Elliot Worsell got to see the inner workings of Carl Froch as he readied himself for Andre Ward in the culmination of the long and winding super-middleweight tournament
HAVING overtaken him on the steepest of hills, I waited at the top, hands on both knees, for a world champion to catch up. My fear, as I waited, had little to do with being caught and a lot to do with his reaction to being overtaken, while my hope was that the sight of me stopping and the sound of my encouragement would be deemed respectful, which was the aim, rather than condescending, which was how it felt. There was, though, in the end no need to worry, for once up the hill Carl Froch proceeded to make light of both my quandary and my lead by sprinting on ahead and beating me to the finish line as if that had been the plan all along. Watching him go, it became clear his last-ditch rally was fuelled by the kind of competitive edge and determination amateurs lack and elite athletes have not only in abundance but also in reserve, apparently. With it, he left me in the dust. More than that, he left me confused.
“I know some boxers don’t like the long runs, but I don’t think you can beat that feeling you get halfway round when you feel completely f**ked,” ‘The Cobra’ said, stretching. “You can’t breathe and your legs turn to jelly. You have no choice but to suck it up, maybe drop the pace, wait for that second wind to arrive, and then push. Gradually you become more and more confident that the second wind will arrive.
“It’s all mental, too, and I think those kinds of runs really work with the way I fight. If you’re getting nailed, cornered, pushed around, or get put down, you know you can suck it up and overcome that bit of adversity. If you feel tired and out on your feet, you know it’s only temporary. I like going into a fight knowing that I’ve gone through that already in training.”
The date was July 26, 2011, and Froch, then 34, was both the WBC super-middleweight champion of the world and a man on holiday in Hanover Parish, Jamaica. He was 14 weeks away from fighting Andre Ward, the WBA champion, in the final of the Super Six World Boxing Classic (oblivious to the fact their October 29 date would be moved to December 17) and was in the process of getting fit again a month-and-a-half after defeating Glen Johnson, a Jamaican, in the tournament’s semi-final. Never entirely sure whether to train or relax, Froch spent his fortnight in Jamaica that summer alternating between the two. Some afternoons he would sunbathe by the pool wearing his shades and red Paul Smith swimming trunks, whereas at other times he would perform what he described as the ‘Cobra Circuit’ (press-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and dips) either by the pool or inside the resort’s gym. Regardless, he would complain less about having to train and more about elbow pain, a long-term injury with which he had learnt to live, and also grey hairs, which had started to show and prompted him to joke, “Just for Men want me to promote their hair dye and Rachael (Froch’s partner) will leave me if I don’t dye it. I’m an old codger.”
There were several big wins still to come for Froch, a sign he had only just entered his prime, but it’s true nonetheless to say boxing ages its heroes and that a style like Froch’s serves only to quicken this course. He could feel it back then, nigh on a decade ago, and seemed almost resigned to the fact that the very attitude that would define him – chiefly, a reckless, thrilling, uncompromising style married with a desire to fight the best – would also be the thing that could, if he stuck around too long, potentially ruin him. “The only thing I do feel I’m losing with age is my legs,” he said. “They aren’t as strong as they were. You get used to lactic muscle building up in your arms throughout the rounds, but your legs you need at all times. I don’t find it as easy to get on my bike and move around anymore. I don’t find it as easy to rely on my legs to evade shots. “I trained in New York for two weeks before the Glen Johnson fight and badly f**ked up my calves on runs. I was doing gradual incline hill runs in the park and didn’t realise the damage they were doing. One morning my calf muscle was completely solid and stiff and had no give whatsoever. I had to get my little brother to poke and prod and manipulate it. I was just hoping my legs would be okay in the fight.”
Three days before I was beaten by him in a race, I watched Carl Froch pull the cocktail stick attaching two pieces of white bread for the purpose of removing from a sandwich two slices of cheese and scraping away the excess grease on both sides of a rasher of bacon. “There’s no need for that much grease in it,” he went on to explain. “They also use that silly plastic McDonald’s cheese. It’s like putting rubber in your mouth.”
As he then ate all he had redesigned, Froch took to lifting his T-shirt and manipulating, almost caressing, a loose bit of skin that had turned up uninvited above the waistband of his trunks. “That’s the tell-tale sign, isn’t it?” he said, pinching his stomach. “I’m 12 stone 10 (pounds) right now, and that’s the 10 pounds right there, at least in my mind. The older you get, the tougher it becomes to shift that looseness around your waist. It takes a different kind of discipline to keep it off between fights. That’s what makes somebody like Bernard Hopkins so amazing. He’s, what, 46 years of age now? Incredible. Still not an ounce of excess fat on him. He lives the life between fights and views life as a never-ending training camp. Some fighters only start training and living right when they need to.”
