By Matthew O’Brien
“Are you gonna give me a ring about this training then or what?” called out the coach, across the noisy gym through the swinging bags.
“You give me a ring – and I’ll make you famous” shot back the fighter, over his shoulder as he strolled nonchalantly by, without breaking a step.
It was 2001. The boxing club was Nottingham’s Phoenix ABC; the trainer was Dale McPhilbin, and the fighter was Carl Froch. He was about to turn professional.
There was certainly an element of banter evident between trainer and fighter, but there was an unmistakable element of spite there, too. The message was terse, and clear: I’m the one going places. I don’t need to call you. It was, perhaps, indicative of the self-belief that has carried him to thirty professional victories and two super-middleweight world title belts.
As the quiet teenager in the corner that barely spoke to anyone (or anyone spoke to), I doubt very much either of them would recall my presence on that day – or even remember it happening. But I remember it well. The brief exchange always stuck in my mind, because even though Froch was yet to lace his gloves as a pro, there was a buzz around him, and his presence commanded respect whenever he walked through the gym. When a guy like Carl spoke, I listened.
Another memory that remains clear in my mind was when Nottingham IBO welterweight champion Jawaid Khaliq popped into the gym to show-off his IBO world title belt to all the youngsters. “That’s what I want – one of them” barked Froch, motioning towards the belt. You could tell he meant it. There was a kind of irritable impatience in his voice, like he was late for an appointment. Jawaid was somewhere he was supposed to be.
Twelve years, thirty-two pro bouts and nine world title fights later, Froch goes into the May 25 unification showdown with ‘the Viking Warrior’ Mikkel Kessler with arguably one of the most impressive résumé’s in British boxing history.
After moving up into true world class in December 2008, Froch embarked on probably one of the most gruelling back-to-back title fight runs of the modern era. Jean Pascal, Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Glenn Johnson, Andre Ward, Lucien Bute: Eight fights, five of which were conducted on foreign soil. Three ‘fight of the year’ candidates, with two spectacular contenders for knockout of the year. A Super Six World Boxing Classic final and super-middleweight unification fight against an Olympic gold medallist; every single contest against a current, former or future world title holder – with the exception of Dirrell, who was nevertheless an undefeated, Olympic bronze medallist. Taking out Glenn Johnson’s deceptively unflattering 51-14-2 record from the equation, the other seven opponents had a combined record of 194 wins against just 5 losses. Four of the opponents were undefeated going into the fight. Three times Froch was a significant betting underdog. Six times Froch prevailed. The two defeats that came were by narrow, hard fought decisions. Respect, for Froch, was earned the hard way.
And so, after allowing himself the luxury of a relatively “easy” defence of his IBF title in November last year against Yusaf Mack, Froch moves again to Kessler – and the promise of revenge. Losing out to Kessler in a razor-thin battle of attrition in Denmark in 2010, this time the Englishman gets home advantage at London’s O2 Arena. Some say it may be the difference in the outcome of the fight; others say there is nothing to split the men, and that the contest is a true 50/50, “pick’em” fight. Yet, for all the talk of this being an “evenly matched” contest, when pressed to pick a man, the general consensus seems firmly with the Cobra. In a recent survey conducted by British boxing magazine Boxing Monthly, for example, incredibly the vote was a white-wash for Froch, with all fifteen “industry experts” polled picking the Nottingham hero. In a recent round-table discussion on Sky Sports, former super-middleweight champions Joe Calzaghe, Roy Jones Junior, Richie Woodhall, Steve Collins and Chris Eubank all unanimously went for a Froch win. UK’s Sky Bet currently have the English IBF champion listed as an 8/15 favourite, with the Danish WBA ‘regular’ champion at odds of 13/8. Not exactly a “pick’em” fight then, in the true sense of the word – but still widely regarded as a fiercely competitive match-up.
The odds, and the general industry consensus in the direction of Froch, are largely a result of the Briton’s home advantage and his relatively active, demanding schedule since the last meeting with Kessler. Whereas Froch was able to rebound from the Kessler defeat in 2010 with a career-best performance – confounding the critics to outscore the favoured Armenian Arthur Abraham – Kessler was forced to pull out of the Super Six World Boxing Classic with a career-threatening eye injury, and was side-lined from the sport for fourteen long months. Froch then mixed it with pound-for-pound elite fighter Andre Ward, losing a narrow points decision, and smashed highly ranked Lucien Bute to pieces in five rounds, before clinically dispatching American Yusaf Mack in three. Kessler, meanwhile, returned to action in June 2011, scoring three consecutive stoppage wins against the unheralded Mehdi Bouadla (TKO 6), American banger Allan Green (KO 4) and Irishman Brian Magee (KO 3).
