The warm relationship between Froch and Kessler might puzzle many people outside boxing
MIKKEL KESSLER is a hard man. He has the fight record and knockouts, the bent nose and tattooed body, of a relentless bruiser. The Dane has risked his health while fighting in hostile arenas a long way from home. He even has the appetite for another brutal night when, on Saturday at the O2 in London, he faces an old adversary. Carl Froch is hewn from the same hard rock as Kessler, a granite monument of courage and desire, and their fight is likely to be one more raw battle in a long line of violent encounters.
Yet, like many admirable boxers, Kessler provides friendly and intelligent company. He is also honest enough to give voice to the doubts and fears that plague all fighters. And, most of all, Kessler admits his own surprise that he has been in this dark old business for so long. “It scares me a bit when I think I have been a professional for 15 years,” Kessler says, his face softening beneath a bemused smile. “I see these young fighters coming up time and I think: ‘Thank God it’s not me starting out and having to fight so often.’ I’ve had 48 fights. I just want big fights now – against guys like Carl.”
The warm relationship between Froch and Kessler might puzzle many people outside boxing. How can two fighters, so intent on hurting each other, consider themselves as friends outside the ring? Their strange kind of friendship is rooted in admiration and respect – and an awareness of how much they tested each other in their first bout, won narrowly by Kessler three years ago, and an understanding that they will share something equally difficult and intense this weekend.
It’s striking how Kessler invariably calls Froch by his first name, even using ‘Carl’ when stressing his belief that he will knock him out, while he is more disdainful towards the only man to have beaten them both. Andre Ward, of course, is different. He is slippery and elusive, as awkward as he is skilful, but Kessler doubts that Ward is made of the same stern hardness that defines him and Froch. And so, before he turns his scrutiny on their gripping rematch, Kessler makes a point of separating himself and Froch from a man he never once calls ‘Andre’. This contrast stems from a simple question which Kessler mulls over for a long time – when he is asked to name the best fighter he has faced.
“I don’t think Ward,” he eventually says, after I’ve fed him the American’s full name as a way of breaking the deadlock Kessler endures while trying to pick one of either Froch or Joe Calzaghe. The undefeated and now retired Welshman, who beat Kessler on points in 2007, is another opponent with whom the Dane is now on generous first name terms. He might have been more like Ward than Froch in his speed and range of skills, but Calzaghe has won the enduring respect of Kessler. Ward, however, is unlikely to be invited to Kessler’s circle of favourite rivals.
“Ward is clever,” Kessler says with some reluctance before reaching for, in his fistic book, a cutting insult. “But he’s not a fighter. Ward just doesn’t want to fight. Sometimes you should make rules against clinching. When I fought him in 2009 [Kessler was stopped on cuts in the 11th round in the American’s home town of Oakland] he clinched me 88 times. When we watched it on tape we actually counted. I tried to push him away but he’s clever at what he does. He’s a world champion of that. But I think he’s actually scared. He throws fast punches, light punches, and then holds you. It’so boring. That’s why he has no fans. He’s not a big name and he likes to stay at home.
“Showtime had to do everything to help him because there were no other Americans who could win the Super Six [the super-middleweight series which Ward won after defeating Froch in the final in December 2011]. The ref was not on my side. When I got the cut they took me to the doc and he said: ‘We’re going to stop the fight.’ The cut was clear of my eyes but they still stopped it. I had just started to attack him and I got him in the corner but they got scared and called in the doctor.”
Fighters as brave as Kessler are entitled to selective memories, and subjective opinions, and there is little point in arguing over the merits of Ward. Instead, it’s more intriguing to press Kessler on the identity of his toughest opponent. “It’s so difficult,” Kessler says, as if wary of offending either of his old boxing foes-turned-friends. “Joe was a very good fighter. Carl too. I just wouldn’t say Ward. Joe was very good
in some ways, and Carl was very good in others.”
In another attempt to split the British pair, who were far from friendly to each other when Calzaghe was still boxing, I ask Kessler if he was a superior fighter on the night he beat Froch. “Yeah. I had more experience against Carl. The difference was that I’d had another loss after Joe. The Ward defeat made everyone say I was finished. I was doubting myself and thinking that, maybe, I didn’t have it anymore. That’s why I can say that my best performance was against Carl. He was unbeaten and he didn’t think he could lose to anyone. The only way I could beat him was by going
to the body. You could see he never gave in which was why that was my hardest- ever fight – even if Joe gave me a much more technically difficult fight. Carl was my hardest fight, both physically and mentally, and my greatest victory.”
Kessler also reveals that, even amid the glow of victory, he felt far more battered the morning after the Froch fight. “But it was a good hurt,” he says with a grin. “When you win you don’t care. When you lose it’s a bad hurt in your heart. After Joe only my tendons were very sore. But they always are when a fight goes past six rounds. The punches from Joe didn’t hurt too much because he’s not such a hard hitter. With Carl you feel the blows much more. He is very slow but a strong puncher.”
