Confident and collected Calzaghe made Hopkins eat his words

Calzaghe, right, had to endure some trying moments against a determined Hopkins. John Gichigi/Getty Images

LAS VEGAS -- Joe Calzaghe still doesn't know what it's like to see his opponent's hand raised.

Since 1990, when he lost an amateur bout in Europe, through an 11-year reign as super middleweight champion, Calzaghe was perfect.

He still is, even if Bernard Hopkins disagrees.

Calzaghe, having cleaned out the 168-pound division with his lopsided victory against Mikkel Kessler in November, finally decided to bring his considerable game to American soil at age 36 for a stab at history. He found his mark, outpointing Hopkins on a razor-close split decision to win the light heavyweight world championship on Saturday night before an adoring crowd of 14,213 revelers, most of whom made the trip across the pond from his native Wales.

And in taking the title, Calzaghe stuffed Hopkins' own racist words down his throat.

Hopkins, of course, antagonized Calzaghe in December the day before Floyd Mayweather's victory against Ricky Hatton by going chest to chest with him. Hopkins loudly declared in front of the media that he would "never let a white boy beat me. Never."

Well, the white boy from Wales did exactly that, letting his fists do the talking. Calzaghe never answered Hopkins' nasty taunts throughout the promotion, instead laughing them off and calling Hopkins a buffoon. And he never let Hopkins, the master at psychological warfare, get into his head.

Calzaghe, however, had an awfully shaky start to the fight. A short right hand from Hopkins dumped Calzaghe to the canvas for only the third time in his career a minute into the fight.

When Calzaghe got up, he seemed dejected. How could this have happened to the 3-1 favorite with the crowd cheering him on in a foreign land?

It got worse for him in the second round, when Hopkins busted open a cut on the bridge of his nose.

Through the next several rounds, Hopkins was beating him to the punch and roughing him up. It looked like Calzaghe might suffer the same fate as Hatton, the last superstar to come from the United Kingdom only to be humbled by a star American.

Calzaghe displayed bad body language.

He shook his head.

He complained to referee Joe Cortez about Hopkins' tactics.

But Calzaghe has always been a winner (still is), one developed in his father and trainer Enzo's tiny Newbridge gym, where they have worked side by side all these years. Even going up against Hopkins' murderer's row of trainers -- Freddie Roach, former champion John David Jackson, Nazim Richardson and fitness guru Mackie Shilstone -- they still couldn't be beat.

Somewhere in the middle rounds that undefeated mark must have entered Calzaghe's head and that champion's heart went into overdrive. He turned things around and dominated the late rounds.

"Winning a world title in a second division and a win in America is just icing on the cake for my career," the proud new champion said.

A low blow in the 10th sent Hopkins down to the canvas, where he grimaced in pain, even if it appeared he may have been doing a bit of acting.

Hopkins (48-5-1, 32 KOs), however, said he really was in pain: "He hit me low and what made it hurt was it knocked my privates outside my cup."

Calzaghe didn't seem to care. He raised his arms to the crowd, which responded with ear-shattering cheers.

It was a very close, difficult fight to score. In the end, judges Ted Gizma (115-112) and Chuck Giampa (116-111) had it for Calzaghe while judge Adalaide Byrd had it 114-113 for Hopkins. ESPN.com also had it 114-113 for Hopkins, but by the end of the fight, it was Calzaghe taking it to the 43-year-old.

Hopkins insisted his age was not a factor.

"I wasn't slowing down," he said. "I was pacing myself for the long haul. Freddie told me to keep my pace and take him into the deep waters. I wanted him to run into my shots and I think I made him do that, and I think I made it look easy. I think I controlled the pace and the fight. I think it was an old-school execution.

"We have judges, we have officials. In the end, it's the fans who know who won the fight.

"I just feel like I made him look amateurish."

The CompuBox statistics, however, tell a different story. Calzaghe landed 232 of 707 punches (33 percent) to Hopkins' 127 of 468 (27 percent).

It was the most punches ever landed on Hopkins in any of the more than a dozen fights of his that CompuBox has tracked.

Calzaghe (45-0, 32 KOs) was proud of that as well as his historic victory.

"I fought a really hard fight tonight," he said. "I had to let the punches go as the fight wore on. He was very defensive. I was only hurt one time, but he never caught me with a clean punch. It was one of the toughest fights of my career. He's very clever. I'm very proud to have landed more punches on Bernard Hopkins than anyone else he has fought."

When the discussion turned to his next fight, Calzaghe wasn't sure exactly what he wanted to do, instead preferring to enjoy the biggest moment of a career that has included 21 super middleweight title defenses.

But seated ringside calling the action on radio for BBC Wales was the one man Calzaghe did mention: Roy Jones Jr., the former light heavyweight champ and pound-for-pound king who is the logical opponent coming off his career-reviving win against Felix Trinidad in January.

"I don't know who I want to fight next. Maybe I'm the legend killer. I just beat Bernard Hopkins. Next maybe Roy Jones," he said. "I was a bit rusty at the start. In training I practiced not to rush it. I knew it wouldn't look pretty. Hopkins was so awkward.

"I got caught early. I was wary of his right hand. In the fourth round I started loosening up. I knew it wasn't going to be pretty, but a win is. It wasn't my best night, but I know won the fight."

That's the sign of a true champion, when you can get it done even when you're not at your best. Just like Calzaghe has done seemingly forever.

Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com.