by Kieran Mulvaney
In the immediate aftermath of his first, back-and-forth, give-and-take tussle with Mikkel Kessler, before the rationalization and defiance kicked back in, Carl Froch's eyes told the story. So too did his words.
Appearing uncharacteristically downcast, the preternaturally super-confident Englishman looked at girlfriend Rachel Cordingly as the two embraced in the ring.
"I'm sorry," he said.
Cordingley's response - a disbelieving "What?" - was more than the effort by a loving partner to be consoling; it was a genuine and legitimate expression of disbelief that, after 12 rounds of Herculean effort, Froch could possibly feel that, win or lose, he had failed in any possible way.
The judges' scorecards provided the explanation for Froch's apology: Kessler had won a unanimous decision. But it had been a truly titanic battle, one that most neutral observers considered to be closer to the 115-113 card of Guido Cavellari than Roger Tilleman's 117-111. As the disappointment ebbed, Froch's swagger ultimately returned with the assertion that had the fight been in England rather than Kessler's Denmark, the result might have been different.
He has the opportunity to put that theory to the test on May 25 when, three years after their initial encounter, super-middleweights Froch and Kessler clash again, this time in London, on HBO World Championship Boxing.
Entering the first fight, Kessler was considered the classier boxer, whereas Froch was looked upon as an unglamorous brawler, of little stylistic sophistication but immense fortitude. But Froch reckoned that Kessler's career success had come largely because of his ability to act as a counterpuncher against onrushing foes, and as a result he resolved to be more of a boxer when the two men stepped into the ring on April 24, 2010.
He was true to his word as the bout began, circling and taking half-steps backward in the early going, looking to lead Kessler onto right hands behind his deceptively lugubrious jab; but the Dane willingly rose to the bait, pumping out stiff straight jabs and right hands as he assumed the role of aggressor. From the fourth onward, Froch - a notoriously slow starter - began to step forward with his counters, landing a sweeping left hook and a trio of concussive right hands in the fifth before Kessler adapted, deploying lateral movement that nullified Froch's counter punches. Indeed, in round 8 it was Froch whose knees were buckled when he threw a roundhouse right and walked into a straight counter from Kessler.
The momentum changed again, and as the fight entered the championship rounds, it appeared to be up for grabs. The two men responded like champions should, throwing caution to the winds and winging home run punches at each other, each man staggering the other down the stretch as the crowd roared.
Kessler emerged victorious, but since then the two men's paths have diverged somewhat. Kessler, citing an eye injury, fought just once in the next two years, and only twice more after that. Froch rebounded from his loss to outbox and befuddle Arthur Abraham and Glen Johnson, and although he too lost to Ward, he bounced back to annihilate Lucien Bute and Yusuf Mack.
But still, if Kessler's appearances since last he faced Froch have been intermittent, they have also been concussively conclusive; while the Viking Warrior may have become something of a forgotten man while Froch has barged into many pound-for-pound lists, there is no suggestion the proud and skillful Dane is going to let the man from Nottingham walk through him.
It can be hard to predict fights involving Carl Froch; it can be tricky, also, to assess, once the bout is underway, who is in the ascendant. The reason for that is the Englishman's unique and confounding style. He carries his lands low, flicking out a left jab that looks less effective than it actually is, and following up with right hands that arc slowly to reach their target but often land with full force anyway. Even when it appears he is losing round after round, it means little: he has a remarkable ability to step up a gear almost imperceptibly, without changing stance or style or even obvious effort, so that suddenly his opponent is taking vicious shots to the head and the momentum has shifted dramatically.
The likely scenario is that each man will attempt to do what he attempted to do three years ago. Froch, his hands dangling at his waist, will circle and move. Kessler will keep his hands high and work behind a stiff jab and a straight right hand. The question will be whether Kessler immediately goes on the offensive - which, despite his counter-punching reputation, worked effectively at the outset of their last contest - or try to lure Froch into counters of his own, such as the one that buckled his knees in the eighth round in 2010. Expect, not a Rios-Alvarado-type brawl, but an intelligent, thinking man's battle, with subtle shifts in footwork and momentum, a high punch output and a clash of styles.
The British crowd will be cheering Froch on to a reversal of his previous fortune against Kessler. But whatever the outcome, the history of both men suggests that, when the final bell rings, neither will have anything for which to apologize.