Who is the best ever 168lb fighter from the UK: Joe Calzaghe or Carl Froch?
This is an extended version of an article published on thesweetscience.com, on July 27th 2015: http://www.thesweetscience.com/news/articles-frontpage/21225-better-uk-168er-froch-or-calzaghe
With the recent retirement of British super middleweight Carl Froch, one topic that has received much attention is his standing among former British greats in a division that has produced some of the finest ever champions from these shores. Below I analyse the respective careers of arguably the top two British 168lb legends and give my take on who stands higher in the all-time pantheon.
After bursting on to the world scene with an impressive first title victory, long periods of frustration followed until “The Pride of Wales” finally proved the doubters wrong and cemented his place among the greats of the sport with a superb finish to the longest ever championship reign in the 168lb weight class. While it’s true that there are a number of sub-par and even downright useless opponents littered among Calzaghe’s CV, there is a tendency for people to let the disappointments obscure the many respectable victories, with the Welshman defeating a range of former champions and world class fighters in over a decade as WBO champion. Establishing himself as the premier fighter in a second weight division further enhanced the Welshman’s Hall of Fame career.
Style & Ability:
A super-fast southpaw with blurring combinations and a furious work-rate, Calzaghe had a seemingly inexhaustible engine, completing the twelve-round championship distance on thirteen occasions. He also had an excellent set of whiskers, and despite several brief visits to the canvas, never came close to being stopped in 46 contests. Fragile hands plagued his career and probably prevented more knockout victories, but he nevertheless carried serious power, with a number of former foes commenting on the deceptively hurtful effect of his so called “slaps”. Capable of boxing to a disciplined plan at long range and frustrating opponents with his speed and movement, as well as biting down on his gum shield and brawling wildly when it suited him, one of Calzaghe’s main strengths was his uncanny ability to adjust his style mid-fight and outmatch any opponent skill for skill.
Titles & Accolades:
[168lbs] British champion (1995-1996, 1 defence); WBO world champion (October 1997-September 2008, 21 defences); IBF world champion (March 2005-November 2006, 1 defence); WBC & WBA “super” world champion (November 2007, 0 defences); The Ring & lineal champion (March 2006-September 2008, 3 defences); undisputed champion (2007 following unification with Mikkel Kessler); holds the all-time records for the longest reign (10 years, 11 months) and consecutive number of title defences (21, joint with Sven Ottke) in the 168lb division
[175lbs] The Ring champion (April 2008-February 2009, 1 defence).
2014 Boxing Hall of Fame, first ballot inductee.
Five Significant Opponents:
- Chris Eubank (vacant WBO title, October 1997). The revisionist story tells us here that Calzaghe was facing a “shot” Eubank; the truth is that he was 31 years old, had lost only two razor-thin points verdicts to Irish rival Steve Collins, and was still a live opponent carrying vast championship experience and one of the best chins in boxing. Calzaghe floored Eubank in the first and then barely let the former champion take a breather over the ensuing rounds, claiming a wide, unanimous victory in a break out performance. Eubank then proved he was far from a “shot” fighter by engaging in two world-class wars with WBO cruiserweight champion Carl Thompson.
- Byron Mitchell (13th defence WBO title, June 2003). In a wild two-round brawl, Calzaghe was floored briefly for the first time in his career before blazing back and putting Mitchell to the canvas within seconds of rising to his feet. The champion then poured on flurries of punches, rocking Mitchell backwards and causing referee Dave Parris to intervene. It’s worth mentioning that Mitchell had himself been a two-time WBA 168lb champion, losing his title to IBF champ Sven Ottke three months earlier in yet another highly contentious, split points victory for the German – preventing the Calzaghe-Mitchell contest from being what should probably have been a triple unification fight.
