Calderon a top fighter, but might fight harder to be seen

Who says size doesn't matter?

Two weekends ago, the eyes of the boxing world were focused on suburban Chicago, where a belt holder of indeterminate talent defended his title against an opponent who had developed a reputation as a serial choker on the big stage. Despite widespread suspicion of the abilities of both men, the bout garnered a rare three-page preview in Sports Illustrated, and postfight highlights on "SportsCenter." It even overshadowed a theoretically superior fight in Las Vegas on the same night, the conclusive leg of the trilogy between Diego Corrales and Joel Casamayor.

But Nikolai Valuev and his challenger Monte Barrett are heavyweights, and it is the big men of boxing's flagship division who usually draw the most attention to the sport. And they certainly don't come much bigger than Valuev, who has become an object of interest less because of his boxing skills than his physical presence -- all 7-foot-2, 320 pounds of him.

Fast forward two weeks. This Saturday, in Barranquilla, Colombia, Ivan Calderon will be making the 10th defense of a world title belt he won in May 2003. During that time -- throughout his unbeaten, 26-bout, almost-six-year career, in fact -- not only has Calderon won every fight, he has barely lost a round.

ESPN.com rates him as the No. 1 fighter in his weight division, and the 16th-best boxer in the world, pound-for-pound. But while previous Calderon contests have been showcased on pay-per-view cards headlined by the likes of Erik Morales or Marco Antonio Barrera, good luck finding this fight, against Jose Luis Valera, on HBO or Showtime -- or even Telefutura or Versus. An acceptable supporting act, Calderon is not considered worthy of a televised main event, at least in the United States.

The reasons are not hard to see.

He rarely scores knockouts, and his boxing style is not the kind that endears itself to casual fans. It is catch-as-catch-can, hit-and-don't-get-hit, one that uses the ring canvas to paint fistic masterpieces that might have students of the sweet science marveling and applauding, but frequently leave paying customers yawning or even booing.

Equally significant, Calderon is not a big man. Indeed, at 5 feet tall on the nose, and weighing in at 105 pounds, the WBO minimumweight champion is nearly one-third the weight of Valuev. And it is a rare thing indeed for one so small, particularly with a tendency to box rather than slug, to earn the attention, let alone the affection, of any but the hardest of hardcore boxing fans.

That being so, marketing even as talented and accomplished a fighter as Calderon could be expected to present something of a challenge.

"Not only is it a real challenge, it may not be possible," Top Rank president Bob Arum said. "I enjoy the way he fights, but in this environment, with the number of people following boxing shrinking every day, it becomes a lot more difficult than years ago, when we had [former WBC and IBF light flyweight champion] Michael Carbajal, whose style was certainly more pleasing. The business of boxing then was a lot more robust. Do you think if this was a situation where boxing was more robust that we would ever even consider him going to Colombia to fight?"

Born in Guaynabo, Puerto Rico in 1975, where he now lives again, Calderon began boxing after moving to New York, where he lived with his father. It was his stepmother who prodded him to start boxing; he wound up fighting in school all the time anyway -- although, he insists, "I never got into fights because of me. I was always defending friends. I never used to be a problem kid" -- and so why not, she reasoned, at least develop some skills, learn how to fight properly and maybe use his fists to make some money.

A sterling amateur career followed: 110 wins from 130 contests, a New York Golden Gloves title in 1995, appearances at the Pan-American Games, and a place on the U.S. team at the 2000 Olympics.

Despite losing in the first round in Sydney, he was signed by Top Rank and made his professional debut on Feb. 17, 2001, appearing beneath Erik Morales' defense of his WBC super featherweight title against Guty Espadas at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

He won that first professional bout, against Sergio Diaz, with a first-round knockout -- somewhat ironically, given his subsequent career evolution.

"Yeah, because when I started pro, I used to be another kind of boxer," he said. "I used to fight, I used to think I was Mike Tyson, I used to be all banging toe-to-toe, but when I had my first cut on my eye, that's when I started thinking, 'Wait a minute, I know another style of fighting, I know how to box.' And that's when I became another style of boxer. I changed my knockout skills and I became more of a boxer, hit and not get hit. "

Calderon makes no apologies for his style, and makes it clear he has no plans on abandoning it anytime soon.

