Lee Groves

Someone’s ‘O’ has got to go: 10 notable fights between unbeaten boxers – part I

9. Nov. 3, 2007 – Joe Calzaghe (43-0) W 12 Mikkel Kessler (39-0), Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales

For all of the complaints about boxing’s weight class expansion that began in the mid-1970s, several of those divisions have proven to be worthy additions. The super middleweight class has been one of them, for it has boasted more than its share of compelling fights and magnetic personalities.

Created in 1984 by the IBF to bridge the 15-pound gap between middleweight and light heavyweight, the 168-pound class was populated by stars moving up in weight (Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Roy Jones Jr., James Toney and Roberto Duran among them) and some longtime light heavys sought refuge by moving down (Murray Sutherland and Glen Johnson). While there had been homegrown stars in its history (Nigel Benn, Chris Eubank and Steve Collins) none of them had been able to create a genuine 168-pound superfight that boasted historic stakes and worldwide reach.

Then came Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler, who owned three of the four major belts, boasted undefeated records and proved themselves to be the premier 168-pounders on earth in terms of resume, skill set and longevity.

At age 35, Calzaghe came into this fight as one of a handful of champions in boxing history to ever register a title reign longer than 10 years. That milestone was reached 23 days earlier, for on Oct. 11, 1997 Calzaghe decked, then out-pointed Eubank to win the latter’s WBO belt. Since then his quickness and quirky volume punching fueled a reign encompassing 20 title defenses, one behind Sven Ottke’s division record of 21, but the Welsh southpaw didn’t earn worldwide acclaim until March 2006 when he met IBF titlist Jeff Lacy in a unification showdown.

The man nicknamed “Left Hook” was favored to beat Calzaghe despite the bout being staged in the U.K., but “Super Joe” was at his super best as his dazzling combinations built a monstrous points lead and a 12th-round knockdown capped a glorious performance. After years of toiling in obscurity against largely unknown challengers, Calzaghe had finally earned his respect and subsequent victories over Sakio Bika and Peter Manfredo Jr. only enhanced his star power. Boxing’s longest reigning champion was ready to meet his greatest challenge yet.

At age 28, Kessler was at the peak of his powers and as the owner of the WBA and WBC belts he had the hardware necessary to dispute Calzaghe’s claim as the best 168-pounder alive. Although he carried the nickname “Viking Warrior,” Kessler was actually a supreme ring mechanic armed with a strong, accurate jab, a knifing right cross and rock-solid fundamentals. Kessler’s attention to detail shouldn’t have been a surprise, for he spent two-and-a-half years working as a mechanic at Mercedes Benz.

Like Calzaghe with Lacy, Kessler earned international respect by blowing out Markus Beyer to unite the Dane’s WBA belt with Beyer’s WBC strap, then dismantling the rock-chinned Librado Andrade on HBO’s airwaves five months later. His successes made Kessler a national hero and in 2006 he was named Denmark’s sportsman of the year.

It was thought that the older and more established Calzaghe would avoid Kessler in order to chase a big-money fight against Bernard Hopkins, but the “Pride of Wales” told promoter Frank Warren that he wanted to fight Kessler regardless of the risk it posed. That said, Calzaghe did not want to fight the Dane in his native land and because he was able to draw 35,000 to his fight against Manfredo, Calzaghe had all the clout he needed to persuade Kessler’s management that their superfight had to take place in Cardiff.

Who could ask for anything more? Two of the best in a given division vying for three of the four major belts as well as THE RING’s recognition as the world’s premier campaigner in an outdoor stadium packed with 50,150 screaming fans. Boxing couldn’t have snapped a prettier picture.

Calzaghe began the bout aggressively by backing up Kessler with foot feints and spearing left crosses down the middle while Kessler fired jabs and searched for openings, especially for straight rights. The action was tight and technical but also waged at a hot pace. Kessler landed a big right with a minute remaining in round two but Calzaghe’s volume and slightly superior accuracy limited the impact of Kessler’s momentary successes.

The already energetic pace picked up in the third as Calzaghe bulled Kessler to the ropes and winged both hands in all directions while Kessler drove strong rights to the body and head. Calzaghe’s straight lefts began finding the mark with regularity and authority but in the fourth Kessler’s counter crosses and uppercuts blunted, then aborted, several inspired Calzaghe charges. By the midway point the high-octane boxing took a limited but noticeable toll on both men’s faces as blood leaked from Kessler’s nostril and Calzaghe sported various scrapes and small lumps.

From that point forward, however, Calzaghe’s experience and higher tempo asserted themselves. The Welshman fought in a more relaxed, confident fashion while the rhythm and timing Kessler enjoyed in the early rounds was no longer there. It was as if Calzaghe had found a new, higher gear that only the truly great ones could access and at this point of his career Kessler didn’t have the key to sufficiently elevate his own performance. Not that Kessler didn’t try; he occasionally landed potent straight rights and in the eighth he produced an excellent, if short-lived, surge.

Though the task wasn’t easy, Calzaghe nevertheless pulled away down the stretch because he produced more big moments than Kessler. The full complement of skills and risk-taking were on display and by rising to the occasion, Calzaghe ended up defining it – and in the process defining himself.

Calzaghe’s second half surge proved decisive, for he was judged a clear winner by the three judges (116-112 twice and 117-111). In what was destined to be his farewell appearance at 168, Calzaghe cemented his greatness by beating a younger fighting machine in his prime for the biggest stakes possible.

Few fighters ever choose the luxury of leaving a room while on top, but Calzaghe was one of the fortunate few. Not only did he leave the division as a four-belt titleholder, he also went on to further glories in his final two fights as he decisioned Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. at light heavyweight. With those wins, Calzaghe walked away with something he came in with 46 fights and 15 years ago – his “zero.”

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