- Jeff Lacy (18th defence WBO title/IBF unification/The Ring & lineal title, March 2006). Lacy came over to the UK as an undefeated, rival champion being heavily hyped as a monster puncher and a new “Mini Tyson”. The American began as the betting favourite, but Calzaghe absolutely ruined him – winning every second of every round in one of the finest performances ever seen in a British ring. Lacy was never the same fighter again, and Calzaghe finally forced the world to stand up and take notice – being widely recognized as a top pound-for-pound talent for the remainder of his career.
- Mikkel Kessler (21st defence WBO title/3rd defence Ring & lineal title/WBC/WBA unification, November 2007). Once again, many were predicting the Welshman’s downfall at the hands of the incredibly strong, fundamentally sound Danish double world champion – and there was indeed a good case going in that Kessler had the pedigree, style and technique to emerge victorious. In an absorbing battle between undefeated champions, the fight ebbed back and forth for the first four rounds before Calzaghe made the necessary adjustments to befuddle his opponent in a brilliant exhibition of technical boxing, winning comfortably on the cards to finally prove even the most ardent of his detractors wrong.
- Bernard Hopkins (The Ring light-heavyweight [175lb] championship, April 2008). After cementing his place as the undisputed 168lb king, Calzaghe travelled across the pond to take on pound-for-pound legend and light-heavyweight ruler Bernard Hopkins. The wily American may have been 43, but he was by no means a spent force: in his previous two outings, he’d humiliated Antonio Tarver to capture the 175lb crown and then outpointed fellow pound-for-pound entrant Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright. In a scrappy encounter, Calzaghe was floored by a counter right hand in the first round before clawing his way back to win a close split decision. It was by no means a pretty spectacle, but ultimately Calzaghe managed to get the better of one of the most difficult fighters in the sport in his own backyard, landing more punches on Hopkins than any previous opponent had ever recorded. To put the victory in context, in his next bout Hopkins dominated the much younger, undefeated American puncher Kelly Pavlik in one of his finest ever performances.
Other Notable Victories:
W12 Robin Reid (a hard-fought and arguably controversial points victory over a former WBC champion); TKO5 Omar Sheika (the boisterous American contender was coming off a quality victory over world-rated Glen Johnson, but was made to eat his bold pre-fight talk); TKO10 Richie Woodhall (an Olympic bronze medalist and former WBC champion, Woodhall was a world class operator but soundly beaten and stopped late); TKO1 & TKO6 Mario Veit (the undefeated mandatory challenger was blasted out in a round, before stringing together fifteen consecutive victories and forcing a rematch on home soil with the heavy backing of his German promoters – Calzaghe repeated the result in six); W12 Charles Brewer (former IBF champion Brewer came with ambition but lost a wide decision in an exciting battle); W12 Sakio Bika (the awkward African was unlucky to receive a technical draw against WBC champion Markus Beyer prior to facing Calzaghe and later won the same title in 2013); W12 Roy Jones Junior (the Welshman was surprisingly forced to climb off the canvas in the opening round before humiliating a vastly faded version of the best fighter of his generation at New York’s Madison Square Garden).
Ones That Got Away:
Steve Collins was scheduled to defend against Calzaghe in October 1997 before withdrawing injured at late notice and then retiring from the sport – citing a lack of “motivation” for the fight. Carl Froch chased a fight with Calzaghe towards the end of his reign, but with Froch yet to establish himself on the world-scene at that stage, Calzaghe opted instead to pursue bigger names in America at light-heavyweight. Fights with American greats Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins were mooted for much of Calzaghe’s 168lb reign, with Hopkins even agreeing terms at one point before backing out of the contest. Ultimately both fights did take place, but in the latter stages of their respective careers. A fight with long-reigning rival IBF holder Sven Ottke also should have happened, but neither champion was prepared to travel to the other’s backyard. Fights against middleweight Kelly Pavlik and light-heavyweight Antonio Tarver would also have been huge, but failed to materialize.
