The Viking and The Cobra: Part II
This is not meant to denigrate Kessler, but the awkward brutalization Froch has in store for him is not something he is equal to at this point in his career…
There was something meatily satisfying about the first Carl Froch-Mikkel Kessler encounter. Fought in Kessler’s native Denmark in April of 2010 and won by the blazing Dane with scores of 115-113, 116-112, 117-111 (my card read 114-114), the punches contained therein were big, thick steaks garnished with legitimate skill in a fight that, for many, was destined to decide the celebrated Super Six Boxing Classic broadcasted by Showtime between 2009 and 2011. This was not to be, the emergence of the superb talent that is Andre Ward saw to that. Ward handed each man a clear loss revealing, in the process, the weaknesses of both. Yes, Froch is technically gifted but his ability in boxing was nowhere near enough to spare him the outclassing that Ward inflicted upon him. Kessler meanwhile had his lack of variety exposed in a fight that, if anything, was even more one-sided.
Regardless of Ward’s proven superiority, there was a fierce thirst for a rematch between Kessler and Froch in the wake of the first fight and the completion of the Super Six, not least due to Froch’s insistence that he was jobbed out of the victory on foreign soil, a point of view which was shared in some corners of the boxing universe. In the main, though, it was due to that brutal give-and-take they share.
The fight was supposed to be fought along lines set down by a media still keen to embrace national stereotypes. Kessler was the robotic European who would box carefully off one of the best one-two combinations in the sport, whilst Froch was to fight like the typical English lion, all emotion and heart, bulling forwards aggressively into the oncoming fire. The two fighters dispelled these notions within three minutes of the opening bell, Froch gradually giving ground whilst swiping at Froch with a long up jab, trying to pull Kessler onto something big. Kessler meanwhile was showing a real fluidity in attack, targeting, in the main, the body, hands high in contrast to Froch’s gunslinger stance, but other than that looking less robotic than canine. In the opening rounds, the fight was about the jab, who could establish his and who could shut his opponent’s down, but there was a sense, both to the fighters and in their corners, that this could not last.
Unfortunately, Kessler had exacerbated a pre-existing eye injury in the fight and had to take a year out, and Froch was committed to the remainder of the Super-Six. The rematch that everybody wanted to see could not be made—until now.
The two meet again on the 25th of May but this time in London, England, the home country of Carl “The Cobra” Froch in front of a crowd that will likely be even more biased and vocal than the one they boxed in front of in Denmark. Kessler is no homebody and knows what he is walking into, naming boxing in Froch’s backyard a matter of “honor and respect.” Froch, for his part, is one of the game’s genuine road warriors, having fought in Finland and America since his loss in Denmark, and acknowledges that boxing away from home can be difficult, even “daunting” and is not shy about recognizing what he considers to be a considerable advantage in home soil.
“When I have the crowd behind me, I feel good,” Froch said recently in an interview with Boxing Monthly. “Against Lucian Bute I was like a man possessed. They lifted my spirits, my energy levels and made me realize why I was in there.”
So close was the first fight (Judge Roger Tilleman’s inexplicable 117-111 card notwithstanding) that any tangible benefit Froch draws from the London crowd, minus any advantage the cool-headed Dane gained in front of his own home crowd, probably would have spelt victory for the Englishman—but how likely are we to see a rerun of that original fight, and if we don’t, what are the differences likely to be this time around?
Carl Froch (30-2) is in the midst of what is now quite clearly the most celebrated run in boxing. Yusaf Mack, who looked like he wanted to be anywhere else in the world other than in the ring with Froch the last time “The Cobra” stepped out for pay, represents a break from the world class that runs all the way back to December of 2008, when Froch out-toughed Jean Pascal, who was then soon to be the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell, Kessler, Arthur Abraham, Glen Johnson, Ward and Lucian Bute were the men who filled out his schedule in the intervening years. The Abraham and Bute fights are the most instructive of these. Against Abraham, Froch boxed a shutout, perfecting a version of the style he used against Kessler (46-2). Against Bute, he trapped lightning in a bottle and achieved a brutal peak that is enough to convince many that Froch’s schedule in the interim between the two Kessler fights has improved rather than worn the Englishman. I hesitate where this conclusion is concerned because of Bute’s absolute lack of resistance; yes Carl looked electric, but Kessler is a different kind of animal. He has already swallowed the biggest of Froch bombs. He will not crumble under a single blow.
