Mikkel Kessler – a hero of boxing – let down and betrayed by the sport that he loves…

By John Alutus: Professional boxing is a business. The risk/reward ratio applies in boxing as readily and as often as it does in investment management. The point of this business is to maximise profits by picking the fights with the smallest potential risk of losing and the greatest reward of winning.. Whilst the fact that boxing is a business should not preclude the maximisation of the level of performance of the fighters involved or the credibility and expansion of the sport, given the way this business is regulated, the incentives induced corrupt its ultimate goals. In the end, this is why boxing is losing ground over other martial arts and why, more worryingly, why its very credibility remains limited and even declines in comparison to that of other martial arts, to the frustration of hard-core boxing fans.

The business of professional boxing is failing! There are four main stake-holders in this business: fighters, sanctioning bodies, promoters, commentators and paying customers and all are to blame. Firstly, paying customers (fans) are to blame because they let the hype created by promoters blind them to the real talents, skills and abilities of professional boxers in a way that leads them to reward poor, unworthy contests with their hard-earned cash more than they reward good worthy contests, a lot of the time. Fans often lap up the hype surrounding fights involving big have-been names, past-it legends of the sport, instead of demanding the most meaningful fights out there, involving prime, live, young, hungry contenders. This changes the promoters' incentive structure in a way that leads them to hype up even more poor fights. A vicious circle is created. The defence of the promoters is that if poorer contests weren't getting made, the sport could not support enough combatants to make the talent pool deep enough for the best performers to be truly outstanding and ensure the viability of the business.

Secondly, commentators are to blame because they don't call the promoters' bluff when they are selling fans unworthy poor contests as worthy good contests. Instead, they often collude willingly with promoters and hype the match-ups made by them, defending themselves to their consciences by arguing that to pour cold water over a hyped fight would just alienate casual or potential fans, which boxing needs more of if it is to thrive. This alters the promoters' incentive structure in a way that leads them to hype poor match-ups even more. The vicious circle is made even worse!

Thirdly, fighters are to blame because they agree to play along with their promoters in making fights unworthy of their talents and skills, whilst celebrating meaningless victories as if they meant or should mean something. This feeds back into the promoters' incentive structures leading them to hype even more poor unworthy wins as great worthy wins, clouding the truly great achievements of great fighters involved in great match-ups, instead of highlighting their achievements. Fighters defend their choice to fight poor, unworthy opponents and to overrate the importance of victories over them by invoking the prisoner's dilemma situation they find themselves in. As a result, the vicious circle is made worse still!

All these vicious circles lead to boxing becoming a less and less profitable business compared to other sports and thus, to its great potential remaining unrealised. The buck, of course, should stop with the sanctioning body – the regulator. Unfortunately, there is not just one, but four main such bodies and many lesser ones, all vying for supremacy. This in itself is the root of all evil. When their own credibility and legitimacy is questioned, the various governing bodies collude out of an instinct of self-preservation, allowing the degree and extent of moral corrosion at the heart of boxing to increase. Sanctioning bodies defend the decisions that damage the credibility of boxing and its failing popularity by also invoking the prisoner's dilemma. Thus, they argue that if they didn't sanction poor, unworthy voluntary defences, their champion would move to a competitor and they would lose their earnings stream of sanctioning fees. As a result, they argue, all those fighters who fight under their umbrella would earn less for fighting for the belts they put on offer and the sport would suffer as a result. They also defend themselves by arguing that unworthy voluntary defences allow fighters unable to get a legitimate title shot to earn the kind of income required to ensure their participation in the sport and thus, a deep enough talent pool. This creates a feedback mechanism that leads promoters to overprotect their fighters and to pad their records even more. Even worse, it leads to older fighters, long past their best, selling their name, ensuring a trophy win for the hyped young prospect, in fights in which the have-been legends find themselves out-matched and prone to serious long-term injury and destructive brain-damage. The vicious circle, again. Moreover, sanctioning bodies protect their champion from dangerous contenders, by rating the latter too low to get a shot at their famous, big-draw champs. The top stars in the sport also often benefit from partial refereeing and judging, since a single loss on a bad day would lead many of the fans to overreact, damaging the prospects of the former champion. Instead of appreciating skill and performance, these fans, obsessed with the "0" in the loss column – the mark of supposed perfection – are all too ready to proclaim a champion who lost "exposed" or "overrated". It is not surprising therefore when these sanctioned "robberies" on the other hand frustrate sports fans and decrease the credibility of the contest before their eyes to the extent that many of them believe the outcome of the "make-believe fight" to be predetermined according to ready-made story-lines, just like in professional wrestling. And all this while, all the main shareholders, including the regulators, are turning a blind eye to the rot at the heart of boxing, supposedly as a means to an end, "for the sake of the sport", instead of realising that by compromising thus they are in fact condemning their sport and livelihood to a slow, rotting decline.

Fortunately, there are still a few outstanding careers which fail to mould themselves according to this sorry pattern. There are still top fighters who obstinately refuse to play the game, good honest commentators, good promoters and good fans. They all represent the hope of boxing. Unfortunately, the very system is against them! Let me attempt to show how by concentrating on these heroic fighters.