Perhaps no British fighter in history has ever undertaken a more challenging run of back-to-back, world-class match-ups than Carl Froch: From December 2008-May 2012, The Cobra fought eight consecutive contests of the highest caliber (Pascal-Taylor-Dirrell-Kessler-Abraham-Johnson-Ward-Bute), winning far more than he lost and earning the respect of the entire boxing community as one of the sport’s toughest warriors. He also took part in one of the biggest ever events in British boxing history, ending his career with a brutal knockout victory in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium. On the downside, despite the array of entertaining victories, he never quite managed to reach the summit of his division.
Style & Ability:
A super-strong fighter who loved a tear-up, Froch was also a world amateur bronze medalist who possessed an underrated and at times under-utilized set of boxing skills, with a ‘hands low’, unorthodox style often masking his technical know-how and effective left jab. He was also the owner of an absolute granite jaw and legitimate one-punch knockout power. The Englishman’s warrior spirit and inclination towards a straight shoot-out perhaps proving his shortcoming against more technically adept opposition, he nevertheless demonstrated he was capable of boxing to a disciplined strategy when it suited him.
Titles & Accolades:
[168lbs] English champion (2003, 0 defences), Commonwealth champion (2004-2006, 7 defences) & British champion (2004-2007, 4 defences); 2 x WBC world champion (December 2008-April 2010, 2 defences & November 2010-December 2011, 1 defence); IBF world champion (May 2012-February 2015, 4 defences); WBA “regular” world champion (May 2013-May 2015, 2 defences) [Note: Andre Ward was recognized as the WBA’s “super” world champion during this period]
“Super Six World Boxing Classic” tournament, runner-up (2011).
Five Significant Opponents:
- Jermain Taylor (1st defence WBC title, April 2009). In his first outing on American soil, Froch struggled with Taylor’s style and speed early, being floored in the 3rd round by a right hand and clearly hurt for one of the few times in his career. Behind on two of the judges’ cards going into the 12th and final round, The Cobra knocked down a badly fading Taylor before scoring a dramatic, Hollywood-style stoppage with just fifteen seconds remaining on the clock.
- Mikkel Kessler (3rd defence WBC title, April 2011 & 2nd defence IBF title/WBA unification, May 2013). In their first meeting, the teak-tough ‘Viking Warrior’ Kessler ended Froch’s first reign as WBC champion as well as taking The Cobra’s undefeated record, earning a unanimous points verdict in a brutal back-and-forth battle. There was certainly no shame in losing such a closely fought contest away from home to a proven world-class opponent, and after re-establishing himself as a world champion, Froch was able to entice the Dane over to London and return the favour – this time unanimously outpointing Kessler in yet another closely fought, outstanding war of attrition.
- Arthur Abraham (vacant WBC title, November 2010). With Mikkel Kessler forced to relinquish his title due to a career-threatening eye injury, the WBC opted to allow Froch and Abraham to contest the newly vacated belt. Abraham was considered a dangerous puncher and even went into the battle as a betting favourite, but was completely out-boxed by Froch in easily his most disciplined, polished performance. The scores of 120-108, 120-108 & 119-109 reflecting the one-sided nature of the contest and firmly re-establishing the Englishman’s world-class credentials following the defeat to Kessler.
- Andre Ward (2nd defence [2nd reign] WBC title/WBA unification, December 2011). In the final of the Super Six World Boxing Classic, Froch again hit the road and travelled to Atlantic City to meet undefeated, pound-for-pound stand out Ward. The Englishman fought bravely, and although two of the final scorecards had him losing by only two points, in reality there was never any doubt that the talented American had done more than enough to claim victory over the twelve-round distance, with Ward’s awkward style, more refined defence and superior technical skills proving a step too far.
- Lucian Bute (IBF title, May 2012). Following his fairly comprehensive defeat to Ward, Froch jumped straight back into the Lion’s Den against undefeated IBF belt holder, Bute. Making the 10th defence of his title, he came over to Nottingham as a highly regarded champion and even started as a favourite in the Englishman’s hometown. While Bute was an undefeated, long-reigning champion though, this was in large part due to the fact he had stood outside of the prestigious Super Six tournament and had not mixed in anywhere near the same level of class as his English opponent. Froch battered a shell-shocked looking Bute in a one-sided, five round beat down in one of his most impressive wins.
