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Froch-Kessler: It doesn’t get any better

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By Graham Houston
Photo: Lawrence Lustig

Boxing doesn’t get any better than when elite fighters meet, which is what we’re getting on Saturday when Carl Froch meets Mikkel Kessler in a rematch, with the revenge angle adding extra tension to what cannot fail to be a memorable meeting. Last time the two met, in Denmark three years ago, Kessler eked out a close but unanimous decision in a thrilling contest that saw each man give and take severe punishment. This time the fight is in London, a clash of 168lbs champions (Froch defending the IBF title, Kessler the WBA’s “super world” championship), with Sky Sports televising on PPV in the UK and HBO live in the United States.

In the first fight, the support of the crowd might have helped to carry Kessler through some of the stormier passages. Now Froch will have the roaring encouragement of a raucous crowd at the O2 Arena.

Another variance is that last time Froch wasn’t as finely tuned physically as he would have liked to have been. Air travel in Europe was disrupted by clouds of Icelandic volcanic ash and although Froch eventually got to Denmark by private jet the uncertainty of it all, and what Froch says was a break from dietary discipline, led to the British fighter entering the ring not at his peak mentally or physically. (This is Froch’s story anyway, and we see no reason to doubt him.)

Although Kessler got the decision in the first fight, he probably took the greater damage, and indeed he withdrew from the Showtime Super Six tournament, under which format the first fight took place, citing an injury to his left eye. A weakness in the muscle of his eye was diagnosed. (Kessler suffered a cut over the left eye in the Froch fight and he was cut over both eyes when he lost to Andre Ward in his last fight before meeting Froch.)

A 14-month break from boxing while his eye healed has no doubt been beneficial to Kessler, who has stopped three opponents in a row since his return to the ring. However, the heavy knockdown he suffered in the opening round against Allan Green does make one wonder if Kessler’s durability might be diminished, even though he fought back strongly and eventually flattened Green with a left hook in the fourth round.

Kessler was impressive in blowing away Brian Magee in three rounds in his last fight, but the Irish veteran caved in easily from body punches.

Froch has fought five times since losing to Kessler, which includes the two greatest wins of his career — the one-sided victory on points over Arthur Abraham and his fifth-round destruction of Lucian Bute. It now seems ridiculous that both Abraham and Bute were betting favourites against Froch.

In his last fight, Froch had a rare easy night, blasting a terrified-looking Yusaf Mack out of the fight in three rounds. Froch sounds almost matter of fact when he says that while he respects Kessler, the Danish fighter “doesn’t stand a chance”. Kessler, meanwhile, says he feels refreshed, healthy and even stronger after his layoff and is ready to beat Froch again.

For Kessler, this is the second time he is appearing in a championship unification match in the U.K., having been outpointed by Joe Calzaghe in Cardiff in 2007.

Calzaghe has come out with an endorsement for Froch to win the fight. “I don’t think Kessler is the fighter he was when I beat him,” Calzaghe told Sky Sports News. “He’s become a lot slower on his feet.”

When Kessler beat Froch in Denmark the scores, ranging from 117-111 to 115-113, didn’t reflect the intensity of the contest. The judges were divided in six of the 12 rounds, but in “consensus” scoring (where at least two judges agree on which boxer won the round), Kessler came out ahead by a score of 116-112. Froch won only one round unanimously, which was the fifth.

It seemed, though, that each man was hurting the other in almost every round. The 11th round was typical of the back-and-forth action, with Froch under heavy pressure for most of the round but then rallying to land some big punches — two of the judges had Kessler winning the round, and it was one of several rounds that could easily have been given to either man.

With Froch’s born-to-win type of mentality, any defeat is going to be hard to take — while no fighter likes to lose, it seems particularly difficult for Froch to admit that the other fighter got the better of him. To his credit Froch has never actually disputed the decision in the Kessler contest, acknowledging that in a close fight it is possible for either man to get the verdict. In his heart, though, you can feel sure that Froch believes he did enough to beat Kessler. One senses that this time Froch means to leave no doubt.

“I’m going to be sending in big shots like I did against Bute early on,” Froch told reporters on a conference call last week. In the first fight, Froch said he was “flat-footed and tired — I was letting him throw the right hand to the body”. The rematch, Froch said, “is going to be totally different … He’s going to be shocked. People are going to be shocked.”

At 35, Froch is a year older than Kessler, but it is the Danish boxer who somehow seems the more battle-worn. In the first fight, Kessler did seem to buckle Froch’s knees a bit with a right hand in the eighth round, but all through the fight I was thinking that Froch looked the more dangerous of the two men; I thought that it took a huge effort of will for Kessler to win that fight.

