Daily Express, 29 March, 2008

TOO MUCH FOR YOUR AVERAGE JOE

DUNCAN CRAIG is made to suffer during a day inside Fortress Calzaghe in Wales

WORLD champion boxer Gavin ‘The Rock’ Rees is laid out in front of me, smirking. In my hands is a 6kg medicine ball and, fighting every ounce of self-preservation in me, I’m pounding it again and again into his unprotected midriff.

"Hit him, for god’s sake, don’t just tap him." The man screaming in my ear is legendary boxing trainer Enzo Calzaghe. I up the power, bringing the oversized rubber ball crashing down on to the nuggety Welshman’s chest like a caveman finishing off his prey.

My lungs burn, and sweat drips off my nose. Rees looks almost bored. "Better!" shouts Enzo, "…248, 249, 250 – now, switch."

There’s nothing sophisticated about life inside Newbridge Boxing Club. It’s an approach entirely in keeping with its appearance – a run-down former rugby clubhouse deep in a South Wales industrial estate.

Yet from these humble surroundings, not one but three world champions have emerged – the highest profile of which, Joe Calzaghe, Enzo’s son, faces a career-defining fight in Las Vegas next month against Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins.

So what is the secret of Team Calzaghe’s phenomenal success? I’m here to find out. The hard way.

Enzo meets me outside. The stocky Sardinian wears a shiny tracksuit emblazoned with ‘ENZO’, his neat moustache framing a broad smile.

A cold wind swirls through the valley. Inside, if anything, is colder as we pass through a stone passageway with posters of Calzaghe, Mike Tyson and, surreally, Rocky. "Get changed in there," Enzo says jovially, half pushing me into what once must have been the club bar. "Five minutes."

From these humble surroundings, three world champions have emerged

I have been training for my first – and in all likelihood, only – fight for almost six months, an exhibition bout of three two-minute rounds. Enzo is genuinely interested in this, quizzing me as we warm up around the adjacent, overgrown pitch. I quiz him back.

"The key thing," says the 59-year-old, "is to respect the fight, whether it is Z or A level. Train hard, then train more and more." I ask him about Joe’s preparation. "Everything is in place – Joe never cuts corners. He has never stepped in a ring with someone who was fitter."

To illustrate this he gestures towards the steep hills surrounding us and says with an evil smile: "Those are a gift from God." Thankfully, I’m spared this divine offering, as Enzo guides me into the building’s main hall, his office.

The focal point is an elevated, full-size ring. Around it is every conceivable shape and design of punch bag and speed ball. A giant poster trumpets Calzaghe’s ‘Decade of Dominance’.

Big Joe has left the building, passing me in his blacked-out Range Rover as I arrive, after a brutal team session that morning. But Rees is still here, smiling menacingly while working a bag.

It’s straight into it. Enzo tugs a headguard on to me and I roll sideways under the ropes, following Rees’s lead. "Let’s see what you’ve got," says Enzo seriously. I move forward, jabbing, hooking, cutting; with unerring accuracy, I hit…fresh air.

On Enzo’s call, the light-welterweight backs himself into a corner and allows me to land a flurry of body and head shots. "Don’t let him out," shouts Enzo. "Up the rate." I’m starting to puff now. "OK, Gav, let’s see something." Six body shots and a hook to each side of my head land almost as one.

My guard slips and Enzo slaps me hard round the face with his pad. It doesn’t happen again

I last a couple more minutes, during which Rees punishes me at will and wears an expression that seems to say: "You’re only still standing cos it’s my rest week." (He is to face his first WBA world title defence in Cardiff three days later, losing to Ukrainian Andreas Kotelnik in the 12th).

The medicine ball exchange follows; I stomach around 20 blows before rolling away grimacing. We return to the ring and Enzo pulls out his pads – smaller than I’m used to, no bigger than cushioned baseball gloves. He works me hard, calling combinations and correcting my technique. My guard slips and he slaps me hard round the face with his pad. It doesn’t happen again.

I’m tiring, but the finale – the electronic ‘punch counter’ – awaits. The allotted time is three minutes. A round for the pros, an eternity for the layman. A long bleep and I start swinging at the bag frenziedly. "One minute gone," Enzo shouts eventually. Rees, who is holding the bag, sees the despair in my eyes and chuckles.

Somehow I make it to three minutes, and double up. The monitor reads 704 punches – four a second. "Pathetic, " says Enzo.

I dead-eye him as I fight for breath. My fatigue, all-consuming a few seconds earlier, has been forgotten; Enzo has got right under my skin, his forte. "Thinks he’s a tough guy, eh Gav?" I volunteer for another three torturous minutes, stepping up to the pad and drumming it with quick, short punches, sweat cascading into my eyes.

When the bleep finally sounds, I am retching for air. 1,147. It’s a small victory – several hundred less than the record held by Joe and his notoriously fast hands – but Enzo celebrates as if it’s a major triumph. He grips my face in his hands, his eyes sparkling.

Not so much a good man to have in your corner, as one of the best.

* INFORMATION: Thomas Cook Sport (020 7104 2060/www.thomascooksport.com) has packages for Calzaghe v Hopkins in Las Vegas on April 19 from £849, including return flights from London, three nights’ accommodation and ticket.