With the recent retirement of British super middleweight Carl Froch, one topic that has received much attention is his standing among former British greats in a division that has produced some of the finest ever champions from these shores.
Below I analyse the respective careers of arguably the top two British 168lb legends and give my take on who stands higher in the all-time pantheon.
After bursting on to the world scene with an impressive first title victory, long periods of frustration followed until “The Pride of Wales” finally proved the doubters wrong and cemented his place among the greats of the sport with a superb finish to the longest ever championship reign in the 168lb weight class. While it’s true that there are a number of sub-par and even downright useless opponents littered among Calzaghe’s CV, the Welshman also defeated a range of former champions and world-class fighters in over a decade as WBO champion, as well as establishing himself as the premier fighter in a second weight division.
Style & Ability:
A super-fast southpaw with blurring combinations and a furious work-rate, Calzaghe had a seemingly inexhaustible engine, completing the twelve-round championship distance on thirteen occasions. He also had an excellent set of whiskers, and despite several brief visits to the canvas, never came close to being stopped in 46 contests. Fragile hands plagued his career and probably prevented more knockout victories, but he nevertheless carried serious power, with a number of former foes commenting on the deceptively hurtful effect of his so called “slaps”. Capable of boxing to a disciplined plan at long range and frustrating opponents with his speed and movement, as well as biting down on his gum shield and brawling wildly when it suited him, one of Calzaghe’s main strengths was his uncanny ability to adjust his style mid-fight and outmatch any opponent skill for skill.
Titles & Accolades:
[168lbs] British champion (1995-1996, 1 defence); WBO world champion (October 1997-September 2008, 21 defences); IBF world champion (March 2005-November 2006, 1 defence); WBC & WBA “super” world champion (November 2007, 0 defences); The Ring & lineal champion (March 2006-September 2008, 3 defences); undisputed champion (2007 following unification with Mikkel Kessler); holds the all-time records for the longest reign (10 years, 11 months) and consecutive number of title defences (21, joint with Sven Ottke) in the 168lb division.
[175lbs] The Ring champion (April 2008-February 2009, 1 defence).
2014 Boxing Hall of Fame, first ballot inductee.
Five Significant Opponents:
1. Chris Eubank (vacant WBO title, October 1997). Calzaghe floored Eubank in the first round and then barely let the former champion take a breather, claiming a wide, unanimous victory in an excellent, break out performance.
2. Byron Mitchell (13th defence WBO title, June 2003). In a wild two-round brawl, Calzaghe was floored briefly for the first time in his career before blazing back and putting Mitchell to the canvas within seconds of rising to his feet. The champion then poured on flurries of punches, rocking the former WBA titleholder backwards and causing referee Dave Parris to intervene.
3. Jeff Lacy (18th defence WBO title/IBF unification/The Ring & lineal title, March 2006). Lacy came over to the UK as an undefeated, rival champion being heavily hyped as a monster puncher and a new “Mini Tyson”, but Calzaghe absolutely ruined him – winning every second of every round in one of the finest performances ever seen in a British ring.
4. Mikkel Kessler (21st defence WBO title/3rd defence The Ring & lineal title/WBC/WBA unification, November 2007). In an absorbing battle between undefeated champions, the fight ebbed back and forth for the first four rounds before Calzaghe made the necessary adjustments to befuddle his opponent in a brilliant exhibition of technical boxing, winning comfortably on the cards to finally prove even the most ardent of his detractors wrong.
5. Bernard Hopkins (The Ring light-heavyweight [175lb] championship, April 2008). In a scrappy encounter, Calzaghe was floored by a counter right hand in the first round before clawing his way back to win a close split decision in the American’s backyard, landing more punches on Hopkins than any previous opponent had ever recorded. To put the victory in context, in his next bout Hopkins dominated the much younger, undefeated American puncher Kelly Pavlik in one of his finest ever performances.
