Boxing: The final Cal for Joe?
Why do I have a gut feeling that all Wales is about to weep; that Joe Calzaghe has finally met his match?
Could it be because he's now 35 and has been counting the weeks to retirement? Or that his injury-prone right hand might let him down? Or that for the first time in ten years as champion, he is boxing somebody only one rung below him on the world ladder?
Don't be under any illusion. Mikkel Kessler, probably the best of all great Danes, is a serious threat to Calzaghe - a fighter of equal skill and hitting power, fearlessly strong and streetwise, and with a chin like granite. In 39 professional contests, all wins, he has never been on the floor.
For what could be the 'fight of the year' in front of the biggest indoor crowd in history, Calzaghe and Kessler will share a staggering purse of nearly 10 million dollars.
On paper, Joe's record, too, of 43 fights unbeaten clearly looks impressive, and to say we were in awe of his form against a dismantled Jeff Lacy 18 months ago is only to state the obvious.
Why he had boxed in relative anonymity for so long before then puzzled American fans, but not the team from RING.
"An unknown quantity outside his cosy home base," one critic commented frostily. "Forget that claim about 20 successful title defenses. That's based on holding the low-rent WBO belt interminably. At his best, Joe belongs among the pound-for-pound elite, but shows a reluctance to prove it."
Suddenly, Joe's flashes of genius against tough-guy Lacy were yesterday's news. He was back in boxing's comfort-zone, blushing with embarrassment after a third-rate New Yorker melted like ice before his eyes.
It was billed as a world title bout, and ended up as nothing more than a sorry mis-match, a real rhubarb of a fight that left fans who paid £300 for a ringside seat crying out for something better. Now, happily, they're about to get it.
Enzo Calzaghe, a Welsh-exiled Sardinian, has trained his fighting son since the week of his last defeat as an 18-year-old amateur, and likes to think he knows Joe better than most.
"His eyes go from passionate to warm to cold as ice before all big fights," grins Enzo. "That's when I know he's good and ready. He doesn't talk much, and gets all arrogant and psyched up."
Not so Denmark's David Beckham look-a-like, tattoos and all.
Kessler has brought his own army of fans to Cardiff, about 5,000 of them, and teases Joe as Britain's longest-reigning 'stay-at-home champion.' He talks a good fight, and in perfect English, but wisely refused to be drawn into a slanging match.
"That's not his style," says Mogens Palle, the man who has kept boxing alive in Denmark for nearly half-a-century.
"Tom Bogs was my first Viking Warrior 30 years ago, a great champion in two European weight divisions, but Kessler is even better. He's strong, hits hard with both hands, and has a refined range of skills, especially a smart jab."
Mikkel (28) is seven years younger than Calzaghe and a double WBA/WBC champion. Recently voted 'best puncher' in the 12-stone division, the tall Dane has never fought a southpaw of Joe's class, "but that should be only a mild irritation," adds the 73-year-old Palle.
"His jab was made in Heaven, and let me remind you that he knocked out Markus Beyer with the sweetest, swiftest right hand of the year in Europe. This one will be a war, a must-watch fight between two seasoned champions. But Kessler will win. I know it!"
Clearly, Calzaghe's tools will need to be a lot sharper than they have been in his last two fights. Otherwise, all Wales could be in for a rude shock.
GILBERT Neill, an Ulster Hall favourite after launching his pro career with seven contests in nine weeks, has died at his home near Sandhurst after a long and distinguished army career.
He was 70 and retired from the Enniskillen Dragoon Guards. Gilbert's younger brother, Jim, is a former Irish and Ulster amateur champion who lives at Monkstown.