Part Three: The Greatest Defensive Fighters Ever – Ivan Calderon

Small in stature, big in skill

“I want everybody to remember me as the best pure fighter in the world and a champion who helps his people”—Ivan Calderon

Lost in the hodgepodge of alphabet soup organizations, too many divisions, being too small, and working in the shadows of other greats—particularly fellow countryman Miguel Cotto—Ivan “Iron Boy” Calderon may not have convinced the world that he was the best stick-and-move guy in the business, but in his prime he wasn’t far off. Calderon was a ring-roving, jab-happy, paint-your-face-red kind of defender, and a southpaw to boot. He had the timing of a prog-metal drummer, could parry better than the Karate Kid could wash a car, was slipperier than a water slide at a theme park, but happened to be the sister puncher of Paulie Malignaggi.

Oddly enough, his nickname was a play on “Iron” Mike Tyson’s. Ivan worked at Waste Management in his native Puerto Rico and his co-workers mistook him for having heavyweight-esque power in a pint-sized frame. Calderon’s career was a 10+ year contradiction to that faulty reasoning—a career in which he scored only 6 knockouts in 39 paid contests. Not that it mattered much. The Guaynabo-native, with or without the godsend of a hard blow, was able to traverse through two divisions as a titleholder, was able to rate as the 9th best practitioner in the game at one point, and became recognized as the second greatest to lace them up at 105.

Before the mini-maestro penned his name to a pro contract, however, he had a lengthy amateur career, accumulating a win-loss record of 110-20. One of those wins came against a man he would develop a long friendship with, the aforementioned Miguel Cotto. Although a simple 3-2 victory and Calderon being clearly older, Cotto stated that, “He beat me. He kicked my ass. So I became his friend and we never fought again.”

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Calderon traded leather with Brian Viloria, as well. He came out on the short end of the rivalry in terms of numbers, winning but one of their three fights, but Ivan had his hand raised in their most important match, an Olympic qualifier for the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia. Calderon then went on to lose his first round of fighting against Indonesian, Masara La Paene.

When the 5’0” stylist finally took his silky smooth footwork—both inside and outside the ring—into the pro game, it was an unwelcoming site for those who peered across the ring at him. It’s not as if they might not have enjoyed a good dance, but when it’s potentially over 30 minutes long, they couldn’t buy a punch if Pat Sajak was asking them for it, and a pepper shaker of fists was being flung their way in return, you could envision the concern.

Calderon proceeded to slip and slide his way through the ranks, handing out lesson after lesson in ring generalship, eventually earning a shot at a portion of the championship in his 16th fight against Nicaraguan, Eduardo Ray Marquez. The ensuing display was little more than a game of cat and mouse, only this cat from Central America didn’t have the speed, swatting power, or hunting experience to efficiently track down his prey. Calderon looked like a southpaw Willie Pep in there at times, spinning, strafing, and countering his way through five rounds. In the 6th, with Marquez giving chase, Ivan connected with a hook inside of a telegraphed right hand, ducked Marquez’s follow up left hook, repositioned himself, stepped forward, let loose with a stinging left, and then let rip with an accurate right hook-straight left combination which sent the titleholder reeling into the bottom rope—a gorgeous sequence. Marquez arose, but proceeded to finish the fight answerless.

Lack of offensive effectiveness from opposition extended to Calderon’s next nineteen bouts, all but one of which were title fights (the only one that was not was the scheduled contest with Edgar Cardenas who came in three pounds too heavy). His pinnacle may have well come in back-to-back bouts against Daniel Reyes and Isaac Bustos, both belt-wearers at one time. He pitched shutouts on 4 of the 6 judges’ cards and seemed to master every facet of his game: the jab popped crisply; the hand-speed was incontestable; the incremental steps which setup both offense and defense threw off his foes’ alignment; he appeared indefatigable; and the punch detector was cranked to its highest setting. He was in “the zone”.

(I imagine others would label the first Cazares fight as his best, and I can see why. When stationary, Calderon got himself in trouble against the hard-charging Mexican, even touching the canvass in round eight. But when the five-foot-nothing lefty decided to put the moves on, he made Cazares look the fool. Regardless of what your choice performance was, Calderon proved unbeatable at his best.)

“Iron Boy’s” footwork was the most essential element of his game. It was always a perpetual game of catchup for the men who opposed him, as he positioned and repositioned himself in ways that were largely unpursuable. He rarely made his lines of retreat obvious. Sometimes he would glide left, sometimes he would glide right, or sometimes he would simply back out or in. It allowed him a unique distinction: the ability to outbox everyone from the outside as the shorter man. To add further confusion to the mix, the shifty small-man would feint down an avenue with his torso, only to feint again or retreat in the opposite direction. Other times he would bounce in both directions until an aggressor made his move and then he would react and place himself propitiously. There was no hiccup in his steps either. Nothing in his motion looked labored or forced.

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Unfortunately, legs are quicker to give out than most other tools in a pugilist’s arsenal and things seem to decay at a faster pace for smaller prizefighters. So at 35 years of age and sporting a record of 34-0-1, the long-term belt-holder finally met his match in Mexican slugger, Giovani Segura, twice. At this juncture, Calderon could no longer outpace men like he used to, relying instead on smart footwork. And he did well in spots, stepping neatly out of range or ducking Segura’s big hooks in some instances, but on both accounts he could not hold the waves of attacks at bay and eventually found himself unable to continue (To Calderon’s credit, the first bout was named Ring Magazine’s 2010 Fight of the Year; not too shabby for a pure boxer). From there he managed a split decision over low-ranking Felipe Rivas and a knockout loss to Moises Fuentes in a last-ditch effort to regain his old glory.

Seeing the writing on the wall, Calderon announced his retirement in his hometown of Guaynabo, Puerto Rico and gave some parting words:

“This was difficult because (boxing is) something I love, but I want to say that I’m doing this not because I’m old or tired. I’m doing this because I want to work with the kids and youth, bringing them my knowledge and tips. I want to be an example for all my fellow boxers that when it is time (to retire) it is time, no matter if we are rich or poor. The health is what matters. I want to thank all (the fans).”

Puerto Rico and the boxing world benefitted from a cerebral and sure-footed man imparting his wisdom and skill upon would-be conquerors, and the youth he works with will, too.

Calderon is an often-ignored addition, but he belongs in the pantheon of greats—etched face on the side of the mythical Mount Rushmore of Defensive Demigods.

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