For those that don't follow boxing on more than a casual level, looking at the lineup for Showtime's Super Six World Boxing Classic might result in a simple reaction: "I don't know any of these guys."
You should get to know them, and you should understand why this tournament is such an outstanding advancement. A slew of promoters, global TV networks, and top fighters themselves at 168 pounds have gotten together with a singular goal: Make great, important fights.
Now, there's some fibbing going on here. On their official event page, Showtime calls these six men "the six best super middleweights" in boxing, but that's not quite true. Arthur Abraham is a middleweight titleholder, undefeated, moving up because he ran out of challenges at 160 pounds. Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell are both very talented, young fighters with unblemished records that would be on their way to real contention right now if not for the fact that both decided to take the gamble with their careers and throw themselves right into the fire. And the man who is arguably the best super middleweight in the world, Lucian Bute, isn't involved.
Past these minor quibbles, there isn't a bad thing to say about the tournament. The boxing world is nearly unanimous: This is nothing but great for the sport. It is a truly global event, with fights scheduled to take place in the United States, Germany, Denmark and England.
Quick primer on the tournament's layout:
- It's a round robin, with each man facing three fighters for the group stage, then the top four will fight in the semi-finals, and those two winners will face each other for the championship.
- The round robin portion will be scored: 3 points for a stoppage win, 2 for a decision win, 1 for a draw, 0 for a loss. There is a tie-break mechanism in place in the event of a tie in the standings once the round robin is completed.
- The WBC and WBA titlists are in the tournament, and both organizations support the format and have signed off on letting the titles be defended (at least for now -- hey, nothing's perfect).
If you don't know these fighters very well or at all, let's take a quick look at all six of them.
30-year old Mikkel Kessler of Copenhagen is both the tournament's favorite in the eyes of many, and its wild card. Since a clear but well-fought decision loss to Joe Calzaghe (the greatest super middleweight of all-time) in 2007, Kessler has been tied up in legal trouble with his now-former promoters, the Palles. He has since signed with Germany's Sauerland Event after almost two full years of iffy opposition and undesirable fights.
And he has one more left, a mandatory defense against Gusmyl Perdomo that will come on September 12, which should be a walkover fight for what might well be a rejuvenated, determined Kessler. Sauerland won the rights with a high bid, and are planning to get the fight out of the way as soon as possible. The tournament starts in October.
Kessler (41-1, 31 KO) was seen by most as the world's second-best super middleweight when he fought Calzaghe, and to most of that same majority, he was still No. 2 when it was over, as he gave Calzaghe one of the stiffest tests of his career. Over the last two years, his stock has fallen some, though to no fault of his own. In his two fights, he has done what he was supposed to do, knock out inferior opponents.
Now, coming back out of the shell he was forced into, Kessler has shown that he has that willingness to fight the best, which should have been learned when he took on Calzaghe on Calzaghe's turf. Still, it has been so long since he's fought anyone as talented as the other five men in the tournament that you have to wonder if he might need to get re-adjusted to the speed.
His Odds: I think Kessler is best fighter in the tournament, and I think he's going to surprise some folks. I like him to wind up winning the whole shebang, but he -- or anyone -- won't do so without some close fights along the way.
Toughest Potential Matchup: Since Kessler's only loss came to Calzaghe, the inclination is to look at the six and look for a similar fighter, but the trouble is, there's really no fighter here or anywhere that's too much like Joe Calzaghe, who had a style (whether you enjoyed it or not) pretty much all his own. Jermain Taylor is closest in pure athleticism, but it's the quick, awkward Andre Dirrell that I think offers Kessler the hardest challenge. Kessler is a pretty conventional fighter, but a very good one.
Recent times haven't been so kind to former middleweight world champion Jermain Taylor, the man who dethroned living legend Bernard Hopkins at 160 pounds.
After beating Hopkins for a second time in December 2005, he changed trainers from Pat Burns to the legendary Emanuel Steward for a defense against Winky Wright in 2006. After a frustrating draw against Wright, Taylor was criticized for taking "soft" defenses with Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks, both of whom were moving up from 154 pounds, and neither of whom provided exciting or interesting fights. The Steward-Taylor partnership was clearly rocky almost every time out. They seemed not on the same page too much of the time.
And it all fell apart in September 2007 when Taylor took a challenge from then-unbeaten slugger Kelly Pavlik, who recovered from a second round knockdown to blitz Taylor in the seventh, a buzz-inducing instant classic of a fight that rose both fighters' stocks even though Taylor was knocked out.
Steward was fired. Longtime Team Taylor member Ozell Nelson was promoted to lead trainer, and took Taylor into a Pavlik rematch in 2008, which Taylor lost by decision. He returned with a win over Jeff Lacy last November, and in April of this year was 14 seconds away from what would have been a split decision victory over WBC titlist Carl Froch, when Froch's 12th round seek-and-destroy mission panned out as referee Mike Ortega jumped in to save Taylor from further punishment.
Taylor (28-3-1, 17 KO) is a fighter at the crossroads, and this tournament could serve as either his rebirth or his career's undoing.
His Odds: Frankly, they're not great on paper. Taylor has lost three of his last four fights and is 3-3-1 since the back-to-back wins over Hopkins, and he's 0-3-1 in "big fights" since then.
Toughest Potential Matchup: Arthur Abraham. Taylor might not be the favorite against anyone right now, but Abraham's defensive game is nearly as good as Winky Wright's and his power is on par with Carl Froch's, both fighters Taylor struggled with over 12 rounds. Unfortunately for Taylor, this is his first opponent, on October 17 in Berlin.
