ANYONE who saw Mikkel Kessler after his last fight against Carl Froch, when he left the O2 Arena on May 25, 2013, with pain and fatigue etched across his face, will not easily forget that snapshot into the brutal realities of boxing. Kessler still managed to smile that night but it was clear that he and Froch had been to war again. There was the usual clamour for a third and deciding fight after each man had won one bout, but Kessler did not look like he was inclined to return to hell.
Thirteen months later Kessler has just announced his firm intention to resume fighting and, in this interview, he stresses that “this decider against Froch is the one thing that is in my mind.” He laughs when I ask if he has forgotten how battered and hurt he felt after he fought Froch last year?
“Yes,” Kessler says as he keeps chuckling, “but you forget all that pain after the fight! It’s like when you’re in the ring you can’t think about it too much. But, yes, the week after the fight you’re a little bit trashed. It was 12 very hard rounds and it was tough for both of us. But these are the kind of fights I like to watch myself as a boxing fan. That one hurt a lot – especially because it came with a loss for me. I was also very sore after the first fight but I won that one so it helped.
“With these kinds of fights it takes longer for your body to recuperate. Every bone and muscle almost feels like it’s torn apart. But that’s how it is when you give everything over 12 rounds against a very hard man. I told him afterwards, ‘Carl, I’m going to become a father soon and I need a break.’ He understood and so he had to move on and he’s had two huge fights with George Groves. But I’m back now. If he chooses not to fight me it’s okay. But of course I’d rather fight Carl than anyone.”
I’ve met enough fighters over the years to understand the addiction so many of them carry deep inside their characters. It’s a more damaging version of our own continued love of boxing. On the safe side of the ropes it’s easy to explain why we are still drawn to watching great fights between champions like Froch and Kessler. But how would Kessler justify his thinking to a non-boxing fan who would be bewildered that he should wish to put himself through such an ordeal again, and threaten his long-term health, when he is financially secure, has many successful business interests and, as he points out, is enjoying being a father to his first child – his six-month-old son, the romantically-named Romeo?
“All I can say is that I’ve done it my whole life and I still love boxing. It’s probably true that you’re not so hungry – that’s not a secret. But I’ve been away a little while and I feel the old hunger coming back. I know I can be a champion again. I love boxing the big names and I want to be on top of the world again. I’m here, I’m ready and I still have a big passion for boxing. I had to make a decision on my future and I spoke to my friends and family and obviously to those closest to me in boxing – my trainer and physical trainer. I decided I’m ready to give it another shot.”
Kessler snorts, in the warmest possible way, when asked if he found it a difficult decision after such a savage last contest? “No! Of course not. You’ve done it all your life. You’re good at it and I just don’t feel like retiring now. I’ve had 49 fights and I would like one or two more. Yes, I didn’t like the fact that my last fight ended with a defeat but it’s not so much about losing. It’s just that I know I can beat Froch. I’m used to coming back and winning the title again so I know I can do it.”
The idea that his 50th fight, in a career which began 16 years ago, might be a tune-up against a relatively easy opponent is dismissed by Kessler. He insists that he is only interested in this formidable list of adversaries: Froch, Gennady Golovkin, Andre Ward and Groves.
Even a mention of James DeGale, another super-middleweight due to challenge for the IBF title while angling for a fight next year against Froch, is treated with a stark response. “I respect James DeGale but he’s young and only had about 18 fights [DeGale’s record is 19-1]. So why should I fight DeGale? I have no interest in fighting him. When you have been in the game so long you don’t need a warm-up. I’ve only had title fights since I was 24. I’m 35 now. It doesn’t matter if it’s six months or a year that I’m out of the ring. Each fight is different. There’s always a new location, a new atmosphere, a new opponent and it’s no problem. I feel ready.”
Kessler thinks carefully when asked if his desire to return to boxing at the highest level has been sparked by the extraordinary interest in the two bouts between Froch and Groves? “Yeah, a little,” he says. “Maybe not so much the first fight. I had a lot of things in my mind at that time. We were building a house, we had a baby, and I have a lot of companies. So I needed some time to relax. But I can’t live without training so I was always fit. Maybe the fights between Froch and Groves made me a little hungrier but it wasn’t the exact trigger. I just want to do it – and fight on for me.”