Other Notable Victories:
WRTD5 Robin Reid (the faded former WBC champion couldn’t hold off the younger, rising star); W12 Jean Pascal (the undefeated, world-class Canadian was unanimously beaten in a twelve round war, before going on to establish himself as a light-heavyweight champion); W12 Andre Dirrell (Olympic bronze medalist Dirrell was another undefeated, world-class opponent – though his more negative/defensive style failed to find favour with the judges, costing him a somewhat controversial split decision); W12 Glen Johnson (the 42 year-old former light-heavyweight champion was clearly past his best, but fought well in losing a majority decision); TKO9 & KO8 George Groves (Froch’s bitter domestic rival floored and hurt The Cobra in the first round of their first meeting before being controversially stopped later in the fight, but the feud was brutally and conclusively settled in Froch’s final outing).
Ones That Got Away:
Froch pestered Calzaghe to give him a title shot, but lacking the requisite name-value, couldn’t bait the Welshman into a fight. A rematch with Andre Ward and a rubber match with Mikkel Kessler would both have been interesting, but the Dane retired and Froch seemed to show a lack of interest in a second meeting with his American conqueror. Domestic rival James DeGale earned a mandatory shot at Froch’s IBF title, but – as Collins had done to Calzaghe and then Calzaghe had done to Froch years earlier – the champion cited a lack of motivation in meeting another domestic rival, and relinquished the belt instead. Light-heavyweight champions Sergey Kovalev & Adonis Stevenson would have presented an interesting test had the super middleweight elected to try for a belt in a second weight division, but Froch had always said he was comfortable at the 168lb limit. Perhaps the most mouth-watering match-up of all though would have been with middleweight monster Gennady Golovkin. The undefeated and much feared Kazakhstan champion called out Froch through the media, but despite early signs a deal might be made, the 38 year-old Englishman decided to retire instead.
The Final Verdict
Success in boxing is all about levels. And it seems to me that there is often a tendency to conflate respect for the Nottingham hero’s warrior spirit and formidable series of match-ups with the level of his actual success in the ring; whereas with Calzaghe the reverse is true, and many observers tend to let the disappointing periods during his career detract from the magnitude of his final accomplishments. So while there is certainly no argument here that Froch indeed faced a more consistent level of challenging opposition, we should remember that just because a fighter consistently fights the best, that does not automatically make him the best. (If it did, Oscar De La Hoya would probably be the greatest fighter of all time). Ultimately, there is a reason that a younger, more dangerous version of Mikkel Kessler was handily beaten by Calzaghe but the older, more shopworn version was able to defeat Carl Froch; and there is a reason Calzaghe reached the absolute pinnacle of the super middleweight division, while Froch never did. The reason is that he was not quite able to compete successfully at the same level.
Had these two fine champions met in the ring, the evidence suggests that Calzaghe’s greater speed and more refined boxing technique would probably have won the day. That being said, the theoretical victor in a meeting between the pair is not really the main issue here. “Mythical” match-ups are of course fun to debate, but based as they are on pure conjecture, they do not form the primary basis for assessing a fighter’s overall achievements. Looking at what they actually did, rather than what they might have done had they faced off in the ring, the only conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that Calzaghe comfortably surpasses The Cobra in terms of his overall level of success.
That conclusion should not be construed as denigrating the career of Carl Froch. He is undoubtedly one of the finest champions Britain has ever produced. Ultimately though, it was Calzaghe who scaled the greatest heights: becoming the undisputed, consensus No.1 in his weight class; defeating fellow pound-for-pound entrants and Hall of Fame legends; emerging victorious in his most significant, defining contests; becoming a two-division champion and being regarded as a top three pound-for-pound talent for a sustained period of time, on both sides of the Atlantic. The Cobra’s CV, while outstanding, simply falls a notch below these accomplishments.