By Bob Canobbio
Photo © Ed Mulholland/FightWireImages.com
On Nov. 3, Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler will engage in the biggest, most significant and potentially most lucrative and historic fight in super middleweight championship annals since the division’s creation in 1988. Here’s why:
* The bout will be staged inside Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, which seats 74,500 for rugby and soccer contests. If Calzaghe-Kessler meets the attendance projection of 60,000, it would be the third largest open-air boxing crowd in United Kingdom history and the biggest since Len Harvey decisioned Jock McAvoy before an estimated 82,000 at London’s White City Stadium on July 10, 1939.
* Three of the four "major" belts will be on the line, with Denmark’s Kessler bringing the WBA and WBC titles while Calzaghe enters with the WBO strap.
* Calzaghe and Kessler are by far the two best and most accomplished fighters in the division. They carry a combined record of 82-0 with 61 KOs and are 11-0 (5 KOs) against opponents who holds titles or became future champions.
* Calzaghe (42-0, 32 KOs) recently became the fifth man in boxing history to assemble a championship reign of 10 years or longer. The other four are Joe Louis, Johnny Kilbane, Abe Attell and Bernard Hopkins.
* Should Calzaghe defeat Kessler (39-0, 29 KO), he will tie Sven Ottke for the divisional title defenses mark (21) and will vault him to number three all-time in all divisions behind only Joe Louis’ 25 successful defenses and Ricardo Lopez’s 22 at strawweight.
In addition to the history, this superfight features a pleasing contrast of styles. The 5-11 ½" Calzaghe, a 7-5 favorite, is a busy southpaw who depends on quick-handed flurries to overwhelm opponents, while the 6-1 Kessler is a strapping right-hander who makes his money with brutally effective fundamentals. It has been said that one can learn about his future by looking into the past, and it is in this spirit that we will examine several past outings to draw a bead on what might happen on Nov. 3.
Calzaghe’s "coming out fight," at least in terms of the pound-for-pound rankings, was his 12-round drubbing of IBF champion Jeff Lacy in a highly anticipated unification battle in Manchester March 4, 2006. The muscular power-punching Lacy was a heavy favorite in U.S. circles but it was Calzaghe who dominated in every department.
Overall, Calzaghe was 351 of 952 (37 percent) while Lacy was 116 of 444 (26 percent) but the per-round averages were even more startling as Calzaghe was 29 of 79 and Lacy a paltry 10 of 37, far below the super middleweight average of 17 of 55. Despite being the taller man, Calzaghe dominated with power punching as he out-threw Lacy 690-358 and out-landed him 280-100. Many of those blows were dizzying combinations followed by pivots to either side.
"Calzaghe put on a clinic," said Lacy’s trainer Dan Birmingham after the fight. "He showed he is a master of distance and timing." Aside from a point deduction for holding, it was a perfect evening for Calzaghe as he captured a 119-105, 119-107, 119-107 verdict.
Seven months later, "The Pride of Wales" returned to Manchester to fight Sakio Bika, who is now involved in the third season of "The Contender," but was at the time an obscure contender from Cameroon. Calzaghe failed to reach the heights of the Lacy bout for three reasons: The expectations bar was set very high, Bika was not a straight-ahead banger like Lacy, and Calzaghe entered the bout with a left hand injured in training.
There was as much clinching and taunting as there was punching and as a result Calzaghe’s numbers were down significantly. Calzaghe connected on 181 of 607 for 30 percent while Bika was 138 of 538 (24 percent). The challenger was an anemic 11 of 135 in jabs (8 percent) and Calzaghe’s wasn’t much better (52 of 252, 21 percent). The two men spent most of their time struggling on the inside and thus the power punch numbers were fairly close: 129 of 355 (36 percent) for the champion, 120 of 403 (30 percent) for Bika.
Bika’s mauling tactics managed to limit Calzaghe’s offense as the champ averaged 51 punches per round (15 landed) as opposed to 79 and 29 in the Lacy bout. Though Bika’s roughhousing tactics threw off Calzaghe’s rhythm, produced a butt-induced cut over the left eye in the fourth and led to a lost point for butting in the fifth for Bika, "The Italian Dragon" still captured a grinding 116-111, 117-110, 117-110 decision.
Six months after disposing of Bika, Calzaghe took on another "Contender" alum, this time first-season finalist Peter Manfredo Jr. before 35,000 fans at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium. Despite his high profile in America, Manfredo entered the bout a 33-1 underdog. After a feeling-out first round that saw Calzaghe gain a 13-9 connect edge, Calzaghe picked up the pace in the second by driving Manfredo back with jabs and peppering him with searing combinations. Calzaghe darted in and out at will and the New Englander simply didn’t have the size or speed to effectively blunt the Welshman’s attack. Calzaghe really picked up the beat with the jab as he connected on 11 of 47 while Manfredo was just 1 of 13.
Calzaghe continued the assault in the third, hurting the American with a devastating left to the liver followed by a non-stop whirlwind of blows that prompted referee Terry O’Connor to swoop in and stop the bout. Many observers thought the stoppage was premature as Manfredo didn’t appear hurt and kept his guard high throughout the assault, but because he didn’t throw anything back, the referee felt he had no other choice.
In just 90 seconds of action in the third, Calzaghe landed 26 of 92 blows while Manfredo managed just 3 of 13. The champion held similar statistical edges overall as he outlanded Manfredo 61-16, out-jabbed him 21-1 and outdid him in power punching 40-15.