Other Notable Victories:
W12 Robin Reid (a close split decision over a former WBC champion); TKO5 Omar Sheika (the boisterous American contender was coming off a quality victory over world-rated Glen Johnson); TKO10 Richie Woodhall (the Olympic bronze medalist and former WBC champion was world class, but stopped late); TKO1 & TKO6 Mario Veit (the undefeated mandatory challenger was blasted out in a round, before stringing together fifteen consecutive victories and forcing a rematch, but Calzaghe travelled to Germany and repeated the result in six); W12 Charles Brewer (an exciting battle ended in a wide unanimous decision over the former IBF champion); W12 Sakio Bika (the awkward African was unlucky to receive a technical draw against WBC champion Markus Beyer prior to facing Calzaghe, and went on to become champion in 2013); W12 Roy Jones Junior (the Welshman humiliated a vastly faded version of the best fighter of his generation at New York’s Madison Square Garden).
Ones That Got Away:
Steve Collins was scheduled to defend against Calzaghe in October 1997 before withdrawing injured at late notice and then retiring from the sport, citing a lack of motivation for the fight. Carl Froch chased a fight with Calzaghe towards the end of his reign, but Calzaghe opted instead to pursue bigger names in America at light-heavyweight. Fights with American greats Roy Jones and Bernard Hopkins were mooted for much of Calzaghe’s 168lb reign, with Hopkins even agreeing terms at one point before backing out of the contest. A fight with long-reigning rival IBF holder Sven Ottke also should have happened, but neither champion was prepared to travel to the other’s backyard. Fights against middleweight Kelly Pavlik and light-heavyweight Antonio Tarver would also have been huge, but failed to materialize.
Perhaps no British fighter in history has ever undertaken a more challenging run of back-to-back, world-class match-ups than Carl Froch: From December 2008-May 2012, The Cobra fought eight consecutive contests of the highest caliber (Pascal-Taylor-Dirrell-Kessler-Abraham-Johnson-Ward-Bute), winning far more than he lost and earning the respect of the entire boxing community as one of the sport’s toughest warriors. On the downside, despite the array of entertaining victories, he never quite managed to reach the summit of his division.
Style & Ability:
A super-strong fighter who loved a tear-up, Froch was also a world amateur bronze medalist who possessed an underrated and at times under-utilized set of boxing skills, with a ‘hands low’, unorthodox style often masking his technical know-how and effective left jab. He was also the owner of an absolute granite jaw and legitimate one-punch knockout power. The Englishman’s warrior spirit and inclination towards a straight shoot-out perhaps proving his shortcoming against more technically adept opposition, he nevertheless demonstrated he was capable of boxing to a disciplined strategy when it suited him.
Titles & Accolades:
[168lbs] English champion (2003, 0 defences), Commonwealth champion (2004-2006, 7 defences) & British champion (2004-2007, 4 defences); 2 x WBC world champion (December 2008-April 2010, 2 defences & November 2010-December 2011, 1 defence); IBF world champion (May 2012-February 2015, 4 defences); WBA “regular” world champion (May 2013-May 2015, 2 defences) [Note: Andre Ward was recognized as the WBA’s “super” world champion during this period]
“Super Six World Boxing Classic” tournament, runner-up (2011).
Five Significant Opponents:
1. Jermain Taylor (1st defence WBC title, April 2009). After being floored in the 3rd round by a right hand and behind on two of the judges’ cards going into the 12th, The Cobra scored a dramatic, Hollywood-style stoppage with just fifteen seconds remaining on the clock.
2. Mikkel Kessler (3rd defence WBC title, April 2011 & 2nd defence IBF title/WBA unification, May 2013). In their first meeting, the teak-tough “Viking Warrior” ended Froch’s first reign as WBC champion, earning a unanimous points verdict in a brutal back-and-forth battle in his native Denmark. After re-establishing himself as a world champion, Froch enticed the Dane to London and returned the favour – this time unanimously outpointing Kessler in yet another closely fought, outstanding war of attrition.
3. Arthur Abraham (vacant WBC title, November 2010). Abraham was considered a dangerous puncher and even went into the battle as a betting favourite, but was completely out-boxed by Froch, scoring a virtual shutout in easily his most disciplined, polished performance.
