Inked in black across the tanned brown of Joe Cordina’s left shoulder are the words of Isaiah 41:10. It is a biblical passage close to the Welshman’s heart, in more than one sense.
“My parents are both Catholic, I was baptised at 10 or 11, but over the last 10 years, I’ve started properly getting into my religion.” The super-featherweight champion, now 31, is speaking softly as he endures his ongoing weight-cut, while voices buzz all around him in a tall, ornate, busy room in the centre of Monte Carlo. “Look at it,” he says, tilting back his head to motion to the ceiling. “It’s great. I don’t know if it’s real gold, but it looks the part. I’m soaking it all up.”
Real or not, gold surrounds Cordina. There is even some draped on his shoulder – the one without his Isaiah tattoo – as he holds the IBF belt that he will defend against Edward Vazquez on Saturday, just around the corner at the Casino de Monte Carlo. Four years ago, Cordina opened a fight card in the same room. This time, he headlines. But as proud as the unbeaten boxer is of that achievement, his pride in his faith takes priority.
“One day I was in Hungary with [light-heavyweight boxer] Josh Buatsi, and I had my Bible by my bed. I used to carry it everywhere,” he tells The Independent. “Josh said, ‘Read this.’ And I can’t really read – I don’t know whether I’m dyslexic or not, but I’ll read and it doesn’t make sense to me – so I always listen to it. He read a scripture for me, Isaiah 41:10. ‘Do not fear for I am with you; be not dismayed for I am your God; I will help you, I will strengthen you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.’ I had goosebumps. I’m getting goosebumps now, thinking about it; the hairs on the back of my neck are standing up.
“Every time before I go into the ring, I read it, knowing my Lord is always with me, and whoever opposes me will get turned into dust, basically.” The “basically” is a rather nonchalant addition to a grave warning. “I wouldn’t be able to tell you the reason [that passage stood out to me], but religion does certain things to you – and that day, it made me feel a different way. From that day on, I’ve tried to be better.”
Cordina has certainly become a better boxer, building on a promising amateur career to compile an unbeaten pro record and, in June 2022, winning the IBF title. Cordina may aspire to a place in heaven but, make no mistake, it was a right hand from hell that obliterated Kenichi Ogawa that night. Matchroom chairman Eddie Hearn tells The Independent: “When you start ticking all the boxes to be an all-round fighter ... Some people said, ‘Oh, I don’t know if he carries the power,’ then he delivers the knockout of the year.”
Cordina was denied his first title defence, five months later, after suffering a hand injury. The Welshman was stripped of his belt, but he would soon get a shot at new champion Shavkat Rakhimov, in April. “[After the Ogawa knockout], it’s, ‘Yeah, but he’s a bit of a pretty boy, isn’t he? Is he actually very tough?’” Hearn continues. “Then he fights Rakhimov in a war, in a fight of the year.” Cordina emerged a split-decision winner, making it back-to-back title triumphs in his home city of Cardiff.
“Plus, he’s got all the amateur credentials and attributes,” Hearn says. “He’s a family man, from Cardiff, man of the people, good-looking kid, carries himself well.” Frank Smith, CEO of Matchroom, agrees: “He’s a standout star from a lot of those amateurs who came through. He’s not just got the ability and skillset, he’s got the looks – which are a big part of it – and the personality to go even further than he has right now. We’ve just got to deliver him the big fights, a stadium fight.”
A stadium fight in Cardiff would ink Cordina into the pages of Welsh sporting folklore, if he is not already there. “I’m the 13th Welsh world champion. I looked at all of them before me and thought, ‘I’d love to be there,’” he says. “Now I’m one of them. You go into a gym and people go, ‘There’s Joe Cordina!’ They want photos with you.”
One of the very champions whom Cordina looked up to, Barry Jones, now looks on with pride as Cordina prepares for his first title defence. “For Cardiff, I was their last world champion, which was in 1997, so it’d been a long wait,” Jones says. “We’ve had some fantastic fighters, but they couldn’t get over the line, so when Joe challenged Ogawa and when he landed that shot – of all shots – it was one of the proudest moments of my life, I have to be honest. Boxing’s been in my life as long as I can remember, and I take joy out of my own career before anyone else’s – as we all do – but I am patriotic, especially when I have a connection, which I do with Joe through a family friend. The night Joe won a world title, I hadn’t been so happy for someone else doing so well since my other friend called Joe – Calzaghe, of course.”
As Jones acknowledges, Cordina is “pivotal for Welsh boxing at the moment”. “It went a little bit flat for a while, let’s be honest,” Jones says, “but other fighters can build off Joe and relate to him.” The 49-year-old, who held the WBO belt in Cordina’s division, also references Cordina’s faith as a reason for his relatability among a segment of fans.
And so, we come back to religion, and its importance to Cordina. “You thank God every day, whether things go right or badly,” Cordina says. “We’re always thankful when things go right, but not when they don’t go our way. Some people are afraid or embarrassed to pray when people are watching. I don’t give a s***, that’s my religion. [But] it’s not like I’m going into a fight thinking, ‘Please, God, help me’; he’s already protecting me. I’m blessed. He’s put me in this position for a reason, it’s not a fluke. I’ve trained hard, I’ve done all the work, and he’s got my back.”
Cordina derives “power” from that feeling, and also from his children. The father of three says: “As long as I’m thinking of my kids, that gives me power. I saw something the other day: ‘You do everything as though your kids don’t owe you anything.’ Even if you invest hundreds and thousands into them, they don’t owe you anything. As long as they have good morals and respect... obviously, they get to an age where they start drifting off and there’s not much you can say, but if they respect me as a father, that’s all I want.
“I said to my wife the other day when I was home: ‘At this present moment while I’m fighting – only for another two or three years – I can’t commit to you and the kids [like I want to]. I just can’t do it.’ I don’t know if it’s me feeling weak, because I go home and sit with my kids and don’t want to go back to camp, but I know that my sacrifice is going to set them up for life. But all you’re trying to do is make them better people – better than you are.
“Whether I’m a world champion or not, it doesn’t matter, as long as I did everything I could as a father.”
Still, on Saturday night, in a casino in the heart of Monte Carlo, Cordina will do everything he can to remain a world champion.