As the news of Joe Calzaghe's retirement broke this past week, boxing fans seem to be on opposite sides. For some, they are glad that such a talented fighter became what is sadly an exception in boxing and (at least seemingly) permanently retired from the sport with his health.
For others, however, Calzaghe's retirement is premature and further evidence of the fighter being overrated and afraid of top-level competition. This latter view is an unsurprising conclusion to the constant lack of respect given to Calzaghe. The main reason: he is not American.
When Calzaghe defeated Jeff Lacy in 2006 to unify his long-held WBO title and Lacy's IBF title, fights fans were surprised at the success of the relatively unknown Welshman. However, praise over the dominant victory soon turned to questioning of Lacy.
Because the American was more well-known, and thus had been favored to win, American fans quickly had to find a way to justify Calzaghe's easy domination. Rather than giving Calzaghe credit for beating a fighter Americans considered a strong opponent, they instead questioned Lacy's ability, calling the fighter they had previously praised overrated and saying that Calzaghe beat a mediocre fighter.
After his easy defeat of Peter Manfredo, Calzaghe took the fight that all fans were calling for: a unification match with WBC/WBA champion Mikkel Kessler. In a fight before a huge crowd in Wales (a crowd American promoters can now only fantasize about), Calzaghe won a dominating unanimous decision to unify the titles and become the undisputed Super Middleweight Champion.
Once again, praise for Calzaghe's accomplishment soon turned to questions. Why didn't he ever fight in America? What was he hiding from? Analysts speculated Calzaghe was used afraid to travel across the Atlantic. They wrote that his legacy could never be cemented unless he fought in America, a nation with an ironic lack of great interest in the sport.
Calzaghe answered his critics and fought in America against legend Bernard Hopkins. While the decision was questioned by many, Calzaghe earned a split-decision victory over the American legend in Las Vegas. For the third time, immediate praise of Calzaghe's victory turned into criticism.
Did he even win the fight? Even if he did win, he beat a past his prime Hopkins, people maintained. The fact that Calzaghe had moved up in weight class, beat the Ring Light-Heavyweight Champion, and the later fact that a past his prime Hopkins was still skilled enough to dismantle rising Middleweight Champion Kelly Pavlik, did little to nothing to quiet the criticism.
Calzaghe's final fight came against another American legend, Roy Jones, Jr., again in America. While Calzaghe was knocked down by Jones in the first round, he went on to earn an impressive and clear unanimous decision. And once again, praise for his victory turned into more questions. Why didn't Hopkins get a rematch? What about a fight with Chad Dawson, or Carl Froch?
The lack of respect given to Calzaghe can only be the result of American fight fans refusing to embrace a foreign fighter. While fans constantly maintain that fighters should retire before getting too old, losing interest, and eventually getting embarrassed in a fight they should not have taken, these same fans are disrespecting a fighter who chose to retire on top, and more importantly, with his health.
Fans can feel free to argue where exactly Calzaghe should be placed in boxing history. They should not, however, argue that he has ducked opponents, that he is not a true champion, or that he is wasting big fight opportunities.