November 3 -- Millennium Stadium, Cardiff, Wales
Winner: Joe Calzaghe UD-12
The type of fight that defined the year in boxing, 2007. The type of fight that helped spark renewed interest in the sport in its great comeback year.
Two undefeated champions that can fight, going toe-to-toe to decide who the man really is at 168 pounds. Welshman Joe Calzaghe brought his 43-0 record, along with his distinction as the RING champion as well as the WBO titleholder, and Denmark's Mikkel Kessler showed up 39-0, an emerging star in his athletic prime, the WBC and WBA champion.
50,150 fans filed into Millennium Stadium in Cardiff to watch their hero, reigning as super middleweight king for a decade, go up againts what many thought to be his stiffest test ever. So long had Calzaghe heard the catcalls, particularly from across the pond, accusing him of ducking the best competition. After giving Jeff Lacy one of the most thorough beatings any of us will ever see, the jabbering died down some. He'd made our guy -- the American upstart -- look like one of us had tried to step into the ring with Joe Calzaghe. Simply put, Calzaghe made Jeff Lacy look like a bum.
Then he fought a mandatory with Sakio Bika, and that impressed few. Then there was the joke defense against Peter Manfredo in April, drawing 35,000 fans to a pathetic mismatch that had no business even happening. It was a fight made hoping to capitalize on Manfredo's "Contender" fame, an easy defense for Calzaghe, and nothing more.
Suddenly, the taunts were back. Here was Calzaghe, having intensely dominated Lacy in 2006, with two straight fights that nobody cared about, and that were almost certainly going to be easy victories for him. The criticisms were back. Calzaghe and promoter Frank Warren were in love with the perfect record, not with the fight game, and no matter how much we demanded it, Joe would never, ever fight Mikkel Kessler.
Whether or not the outcry, the near demand for Calzaghe-Kessler from fight fans, had anything to do with the fact that the fight actually got signed is not for me to say. I wouldn't know one way or the other. I do know that both parties had to realize that it was the perfect way to make a lot of money, at the very least. Maybe secondary in their thoughts was the fact that Calzaghe-Kessler would be a landmark fight for the super middleweight division.
When it was signed, I was ecstatic. We all were. It was one of the few potential fights out there that had to happen if we were going to truly find out who the best was in a division. There aren't many.
It was also a truly defining moment for European boxing. These are two guys with no traditional American appeal, though I think both would be stars no matter where they go, as they're both charismatic personalities as well as excellent fighters. 50,000-plus showed up live in Cardiff, but the fight was an American event, as well. Everyone was looking forward to it, and HBO put it on the air, live, in prime time. When was the last time there was this sort of anticipation all around the world for a purely European fight?
The stadium was on pins and needles as the opening bell approached, and the first round showed that the fighters themselves may have been a bit overwhelmed by the moment too, if only briefly. Calzaghe and Kessler both came out a bit tentative, no one wanting to make the first mistake. It was clear that Calzaghe respected Kessler's knockout power, and knew that he had the speed and technique that Lacy lacked. It was also clear that Kessler didn't want to find himself in Lacy's predicament, being battered left and right because he let the momentum shift too far. It was a tense opening round, to say the least.
In the second round, Kessler found his distance and managed to bull Calzaghe around the ring a bit, and he started to land a vicious uppercut in the fourth round. After five, I had Kessler ahead, three rounds to two, 48-47. He was boxing patiently and effectively, holding off Calzaghe's trademark flurries where punches fire in from all angles, not allowing himself to become a victim of Joe's awkwardness, defensive mastery, and pure hand speed.
In the sixth round, Joe Calzaghe took the fight over for good. He got it as his pace, in his style, and he never looked back. Though Mikkel Kessler fought very well and landed good stuff, he was clearly the more tired of the two, and was obviously frustrated by Calzaghe. As early as the seventh, in a back-and-forth, tight fight, Kessler seemed to have urgency. He knew he was just a hair away from falling into Calzaghe's puzzle.
Calzaghe controlled the action with his jab, not allowing Kessler in. Mikkel had Calzaghe in some trouble in the eighth, but he just didn't have enough to really mount a big attack, which it became increasingly clearer by the round, he would need to beat Calzaghe in Cardiff. The uppercut that had been so effective was gone. He couldn't get his jab working, which is a big part of his arsenal. And though he was fighting pretty well, Calzaghe was just the better man.
I gave Calzaghe rounds six through eleven, and then he stayed back in the 12th, giving the round to Kessler, secure that he had done enough to win, and so respectful of Kessler's power and skill that he didn't want to risk mixing it up. He punched when he had to to keep Mikkel honest -- this wasn't Oscar literally scurrying away from Tito Trinidiad -- but he didn't engage.
And it turned out he was right. 116-112 on my card, and 116-112, 116-112, 117-111 on the official cards. Joe Calzaghe had turned in one of his greatest performances yet, and he solidified, once and for all, his tremendous rule over the super middleweight division. As his 2007 campaign closed out, so closed the books: Joe Calzaghe is the greatest super middleweight of all-time. And, to his credit, Mikkel Kessler proved that he was the definite No. 2 in the 168-pound division. In a fight so hyped, two class act, top shelf fighters didn't fail to deliver.
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