Was he shocked by how close Groves came to beating Froch in their first fight in Manchester? “I was stunned when George knocked Carl down,” Kessler says. “But I know he’s fast as I had sparred with Groves before my last Froch fight. He’s still young and he needs more experience but he was very strong and very hungry against Froch. But I thought Carl took the fight way too easy.
“The second time I thought Carl would win it – but I was not completely sure. I hadn’t talked to Carl and so I didn’t know where his mind was so I had this 50-50 feeling. I said if I had to pick one I would say Carl because he gets stronger every round and George gets weaker. He’s very excited the first five rounds but then his power goes. So I thought Carl would win but I knew it would be hard. I was at Wembley and the atmosphere was incredible. I have a big fan base in Denmark and they are very loud, like the English fans. I like that. So I really had the feeling I wanted the winner.”
Froch has underlined his desire to fight next in Las Vegas, presumably against Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr. He has already battled twice against Kessler and, having headlined a huge outdoor show in front of 80,000 at Wembley, Froch would tick off another of his remaining ambitions if he could see his name in lights on the Vegas Strip. Does Kessler have realistic hopes that Froch would consider a third fight with him ahead of a Las Vegas showdown against Chavez Jnr?
“I don’t know,” Kessler admits. “I haven’t spoken to Carl. I just hope he gives me the decider. We’re 1-1 and maybe neutral ground would be best. I can fight him in Vegas. Everything is possible. Carl has a lot of fans, and so do I, who would go to Vegas. It’s always action with us. It’s war every time we fight. We’re boxers but we’re also good characters who sell ourselves to the fans because we’ll do anything to win and we are stubborn – both of us. So it’s going to be a great fight. Chavez is a good fighter but I’d be far harder for Carl.”
Kessler, presumably, believes he can repeat his success in being one of only two men to have beaten Froch. “Of course I believe I’ll win the decider,” he says emphatically. “I started too slowly in the second fight. And then in the 11th round I was very close to stopping him but I didn’t have the wind to finish it. That was one of my big problems. In the first fight I threw twice as many punches as in the second fight. I also gave him the first two or three rounds and that’s not good. But Carl did well. He changed his style and he was good with his long left arm. He’s awkward but he’s still so slow. I hit him so hard so often but he takes a shot! Carl can really take a shot. I had him in the 11th round but he still came forward even as his eyes were rolling in his head. I remember that – but he was destined to win that fight. I had no wind left in the last round even though I gave everything I had. I had peaked too early in my training camp.”
Boxers can always find a reason for a loss and so, rather than rehashing the second fight, it’s more intriguing to ask Kessler who he rates more – Froch or Joe Calzaghe? The unbeaten and now retired Welshman was the first man to defeat Kessler, in another blockbuster of a fight in 2007, and Calzaghe has suggested recently that Froch’s achievement in beating Groves was given excessive praise. Calzaghe clearly believes he would have beaten Froch had they met.
“They have two different styles,” Kessler says of his British opponents, admitting that he has always struggled to elevate one man above the other because he is friendly with both Calzaghe and Froch. “Joe was very good when he beat me but it was seven years ago and I was at a different place in my career. I guess I could say Joe because he was so clever and smart even if he wasn’t such a hard hitter. He was also awkward and effective. And he could take a punch. I would say I hit Joe with some of my hardest shots ever and he took them. Carl is more a hard hitter but he’s slow. But Carl doesn’t respect anything. Even if you hit him really hard he will still come forward.
“So I really can’t say who is better. Joe was the best I ever fought then but it would be completely different if I fought him today. I respect them both. They’re both great fighters. And it’s great to see Joe getting into the Hall of Fame. Of course I hope someone says I am worth getting into the Hall of Fame myself one day. That would be a dream for me.”
That ambition might help explain why Kessler is so determined to only fight a serious opponent in his 50th contest. Should he have to wait for Froch he sounds ready to meet any one of Groves, Golovkin or Ward. After suffering such a devastating knockout Groves would be best advised to ease his way back into the fray but the Londoner is such a strong and independent thinker that he probably would not refuse an offer to fight Kessler. He and Kessler could be kept apart as they are now both represented by Sauerland Event, the German outfit, whom Groves joined just before the second Froch fight. But their joint ties also mean that there would be no obstacle to them meeting if Kalle Sauerland, their smart and dynamic promoter, decided that a showdown between the venerable Viking warrior and the intriguing and much younger Groves would be a timely European super-fight while Froch heads for Vegas.