4. Andre Ward (2nd defence [2nd reign] WBC title/WBA unification, December 2011). The Englishman fought bravely, but Ward’s awkward style, more refined defence and superior technical skills proved a step too far, taking a clear unanimous victory over the twelve-round distance.
5. Lucian Bute (IBF title, May 2012). Bute started as a favourite in the Englishman’s hometown, but Froch battered the shell-shocked, undefeated IBF champion in a one-sided, five round beat down in one of his most impressive wins.
Other Notable Victories:
WRTD5 Robin Reid (the faded former WBC champion couldn’t hold off the rising star); W12 Jean Pascal (the undefeated, world-class Canadian later established himself as a light-heavyweight champion); W12 Andre Dirrell (undefeated, Olympic bronze medalist Dirrell lost a somewhat controversial split decision in Nottingham); W12 Glen Johnson (the faded 42 year-old former light-heavyweight champion fought well in losing a majority decision); TKO9 & KO8 George Groves (Froch’s bitter domestic rival floored and hurt The Cobra in the first round of their first meeting before being controversially stopped later in the fight, but the feud was brutally and conclusively settled in Froch’s final outing).
Ones That Got Away:
Froch pestered Calzaghe to give him his first title shot, but lacking the requisite name-value, couldn’t bait the Welshman into a fight. A rematch with Andre Ward and a rubber match with Mikkel Kessler would both have been interesting, but the Dane retired and Froch seemed to show a lack of interest in a second meeting with his American conqueror. Domestic rival James DeGale earned a mandatory shot at Froch’s IBF title, but – as Collins had done to Calzaghe and then Calzaghe had done to Froch years earlier – the champion cited a lack of motivation in meeting another domestic rival, and relinquished the belt instead. Light-heavyweight champions Sergey Kovalev & Adonis Stevenson would have presented an interesting test had the super middleweight elected to try for a belt in a second weight division, but Froch always said he was comfortable at the 168lb limit. Perhaps the most mouth-watering match-up of all would have been with middleweight monster Gennady Golovkin. The undefeated and much feared Kazakhstan champion called out Froch through the media, but despite early signs a deal might be made, the 38 year-old Englishman decided to retire instead.
Success in boxing is all about levels. And it seems to me that there is often a tendency to conflate respect for the Nottingham hero’s warrior spirit and formidable series of match-ups with the level of his actual success in the ring; whereas with Calzaghe the reverse is true, and many observers tend to let the disappointing periods during his career detract from the magnitude of his final accomplishments. So while there is certainly no argument here that Froch indeed faced a more consistent level of challenging opposition, we should remember that just because a fighter consistently fights the best, that does not automatically make him the best. (If it did, Oscar De La Hoya would probably be the greatest fighter of all time). Ultimately, there is a reason that a younger, more dangerous version of Mikkel Kessler was handily beaten by Calzaghe but the older, more shopworn version was able to defeat Carl Froch; and there is a reason Calzaghe reached the absolute pinnacle of the super middleweight division, while Froch never did. The reason is that he was not quite able to compete successfully at the same level.
Had these two fine champions met in the ring, the evidence suggests that Calzaghe’s greater speed and more refined boxing technique would probably have won the day. That being said, the theoretical victor in a meeting between the pair is not really the main issue here. “Mythical” match-ups are of course fun to debate, but based as they are on pure conjecture, they do not form the primary basis for assessing a fighter’s overall achievements. Looking at what they actually did, rather than what they might have done had they faced off in the ring, the only conclusion to be drawn, I think, is that Calzaghe still comfortably surpasses The Cobra in terms of his overall level of success.
That conclusion should not be construed as denigrating the career of Carl Froch. He is undoubtedly one of the finest champions Britain has ever produced. Ultimately though, it was Calzaghe who scaled the greatest heights: becoming the undisputed, consensus No.1 in his weight class; defeating fellow pound-for-pound entrants and Hall of Fame legends; emerging victorious in his most significant, defining contests; becoming a two-division champion and being regarded as a top three pound-for-pound talent for a sustained period of time, on both sides of the Atlantic. The Cobra’s CV, while outstanding, simply falls a notch below these accomplishments.
Matt can be followed on Twitter @Boxinphilosophy