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February 18, 2017

Britain & Ireland’s Super Six

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was published on on February 13th, 2017:

Since being established by the major sanctioning bodies in the mid-1980s, the super middleweight division has produced some classic contests. I was fortunate enough to be growing into an avid boxing fan in the midst of the division’s heyday for British & Irish boxing, during a wonderful era in the 1990s. James DeGale didn’t quite manage to emerge victorious in his recent IBF/WBC unification fight against Badou Jack, but he nevertheless earned a rightful place in the discussion alongside Britain and Ireland’s best 168lb fighters. Looking at each man’s achievements in the sport, as well as why they earned a special place in my heart as a boxing fan, here’s my personal Super Six:

  1. Joe Calzaghe

Career Record: 46-0 (32 KOs), 24-0 (11 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: WBO (October 1997-September 2008, 21 defences); IBF (March 2005-November 2006, 1 defence); The Ring & Lineal Champion (March 2006-September 2008, 3 defences); WBC & WBA “super” (November 2007, 0 defences).

Other Achievements: The Ring 175lbs Champion (April 2008-February 2009, 1 defence); 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; winner of all four major 168lb title belts; British 168lb champion; 2014 Boxing Hall of Fame inductee.

Significant Opponents: Chris Eubank (W UD 12); Robin Reid (W SD 12); Richie Woodhall (W TKO 10); Charles Brewer (W UD 12); Byron Mitchell (W TKO 2); Jeff Lacy (W UD 12); Mikkel Kessler (W UD 12); Bernard Hopkins (W SD 12); Roy Jones Jnr. (W UD 12).

Calzaghe was not to everyone’s taste and there were some prolonged periods of frustration over his 11-year tenure as a champion. Too many observers have allowed this frustration to cloud their judgment as to the Welshman’s true capabilities, though. Not for me. From the first time I saw him – flooring Chris Eubank seconds into their contest and then grinding out a brilliant, hard-fought victory – right to the end of his career, I was a believer.

The “Pride of Wales” brought a furious work rate to the ring and he could brawl wildly when it suited him, but it was his fiery determination combined with his masterful sense of distance and timing that I appreciated the most. I loved watching Calzaghe prove the critics wrong, and few performances in a British ring have exceeded his dismantling of Jeff Lacy or his magnificent victory when outboxing Mikkel Kessler. When he was firing on all cylinders, the Welshman was an absolute joy to watch.

Verdict: Of course, it would have been more meaningful for Calzaghe to face the likes of Hopkins and Jones earlier on and it was unfortunate that the Collins fight fell through, but you just can’t argue with his record: when the chips were down and the big fights finally came along, he rose to the occasion and proved beyond doubt his skills could defeat the very best of the best.

  1. Carl Froch

Career Record: 33-2 (24 KOs), 10-2 (5 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: 2 x WBC (December 2008-April 2010, 2 defences & November 2010-December 2011, 1 defence); IBF (May 2012-February 2015, 4 defences); WBA “regular” (May 2013-May 2015, 2 defences – Andre Ward held the WBA “super” title during this period).

Other Achievements: Super Six World Boxing Classic, tournament runner-up (2011); claimed 3 of the major 168lb title belts; unified IBF/WBA titles; world amateur bronze medalist; English, British & Commonwealth 168lb champion.

Significant Opponents: Brian Magee (W KO 11); Robin Reid (W RTD 5); Jean Pascal (W UD 12); Jermain Taylor (W TKO 12); Andre Dirrell (W SD 12); Mikkel Kessler (L UD 12 & W UD 12); Arthur Abraham (W UD 12); Glen Johnson (W MD 12); Andre Ward (L UD 12); Lucian Bute (W TKO 5); George Groves (W TKO 9 & W KO 8).

No British fighter in living memory has fought a more demanding series of back-to-back match ups than “The Cobra” did. Indeed, few fighters worldwide competed at such a consistent level as the Nottingham warrior. Not only did Froch fight the best, most of the time he beat them, too – in style. A brutal, bruising struggle in front of his home crowd against Pascal kicked off his memorable run of fights, followed by a Hollywood come-from-behind KO victory with seconds to spare after climbing off the canvas in his first trip to America, vs. Jermain Taylor.

Although he suffered defeats to Kessler and Ward, Froch’s granite chin and one-punch knockout power guaranteed to entertain the fans while posing a formidable obstacle for his opponents. He also proved he had vastly underrated skills, confounding the critics against the favoured “King” Arthur Abraham with a wonderful, disciplined display of boxing, and then blasting out IBF champ Bute and avenging the loss to Kessler in more familiar bombs away fashion.

