Whatever one made of Showtime's Super Six, there was one fight in that 168-pound tournament that is beyond dispute about its quality: Mikkel Kessler vs. Carl Froch. When last they met in 2010, Kessler and Froch dueled at a high level in Denmark, delivering a Fight of the Year contender and the best round of that year, a sizzling 12th where Kessler -- one fight removed from an embarrassing, emasculating defeat by Andre Ward -- found his inner man and traded shots with boxing's most fearless warrior, eventually coming out on top by decision.
It wasn't Froch's finest moment; after the loss, he whined endlessly about the decision and made excuses about how an Iceland volcano that threatened to postpone the fight took him out of his mental game. It was, actually, Kessler's finest moment, because he rebounded so impressively from such a low against a fighter who has gone on to become one of the world's 10 best of any weight. Since, Kessler has endured a long injury layoff due to an eye injury and won two ambiguous stoppage wins. Froch has lost to Ward himself, then secured the victory of his career over Lucian Bute.
That's the backdrop of this rematch, one of the more anticipated bouts of 2013, in London on HBO Saturday. The promotion has had its share of volcanic moments. This week, Froch threatened to "kill" Kessler if it was necessary, even though Kessler has become his buddy outside the ring. It earned him a reprimand from British boxing authorities, but it wasn't so long ago that Kessler said there would be "death in my eyes" for Froch. Such rhetoric hardly elevates boxing, but it does, if nothing else, appear to reveal a window into the mindsets of both men: This fight is, figuratively if not literally, do or die for each of them them. Froch is the kind of boxer who harbors grudges against the universe for any wrong he perceives, and it fuels his enormous will. Kessler is perceived as on the other side of the hill, and needs this win to cement his legacy.
Such passion, such history, is the stuff of great rivalries.
It probably doesn't appear on HBO if the network doesn't see the winner as a viable opponent for Ward, an HBO favorite owing to ex-Showtime exec Ken Hershman taking over HBO's boxing programming. It has appeal, and competitive merit, independent of Ward.
Perhaps Froch learned from his loss to Kessler, even if he never considered it a loss: In his very next fight, he displayed a never-before-revealed defensive aplomb and versatility against Arthur Abraham. The Ward loss was a setback, but an understandable one -- Ward is pure special, and Froch is just a notch below that. By the time Froch fought Bute, he was back to his old ways, multiplied by 10. The nuance of the Abraham performance was gone, replaced by the traditional Frochian "I don't care how much you hit me, I'm going to get mine" mentality. Bute caught him with some enormous shots, but Froch, whose chin is as good as they get, strolled through them and broke Bute's heart before shattering his consciousness. If Froch still had any non-believers left before the Bute win, they vaporized afterward. In some quarters, Bute was considered too fast, too powerful, too cute for a man of Froch's limited means. But Froch's whole career is a testament to how much willpower and ablity to absorb punishment overcomes any limited means, and together form a lethal weapon. He is coming off a rare easy-ish bout against Yusaf Mack, following a multi-year grind of a schedule unequaled in boxing and that only continues its grueling pace Saturday.
Froch's momentary lapse of will against Kessler came at a time when Kessler's shaky psyche was at its peak stability. Ward's mauling, physicality and technical/physical superiority had Kessler on the verge of quitting before a wound forced the bout to the scorecards. This wasn't the first time Kessler had betrayed mental weakness. He fought well against Joe Calzaghe, but Calzaghe mauled him psychologically as much as he beat him physically. Kessler went into some kind of hiding after that, ducking the powerful but limited Edison Miranda. By the aftermath of the Ward loss, he was hiring a sports pyschologist to rehabilitate his mind. It worked, apparently, because as close as the Froch win was, it wasn't the theft Froch has since made it out to be. Maybe Froch would've won the decision in Nottingham, but on neutral soil, Kessler probably would've won it just the same. Kessler disappeared for more than a year after that due to an eye injury, and rattled off three consecutive stoppages. The Allan Green win was the best and worst of Kessler, as the talented but fragile Green knocked him down in the 1st to suggest he wasn't all physicaly there, only for Kessler to rally and stop Green in the 4th with a Knockout of the Year candidate in 2012. He wasn't troubled at all by the shopworn Brian Magee, and you could throw Green in the "shopworn" category as well, but one thing you could see from both fights is that Kessler, aging or not, was again sitting down on his punches and trying to knock fools out.
That's why you can't dislike this match-up. At 34, Kessler is the man who appears physically older in the ring to Froch's 35, by virtue of his injuries and reflexes that aren't quite what they once were. But he's made up for that decline in a few ways. Once a strict 1-2 artist, and a beaut of one at that, Kessler has become a more well-rounded fighter, one who does knockout-level damage with a straight right to the body or a left hook, and who is more defensively responsible. And the timid boxer we've seen at times before and during the Super Six has been replaced by someone who really wants to gun for the KO, and has the wherewithal to get it. Froch has a heroic ability to absorb punishment, but Kessler, when he sets his mind to it, is an enormous puncher. Ward was accumulating stoppage-level damage against Froch before Ward hurt his hand, thanks to accuracy, and he's nowhere near the level of puncher Kessler is. Froch, meanwhile, has broadened and expanded his repertoire, yet at his core remains Carl ******* Froch, an unbreakable stone tablet of a man who will take on the best boxing has to offer while only barely registering that they're hitting him tremendously hard.
You can see why Froch is the favorite. You can also see why Kessler is a not-unpopular upset pick among boxing fans and writers. The only thing we know for sure is that Kessler-Froch II will provide tremendous action, at least for a time. If anyone can knock out Froch, it's Kessler. If anyone can knock out Kessler, it's Froch.
Froch has added the right number of wrinkles to make his kill-or-be-killed mentality an even more dangerous one, although he was at his best against Bute when he decided that no matter what Bute hit him with, he'd be right in the Canadian transplant's chest. Bute is more physically gifted than Kessler, but more fragile in every way. Kessler very well could walk an over-eager Froch (with 18,000 on hand who he wants to please) into something fatal to his consciousness, as hard as that is to imagine based on Froch's unbreakable nature to date. And I suppose Kessler could outbox Froch over 12 again. More likely, Froch, with the home field advantage, improved technical ability and less wear and tear, can outwork Kessler. Even more likely, Froch stops Kessler late. Froch can be beaten, and clearly has twice, if not three times (Andre Dirrell). But when he's got this kind of near-psychotic focus, it gets harder to draw how he can be bent, let alone broken. Kessler was admirably brave to take this fight, as good a match-up as they get. But by Saturday afternoon in America and Saturday evening in the U.K., he will be sleeping, dreaming of happier days in Copenhagen.