The styles of the fighters blend perfectly to ensure the type of fight that will produce excitement. Kessler is more of the classical stylist, with an excellent left jab and straight right, and he is very good at driving the right hand quickly and powerfully to the body, which is how he did for Magee.

Froch, with his hands low, is much more of an instinctive type of fighter, looking to shoot out the “up” jab (from the left-hand-low position), always poised to unleash sudden and powerful hooks and right hands which, in an age when every fighter gives himself a nickname no matter how absurd or inappropriate, makes Froch’s “Cobra” moniker an apt one.

I thought that, in the first fight, each man gave and took the sort of blows that would likely have stopped other boxers. Kessler just seemed that little more consistent — and insistent.

Froch, I believe, can improve on his performance from the first fight, but I’m not sure that Kessler can lift his level of fighting any higher than he did in Denmark. The crowd’s support seemed to lift Kessler in Denmark — this time it is Froch who will have the crowd behind him.

Kessler is an outstanding fighter, technically solid, brave and powerful, but Froch seems to have the greater versatility. Although Andre Ward seemed to beat Froch clearly in Atlantic City, the fact is that two of the judges had this fight scored very closely, 115-113. Ward’s trainer, Virgil Hunter, told me in a phone conversation after the bout that he has never been as concerned in an Andre Ward fight as he was when Ward fought Froch.

Froch is capable of putting mental as well as physical pressure on his opponents. We think of Jermain Taylor running out of steam against Froch, but the reality is that Taylor was worn down not only by the heavy punches that he took but also by the mental strain of having to box a perfect, fast-paced, up-tempo fight in every round against an implacable opponent who just wouldn’t let him rest.

Some people will no doubt say that it is an illusion that a boxer gets stronger as a fight progresses, but Froch was gathering momentum with each passing round in the fight with Taylor, and there was a very clear impression of one man’s physical prowess increasing and the other man’s decreasing.

This is a problem that Kessler will face in the rematch. Unless he can damage Froch early and take some of the fight out of him, Froch will be right with Kessler from bell to bell, round after round, in the sort of fight that taxes the spirit and soul of a fighter.

In Denmark, the crowd seemed to rally Kessler when the Viking Warrior showed signs of faltering. In London, the crowd will be cheering every time Froch lands a scoring blow.

We’ve seen so many times how a fighter can seem to ride the wave of a crowd’s support, and I think we are likely to see it again on Saturday.

Froch has, I believe, grown as a fighter since the first fight with Kessler. His former manager, Mick Hennessy, used to tell me that Froch had more talent than people realised, that they just hadn’t seen it yet. I believe we saw that talent emerge when Froch defeated Arthur Abraham. Froch boxed beautifully that night in Helsinki. Froch, I noted at the time, made Abraham look like a novice. He controlled the fight with the jab and combinations and he had Abraham missing clumsily.

We now know what we didn’t know — or didn’t appreciate until the Abraham bout — which is that Froch has world-class skills.

Perhaps we will see more of the Froch jab in the rematch with Kessler. Froch has indicated that he was trying too hard for the knockout in the first fight. This time I’m thinking that Froch will be boxing as well as banging.

Apart from the first-round scare against Allan Green, Kessler has had it all his own way in his three fights since returning to the ring. Mehdi Bouadla, who was outclassed and stopped in six rounds, was a limited fighter without a great deal of power. Allan Green was perceived as a faded fighter with a highly suspect chin, yet Green knocked Kessler down. The three-round win over Brian Magee was obviously an excellent result, but Kessler was a massive favourite in the betting over a 37-year-old opponent who had been beaten up — and softened up — by Lucian Bute.

On Saturday, Kessler will surely be tested far more than in these three bouts.

In boxing, the unexpected can and does happen, but going by cold logic it doesn’t seem likely that either man will blast the other out of the fight quickly. So, we are most likely looking at another long, gruelling fight. In this situation, I feel that Froch has to be favoured.

I thought at the time, and I still believe, that the fight in Denmark took more out of Kessler than it did Froch.

We know that Kessler has a big heart and will never surrender, but if the rematch develops along the same unforgiving lines as the first fight I’m wondering if Kessler will be able to sustain punishment and keep coming back.

I see Froch as having improved since the first fight and I believe we will see a better, sharper version of Froch than the one we saw in Denmark. Can, though, Kessler fight any better than he did in the first fight with Froch? I just don’t think so, but in boxing you never know. Kessler is an elite-level fighter and if he wins on Saturday I won’t be gazing at my TV screen in stunned disbelief.

Nevertheless, I’m rolling with Froch in the rematch, and while on paper the fight looks a certainty to go the full 12 rounds a Froch stoppage win around the 10th or 11th round wouldn’t shock me.

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