As Joe Calzaghe prepares for what he insists will be the concluding fight of an illustrious career, against Roy Jones Jnr at Madison Square Garden next weekend, his thoughts keep turning to the early days, when he was young, lean, hungry and even prettier than he is now.
He remembers in particular a fight in Sassari, Sardinia, his father Enzo's home town, in front of Enzo's baying father and uncles. He was 19, and the ABA welterweight champion. His opponent was an Italian kid, DiMaso or something like that, who'd been a bronze medallist in the world junior championships and, as Calzaghe recalls it, fancied himself rotten.
He looked at Calzaghe before the fight and saw nothing to worry about. But his trainer warned him: “Beware the pretty ones. They're pretty because they don't get hit.” DiMaso was scornful. “Well, this one will,” he replied. Calzaghe laughs at the memory. “From the first bell he got the worst beating of his life. I remember him afterwards, crying in the showers. His eyes were swollen, he had a busted nose. I did a proper job on him, like.”
It's not often that Calzaghe, one of the least arrogant of boxing champions, glories in the physical details of the beatings he has administered, but now that he can see practically his whole career stretched out behind him, he is feeling nostalgic.
“Look at my face,” he bids me. “I want it to stay this way. It doesn't look like a boxer's face. I used to make the same mistake as that Italian. I remember saying to my dad, 'this guy looks hard, he's got a flat nose'. My dad told me that was the reason I didn't have to worry about him. It's always the good-looking ones you need to worry about most.”
He strokes his jaw and smiles. “I'll probably walk onto a Roy Jones left hook now I've said that.”
He doesn't believe it for a second. Not many British boxers have topped the bill at Madison Square Garden, and Calzaghe doesn't want his swansong sullied. “Win, lose or draw I'm retiring after this fight,” he assures me, but he is only really eyeing the first of these possibilities, which would yield a remarkable record of 46 wins out of 46 since he turned pro 15 years ago.
It was with a gimlet eye on this record, some in the boxing world are saying, that Calzaghe chose Jones as his final opponent. The Floridian has won world titles in four separate weight divisions and for years was rated the world's greatest pound-for-pound fighter, but he will be just over two months shy of his 40th birthday and a long way past his best when he steps into the ring on Saturday night to try to seize from Calzaghe the title of Ring Magazine light-heavyweight champion of the world. At 36, Calzaghe is no spring chicken either, but there is a difference, say his critics, between retiring undefeated and retiring at the top. To them, Calzaghe v Jones smacks of an exhibition bout. A match against the world middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, or even a re-match against Bernard Hopkins, who in July beat Pavlik in a non-title fight, would be a more fitting way, they suggest, for Calzaghe to sound the valedictory bugle.
Still, as a world champion since 1997, and of course reigning BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the Welshman has the satisfaction of knowing that he has nothing left to prove. He wanted Jones; he wanted the Garden; he got them both. And by staying at light-heavyweight, he can accommodate what he chucklingly describes as his middle-aged spread.
“I'm real happy at this weight,” he says. “The thought of going down to 12 stone... that would be hard now that I'm getting older. I'm struggling to make 12st 7lbs, to be honest with you.” And yet the discipline of having to hit the super-middleweight mark of 12st (168lbs) one more time might be good for him, I venture. “It might. But at the end of the day I think I'm entitled. At 12 stone in the (Mikkel) Kessler fight, even though it was a good performance, I felt weak, my legs felt drained. I thought afterwards, 'why the hell would I want to make 12 stone again?'”
Predictably enough, he rubbishes the idea that Jones is an easy option, while conceding that it is a fight boxing fans would have preferred to see when both men were in their prime. “Yeah, it was offered to him, but he didn't want it. I'm not going to criticise him for that. Boxing is a business, and he wanted to fight guys who made him look good. If you're fast, a slow guy makes you look faster. But this will be interesting because we're both fast. Even at 39 he has fast combinations. And he'll wait for me. I don't like fighters who do that. I prefer them to come to me.
“But he's never been in the ring with someone with my work rate and my speed.”