One question surrounding Kessler for this fight is how he will react to a giant, largely hostile crowd. While Kessler has never fought before an audience of greater than 20,000 (against Librado Andrade in Copenhagen), he has defended his title on the road. In his first defense of the WBA belt he won from Manny Siaca, Kessler traveled to Sydney, Australia to take on former champion Anthony Mundine on June 9, 2005. Some observers felt Mundine put forth the best fight of his career as he occasionally backed up and at one point even stunned the massive Kessler, but he could get no closer than 116-112, 117-111 and 120-108 on the scorecards because he spent extended stretches on the ropes.
Kessler kept Mundine at bay by averaging 33 jabs per round, 10 above the super middleweight average, and landing seven of them, two more than the shorter Mundine. Though their accuracy was similar (29 percent for Kessler to 28 for Mundine), the Dane maintained a faster pace (57 punches per round to 44). He out-jabbed Mundine 87-58 and edged him 114-91 in power punches.
As Kessler matured as a fighter, so did his overall skills. Against former WBC super middleweight champion Eric Lucas in Copenhagen on January 14, 2006, Kessler used a tremendously hard and prolific jab to score a 10th round TKO so convincing that Lucas announced his retirement. In all, Kessler averaged 58 jabs per round (far above the divisional average of 23) and while Kessler averaged 16 jabs per round (triple the divisional norm), Lucas landed 16 in the entire fight (16 of 139 for 12 percent). The other stats were similarly lopsided; the Dane out-landed Lucas 225-33 and out-connected him in power shots by a 66-17 margin. His 575 jabs thrown ranks fourth all-time among super middleweights and his 159 landed ranks fifth.
Just as Kessler thrived on the road against Mundine, he performed well against Markus Beyer, who like Calzaghe was a 35-year-old southpaw when they fought October 14, 2006 in Copenhagen for the unified WBA/WBC title. Usually, right-handed fighters are hesitant to throw their jabs because they often hit the southpaw’s right glove but Kessler had no such qualms as he averaged 56 jabs per round, landing 13 of them. At first, Kessler used the jab to probe Beyer’s high guard but by the second, jabs followed by hard rights began to slice through Beyer’s gloves.
The shorter three-time WBC champ tried to dive inside behind rights to the body, but Kessler’s rapid-fire combinations prevented him from mounting a consistent attack. The fight ended in the final moments of the third when Kessler’s booming right put Beyer down for the full count.
Like the Lucas bout, Kessler completely dominated in every department. The Dane enjoyed a 57-16 connect advantage overall, a 39-9 jab edge and an 18-6 power punch bulge. Kessler averaged six landed power punches per round to Beyer’s two and attempted 72 punches a round to Beyer’s 28.
The Kessler juggernaut continued March 25, 2007 against the iron-jawed Librado Andrade, who unflinchingly fielded 348 of Kessler’s bombs while landing 95 of his own in losing an across-the-board 120-108 decision. The combination of Andrade’s aggression and porous defense encouraged Kessler to administer a brutal beating but the challenger’s courage and toughness enabled him to withstand everything the champion dished out. Kessler’s 188 landed jabs (to Andrade’s 40) was the second most ever recorded by CompuBox in a super middleweight fight behind Mike McCallum’s 241 against Fermin Chirino in 1992 and his 532 attempted jabs is number five on the 168-pound list.
Kessler and Calzaghe are similar in that they amass effective offensive numbers while holding their opponents to much lower figures. Against Mundine, Lucas, Beyer and Andrade, Kessler was 23 of 68 (34 percent) while his opponents averaged a collective 8 of 48 overall (17 percent). In jabs, Kessler was 13 of 45 (29 percent) while his foes were just 3 of 24 (13 percent) and in power punches Kessler went 9 of 23 (39 percent) while his rivals were just 5 of 24 (21 percent). In the Andrade fight alone, the challenger landed at 10 percent accuracy across the board.
In Calzaghe’s two 12-round fights with Lacy and Bika, Calzaghe was 22 of 65 overall (34 percent) while his opponents were 10 of 41 (24 percent). Calzaghe landed 5 of 21 jabs while Lacy and Bika combined for just 1 of 9 (11 percent) while in power punches, Calzaghe connected on 17 of 44 (39 percent) as opposed to his opponents’ 9 of 32 (28 percent).
So who will win? If one goes on physical factors, Kessler possesses more advantages. The 28-year-old Dane is seven years younger and at 6-1 is an inch-and-a-half taller. Each man has a 73-inch reach but Kessler sports the stronger, more developed physique. Kessler’s jab is straight, swift and powerful while Calzaghe’s, like most southpaws, serves as a range finder for the big left. In terms of single-shot power, Kessler’s cross is more powerful, though the Welshman’s still carries plenty of kick. Ironically enough, each man has a 74.4 knockout percentage.
The one physical advantage Calzaghe has is his hand speed, and, as the fight with Lacy proved, his combinations can still discombobulate the best.
The intangibles belong to Calzaghe. Of his 226 rounds as a pro, 171 of them took place in championship bouts while the same could be said of just 45 of Kessler’s 191 rounds. Calzaghe has gone 10 rounds or more 10 times to four for Kessler, so the Welshman is more accustomed to long, physical fights, which this one promises to be. Finally, and most importantly, Calzaghe is fighting at home before a massive throng of adoring fans who will cheer his every move. Fighters feed off a crowd’s positive energy and the noise could sway the judges to give Calzaghe more of the close rounds.
If this fight were taking place in Copenhagen or on neutral turf, Kessler would win because the younger, stronger fresher and hungrier man usually emerges victorious. But because this bout is in Cardiff, the epicenter of Calzaghe’s strength and will, he will capture a close – and perhaps controversial – decision.