Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Carl Froch and Self-Belief

Slow, lumbering, repeatedly beaten to the punch, how the hell does Carl Froch have a world title? Jermain Taylor lands the right hand with ease – knocks him down with a hard shot in the third. Froch must be just another one of these "European" champions, skillfully maneuvered to a world title without being anything all that special. And Jermain Taylor just lost to Pavlik twice. He's no great shakes either anymore, but he's dominating! Froch has no skill! His footwork is atrocious! He's no better than a barroom brawler! I can't believe this guy has a title!  

But something changes. Froch doesn't fold after the early onslaught; he keeps coming. He's actually pressing forward seemingly undeterred. He goes to the body with combinations and finds a home for his long right hand. Slowly, the fight starts to turn. As Taylor begins his characteristic late-round fade, Froch comes on even stronger. Froch lands all sorts of sneaky and unconventional shots. His confidence seems to grow by the minute. He was just beaten to a pulp a few rounds ago and now he's charging forward! Who is this guy? It's the final round and Froch needs a knockout to win. He goes to work on Taylor, unloading as much as he can. He backs Taylor into a corner and unleashes a furious salvo. Taylor collapses like an accordion. The unthinkable just happened!

To most American boxing fans, this fight was their introduction to Carl Froch. He may not have been a technical marvel but what a fun fighter!

Building on his momentum from the Taylor victory, Froch entered Showtime's Super Six super middleweight tournament. With fighters such as Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham and Andre Ward participating, Froch wasn't expected to win. However, Froch, underestimated throughout his career, performed admirably. He first won a debatable decision at home in Nottingham over Andre Dirrell. It was an ugly bout that featured alternating periods of running (by Dirrell) and holding (by both). There were few authoritative punches that landed. I thought that Froch did enough to squeak by with the win but perhaps what was most telling to me was that Froch, probably the worst natural athlete in the tournament, fought the best one on even terms.

Froch next dropped a close decision in a war to Kessler, whose accuracy and combination punching were just a little better throughout the fight. Froch left the ring believing that he had won. After the defeat (his first), he offered a litany of complaints and perceived slights. However, losing a spirited fight to Kessler, long seen as one of the best of the division, didn't diminish his stature in the court of public opinion. 

His next outing was easily his best performance of the tournament. He comprehensively dominated Arthur Abraham. This time he evinced boxing skills that hadn't been a clear part of his earlier repertoire. Mastering distance, he kept to the outside, pumped the jab out repeatedly and used his legs to thwart Abraham's aggression. Here, Froch revealed that he wasn't just a mere slugger; he could think his way through a fight as well.

As the Super Six inexorably continued on – it turned out to be over a two-year commitment – participants started exiting in droves. Taylor left after a knockout loss to Abraham. Dirrell withdrew because of post-concussion symptoms and Kessler exited with shoulder and eye issues. Yet, Froch soldiered on. He put forward another solid performance against Glen Johnson (a replacement fighter in the tournament) by using the ring to nullify Johnson's straight-line movements. In the finals, he was outgunned by Ward but he probably won more rounds than any other of Ward's opponents.

By the end of the tournament, Froch had made his mark on the international boxing scene. Now aligned with promoter Eddie Hearn and Matchroom Sport, he was ready to boost his profile back in his native England. Earlier in his career, he was often dismissed by the British press as crude or inconsequential, a fighter who paled in comparison to Joe Calzaghe and the other great British super middleweights; now he returned home as a fighter of significance.


There is a strand that runs through Carl Froch's career that helps explain his success and also why he's turned off his fair share of boxing fans (mostly from Britain). Call it extreme self-belief, arrogance, stubbornness, a lack of humility; take your pick. Early in his first championship reign, he constantly cajoled the newly-retired Joe Calzaghe, disparaging him, questioning his manhood and downplaying his accomplishments. Calzaghe retired as U.K. boxing royalty but Froch thought nothing of the Welshman's esteem in boxing circles. To him, Calzaghe – and everyone else – was on his level.

Froch (and perhaps only Froch) felt like he was destined for greatness. Not content with Mick Hennessy's promotional efforts early in his career, Froch placed a large amount of faith in Matchroom Boxing and Eddie Hearn's ability (and bankroll) to create stars. Froch felt that he belonged on England's grandest stages. He never forgot the disdain and contempt that the British media had for him early in his career, not to mention his difficulty in getting proper exposure on British TV. The effects of these slights never really left him and his sneer became even more pronounced as he graduated to larger venues. 

In the lead up to one of his George Groves fights, Froch referred to himself as "an international boxing superstar" and this pronouncement was mocked by many British boxing fans incessantly. However, the statement was completely true. But as Froch's status in the sport ascended, there was no corresponding rise in gratitude. He was still the bloke from Nottingham, the one who was dismissed and underestimated. 

As Froch started to become a regular commentator on Sky TV's boxing broadcasts, he disparaged potential rivals, regularly downplaying the achievements of a Groves or a James DeGale. In the build up to the first Groves fight, Froch seemed almost shocked that Groves shared the stage with him, that someone of Groves' level (however Froch perceived it) would be even worthy to fight him.

