Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler look back on a super middleweight war, 10 years on
It’s been 10 years since Joe Calzaghe and Mikkel Kessler faced off in one of the biggest super middleweight title fights in boxing history.
Two unbeaten world champions put their respective belts on the line on a pleasant fall evening at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales, in front of 50,000 fans.
Calzaghe (43-0, 32 knockouts) had held the WBO strap for a decade and made an incredible 20 defenses. The quick-fisted Welshman had silenced all remaining critics when he added the RING and IBF belts to his collection by thrashing Jeff Lacy in March 2006.
The fearsome Kessler (39-0, 29 KOs) won the WBA belt three years earlier. He made two successful defenses before unifying the WBC title with a third-round knockout of German southpaw Marcus Beyer. The Danish boxer-puncher wasn’t as quick as Calzaghe, but he was talented and a big puncher.
“It’s a fight I really wanted,” Calzaghe told RingTV.com from his gym in Abercarn. “I think [promoter] Frank [Warren] was struggling to get the fight. As you can imagine, it’s hard to get two undefeated world champions in the ring together.
“I was willing to go to Denmark because Frank wasn’t sure if Mikkel would come to Cardiff. That was a risk I was willing to take. I’d beaten [Jeff] Lacy. I’d had all the plaudits, the euphoria of winning a unification fight after all the people doubted me.
“I just let it be known to Frank that (I wasn’t) interested in any other super middleweight except Mikkel Kessler. Me and him are head and shoulders above every other super middleweight in the world.”
When Calzaghe entered camp, he was 36 pounds over the 168-pound limit. The inevitable move to light heavyweight was imminent, but there was one last super middleweight battle to prepare for.
A consummate professional, Calzaghe managed to whip himself into shape during a rigorous 14-week training camp, overseen by his father and trainer, Enzo.
He sparred then-WBO cruiserweight beltholder Enzo Maccarinelli and future light heavyweight titleholder Nathan Cleverly, as well as a host of up-and-coming Welsh talent.
Kessler had also worked hard at home in Denmark before decamping to Wales a week before the fight. The visitor and his team rented a house in the countryside, commuting back and forth from the city center for various media obligations.
“It was one of my biggest fights because we were both undefeated,” Kessler said. “I was feeling very good, (but) I had a hand injury three weeks before the fight in sparring. The problem was they didn’t know what was wrong. I had it X-rayed and nothing showed up.
“I just had to put the gloves down and shadowbox for the last three weeks. I really think I was in the best shape of my life for that fight. I had four-and-half percent body fat.”
Calzaghe didn’t have a game plan for Kessler, or for anyone else for that matter. He let opponents worry about him.
“I never did anything for any boxer,” he said. “I just have a vision in my mind, what they’re going to box like, and (then I) do my own thing.
“You always train hard for a title fight. It’s the fear of losing that motivates you — gives you that extra 10, 20 percent. That gets you up at 3 o’clock in the morning to run six 5-minute miles, instead of 7-minute miles. To do 12 sprints, instead of 10 sprints.
“I knew I had to be at my best to beat Kessler. I knew at 50 percent with a bad hand, I’d have lost. I knew I had to be at my best and that’s what I was.”
The two came head-to-head at St. David’s Hall in central Cardiff for the weigh-in, around 36 hours before the opening bell. Kessler stood with a daunting tattoo that enveloped his right arm and body. He had a demonic smile on his face and Calzaghe simply smiled back.
“None of us would back down,” said Calzaghe of the prolonged staredown. “Like two stags locking horns, wanting to be king of the castle. He was the younger guy, undefeated, going to take over, but I wasn’t ready to give up my titles. This was the biggest fight of my life and I loved that.
“There was a mutual respect. There was no trash-talk in the buildup. He was 100 percent confident. Why wouldn’t he be? He’d won all  fights, two titles, dealt with everybody in style.”
In the U.K., the fight was broadcast on Setanta, while HBO aired the fight live in America. The ring walks were in the early hours of the Sunday morning to accommodate U.S. TV.
Naturally, it was a pro-Calzaghe crowd and that brings a certain responsibility and pressure.
“You have to be strong,” said the 45-year-old Hall of Famer. “You have to block all of that off because you start looking around at people and so on. There’s enough nerves as it is.
“You just feel the atmosphere. I remember it was a really long walk and the ring looked so far away. I was relaxed. I wasn’t any more nervous than in any other big fight. As long as I did all the groundwork and I was 100 percent fit, in my mind, I really didn’t believe anyone could beat me.”
Kessler admits to being nervous when he entered amid jeers from the home crowd.
“I could see some Danish flags as I came to the ring. I think there was about six or seven thousand from Denmark,” Kessler recalled. “I remember before we started the fight. I stood there and thought, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ [Laughs.] It was like a big dream. I was very nervous.
“I looked at Joe in his corner and he wasn’t looking at me. I knew he was nervous too. I had the thought, ‘OK, bring yourself together. You’re the best in the world. You’re gonna kick his arse.'”
After the introductions from Michael Buffer, it was time to put up or shut up for the two best 168-pounders on the planet.