Verdict: A tough as nails fighter who put it all on the line, every time out. What’s not to like? Carl Froch vs. Collins, Benn or Eubank are mouth-watering mythical match-ups – the kind of fights you’d have to “put your kids to bed early” for, as Ricky Hatton used to say. And while you could conceivably pick him to beat anyone listed here, his losses to Ward and Kessler indicate that his overall level was just a notch below Welsh wizard Calzaghe, in my opinion.

  1. Steve Collins

Career Record: 36-3 (21 KOs), 9-2 (5 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: WBO (March 1995-October 1997, 7 defences).

Other Achievements: WBO 160lbs Champion (May 1994-March 1995, 0 defences); 2 x WBA 160lbs title challenger; Irish and USBA 160lbs champion.

Significant Opponents: Mike McCallum (L UD 12); Reggie Johnson (L MD 12); Sumbu Kalambay (L UD 12); Chris Pyatt (W TKO 5); Chris Eubank (W UD 12 & W SD 12); Nigel Benn (W TKO 4 & W RTD 6).

For me, the “Celtic Warrior” embodied everything there is to like about a fighter: a rugged brawler with an unflappable determination, he was also an underrated ring technician, articulate and clever in his preparations and rarely in a dull fight. He was also part of one of British & Irish boxing’s most historic nights, defeating long-reigning champion Chris Eubank in front of a raucous Irish crowd on St. Patrick’s weekend. Collins fooled the world with some fantastic pre-fight psychological warfare, convincing the flamboyant champion that he’d been hypnotized into a fearless fighting machine impervious to pain. “I’m not just the best Irish fighter ever, I’m the best pound for pound fighter in the world,” insisted the cocksure Irishman, after claiming a memorable points victory.

Collins cemented local bragging rights with two stoppage victories over the other British legend of the era, Nigel Benn, but a mooted mega-bout with American star Roy Jones Jnr. never came to fruition. Frustrated with his inability to coax Jones into the ring and lacking motivation for anything less, Collins withdrew from a scheduled defence against a young Joe Calzaghe, in a potentially fascinating crossroads fight. Depending on your point of view, it’s a match that could’ve either helped catapult Calzaghe to the top or else solidify the Irishman’s greatness.

Verdict: In my time as a boxing fan, the Roy Jones-Collins match not getting made is probably my single biggest disappointment. The “Celtic Warrior” might not have won, but it would’ve been great fun to see him try. Unfortunately, the lack of a big-name American opponent on his 168lb résumé prevents a higher spot here.

  1. Chris Eubank

Career Record: 45-5-2 (23 KOs), 17-5-2 (5 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: WBO (September 1991-March 1995, 14 defences).

Other Achievements: WBO 160lbs Champion (November 1990-June 1991, 3 defences); WBC 168lbs & 2 x WBO Cruiserweight title challenger; set records for the longest reign (4 years, 4 months) and consecutive number of defences (14) in the 168lb division.

Significant Opponents: Nigel Benn (W TKO 9 & D 12); Michael Watson (W MD 12 & TKO 12); Thulani Malinga (W SD 12); Graciano Rocchigiani (W UD 12); Steve Collins (L UD 12 & L SD 12); Joe Calzaghe (L UD 12); Carl Thompson (L UD 12 & RTD 9).

On the one hand, “Simply The Best” was a natural born entertainer who helped to inspire a golden age of British boxing. On the other, his haughty, pretentious persona invoked the ire of fans and made him the man everybody loved to hate. When all is said and done though, whether or not you were a fan of the Eubank brand there is no denying that beneath the music, the rope-vaults and the bravado was fighting mettle of the highest caliber.

A two-weight world champion who scored stoppage victories over two of his biggest rivals, Eubank had an unorthodox style, carried serious power and had a chin like a brick wall. The fact that he pushed Joe Calzaghe to his limits and was extremely competitive against cruiserweight champion Carl Thompson at the tail end of his career further bolsters the “Lord of the Manor’s” fighting credentials. A distinct lack of big-name opponents from across the pond detracts from his legacy somewhat though, and he was fortunate to hold on to his title in a few of his defences.

The Verdict: A wily, indomitable operator, Eubank’s favourable head-to-head results against domestic foes Benn and Watson strengthen his case here. For me, his warrior spirit and unique swagger made him one of the most fun fighters to watch, and he has to be given huge credit for the buzz he helped bring to British boxing.

  1. Nigel Benn

Career Record: 42-5-1 (35 KOs), 11-4-1 (8 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: WBC (October 1992-March 1996, 9 defences)

Other Achievements: WBO 160lbs Champion (April 1990-November 1990, 1 defence); Commonwealth 160lbs Champion; WBO 168lbs title challenger.

Significant Opponents: Michael Watson (L TKO 6); Doug DeWitt (W TKO 8); Iran Barkley (W TKO 1); Chris Eubank (L TKO 9 & D 12); Thulani Malinga (W PTS 10 & L SD 12); Gerald McClellan (W KO 9); Steve Collins (L TKO 4 & L RTD 6).