But Froch's self-belief paid off quite handily in the ring. He never believed that he was out of a fight. Get dropped early in a match, no problem. Take flush shots all night; no issue for him. Athletic or technical disadvantages, he's heard that story before. His internal fortitude brought him off of the canvas and snatched victories away from Taylor and Groves.

With supreme confidence in trainer Rob McCracken, Froch truly believed that the combination of his guts and McCracken's strategy created an unbeatable tandem (Ward may say otherwise, but hey, Froch competed). It's why he was certain that Groves was on his way out in the first fight and that the stoppage was just. His self-confidence helped corral difficult styles, fighters with more skills, power and athleticism. It helped him take down national heroes and hungry upstarts. (And I would be remiss if I didn't point out that Froch's self-belief helped land supermodel Rachael Cordingley. Clearly, Carl must have thought that grace was for suckers.)


Interestingly, Froch developed an almost cult-like following among many hardcore boxing fans in America. Perhaps his arrogance, grandiosity and occasional impish complaining seemed old hat for American audiences, who for decades had experienced that type of behavior from many of its star athletes.

In my opinion, Froch offended so many British fight fans because he violated their sense of sportsmanship. It seems to me that in the U.K. and Europe it is more culturally ingrained to be respectful of opponents than it is in America. After fights in Britain, the boxers are often interviewed side-by-side on the ring apron; they might as well be old chums. British fighters seem to pull for another far more than they do stateside. It's a much more collegial atmosphere. Yes, they might bash each other in the ring but afterwards a couple of pints could bury the hatchet. In Britain, a boxing match often resembles a contest. There is a winner and a loser. It's sporting. In America, the combatants perceive each fight as a life-or-death proposition (at least that's the attitude in the build-up to the event, the results in the ring may suggest otherwise). 

Perhaps America's capitalistic impulses, its social strife and/or its multi-cultural population forbid such a fraternal attitude. Although there is respect among boxers in the U.S. (especially after they retire), the cordiality rarely exists in the same proportion that it does in the U.K., and especially not near the ring. This is not a knock on either country (and there are certainly exceptions to be found on both sides of the Atlantic); however, I just wanted to point out a difference that I've observed. 

So Froch makes outlandish statements. So his ego seems out of control. So his self-love might make him a bit much. In America, we say, so what? We see that every day. It's not as if Froch is breaking laws or exhibiting repugnant behavior (the U.S. is probably more forgiving of its sporting stars in that area as well). At heart, Froch really isn't a bad person. He can be – to use British parlance for a minute – a knob, a blowhard, a bellend, a cunt or a throbber, but to Americans he's a true fighter. And we respect that.

Q. How do you beat a great pocket fighter?
A. Make sure that there's no pocket. 

Froch's most sublime moment in the ring occurred against Lucian Bute in 2012. Boxing in England for the first time in two-and-a-half years, Froch was a slight underdog against the undefeated champion from Canada. (It was a wonderfully shrewd maneuver by Eddie Hearn to convince Bute's team to travel abroad for the first of a proposed home-and-away series). From the opening bell, Froch dominated the fight in what was one of the best game plans that I have witnessed in covering the sport. McCracken and Froch completely neutralized all of Bute's advantages.

Froch remained either in or out the whole fight. This was not the right opponent for his jab. He started off rounds out of range, circling the ring and waiting patiently to make his move. He then would bullrush Bute behind slinging right hands and left hooks. Once Froch got in close, he battered Bute with body shots and short punches to the head. Bute had no ability to adapt to this style. And Froch, coached expertly on the fight's strategy, didn't just get in and get out. Once he was on the inside, he kept working and roughed up Bute whenever possible.

McCracken had done his homework. He saw that Bute was great at leading and bad at countering. Yes, if Bute was a precise counterpuncher, Froch, who rushed in almost completely exposed, would have been dead meat. However, McCracken observed this flaw in Bute's repertoire and exploited it. In addition, he noticed that Bute needed space to land all of his shots. Nothing from him was short. That's why Froch stayed at close range whenever possible. He was better protected there.

By the fifth round, Bute was helpless against the ropes and Froch was finally able to send him to the canvas. Shortly afterward, the fight was waved off. In true Froch fashion, he fought Bute with contempt, like he didn't even belong in the same ring with him. 

A lasting memory of the evening was Hearn's bear hug of Froch after the victory. Apparently, Froch had discussed a potential retirement with Hearn if he was unable to beat Bute. However, Froch's emphatic win cemented his status in the ring and also set up Hearn as the promoter for big events in Britain. It was an enormous night for both of them.