Kessler stresses that he would have no qualms about fighting Groves. “Yes, of course I’d fight Groves, of course,” he says. “Groves is a big fighter. My intention is to fight Carl but he maybe needs a break too. George would be an interesting opponent. It was good for him to join a promoter who can get him more big fights. He’s just 26 so he’s young and has lots of years ahead of him. He’s not had many 12-rounders so he needs to have more tough contests. He also needs to look at his mistakes and work out if he was too anxious or excited and decide what he has to do in his next fight. But he’s a big talent and I still believe in him.”
There is no need to sound paternalistic when Kessler turns to Golovkin. He might still campaign at middleweight, and he will meet the Australian Daniel Geale at Madison Square Garden this month, but even as a lighter man, Golovkin looks a murderous puncher. He has won nearly 90 per cent of his fights by knockout, while compiling a flawless 29-0 record, and surely Kessler must be aware of how hard Golovkin hits? “Yeah, but I think he’s over-rated,” Kessler says coolly. “I think Golovkin is a very good fighter. He’s strong and he has a lot of confidence. But I really don’t think he’s fought the big, big names yet. He still has to prove himself. I’m different. I only want big fights. Besides Froch, I would like to fight Golovkin, Ward, Groves – and Chavez too. There’re a lot of fights out there for me. That’s why if it was a tune-up I wouldn’t take it too seriously. I just want the big fights.”
When I’ve interviewed him in the past, Kessler has been notably dismissive of Ward. The American beat him decisively when they met in Ward’s hometown of Oakland in California in November 2009 and Kessler was stopped on cuts in the 11th round. That bout was part of the Super Six series of super-middleweight fights which HBO staged and, over two years, it raised the profile of the previously uncelebrated Froch to new heights. Ward won the tournament, outclassing Froch in an Atlantic City final in December 2011, and he remains unbeaten after 27 straight wins. But Ward is largely unloved and Kessler and Froch have always made it clear that they have for more respect for each other than the slippery and uncharismatic American stylist.
Last year Kessler told me that, “Ward’s not a fighter. Sometimes you should make rules against clinching. When I fought him he clinched me 88 times. We 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’s so boring. That’s why he has no fans. He’s not a big name.”
Froch has been equally sceptical of Ward’s elusive art, which runs counter to the raw courage and aggression he and Kessler always exhibit. They have both sounded unenthusiastic about entering the ring with Ward again – but, as he prepares to return to boxing, Kessler makes it plain that he would change his attitude on the condition that he did not have to go back to Oakland. “Of course I would fight Ward,” Kessler insists, “but he has to come out of his home town. He never leaves the States but now it’s time he showed he’s a real champion and he left his country to fight. I think he should come to Copenhagen to fight me – because I went to his home town. Ward needs to do the same.”
So Kessler would not consider fighting Ward anywhere in the United States? “Hmmm,” he says. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about that. But I’d say it’s time for him to get out of the States. That seems important.”
Why does he believe that, this time, he might be able to defeat the devilishly difficult American? “If Ward’s name is on the poster I would train differently,” Kessler says. “He’s an inside fighter. He’s a match-spoiler in my eyes. Carl and I have spoken about him. He’s not really a fighter. He just wants to spoil a fight. I’d like to fight him in a whole different way. I can’t explain it right now but if that fight was to happen I can promise me and my trainer would study him on tape and it would be completely different.”
Kessler claims that he had only one concern before he announced his readiness to return to the ring – and that he has since answered that doubt in his own mind. “I was not worried about my health or my ability to keep fighting at this level. I know I can do it. I had no problems with my family. They all were ready to back me whatever I did. I had just one thing that worried me. People always say you change when you become a father. The thought stayed with me before Romeo was born and for a few months afterwards. I was thinking, now I have a new and real responsibility at home, would it affect me in the ring? Would I have the same hunger? I was worried I might feel like less of a fighter. But I’ve had some hard sparring and it’s been very good. I am training very hard and the sparring has tested me in big ways.
“Everything is going better than planned. I just now need Carl Froch to say he’ll meet me in a decider and it will feel perfect. But even if Carl fights someone else I have some good options against other big opponents. I’m going to take them one at a time and see where we go. But you know how I feel. I want to fight Carl Froch more than anyone. It’s 1-1 and I want to settle it. I want to beat him in the decider.”