Andre Ward, his next opponent, was eight years Froch’s junior and a former Olympic champion tipped to one day rule not only the super-middleweight division but the sport. He possessed everything the Nottingham man had been accused of lacking: style, grace, speed, and time. He was also the closest thing, stylistically, to Bernard Hopkins in the game, which, in turn, made him something of a stylistic nightmare for somebody like Froch.
“Fourteen weeks is a long time to prepare for a fight, isn’t it?” Froch said, sipping from a mug of tea. “I’ve got no excuse not to be in tip-top shape, have I?” Though posed as a question, he wasn’t after an answer. At least not an answer from anyone else. “The plan is to spend the two weeks out here getting in decent nick and then really hit it hard when I go back and meet up with Rob [McCracken, Froch’s trainer]. It’s quite nice having this long to prepare actually, as I know I will have never been in better physical condition by the end of it all. That’s the only aspect of a fight you can control really. I can’t control the way Andre Ward trains or what he plans to do in the ring.”
Plans had yet to be finalised or even properly constructed at that stage, yet the gist of Froch’s was clear. “I’m going to put it on him for 12 hard rounds and make him feel like s**t,” he said, after which he quoted a line from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War only to then wince at the thought of being pigeonholed with athletes who reference the book having no more than skim-read quotes online. He downplayed that to say instead, “I know he’ll be quicker and slicker than me and I know there’s a chance he could be one of those special, once-in-a-generation fighters. But there’s also a chance he might be an overhyped fighter who crumbles under the sort of pressure I’m looking to put on him round after round.”
Pressure was something Froch applied better than most and something he knew, historically, was enough to break most. But before any pressure could be applied in the ring, where it mattered, Froch had to first contend with some of the other pressures typically associated with a world title fight between champions. The fight’s press tour, for instance, had around that time become a bone of contention, with Ward insisting he would attend press conferences in Oakland, Los Angeles, New York and one in London, England, and Froch demanding his promoter, Eddie Hearn, force Ward to attend one in Nottingham as well. “Originally Ward didn’t want to come to England, but Showtime forced him,” Froch said as he used his phone to message his promoter. “Now it looks like he won’t come at all.”
As it happened, Andre Ward was not the first American super-middleweight to represent a source of irritation for Carl Froch. “What frustrates me is when fighters do all they can to avoid fighting and going to that dark place. Andre Dirrell did that,” Froch said of the southpaw he defeated via split-decision in October 2009 to retain his WBC title and progress in the Super Six World Boxing Classic. “He used all the tricks in the book to avoid a fight breaking out and tried to steal a decision.
“Even to this day people say he won the fight. Did he f**k. How can anybody win a fight acting like that? I was trying to fight and he was trying to avoid one. He b***hed and moaned and ducked and dived and yet people were saying he was robbed. Maybe if you break it down and count each individual peck and prod, you could make a case for Dirrell landing one more tap on the arm. But I’m in the fight game to fight and Dirrell wanted none of it that day.”
More appealing for Froch was his next fight against Mikkel Kessler, a Viking warrior whose approach to combat was much in line with his own. That fight was set for April 2010 in Herning, Denmark, again as part of the Super Six, but would, for Froch, end up being every bit as problematic as the last, this time for reasons pertaining to a volcanic ash cloud rather than southpaw spoiling. “That’s the only fight I’ve ever gone into and not been happy with where I was physically,” Froch said. “The reason I was in that position was because the volcanic ash cloud blew up on the Saturday and my flights to Denmark were cancelled each day up until the Wednesday. By that time, I was watching the news every day, saw it all kicking off, and was convinced I wouldn’t be fighting.
“But Mick Hennessy [Froch’s former promoter] had arranged with [Kalle] Sauerland [Kessler’s promoter] to send a private jet and get me there that way. They then phoned me on the Wednesday morning to tell me the jet would be picking me up later that afternoon. I panicked a little bit. I was 12 stone 6 (pounds) or 12 stone 7 and had mentally switched off. The pressure was on, Showtime wanted me to fight, so I had no choice really. I went out there and thought I’d just knock him out.”
Present only in body, Froch discovered, on fight night, his mind was elsewhere. “I remember being in the changing room on the pads and sensing doubt for the first time in my pro career,” he said. “I kept thinking my jab wasn’t as sharp as it should have been and that I didn’t feel strong or invincible the way I usually did. You want to feel like King Kong during moments like that, yet I didn’t feel anything. I even felt myself tiring while on the pads, and that is something you never want to experience minutes before you’re called to fight.
