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Mikkel Kessler: Searching For Opportunity

Mikkel Kessler, it seems, has always been ready and that is what he must be on March 24. Ready, this time, for his closeup.

For much of his professional career, the 28-year-old Danish super middleweight has searched for an opportunity. Even after unifiying the 168-pound title by stopping German Markus Beyer last Oct. 14 with one very stiff right hand to the chin that added the World Boxing Council title to the World Boxing Association one he already held, Kessler remained a relative unknown commodity outside of what his Danish promoter, Mogens Palle, calls "our little island.''

That will change Saturday night when Kessler makes his first paid appearance on HBO to face the challenge of undefeated No. 1 contender Librado Andrade (24-0, 18 KO) at Parken Stadium in Copenhagen. That night Kessler intends to make the case for himself. Not simply a case for inclusion in any debate over who may be the best super middleweight in the world but his case for wider exposure to the lucrative American television audience and the world of big-name opponents like Jermain Taylor and Bernard Hopkins, who both regularly fight on HBO.

For several years Palle and Kessler have pursued undefeated World Boxing Organization super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe. They say they have long been willing to fight him in his native Wales, where he will face reality TV creation Peter Manfredo on April 7 (also on HBO), and they have agreed to fight him for the short end of the purse. What they haven't been able to do is agree to something Calzaghe's promoter, England's Frank Warren, would find acceptable enough to risk his top fighter's future over.

Calzaghe (42-0, 31 KO) remains in many ways the prize because he is the most recognizeable name in the division and Kessler's handlers are hopeful that a strong showing by the Dane will convince HBO to pressure Calzaghe into a showdown between the best two super middleweights in the world but they are also now setting their sights on bigger names like Taylor, the reigning middleweight champion, or Hopkins, who is set to fight Winky Wright in July. To approach any of them however, Kessler must do more than subdue the hard-punching Andrade. He must overwhelm him. He must shine as brightly as a Danish winter sun, shine as he did against Beyer, whom he dominated before stopping him at 2:58 of the third round with a punch so powerful it convinced Beyer to sit on the floor as referee Guido Cavalleri counted him out rather than rise and face any more fury.

After the fight was over, Kessler stared into an international television camera and pointed his finger at the lens as he said, "I'll be ready for you, Calzaghe.'' Kessler's handlers remain just as cocksure today of what such a meeting would result in but they realize too that the pursuit of Joe Calzaghe is far less important to Kessler's future at the moment than is the pulverizing of Librado Andrade.

"At this point, this is Mikkel's most important fight,'' said Bettina Palle, Kessler's manager and the daughter of his promoter, from Copenhagen. "We have wanted to get him on HBO for such a long time. We have a lot of faith in Kessler's ability but he needs to make a good fight that HBO's viewers will like.

"We've been chasing Calzaghe for years so there's not much point in pursuing him further. He never wanted Kessler. Our first meeting after Mikkel won the WBA title we thought we had a deal but nothing was really ever there. If it comes up after this fight and Calzaghe is willing to fight we're ready but I believe HBO is the only one who can help. If they demand it maybe they would fight to unify but we believe Calzaghe would rather retire than face Kessler. So we look elsewhere.'' Whatever Calzaghe chooses to do after his April 7 effort to tie Hopkins for fourth all-time with 20 consecutive title defenses, Kessler must show American fight fans and HBO executives that he is as good as his record (38-0, 29 KO) implies and he must do it against a hard-punching opponent promoted by Oscar De La Hoya. To accomplish that, his proponents say, Kessler need only fight the way he did when he first won the WBA title from Manny Sciaca 2 1/2 years ago.

"After the fight was over, Kessler stared into an international television camera and pointed his finger at the lens as he said, "I'll be ready for you, Calzaghe.'' "

That night was a gloriously unexpected one for Kessler, who was 25 at the time and the WBC's No. 1 contender. He was himself in training to face Dannny Green in a WBC eliminator that would have led to a title shot if he won when his phone rang with the news that his then stablemate, Mads Larsen, who was headlining the event against Sciaca, had been injured in training. Would he accept the risk of facing the WBA champion on short notice after Sciaca and promoter Don King agreed to face Kessler? He did without hesitation. After seven rounds, Sciaca regretted the whole idea.

Pounded and hounded into submission all night, Sciaca retired on his stool at his father and brother's urgings at the end of Round 7. When the bell tolled for the eighth round it did not toll for Manny Sciaca. It tolled instead for the young Dane. Thus did Mikkel Kessler's super middleweight title reign begin. His coronation came without fanfare outside of Copenhagen, just as his rise to the top of the 168-pound division has been. But the latter is now about to change on March 24. Or so Kessler and the Palles hope.

"Kessler is a very good looking boy, a charming boy,'' Mogens Palle said from his home in Denmark. Palle has been promoting fights in Denmark for over 50 years, his most talented prodige being Ayub Kalule, who once gave Sugar Ray Leonard all he wanted bfore losing a title fight to him. Palle is not yet ready to put Kessler in the same category because even though Kalule "was not a real Dane he soldout every time for 10 years,'' Palle explained, looking at things from the perspective of a man who sells seats for a living.

Yet he shares at least one thing in common with Kalule, according to Palle.

"Kessler, he don't care where he fights or who he fights,'' Palle said. "He won the title and then went to Australia to defend it (winning a 12-round decision and bloodying the nose of local hero Anthony Mundine). He had a problem with a disc in his back and postponed it for a month. When he said he'd go fight Mundine he was in no shape at all. He was not able to spar one round for that fight or do one meter of road work and Kessler beat the crap out of Mundine.

"We've worked for two years to get him on HBO and all we kept hearing was 'Nobody knows Kessler.' They preferred Calzaghe over Kessler. I couldn't understand that, but if he beats Andrade in a good way we will have gotten the exposure we're looking for.''

Kessler is a smooth blend of the commodities that still sell best in boxing. He can fight, he can talk and he has the kind of good looks and warm personality that make female fight fans swoon. Only the former will help him against Andrade of course, but if that is enough to win that night the rest of his package could finally propel him into the crosshairs of the big money fights he and the Palles have for so long sought for him.

On March 24, "The Viking Warrior'' will finally get an opportunity to capture the attention of the American sporting public in the fourth, and most important, title defense of his career. For the rest of what he has to sell to ever be on display in the United States, he first must do what he's promised at every press conference in Copenhagen since the Andrade fight was announced. He has to convince the American boxing public that they've been missing somebody worth watching.

Mikkel Kessler believes he is is the best super middleweight fighter in the world. If Joe Calzaghe isn't interested in helping him make that clear then he'll try to do it without him Saturday night when he dances with Andrade in front of HBO's cameras. As for what he's worth, Mikkel Kessler is sure it's far more than some people might think.

"I was standing with Kessler outside his locker room after the Beyer fight in Copenhagen,'' recalled attorney and fight figure Michael Marley, who works with the Palles among others in boxing. "Beyer came over like a sportsman to shake hands. When he left a Danish fan came up to Kessler and gave him a piece of paper to sign. It was 100 kroner (Danish paper money). Kessler looks at him with this big grin and says, 'Is that all I'm worth?'''

Maybe not after March 24.

"Mikkel Kessler believes he is is the best super middleweight fighter in the world. If Joe Calzaghe isn't interested in helping him make that clear then he'll try to do it without him Saturday night when he dances with Andrade in front of HBO's cameras. As for what he's worth, Mikkel Kessler is sure it's far more than some people might think."

Posted 12:00 AM | Mar 21, 2007

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