"Look at all the boxers who used to be aggressive, but they're now boxers, like Barrera," he said. "I don't like getting out the ring having to go straight to hospital. I've already been through that. Spending two hours in the hospital, getting stitches and everything. I'm busting my ass here for all of you in the ring, and after the fight you all go dancing and everything and I go straight to the hospital."

Besides, he argued, boldly if unconvincingly, "I believe if somebody likes to pay $1,000 for a fight, it's not fair that you win the fight in the first round, one minute of a round, and you wasted $1,000 just to see a one-minute round. And especially for the sponsors, they don't want to sponsor only three minutes, they sponsor you for a forty-five minute fight."

That said, Calderon recognizes that, as he puts it, "a lot of people don't like more boxing, they just like to see knockouts," and so, in an attempt to boost his bankability as he searches for more meaningful and lucrative matchups, he has incorporated once more some heavier punching with his ring craft. He was noticeably more aggressive in his defense against Isaac Bustos in Las Vegas in February, and he stopped his most recent challenger, Miguel Tellez, in front of the Guaynabo faithful two months later.

"In my three or four last performances, I've been changing a little bit of my style," he agreed. "Keep on with my boxing skill, but don't run so much like people say I do -- people say I run, but I don't run, I just move a lot -- hit, don't get hit, but put more power in my hands. That's what I've been doing my last few fights and I think I've been doing it good, but believe me, if in one of those fights, if I get cut then I'm going back to my style of hitting and don't get hit."

Because he walks around at between 112 and 115 pounds (although, with almost six months having passed since his last bout, he allowed himself to balloon to 125 before entering camp to prepare for Valera), Calderon doesn't have the physical size to ascend far beyond his present division, the smallest weight class in boxing. At the same time, with no obvious big-money opponent available to him at 105 pounds, he recognizes he might have no option but to move three pounds farther north. He had indeed planned to do so, his sights fixed on Top Rank stable mate and fellow 2000 Olympian Brian Viloria, but that plan went up in smoke when the "Hawaiian Punch" lost his WBC 108-pound title in an uninspired points defeat to unheralded Omar Nino in August.

"I need a name, I need somebody famous, and I don't have nobody [at 105]. I had it at 108 with Brian Viloria but he didn't want to fight me," Calderon said. "He knew he was going to have problems with me, and he decided to fight this Mexican, he thought it was going to be an easy fight, and look what happened. I didn't even see that fight. A lot of people were telling me, 'Oh, he's strong, he's strong.' But I say, 'He can't hit what he can't see.' Yeah, that was my money day."

"Viloria has the chance to avenge that loss on Nov. 18, on our Pacquiao-Morales card, and absolutely, I will do my darnedest to make that fight," Arum asserted. But, he emphasized, it would not be for anything like the million dollars Carbajal made to fight fellow titlist Humberto Chiquita Gonzalez in 1993 and 1994. Rather, Arum projected, it could be a chief support bout on a pay-per-view: "A nice, interesting bout for the few people who still follow the sport closely."

With Viloria's demise -- at least until the former champ gets his shot at revenge against Nino on Nov. 18 -- Calderon is now talking up the prospect of challenging WBO 108-pound titlist Hugo Cazares.

"A lot of people in Puerto Rico would love to see that fight because he already went to Puerto Rico and he beat Nene Sanchez, [Nelson] Dieppa twice, and [Miguel] Del Valle, and so a lot of people would like to see me and him fight, so I can get revenge for those losses he gave to Puerto Rican fighters," Calderon explained. But, he acknowledges, with Cazares fighting under the banner of Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, it wouldn't exactly be an easy match to make:

"It's a little bit complicated, because Top Rank and De La Hoya, they're not too friendly, so the business is going to be a little bit hard."

Whatever happens, no matter how many wins he racks up and how long he remains champion, Calderon might have to resign himself to never breaking into boxing's upper echelons.

"Ivan is one of the best technicians I've ever seen. But what does all that mean? Nothing," Arum lamented. "The one thing that keeps him going is you can market him to some extent in Puerto Rico. Not like a [Miguel] Cotto, of course, but he will draw, on his own, three, four thousand people in Puerto Rico. But that's it.

"He's a great talent and a wonderful kid. You can't fault him."

The only thing standing in the way of Calderon's fame and fortune, it seems, is that he was born too small, and born too late.

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters, and TigerBoxing.com.