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April 25, 2010

WBC Super Middleweight Title/Super Six World Boxing Classic: Carl Froch vs Mikkel Kessler

by Matt O'Brien

The second stage of the fantastic Super Six World Boxing Classic tournament continues this weekend in Herning, Denmark. So, for that matter, does Showtime TV’s fantastic run of genuine 50/50 match-ups, in a tournament that so far is shaping up to be just about the best idea since sliced bread. Carl ‘The Cobra’ Froch travels across the channel with his WBC super middleweight title to fight ‘The Viking Warrior’ Mikkel Kessler, in what merits description as a true pick’em fight – as insiders in the boxing business like to call them – despite Kessler officially starting as a slight favourite with the bookmakers.

In a recent poll in British boxing magazine Boxing Monthly, twenty-one out of thirty-nine industry insiders picked the Englishman to win, with nineteen picking the Dane. A similar poll recently released on boxing website, had nine writers choosing ‘The Viking’, compared to four siding with ‘The Cobra’. Read the predictions though and one thing becomes clear: hardly anyone picks their man with any kind of certainty. This really is a fight in which either man could feasibly end up having his hand raised in victory.

For the Dane, Kessler (42-2, 32 K.O’s), much more than a WBC title and points that may earn him a place in the tournament’s latter stages are at stake in this fight: it is a fight that in Kessler’s own words, “my whole career will be judged upon”. In 2007, after amassing a tally of thirty-nine victories against  no defeats, unifying the WBA and WBC titles along the way, Kessler was largely regarded as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet and a serious claimant to then WBO/IBF champion Joe Calzaghe’s status as super middleweight’s numero uno. Fast forward three years though and Kessler now has a second defeat on his record to go alongside the one he received in his twelve round points loss to Joe Calzaghe when they eventually met to decide the division’s undisputed king. It is the second defeat, rather than the one administered by Britain’s Calzaghe – when the Dane put up a valiant losing effort – which lands him in his current do or die predicament.

After bouncing back from the Calzaghe loss with three wins (all by knockout) regaining his old WBA title in the process, The Viking Warrior entered Showtime’s inaugural tournament as favourite to take the TV company’s Boxing Classic title outright. He began the tournament not only as the most experienced fighter, but was also perceived to be the strongest and most dangerous. It was considered an exceptionally difficult break-out fight for American Andre Ward when he was drawn against Kessler in the tournament’s first group stage, fought in November of last year. It proved to be a disastrous night for the Dane though, as he was out-boxed and busted up by the American before losing a technical decision: during the eleventh round the doctor ordered that he could no longer continue due to the severity of his cuts, and the fight went to the cards with Ward taking a clear unanimous decision.

It wasn’t so much that Kessler lost that night that was the huge surprise though, it was the relative ease with which Ward was able to dominate the fight – The Viking Warrior looking demoralized and out of ideas as he failed to ever properly get into the contest. He complained afterwards of  the American’s continued head-butting tactics and the referee’s favourable interventions for the home fighter, but while there might be some truth to at least the former complaint, it’s also difficult to see how he could have done anything differently on that night to alter the fight’s outcome. With or without head-butts, Ward was simply the better boxer on the night.

Kessler has responded to the loss by making changes to his training team, and vowing to bounce-back and win the tournament with renewed dedication. He claims the defeat was the wake-up call he needed to understand and correct his own weaknesses, and says he would love to rematch Ward in the later stages of the competition. First though, Kessler’s ability to bounce back will be put to the test against Britain’s dangerous WBC world champion, Carl Froch (26-0, 20 K.O’s). Fail here, and Kessler can pretty much forget about reaching the final.

Froch is somewhat of a marmite figure in the boxing world: he has been described by some as one of the most talented fighter’s currently hailing from these shores, by others as nothing more than a “club fighter” and “not much of a boxer”. He is a confident, occasionally brash man who remains undefeated despite a very close call in his previous bout against Andre Dirrell. He’s a world champion with some significant names on his record, yet somehow there is still some lingering doubts because of the nature of his biggest victories: A lot of people scored the Dirrell fight for the American, and he was just seconds away from defeat against Jermain Taylor before he landed the honey-punch that ultimately gave him a K.O win. His style is awkward and slightly unpolished, but he can certainly bang and takes a shot as good as any.

One thing is for sure: ‘The Cobra’ did not get to twenty-six wins undefeated and win the British, Commonwealth and WBC titles by being a “club” fighter. Neither does a fighter who is “not much of a boxer” win a bronze medal at the world amateur championships. He’s no Floyd Mayweather; he may never reach the dizzying heights of former champion, fellow Brit, and bitter press rival Joe Calzaghe; and he often chooses trench-warfare over educated boxing – but there can be no doubt that Carl Froch is a world class super middleweight boxer.

