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Unbeaten Calzaghe climbs off canvas to get split decision

LAS VEGAS -- Joe Calzaghe leaped onto the unfamiliar ropes
with more hope than confidence, punching his fists skyward but also
looking over his shoulder at the judges' table.

The Pride of Wales had just finished a messy, difficult American
debut against Bernard Hopkins, the 43-year-old master who excels at
making younger foes look foolish. Calzaghe couldn't be sure he had
done enough to win -- until the final judge's scorecard hailed him
as the best light heavyweight in the world.

Calzaghe kept his unbeaten record intact with a split-decision
victory Saturday night, tenaciously rallying in the final rounds to
end his first Vegas show with a flourish.

"I knew this wouldn't look pretty tonight," Calzaghe said
after embracing his ecstatic father/trainer, Enzo. "He's so
awkward. He gave me some good shots. It wasn't my best night, but I
won the fight. The world title in a second division and a win in
America is just icing on the cake for my career."

Hopkins (48-5-1) knocked down Calzaghe (45-0) with a sneaky
right hand just 70 seconds in at the Thomas & Mack Center. With
grabby defense and canny counterpunching, Hopkins repeatedly
negated Calzaghe's attempts to trade blows and gain physical
control, causing more frustration than Calzaghe has ever felt.

But during the 18 years since he last left a ring in defeat,
Calzaghe learned he must always keep punching. Constantly wading
into the teeth of Hopkins' defense, he never stopped trying to wear
down his older opponent, eventually gaining control in the final
rounds - but still wondering about his fate.

Judge Ted Gimza scored it 115-112 for Calzaghe, and Chuck Giampa
favored Calzaghe 116-111. Judge Adalaide Byrd gave it 114-113 to
Hopkins, as did many reporters at ringside -- including The
Associated Press, which also favored Hopkins 114-113 despite
Calzaghe's dominance in the final five rounds.

"I just really feel like I took the guy to school," said
Hopkins, who grimaced and shook his head when the verdict was
announced. "I feel like I made him fight my fight, not his."

Calzaghe landed 33 percent of his 707 punches, while Hopkins
connected with 27 percent of his 468 blows. Calzaghe had the edge
in power punches with both total blows and accuracy, and he heavily
outjabbed Hopkins.

In perhaps the most telling statistic of all, Calzaghe connected
with 232 punches, the most ever landed against Hopkins in his 21
fights that were tracked by CompuBox statistics.

"I had to let the punches go as the fight wore on," Calzaghe
said. "He was very defensive. I was only hurt one time, but he
never caught me with a clean punch. It was the toughest fight of my
career. He's very clever. I'm very proud."

Shortly after Tom Jones finished singing the Welsh national
anthem, Hopkins ducked in his crouch and knocked down Calzaghe with
a perfectly placed right hand. Hopkins was a shade quicker and more
elusive in the early rounds, staying away from Calzaghe's more
powerful punches with movement and carefully disguised holds.

While Calzaghe turned the momentum, referee Joe Cortez briefly
stopped the fight twice for low blows by Calzaghe, including an
extended delay early in the 10th round that infuriated Calzaghe. It
also seemed to give Calzaghe the motivation to finish strong.

Calzaghe has been a super middleweight champion since 1997,
winning 21 consecutive defenses and adding two more belts last
November with a unification victory over Mikkel Kessler. But the
flying-phobic Welshman never found a matchup enticing enough to get
him across the Atlantic Ocean on boxing's biggest stage, leaving
him largely unknown to Americans.

Saturday's bout has been anticipated for at least six years by
fight fans who craved the stylistic contrasts between two of the
longest-reigning champions in boxing history. After several false
starts and disputes, the bout gained steam last December when
Hopkins and Calzaghe got into a shouting match one day before Floyd
Mayweather Jr.'s fight with Ricky Hatton.

"I would never let a white boy beat me. Never," Hopkins
proclaimed, and Calzaghe quickly agreed to find out whether the
Executioner was correct.

With 20 straight title defenses as one of the longest-reigning
middleweight champions in boxing history, Hopkins' only losses
since 1993 were two debatable decisions against Jermain Taylor in
2005. He then posted stunning upsets in his first two fights at
light heavyweight, knocking off Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright
with the same mix of impenetrable defense and counterpunching that
threatened to confound Calzaghe.

Hopkins, whose win over Tarver made him the linear 175-pound
champ, still shows remarkably few signs of athletic decline in his
early 40s.

"I wanted him to run into my shots," Hopkins said. "I think I
made him do that, and I think I made it look pretty easy. I think I
controlled the pace, and I controlled the fight. I think it was an
old-school execution. He really wasn't landing his shots. Maybe if
he threw five or six, one or two landed if he was lucky."

Though the arena had thousands of empty seats because of
exorbitant ticket prices, thousands of British fans who turned out
for Friday's weigh-in got tickets and turned up waving Welsh flags
and singing to Calzaghe.

Roy Jones Jr. is among the fighters who would love the next shot
at Calzaghe, while Hopkins is running out of interesting opponents.

"I don't know who I want to fight next, but I'm a
legend-killer," Calzaghe said.