Nevertheless, the intervening years have not been kind to Kessler. He looked reasonably sharp beating up Brian Magee last August, but had looked ragged seven months before against Allan Green, who he nevertheless absolutely decapitated with a picture-perfect left hook that, should he land it on Froch, will have a notable effect. A sense has developed that perhaps Kessler has faded, and that a combination of power and professionalism has hidden the fact. Furthermore, the last time he faced an opponent of Froch’s caliber—was against Froch, more than three years ago. Kessler is the younger by more than a year, but he has suffered injuries to his a wrist, ribs, both elbows, both hands and an eye and he now appears to be carrying a healthy dose of scar tissue above his left eye. He is the older of the two in terms of ringwear.
Having said that, he looks superb, every bit as well conditioned as he was for his last duel with the Cobra. In that fight, Kessler won with aggression and by remaining busy. Superficially, Kessler holds no style advantage over Froch. The Englishman’s ambiguous stylings, slightly off-center, built around an up-jab thrown from a huge variety of different angles and, as the water deepens, velocities, is enough to throw Kessler’s more traditional approach out of synch and make planting his feet difficult for as long as Froch remains mobile. The difference in speed between the two was not marked the first time around specifically because Kessler enjoys neither great speed nor fluidity of foot. Although his hands were faster, he repeatedly failed to take advantage of Froch’s over-reaching and balance issues because he couldn’t work his way into position before Froch had escaped or reset. But delving deeper reveals an intrinsic advantage for the Dane.
Kessler’s work is steadier. He moves forward on a balanced base that steers him into position for punching naturally, placing the target in two naked but direct headlights that allows him to throw sharp punches with accuracy. Kessler’s technical superiority is the reason that Froch elected not to fight the Dane on the front foot, but remain “elusive in a really unusual way,” to quote Antonio Tarver’s excellent Showtime commentary. Both slower and more correct, Froch would have placed himself in danger of being out-landed, out-boxed, and out-gunned. What he did, successfully, was make the exchanges dirty, confused, raucous. It was good strategy because he was able to undermine Kessler’s technical ability without compromising his own. But it took work. Only by brilliance or in superior work-rate could Froch win rounds. Kessler could win rounds simply by doing what he does, albeit under severe duress. Chugging forwards, steadily, he jabbed, hooked and of course, threw that right hand.
And now they know one another.
“It’s gonna be brutal,” Froch remarked near the beginning of the build-up. “As bad as that sounds, it’s gonna be brutal.”
Froch knows, that from the fourth round onwards, each man hurt the other in every single frame. He also knows that the first round fought on Saturday may really be the thirteenth, stretching back to that fight in April 2010.
Kessler, however, seems to take a different point of view:
“We have to think about how we did last time. We cannot get hit as much. I have a gameplan.”
This remark made me wonder. In keeping Froch under control in the first fight, Kessler had to be willing to sacrifice his body and face on the altar of success. I cannot envisage a way in which he can emerge victorious without again making this pact with his fierce opponent. Boxing on the retreat is difficult because he is out-reached, and because he would likely give up that tenuous, expensive style-advantage and because it would allow Froch to decide upon when as well as where the two would clash. This ensures a billowing head of steam for the Cobra as the London crowd gets behind him. If Kessler is coming to the ring looking to avoid being hit as any kind of priority, I think he will lose.
I think Froch feels this way, too. In the aftermath of the first fight, he claimed he would have won the fight if it were fought elsewhere and pleaded a perforated eardrum, an explanation for what he saw as a subpar performance. Now, if you ask him, he will tell you that “the right man won” in Denmark. The two are friends, and gentlemen both, but I get the impression that Froch was trying to build up Kessler as an opponent, so that when he beats him, it will appear more impressive. All fighters do it, but they generally don’t do it when they are stepping in with someone they really think might beat them. It is a little too much like telling a ghost story in a haunted house, I think.
In the last two weeks, as his peak in training approaches, Froch has become more direct about his feelings as regards Kessler’s chances: he has none.
“I feel this is my time…I think I can knock him out.” I think so, too. It’s only a hunch, but my hunch says that Kessler isn’t ready to endure the type of punishment he sucked up last time to get his message across, and that his body may no longer be equal to the task even if he were. This is not meant to denigrate the Viking Warrior, who is just that, I merely feel that just as Sandy Saddler’s naked aggression became too much for Willie Pep, so the awkward brutalization Froch has in store for Kessler is not something he is equal to at this point in his career.
I think the Englishman may deploy shock and awe tactics early before settling down a bit in the third or fourth round, where we will indeed see a fight that looks an awful lot like the last one only this time the vocal crowd is behind Froch. His aggressive surges prove a little too much for a more fragile Kessler, who fades late. The Dane is a tough, proud man, so as predictions go this is far from a safe one but I think some mixture of facial injuries, a concerned referee and a compassionate corner sees the Dane pulled out of the fight somewhere in the region of the eleventh.