Fighting with far more respect in his next big outing, Froch essentially outworked Mikkel Kessler in their rematch. When Kessler threw, he probably landed better shots but Froch's volume and consistent effort won him the fight. Again, McCracken was masterful. He realized that Kessler needed to be exact with his punches. More specifically, Kessler didn't like missing and he wouldn't let his hands go until he had a solid opening; fortunately, Froch never had a problem with missing shots. The victory was a validation of Froch's self-belief. In his mind, he deserved to win their first fight and he finally had his proof. After the fight, Froch showed that he could be a sore winner as much as he had previously been a sore loser; he denied Kessler the opportunity of a trilogy match.

Froch's final two fights of his career were thrilling affairs against George Groves. Both bouts provided indelible images: Groves dropping Froch in the opening round of the first fight, the controversial stoppage in the first bout by Howard Foster and, in front of 80,000 fans in Wembley, Froch's final knockout blow in the rematch.

The finality of the second Groves fight masked a decline in Froch's capabilities in the ring. Groves certainly possessed athleticism but it wasn't like he was Roy Jones in the ring. Yet, there were huge disparities in hand speed and, more importantly, reflexes. Groves couldn't miss with the right hand in the opening rounds of their first fight. In both contests, Froch's defense was poor.  

Furthermore, their first bout was perhaps the only time where I believe that Froch and McCracken had underestimated an opponent and his corner. Leading up to the initial fight, Groves had left his trainer Adam Booth. Paddy Fitzpatrick took over the reins in the corner and where Booth almost always relied on subterfuge, cleverness and cunning, Fitzpatrick went for shock. Instead of using his boxing skills and superior foot speed, Groves attacked Froch with crushing lead and counter right hands. Not only was Froch unprepared for that type of fight, he also seemed overmatched by Groves' power and speed. He was dominated in the early rounds.

Ultimately, Froch won both fights by guile, experience and intelligence. Froch's body work in the middle rounds of the first fight had a tremendous effect on Groves. Over time, Groves lost much of his foot speed and his defensive concentration started to wane. Yes, the ending was premature but Froch was causing serious damage at that point in the match. The tide had turned. In the rematch, they fought on even terms until the eighth round. There, Froch threw a three-punch combination that ended things. He pawed with a straight right hand (intending to miss with it), then went with a half-speed left hook to the body and then finished the combination with a thunderous right hand. Groves hit the canvas – and it was over.

The final victory spoke to Froch's savvy in the ring. He noticed that Groves' defense was getting sloppy as fatigue set in. Groves no longer moved his hands fast enough to protect himself. The whole sequence was designed to land that final shot.

After the fight, Froch scanned the adoring crowd at Wembley Stadium and one could practically feel the enormity of the moment hitting him. Here was his crowning achievement. Finally, he was the acknowledged master of British boxing. There was no longer any resistance, no further mountains to climb. He had made it to the pinnacle; where he felt he had belonged all this time. The world had finally caught up with him.


As the high of that evening in Wembley finally dissipated, it was time for Froch to figure out what to do with his career: retire or keep fighting. Although the Groves rematch ended with a resounding victory, I'm sure that Froch picked up on some subtle cues from those two bouts. He was hit a lot and that first knockdown came fast and hard. In addition, how many comebacks did he really still have in him? 

Although Froch can be extremely arrogant, he is an excellent student of the sport and fight analyst. The writing was on the wall. For him, the timing was right for an exit. He would have no sweeter victory than Wembley. Walking away from potentially millions of dollars, Froch instead chose to leave the sport with all of his faculties intact. 

In my experience with highly arrogant people, what they hate the most is to be embarrassed. Their heightened sense of self-regard abhors humility or an acknowledgement of weakness. In this context, Froch's retirement makes perfect sense and I doubt that we'll see a comeback. So Froch leaves the sport without the public seeing him struggle with the athleticism of James DeGale or the power of Gennady Golovkin. Instead, his final boxing image is an opponent supine on the canvas, his own hand raised in glory and a crowd adoring him. Any other ending could be too painful.

But despite whatever personal foibles that diminished his likability, Froch was a must-see fighter. I had the pleasure of attending two of his bouts in Atlantic City (a win against Glen Johnson and a loss to Andre Ward). I learned a lot about Froch by watching him live. He was far more than the sum of his parts, he was certainly more intelligent than given credit for and he never stopped trying in the ring. Oh yeah, he was pretty damn talented too. 

Froch may exit the sport with his share of haters and admonishers but even all but the craziest of them would grudgingly acknowledge his accomplishments in the ring. He provided thrills and entertainment, not to mention spectacular copy. He helped raise Britain out of its boxing slumber and reminded it of how large the sport could be. Froch was an outsized personality in a boxing scene that was often composed of unassuming, nice blokes from the corner gym. Froch didn't see himself as a Hatton figure who was just one of the guys. He was an attraction, a star. By the time he retired, he was proven correct. Every statement of his was dissected by British boxing fans and used as fodder to propel social media discussion. British boxing was eating out of the palm of his hand and he was without rival as the U.K.'s number-one boxing attraction. Froch envisioned such realities for himself many years earlier but now it had finally, and indisputably, come to pass. 

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook

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