissed any age advantage Manfredo may have.

"A lot of people may think I'm long in the tooth, but I'm still leaving the bodies in the gym - fighters who are 10 years younger than me," said Calzaghe, who is a swift southpaw stylist with quite a bit of sting in his punches. "With Peter's style and my style, basically we're going to be a very exciting fight. I love to fight and we both have big hearts. So it's going to be a treat for the public."

With his comprehensive beating of former IBF beltholder Jeff Lacy in unification match in March 2006, Calzaghe finally earned some respect on this side of the Atlantic.

He was asked by several reporters about future opponents such as former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins (who defended his title 20 times), current middleweight champion Jermain Taylor and undefeated WBC-WBA super middleweight titlist Mikkel Kessler, but Calzaghe instead elected to speak only about Manfredo.

He did, however, give a glimpse into his future.

"I'll keep fighting at 40," Calzaghe said. "At the moment I'm still as sharp, as quick. You look at Bernard Hopkins (who will fight Winky Wright on July 21). He's 42. He's all about how you look after yourself and the score and the beatings you take and the lack of beatings.

"I've always been at the top of my game and I win. I don't get hit often. I feel fresh. I've never been one of those guys that hangs around sparring and warring in the gym. I really don't believe in that. You should save that for the ring. I want to be one of the few fighters that was happy at the top. I would not make a comeback, retire, and make a comeback, because I would be fighting for the same thing I won in the first place - a title."

Calzaghe, who has been boxing since he was 13, said he would walk away from the sport if he realizes he is not a winner any more. Without addressing some of the big-name fighters out there, he didn't shut the door on possible future matches with them when he talked about a possible timetable for his career.

"In an ideal world, I'm looking 60 months, two years," Calzaghe said "and (being) one of the few fighters that actually retires at the top without getting too much of a beating and having to fight comebacks."

When asked about it Calzaghe seemed open to the idea of coming to the United States to fight and further build his popularity.

"It would be nice to fight in America if they pay me a lot of money for it," said Calzaghe, who has ventured to Germany and Denmark to make title defenses. "Most of the top British fighters in the history of boxing have fought in America and I've not done that yet. It would be nice to fight at Madison Square Garden.

"If it doesn't work out, it doesn't work out. It would be nice to go to America, but my career and my legacy won't suffer if I don't."

Putting the shoe on the other foot, not fighting in Europe didn't affect a popular champion like Roy Jones. And as big a venue as Madison Square Garden is (it seats 18,200), it would not be able to accommodate the 35,000 fans expected for Saturday's match in Millenium Stadium.

Calzaghe said he will be realizing a dream when he fights in Millenium Stadium, where he has watched soccer and rugby. It is also only three minutes from his house.

So don't cry for Joe Calzaghe, Argentina or America. He may not be as widely known as his opponent or as he should be, but with a giant partisan crowd on his side, he's not exactly singing the blues.


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