26-year old Dirrell (18-0, 13 KO) was the subject of much scorn among hardcore boxing fans as recently 2007. He faced fellow prospect Curtis Stevens on HBO, and to put it bluntly, he ran away for most of the fight, winning a decision which he both deserved and, well, didn't. He outboxed, outlanded, and by way of running for much of the bout, outworked Stevens, who simply couldn't get close enough to throw much, let alone land.
Since then, Dirrell has redeemed himself in the eyes of many. He has gone 6-0 since then, stopping everyone he's fought. He's gotten more aggressive offensively, which has served him quite well. Defensively, he earns his "Matrix" nickname with jerky movement and a strong ability to avoid getting hit. He's got good speed, good power, and he moves quite well. He's boiled down his strengths and started to become a fully-formed contender instead of just a prospect.
Dirrell is also a former Olympian who won the bronze medal at middleweight in the 2004 games. He will face WBC titlist Carl Froch in Nottingham on October 17.
His Odds: Both he and Andre Ward are tough to gauge for this tournament, because we know what they can do in theory, but neither has faced a top-level foe yet. Dirrell's fight with Carl Froch will be by far the biggest test of his pro career.
Toughest Potential Matchup: On pure skill, Dirrell looks like a tough nut to crack for every single fighter in this tournament. He probably has the quickest hands and most unique style of anyone here. But toughest for him might in fact be Jermain Taylor, a fellow fighter who relies heavily on his athletic ability.
The story of Arthur Abraham overcoming a broken jaw to outpoint Edison Miranda in 2006 has taken on a life of its own over the years. While Abraham's guile and toughness is truly to be admired, there was a lot of questionable officiating that took place that night. Helpfully, our consciences were cleared last year when they rematched, and Abraham destroyed Miranda in four rounds. That was his only fight over the middleweight limit. He looked like the same old Arthur, just stronger.
Abraham (30-0, 24 KO) was plenty strong to begin with. He's the "smallest" guy in the tournament, as his listed height of 5'10" is probably an inch overestimated at the least. But he also might be the best defensive fighter here, a cover-up artist that doesn't get hit much.
Abraham is also known as a slow starter who pours on the pressure after feeling out his opponent, and we know he can finish a fight when he smells blood. But Abraham arguably has never faced anyone as good as the other five guys in this tournament, either. He may not be able to start slow, sometimes giving away three or four rounds at the start of the contest, because that might be insurmountable. Mahir Oral, Lajuan Simon, Elvin Ayala, Wayne Elcock and even MIranda and Khoren Gevor don't stand up to the rest of this field.
It's not just a step up in weight for Abraham, it's a legitimate step up in competition.
His Odds: Abraham has been named as the favorite by more than a few people I've read or talked to, and if he's as good at super middle as he was at middleweight, he's got a great chance indeed.
Toughest Potential Matchup: Kessler, a guy who would fairly tower over Abraham and might be able to keep him at bay all night.
The 2004 Olympic gold medalist at light heavyweight shook off some of his naysayers with a dominant victory over Edison Miranda in May on Showtime, but with Miranda's stock dropped, there's still an air of "unknown" about Andre Ward coming into this tournament.
Ward isn't booked for October 17, which means his first opponent likely will be Mikkel Kessler sometime late in the year or very early in 2010. It is a massive climb up the ladder for Ward (19-0, 12 KO), but then so is everyone in the tournament.
Ward's been tough to read as a pro, and his past knee injuries should never be overlooked. In boxing or any sport, knee injuries can be really tough given that any wrong step can end a career. Ward's knee brace will be a constant reminder of that danger forever.
Ward does have one unique strength: He can fight effectively as both an orthodox fighter and a southpaw, and sometimes when he switches over to southpaw he's even better, and seems to be more powerful.
His Odds: They're not good, I don't think. He and Taylor are the real underdogs from my perspective, but Ward has some very dedicated fans that really believe in his future. I've never been terribly high on him (obviously he's quite talented), but I'm happy to see him in the tournament. It shows guts.
Toughest Potential Matchup: It's hard to say. We haven't seen Ward tested at all, so it's tough to tell what kind of fighter might trouble him. Dirrell has a more distinct style and in that way is a little easier to read right now. My gut feeling is that Abraham could be hell for him.
Froch went from a loudmouth to a legit titlist really quickly. While he spent much of his time calling out Joe Calzaghe (a fight almost no one thinks he would win), he seemed like an overhyped, fluffed-up guy with mediocre skills. After a war with Jean Pascal and a gripping comeback stoppage of Jermain Taylor, he's solidified himself as a top 168-pounder.
He's still not much to look at in a lot of ways. He's slow with the hands, plods around the ring, and often leaves himself open to be hit. But he's got heart for days and that can go a long way in boxing, even against technically superior opposition. Taylor showed he was a far better boxer than Froch, but he couldn't outlast him. He couldn't take the same punishment.
I also think for a long time, many of us underestimated his power. Froch (25-0, 20 KO) is pretty heavy-handed and can put a fight away. Taylor had gassed himself, but throwing big bombs in the 12th round of a grueling fight isn't easy either.
He'll face Andre Dirrell on October 17 in his hometown of Nottingham at the Trent FM Arena. While Froch is on a roll and has home court advantage, Dirrell's skill level is going to be hard for Froch, and he's going to have to lure "The Matrix" into his type of fight.
His Odds: Froch's other great strength is confidence. He truly believes he's the best in the world and he wants to prove it. If Froch kept on surprising people and won the whole thing, I'd be surprised, but at this point, I wouldn't be stunned.
Toughest Potential Matchup: Kessler or Abraham. Neither are the Dirrell or Taylor athlete type, but Froch has proven he can beat better athletes in Taylor and Pascal, even if it's by the skin of his teeth. Abraham and Kessler are tough, talented fighters, and I'm not sure there's enough bang Froch can throw at either of them to pull out a W.