Over the first four rounds, both men had their moments and things were nicely poised at the midway point. However, as had been the case in prior outings, Calzaghe made winning adjustments. That ability to adjust is what made the Welshman a great prizefighter.
“The first few rounds were close,” acknowledged Calzaghe. “The fourth round, he won. I was too anxious, jumping in. He was expecting me to come out aggressively. I was fighting his gameplan. I found myself getting drawn into him, falling short and getting caught with uppercuts, especially in the fourth.
“It was a wakeup call — the first and second uppercut — and he hit me with a right hand. They stung. I had a good chin and thought, ‘Wow, this guy can hit.’
“He brought thousands of Danish (fans). When he had a good fourth round, you could hear all the bells. The (Welsh) crowd went quiet and I thought, ‘I think I’ve had a bad round here. [Laughs.] I haven’t heard ‘Super Joe’ for a couple of rounds.'”
Kessler felt things were going his way at that point.
“I remember I had a good fourth round and shook him a little bit,” said the former champion. “Then I thought, ‘This fight is mine. I’m going to take this fight’. I can beat him in the later rounds, but that didn’t happen.”
Calzaghe was able to change his fighting style and offset Kessler with his boxing skills and activity.
“I had to adapt, ’cause the first four rounds weren’t exactly going to plan,” said the Welsh southpaw. “I went back to the corner and from there I started to use my boxing skills and pulled away.
“I caught him with a good bodyshot in the eighth and he grabbed on to me for dear life. We got broken up and he recovered.
“Even in the 12th round, he was still dangerous, looking for that big shot. He was a tough fighter. He was one of, if not the best boxer I fought. Definitely the best super middleweight. He punched hard. He was undefeated at the time. When they get beat they’re never as good, but he was undefeated and he was at his peak. Don’t take that away from him. That was a massive win for me.
“Not every fighter can adapt. I was winning the fight the way I wanted to win. I could adapt and Mikkel couldn’t. He couldn’t find a way to solve me — from this attacking guy early on, to a guy who boxed in and out and used (the) jab, which was the key to the fight.”
Kessler admits that the fight got away from him in the second half.
“I didn’t know what the score was,” said the Danish warrior, who is looking to return to the ring in 2018. “He changed his style all the time, so it was difficult for us to change my style. I didn’t know what happened. I knew I gave it my all. I thought it was close.”
The scorecards were in unison for Calzaghe: 117-111 and 116-112 twice.
“That was a great way to finish off,” Calzaghe said proudly. “It was one of the greatest moments of my boxing career when they lifted me up. It was the most amazing feeling ever. I knew it was never going to get better than that in this country.
“I couldn’t have picked a more perfect way to finish off at super middleweight. Ten years as champion, fighting at my home stadium against the best other super middleweight. It was great. There was nothing else to do at super middleweight.”
Kessler had lost his unbeaten record and, while still in the ring, made overtures to Calzaghe about a return fight.
“When they raised his hand after I thought, ‘I got a lot of money for that fight, but Joe can you have my money and I get to raise my hand too,’” recalled Kessler. “Is it about the money? Of course, but there I was only thinking about one thing: taking the belts. I don’t care about the money. I was sad but not angry, because I couldn’t have done anything better that day.
“I said to Joe after, ‘Now, we have to get that rematch.’ He looked at me and said, ‘Mikkel, tonight it was my night and sorry brother, no rematch.'”
Not wanting to lose any momentum, Calzaghe closed out his career with two light heavyweight title victories against American legends Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones Jr. Kessler attended his friend’s final two moments of glory.
Calzaghe went on to win the BBC’s British Sports Personality of the Year for 2007. Kessler would win more world title fights and the pair remain good friends.
Looking back, Calzaghe feels the Kessler win is one of the defining moments of his Hall of Fame career.
He said. “If I’d to pick three: (Against) Lacy, I was injured, going in with the mindset of being the underdog. Performing and showing the Americans was just a dream. [Then] Kessler and fighting [Bernard] Hopkins in Las Vegas. Being a two-weight world champion. I know people would say it wasn’t for the belts, but THE RING Magazine is the ultimate belt and to win two RING Magazine belts was brilliant.
“To talk about it as being 10 years is scary. Time flies. It’s great we can look back at it positively as a fight people still remember and hopefully they will for years to come. I always wanted to leave my legacy in boxing, leave a mark, leave my stamp on history.”
Ironically, almost 10 years later to the day, big-time boxing returned to the Welsh capital when Anthony Joshua stopped Carlos Takam in 10 rounds.
“Joshua’s done well, he’s done everything asked of him,” Calzaghe stated. “It’s the perfect time in boxing. When I was fighting, there was times when boxing was going through the doldrums with TV companies. I think it’s great having a couple of different TV channels against each other. It’s good for boxers. They get paid more now and they get more recognition, more air time.
“We had the heavyweight champion of the world (in Cardiff). It was great for Welsh boxing. I’m happy boxing is back in the stadium. Some good exposure for the Welsh boys and, who knows, one of those boys could headline in the stadium [in the future].”
As Calzaghe said, time does fly, but memories last and Calzaghe-Kessler will live long in Welsh boxing folklore.
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