Belfast Telegraph

Monday 29 December 2014

James Lawton: McGuigan verdict of fight ‘from a distant planet’

Joe Calzaghe celebrates his victory over Roy Jones Jr with his two sons, Connor (L) and Joe (R) during their Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight Championship bout at Madison Square Garden November 8, 2008 in New York City
Joe Calzaghe celebrates his victory over Roy Jones Jr with his two sons, Connor (L) and Joe (R) during their Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight Championship bout at Madison Square Garden November 8, 2008 in New York City

You might say it is impertinent to question the boxing judgement of Barry McGuigan, the Clones Cyclone who flies straight into any serious assessment of British fighting's best post-war performers.

He fought with great courage and wit and when he lost his hard-won world title in the suffocating outdoor heat of Las Vegas, against a Mexican-Texan who was reared in such conditions, they had to take him to hospital with a life-threatening level of dehydration.

He even managed not to wilt in the blast of Marco Pierre White's kitchen, and ego, in one of the more engaging reality shows.

Yet, from the perspective of ringside at Madison Square Garden in the early hours of Sunday morning, it was still dismaying to hear that McGuigan, back in the TV studio, had given Joe Calzaghe's defeat of Roy Jones Jnr a quite extraordinary rating.

Of course, it is true that in general there are few more generous souls than those of ex-fighters.

It is one reason why so many of them finish up broke, McGuigan, happily, proving one exception.

Yet surely there is a difference between an eagerness to give credit where it is due, and in the process disabusing anyone of the idea that old pride and the angst that can come with the ageing process has turned you into a curmudgeonly critic of all that is new, and flying so far over the top you might be in need of an oxygen mask.

For some at least McGuigan surely flirted with that latter risk when claiming that Calzaghe had not only produced a fabulous, "sublime, absolutely sublime" performance, but established as fact, that he simply gets better and better by such margins that it is amazing he should think of quitting at the age of 36.

When McGuigan says things like that you wonder whether the TV studio was located on some distant planet.

Yes, of course Joe Calzaghe showed us again a fine range of formidable gifts but at what point does McGuigan, and a growing army of cheerleaders, feed in the sad but unavoidable fact that here he was fighting the last remnants of a once sensational talent, one that had become the most poignant parody of what it had been?

By giving so generously to Joe, surely it is at a cost to the memory of such fighters as Kenny Buchanan, Lennox Lewis, Randy Turpin, John Conteh, John H Stracey, Jim Watt, Alan Minter, not to mention Sir Henry Cooper, who on one unforgettable occasion visited a left hook on Muhammad Ali which, according to the great man, shook up his kinfolk all the way back in Africa.

Closer to Calzaghe's home, there are other disservices implicit in McGuigan's extravagant praise.

Howard Winstone, who lost the end of the fingers of his right hand, was a brilliant featherweight who fought superbly against the formidably strong Vicente Saldivar.

The Welsh heavyweight Tommy Farr's campaigning in America led him to a performance so fine and durable against the great Joe Louis that it provoked the building of beacon fires of celebration.

McGuigan's blanket assessment of Calzaghe's as the greatest in British fight history also laid waste the rankings of other great men of the earlier days, when they fought to live without the bi-annual underpinning of pay-per-view millions.

Men like Jimmy Wilde, Jim Driscoll, Ted Kid Lewis and Jack Kid Berg.

No-one can really blame Calzaghe for riding his success, nor the complaints he made about his previous exclusions before winning the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. He was right to speak up for his hard trade and his own contribution to it.

The worry is that we are now far gone in a sports culture where the headlines of today tend to obliterate the meaning of some of the greatest achievements in the history of sport, and so many of the standards they created.

Praising Joe Calzaghe, acknowledging his talent and those occasions when it was required to be fully exercised, is no hardship for anyone. But at various stages we encounter the problem of an excessive price to pay.

You cannot say that Joe Calzaghe is the best without diminishing so many who went before him. Surely, it cannot be done.

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