In 2004 Froch fought club fighter Damon Hague, who went into the fight with a record of 23-3-1 (and hasn’t fought as a professional since). Froch blew him away in 130 seconds. Froch also went on to beat former world champion Robin Reid in five rounds, this after sparking out Irishman Brian Magee in eleven rounds: Magee won the European super middleweight title in his last fight in January. Add to that a thrilling twelve round tear-up victory against highly touted Canadian Jean Pascal to claim the WBC title in Nottingham; a dramatic come-from-behind K.O against Taylor fighting on American soil for the first time; and his close points win against Olympian Dirrell in the first stage of the Super Six Classic, and you start to appreciate the standard of the Englishman’s ability and accomplishments.

The victories over Pascal and Dirrell, though close and therefore a target for criticism in some quarters, deserve even more kudos with hindsight in my opinion: Pascal went on to win the WBC title at light-heavyweight and is currently slated to meet brilliant fellow champion Chad Dawson; while Dirrell looked spectacular in dominating Super Six feared puncher Arthur Abraham before being illegally K.O’d and winning the fight by DQ.

I have had the privilege (albeit very briefly) of training in the same amateur gym as the Nottingham fighter, at the tail end of his amateur career, and I can attest to his brilliant fighting skills and aforementioned confidence levels first hand. I remember watching him spar with another highly rated Nottingham amateur, and one boy in the gym turning to me in amazement saying, “watch these two – it’s like The Matrix or something!” It is somewhat ironic then that ten years later Froch would be out-sped and lucky to get a decision by a man going by the name of Andre ‘The Matrix’ Dirrell; and while like the boy next to me I was also  mesmerized by the speed I saw on display that day, ‘The Cobra’ is a fighter more dependent on his power shots, excellent stamina and solid set of whiskers these days.

About the time Froch was turning pro, I also vividly remember an exchange between the fighter and one of the head trainers in the gym at the time, illustrating the fighter’s inner confidence even all those years ago. As Froch walked across the gym the trainer shouted to him, “Are you gonna give me a ring then about this training or what?”, to which Carl snapped back, “You give me a ring – I’ll make you famous.” They were the words of a man who knew he was going places.

And so we arrive at the showdown with the Danish Viking Warrior – only this time it will be the English seeking to wreak havoc on Scandinavian soil, in front of an expected huge and fiercely passionate home audience. Although Froch is also a hugely popular fighter in his home city of Nottingham, there is some doubt as to the number of Froch faithful that will make the journey over, due to the recent flight cancellations in Europe resulting from Icelandic-volcanic ash clouds. For his part, Froch says simply that, “he may enter the ring with 20 Vikings with swords, but before the first bell rings they have to climb out. Then he’s on his own”.

Can Froch pull out the victory? I am not so sure. I am a huge fan of the Danish man; his solid, fundamentally strong style and his valiant showing in the defeat to Calzaghe – as well as his admirable attitude outside of the ring – have made him one of my favourite fighters in the sport in recent years. I was as surprised as anyone that he lost in his last outing against Ward, and without wanting to take anything away from the American’s excellent showing, I think there is merit in the view that Kessler underperformed that night. For whatever reason, he just didn’t appear to be mentally at the races. Should a more focused, back-to-form Kessler show up on Saturday night, he should have the technical tools and tenacity to claim victory.

While I respect the champion Froch’s skills and believe his achievements have been largely underrated by the press – particularly Stateside – he does not have the same slippery boxing skills that allowed Calzaghe and Ward to confuse Kessler and nullify his technically sound and powerful yet straight-ahead boxing style. ‘The Cobra’ loves nothing more than a tear-up, but against Kessler he’s meeting a man comparable in strength and punching power, with a more disciplined style that could here make the difference. The Englishman has shown a tendency to get caught flush in the past because of his insistence of fighting with his left hand dangling low by his side, and this does not bode well when you consider the damage Kessler is capable of inflicting with his favoured right-hand. The ramrod jab of the Dane might also find a home on Froch’s face if the Englishman neglects his own jab, as he is also guilty of doing at times.

I expect Froch though to also give the Dane some problems with his whipping punches from awkward angles coupled with his raw determination and grit, in what will likely be a fight of the year candidate. And while there is no outcome in this fight that would entirely surprise me – especially after what we have seen so far in the Super Six tournament – I think the more solid fundamentals of Kessler along with his ability to match the champion’s strength, should allow him to prevail.

One or both fighters will likely end the fight looking like they have been the proverbial twelve rounds with Mike Tyson, and I envisage both men having the courage and resistance to stay in the contest for its full duration. Fighting at home and inspired both by his raucous fans and a burning desire to keep his career alive following the Ward loss, I am predicting the Danish man to claim an exceptionally hard fought points victory, possibly even a split decision.

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