“I saw for the first time Rob [McCracken] look at Tony Sims [Froch’s assistant coach] in a certain way after I’d finished on the pads and I’ll never forget that look. It told me they were both thinking exactly the same thing I was in that moment. Tony almost shook his head as if to say, ‘He’s not quite firing on all cylinders here, is he?’ They knew. But because there were other people in the room watching – family, friends, cameramen – there was no way we could have any sort of conversation about it.”
Alas, what followed silence was the roar of the Danish crowd as Kessler controlled Froch for most of the 12 rounds they shared, claiming a unanimous decision at the bout’s conclusion. What followed silence was confirmation. Confirmation of all they feared. Confirmation of the first loss of Carl Froch’s pro career. “There were times in that fight when I could sense I had him,” Froch said. “I had him hurt and I had him backing up and breathing hard, yet I couldn’t really do anything about it. I didn’t have that sharpness. Usually, I’m able to capitalise on my opponent’s tiredness and shift into another gear. That wasn’t the case with the Kessler fight, though. I could see Kessler fading, but I was fading with him.”
Seven months after losing his unbeaten record, Froch produced a punch-perfect display against Arthur Abraham in Helsinki, Finland to reclaim his old WBC super-middleweight title. A clear points win, it was as good a performance as he would ever manage in his career and showed that Froch, once unfairly viewed as a one-note brawler, could, when required, curb his fighting instincts to tame and outbox a dangerous opponent from bell to bell. He then did something similar against Glen Johnson in the Super Six semi-final, which led to the final against Andre Ward later that year and teased a potential return to the dark place he had managed to avoid against Abraham and Johnson. A place he had come to call his second home.
“Even if Ward is winning rounds, I’m going to make him work like he’s never worked before,” Froch said. “I know he is quicker and slicker and more skilful than me, but I guarantee he won’t be as tough as me and won’t want to go to the places I’m willing to go to. “If he manages to keep me away and outbox me, he’ll build up a lead, but by rounds seven and eight he will start feeling it, he will grow tired, and he will be forced to stand and fight. That’s when we’ll find out what he’s really made of. That’s when you’ll see a smile on my face and I’ll start to pick it up. That’s when I know I’ve got him in my kind of fight. “Sometimes you’ll see me smiling at strange points in fights and to the untrained eye it seems stupid. I remember seeing myself smile in the Kessler fight during the later rounds and it came at a time when I was cut and feeling absolutely bolloksed. The reason I was smiling, though, was because I knew this was crunch time, mano-a-mano, and time to f**king get it on. That’s the part of boxing I love, because everything is condensed. It’s just you and him. Who wants it more?
“I want to take Andre Ward to that place in the second half of the fight and I know I will. But I’m also aware Ward might turn out to be brilliant and he might stay with me and tough it out. If he’s good enough, fit enough and clever enough to do that, I’ll walk away and hold my hands up. He deserves to win if he’s able to come through all that and still be smiling at the end of 12 rounds. He will have proven he is the better man.”
The only places scarier than dark places were the places Carl Froch had yet to visit – that is, the places Andre Ward would look to take him when the time arrived. Places unfamiliar. Places unknown. Places in which he wouldn’t ordinarily be seen dead. “I won’t lie,” Froch said, “I’m worried Ward might do something similar [to Dirrell]. I don’t think he’s as negative or as much of a b***h as Dirrell, but until we get in there, nobody really knows. Will Ward try and hold and spoil his way through rounds? Will he peck and prod and avoid exchanges? You can never be sure what your opponent is going to bring to the fight until you’re in that dark place, right in the heat of battle. If Ward can use his skills and make me look silly, fair play to him, but I don’t see how that will last beyond four or five rounds.
“My only fear is that Ward might get to that point and begin to use petty tactics to avoid standing with me. He might hold, use his head a bit, get low, and look for the ref to break it up every time we get close. I hope that doesn’t happen, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t play on my mind. That would be a f**king nightmare. It winds me up now just thinking about it.
“I’m not asking for a repeat of Arturo Gatti versus Micky Ward, but I just want a fight that features a few exchanges and moments of drama. That’s what people want to see. I know boxing is the art of hitting and not getting hit, but let’s be real, that’s amateur, Olympic-level boxing. You win a gold medal doing that, but you won’t win fans or professional titles that way.”
Carl Froch, at that stage, did not know a 14-week wait for the Super Six final would get extended to 21, nor that Andre Ward would be everything he feared and would become the one opponent Froch, 33-2 (24), would never beat as a pro. All he knew that summer was that there was still plenty of time – to relax, to run, to prepare, to plan – and that, owing to both his style and his age, he would perhaps need even more of it. “I wish boxing matches were 15 rounds sometimes,” he said. “I think that would suit me.”