Kessler has therefore fought far less rounds than Froch since their last meeting (thirteen in total compared to forty-four), and all against a far lower level of opposition. Considering the long period of inactivity, the serious injuries, the paucity of ring time, and the fact that he was forced to peel himself off the canvas in the first round of the Green fight, the intervening years, at first glance, don’t look to have been as kind to the Dane.
There is a danger though that this view does not tell the whole story. It is true that Kessler has spent less time in the ring per fight and therefore didn’t benefit from the requisite activity this would have afforded him, but of course, this also means that he has needed less time in the ring because he has been more destructive. And while Froch has undoubtedly conducted his post-Kessler career against a much stiffer level of opposition, this also means that he has suffered more wear and tear. There are only so many wars of attrition a boxer can negotiate before it begins to take a toll on his body. The inactivity, in many ways, may well have been a blessing for Kessler at this stage of his career – giving his body some much needed rest and recuperation.
Recent activity might not be quite as big an advantage for Froch as many people suppose then. However, there is another factor that turns the odds more decisively in the Englishman’s favour, I think. Often, it is the fighter who has the ability to adjust his style that comes out on top in a rematch (see the recent Rios-Alvarado fight as a case in point). Froch has shown just such ability against Abraham, proving he is capable of being much more than simply a blood and guts warrior by out-jabbing, out-maneuvering and completely out-boxing ‘King Arthur’. It was a performance many so-called experts thought Froch lacked the tactical and stylistic nuance to execute. Between two men who are so evenly matched in terms of strength and guile, this kind of tactical refinement can make all the difference in the outcome of a fight.
Kessler, meanwhile, has never demonstrated the ability to adapt his style according to the circumstances facing him, and has consequently suffered in huge fights – being out-boxed by the superior strategy of Joe Calzaghe back in 2007, and again by Andre Ward in 2009. The Danish man’s solid fundamental skills could therefore prove his downfall here: technically, he does everything very well, but he does nothing surprising. Carl, on the other hand, has shown us that he has more than one way to fight. Admittedly, he cannot box to the same slick standard of the Welsh wizard Calzaghe, or even the awkward American Ward – but he might not need to. A far more subtle adjustment, I suspect, will be sufficient in this instance.
One final tale from my time at the Phoenix ABC may in fact provide some insight into this often under-appreciated facet of Froch’s game.
The only time Carl ever spoke to me in the gym was one quiet evening he was taking charge of the class, showing us a few drills on the bags. The combination he showed me was a fairly unusual one, in the sense that it wasn’t typically taught as a standard move: a simple one-two, then a short step to the right, followed by another left-right – only this time hooking, instead of throwing the shots straight. It was unusual because, as an orthodox fighter, I’d rarely been encouraged to through the right hand as a hook. The emphasis, in English amateur boxing, is all about crisp, clean, straight shots – just like Mikkel Kessler throws them.
“It’s all about giving them angles, getting off that centre line” were Carl’s words of advice to me. I focused, got my game face on, and threw the combination a couple of times. He watched, nodded slightly, lips turned down in the “not bad” gesture, didn’t say another word, and moved on to the next guy. I took that as a good sign, but was absolutely dying to ask for more feedback. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t pluck up the courage. Like I said, I didn’t speak much to anyone. I was just a quiet kid with a dream, in awe of a future world champion.
The incident, I’m sure, is far less poignant in the Cobra’s mind than my own. It does though give a clue as to what could be the deciding factor going into the rematch with Kessler: The warrior in Froch, we know, will ensure that he “slugs it out” at some point during the fight. If he can pick the spots when to do this though, and attempt to befuddle Kessler at times by disengaging and using his superior versatility – giving the Dane more angles, stepping off that centre line, and boxing as well as banging – he can bag enough clear rounds to make it easier for himself on the scorecards, and potentially even create the openings to lay some serious hurt on the Dane and score a stoppage.
In their previous encounter, I had picked Kessler’s solid technique to overcome Froch’s more unconventional style. However, while the Dane may well have benefitted from some much needed R&R since their last meeting, he does not seem to have improved as a boxer – whereas Froch has learned from his defeats, evolved as a fighter and grown into his role as a world champion. With the Viking Warrior’s career effectively on the line, his battle-hardened determination and world-class heart should see him through to the end of the fight, but the pre-fight odds will likely be justified with a convincing points victory for the local man, in my opinion.
As for the quiet kid with a dream? Well, he’ll be able to tell his grand kids a story one day about the time he learnt a move or two from one of British boxing’s finest champions.