The abrasive tightness of their contest also made it difficult for Froch to accept that he had really lost to Kessler. He argued that he had been affected by the volcanic ash cloud which had dominated the build-up. “It didn’t affect me,” Kessler says, showing the first signs of his bristling attitude in the ring. “Carl said it affected him but I don’t think so. We both gave it our all. I came out the winner but Carl, because he is a fighter, didn’t like admitting the truth. I remember that as soon as the fight was over he didn’t put his arms up. He only did that when his trainer told him to do it.
“So it took a while for him to show the honesty I expect from Carl. Last time I was over in Britain he did admit it on TV. He lost the fight. So that was good. Before that there was a lot of talk from Carl like, 'I had him and if I had just followed up I would have knocked him out.’ I just said, ‘Carl, I could have knocked you out too – your legs were going.’”
Kessler laughs softly, in admiration of their mutual self-belief, before wincing at the inevitability of another attritional night at the O2. He dismisses Froch’s claim that he will fight more cannily – with Kessler insisting that the Nottingham veteran, who is a year older at 35, is relatively one-dimensional in his relentless march forward. Once the punches start landing, Kessler is convinced Froch will trade furiously. It is then, apparently, that the Dane will see the opening which will allow him to punish Froch and, eventually, knock him out.
A personal belief is that, roared on by his home crowd, Froch will find the will to eke out another decisive victory in his impressive array of conquests. But it will be hard and gruelling, as Calzaghe discovered on the greatest night of his career. “After the fight,” Kessler remembers, “I said, ‘Joe, you better give me the rematch.’ He said, ‘Mikkel, no way! I’ll never fight you again – this was my night tonight.’ I said, ‘Come on, Joe!’ but he wouldn’t. It was easier fighting old guys like [Bernard] Hopkins and [Roy] Jones.
“It ate me up for a long time that I lost my unbeaten record. But I wasn’t ashamed to lose to Joe. He was a great champion and I did really well. I was so fast that night. Of course he was awkward and I just think I needed more experience to get the decision. I also needed a different trainer because my old trainer doubted me a little. He’s like a second father to me but he didn’t help me find a Plan B against Joe. I still regret that there were certain things I could have done but I didn’t. It was much closer than the scores said – but what counts? Solid punches, like I landed, or those softer ones from Joe?”
Kessler points out that the vociferous atmosphere he faced in Cardiff will prepare him for the hostility he will encounter at the O2. He has also beaten Anthony Mundine in Sydney – despite being shocked by the way the Australian crowd turned on him when he walked to the ring in 2005. “It was crazy. Everyone down there told me they hated Mundine. They came to me and said: ‘We hate that guy...we’re there for you.’ I thought they were all going to cheer for me. But when I got into the arena it was just booing. I looked round and thought: ‘What? Oh... okay. You’re not on my side anymore.’
It was funny. But I had injured my back and only did 20 rounds of sparring. At the end of the sixth I said to my trainer, ‘My legs are so heavy.’ He looked at my physical trainer and said: ‘He’s never complained once in his life about being tired...’ They were all scared and I thought I could lose. But I managed to get it round and I was happy when I won it. So I’ve been in many difficult places these last 15 years.”
Kessler’s long journey is all the more impressive when it is remembered how he lifted himself from obscurity. “Boxing in Denmark,” Kessler says, “is not the same as boxing here or in America. The tradition is not strong. My father was not a fighter but he took me to some boxing shows and that got me interested. But my dad never pushed me towards boxing.”
Brian Nielsen, a lumbering Danish heavyweight who carefully built a long unbeaten record before losing to a journeyman in Dicky Ryan and shop-worn versions of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield, provided early inspiration for Kessler. “Nielsen won a [bronze] medal at the 1992 Olympics [when Kessler was 13] and I started thinking about boxing. But I couldn’t think of anyone who had been to a boxing gym. My mother was in the phone book looking up boxing gyms. There was one about 50 minutes away – on the bike. I asked two friends to come and we went there and my trainer Richard said, ‘Get your ass going...you gotta run...’ It was overwhelming. It was hard, this kind of discipline, but years later my mother said, ‘Maybe you liked it because it had this discipline.’ She’s right. I still love that discipline.
“I was 14 when I had my first fight and, of course, I was very nervous. I didn’t even really know what to do when the bell went ‘ting’. You just look at each other and the guys shouted, ‘Okay, start! Fight!’ I remember the nerves most of all. But I’ve always been nervous. It helps me when I get up there. I’m good in the gym but I’m best in a big fight.”
Kessler won his first amateur bout on a stoppage – just as he did when with an opening-round knockout during his professional debut in March 1998. “I fought Kelly Mays,” Kessler recalls. “He had won all six of his fights with plenty of knockouts. So I was very nervous. I was afraid going into it and I had goosebumps all over me as I walked to the ring. But I trusted myself. I was ready to fight and, in the end, I won easy.”
There might not be too many nights of dark tension left for him in the ring – but Kessler has the look of a hard but bright man readying himself for one more epic battle. “The day of the fight is always difficult,” he admits, “especially against a great warrior like Carl. I know I can’t avoid being hit. But I can promise you that it won’t be very nice for Carl when I hit him. You are going to see one hell of a battle between two fighters who, afterwards, whatever happens, will be old friends again. It’s what makes boxing so special.”
Kessler laughs softly, in admiration of their mutual self-belief, before wincing at the inevitability of another attritional night at the O2