If this list were based purely on excitement, popularity or a combination of both, it would be tough to deny “The Dark Destroyer” a place at the very top. A surly, aggressive puncher, Benn loved a tear-up and his fights rarely failed to provide one, with thrilling, Stateside title victories over Doug DeWitt and Iran Barkley at middleweight affirming his status as one of the most exciting fighters in the sport. Like so many bangers, his power came with an element of vulnerability, though he developed a more refined boxing style later in his career and made up for a less than iron chin with a fiery, irrepressible will to win.

After losing his 160lbs belt to Eubank in one of the greatest British battles in modern history, Benn climbed to the higher weight class and claimed the WBC crown, setting up a mega unification showdown with his great archrival. Many thought Eubank was lucky to emerge with a draw, and to his credit Benn later did what both Eubank and Collins failed to do in defeating a top American fighter, though his gutsy performance was marred by the tragic circumstances of Gerald McClellan’s loss.

Verdict: Although some of his signature wins in America came at 160lbs, the same is true of his losses to Watson and Eubank. At 168lbs, his draw with Eubank and punishing battle with McClellan stand out, though the losses to Malinga and Collins – when it appeared his heart wasn’t quite in the game anymore – have to be considered. Regardless, you’d pay a kings ransom to see him fight Carl Froch, which is about the best compliment you could give a crowd-pleasing warrior like Benn.

  1. James DeGale

Career Record [to date]: 23-1-1 (14 KOs), 3-0-1 (0 KOs) in world title fights.

World Titles Won [168lbs]: IBF (May 2015-Present, 3 defences)

Other Achievements: 2008 Olympic Gold Medalist; 2006 Commonwealth Bronze Medalist; British and European 168lbs Champion; WBC 168lbs title challenger; first British fighter to capture an Olympic Gold Medal and professional world title.

Significant Opponents: George Groves (L MD 12); Andre Dirrell (W UD 12); Lucian Bute (W UD 12); Badou Jack (D 12).

The IBF champ still has a bit of work to do to overtake British/Irish legends Collins, Benn and Eubank, but if he continues to compete successfully at the level he’s at, it’s a goal within reaching distance. Falling just short of unifying the two most prestigious titles is certainly no shame, and he has to be given immense credit for demonstrating the kind of toughness and resilience that would have made his predecessors proud, when hauling himself off the canvas in that twelfth round.

DeGale’s fast, slippery, southpaw style is somewhat reminiscent of his forbearer Calzaghe, though perhaps without the same quality engine in support. And much like Nigel Benn, you also have to admire “Chunky’s” ambition and willingness to take on the best opponents away from home. With Stateside world title wins against the likes of Dirrell and Bute already on his ledger followed by the crowd-pleasing war with Badou Jack, DeGale earned a spot in the hearts and minds of UK fight fans the hard way. He now has a great platform to reach for even greater heights.

Verdict: With DeGale still holding the IBF crown and British rivals George Groves and Callum Smith both preparing for world title opportunities, it’s entirely possible that we could be entering a new Golden Age for this island’s 168lb tradition. If the right fights get made, any one of those fighters have the potential to force their way up this list in a few years’ time.

Honourable Mentions (in no particular order):

George Groves – The Englishman has fallen short three times already at world title level, though he holds a victory over his old amateur rival DeGale and came mightily close to defeating Carl Froch in their first encounter.

Richie Woodhall – After claiming a bronze medal in the 1988 Olympics when losing to future great Roy Jones, Woodhall had an excellent pro career, capturing Nigel Benn’s old WBC title from Sugar Boy Malinga and making two defences. He lost the belt to Markus Beyer, but later fought well in losing by tenth round TKO to Calzaghe.

Glenn Catley – After being on the wrong end of a decision against WBC champ Richie Woodhall, the Bristol man battled on and eventually claimed a memorable knockout victory to rip the same belt from Markus Beyer in Germany.

Michael Watson – Although fighting mostly as a middleweight and losing his only title bout at 168lbs in tragic circumstances to Chris Eubank, Watson’s pedigree cannot be denied: a stoppage victory over Nigel Benn at 160 and a disputed loss to Eubank proved his class.

Robin Reid – An excellent stoppage win in Italy saw Reid claim the WBC belt, and though he surrendered the title in a meek defence to Sugar Boy Malinga, he battled Joe Calzaghe to a split decision and was later denied a victory over WBA/IBF champ Sven Ottke after some disgraceful refereeing in Germany.

Brian Magee – The Northern Irishman won the lightly regarded IBO 168lbs title and made seven successful defences before losing to Robin Reid, but later claimed the British and European belts and finally won WBA (interim) world honours.


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