Heroic boxers fight the best, giving their all, win or lose, even when the risk/reward ratio associated with their chosen fight is less advantageous to them than the risk/reward ratio associated with the easier, less dangerous alternative match-ups available. In doing so, they put their long-term health and subsequent career at risk to prove their greatness. In doing so, they provide the lifeline that keeps the credibility of the sport afloat, against the odds. One such fighter is former WBA and WBC super-middleweight Champion Mikkel Kessler.

The Danish "Viking Warrior" became WBA title-holder when he beat Manny Siaca at the end of 2004. Siaca's WBA belt was only a paper belt. He won it by getting a split decision against Anthony Mundine when they faced off for the vacant WBA belt. Mikkel Kessler felt he had more to prove so he went off to fight Mundine too, in the Australian's own backyard. Although he suffered a back injury before the fight, he went through with it and won convincingly, by wide decision. After beating another former WBC title holder, Eric Lucas, Kessler fought the then WBC title holder who had won a split decision over Lucas on home turf – Markus Beyer. He stopped Beyer brutally, in the third round. There could now be no doubt Kessler was the rightful holder of the WBA and WBC titles. That also wasn't enough for Mikkel Kessler! He wanted to prove he was the Champion. He wanted to prove he could beat Calzaghe himself.

For the next year, Kessler continued to call Calzaghe out, with little success at first. The Champion was doing his best to ignore the big white elephant in the division, targeting American middleweight Jermain Taylor and former middleweight, light-heavyweight Champion, 42 year-old Bernard Hopkins, instead. Calzaghe felt he would not be recognised in the land of boxing unless he beat an American legend. In the meantime, Kessler outclassed tough-punching, iron-chinned, heart-and-guts warrior Librado Andrade, whilst continuing to call Calzaghe out. Calzaghe failed to secure a fight with either of the big-name Americans, despite utterly thrashing their overhyped compatriot, IBF title holder Jeff "Left Hook" Lacy and outclassing another American, show-pony Peter Manfredo Jr., of "Contender" fame, in a bid to gain the American public's attention. Instead, he ended up having to thank referee Terry O'Connor for sparing both his and Manfredo's blushes by calling a premature stoppage to their most unequal contest.

In this situation, Calzaghe was forced to give in to ever increasing pressure from the hard-core fans and demanded that his risk-averse, unwilling promoter make the fight with Mikkel Kessler. After numerous twists and turns, the fight was made, and Kessler fought Calzaghe in the Champion's backyard, despite suffering a hand-injury two weeks before the fight. No complaints, no delays and no excuses related to his injury from Kessler, either before or after the fight, and this despite the fact it was the biggest fight of his career! The fight was close and very competitive and Calzaghe had to give the best performance of his life to beat the Dane. It was certainly one of the best fights of 2007.

At 35, having defended his WBO belt for 10 years, previously, it took this fight to confirm Calzaghe's greatness and secure his legacy as one of the best fighters of his generation. Kessler's own class shone through; his own border-line elite skills were on display and he became even more highly rated by knowledgeable objective analysts, despite his loss. Ironically, it was his performance against a fellow European that secured Calzaghe's recognition as one of the very best fighters in the world in the eyes of the boxing establishment and fellow boxers in America. The casual American boxing fans remained largely indifferent, however, – after all, neither Calzaghe nor Kessler were American! In many of their eyes, Calzaghe was simply an overprotected slapper with a poor resume and Kessler – just another unknown, overrated Euro-stiff; relatively few even bothered to watch the fight for the undisputed super-middleweight championship of the world. Still, on the back of the final recognition of his performance in the eyes of the powers that were in American boxing, Calzaghe's dream came true – 43-year old Bernard Hopkins generously agreed to fight him in the USA, having ducked him half a dozen years earlier, when Hopkins was still just about in his prime, despite his age at the time.

Thus, Mikkel Kessler had fought all his main rivals in the division within five fights of becoming title-holder and proved to all he had just fallen a bit short of being the best in the division and one of the best boxers in the world.

Having just turned 29 at the weekend, the world should be Mikkel Kessler's oyster, one might think. A heroic figure such as him should be able to continue his ascent towards the peaks of greatness, one might think. Daring to be greater still and falling just short should not condemn him to further suffering and pain, one might perhaps also think. But this is professional boxing! Instead of being given credit for his heroism, for striving to make the big fights, for doing his very best by boxing and his fans, Mikkel Kessler became a marked man. Professional boxing conspired against him. It let him down and betrayed him for daring to be great, for giving his all, for giving the fans what they really wanted! Mikkel Kessler simply cannot get a big fight anymore!

Thus, let me turn towards those who let him down, first. After Kessler lost his bargaining chips – his WBA and WBC belts, he called out Pavlik, Taylor and Wright, all middleweights who stated that they wanted the big fights at 168 or who had actually fought at super-middleweight. He also called out all the top fighters in the super-middleweight and light-heavyweight divisions. In the meantime, Pavlik and Taylor fought their rematch. It is not known whether Taylor, who has since moved to 168, has any plans to fight Kessler, but nothing has been arranged so far. Pavlik has rightly decided to take care of business at middleweight - he still has to fight Arthur Abraham, his main competitor. Then, there is Winky Wright – the prima donna! He lost to Hopkins at 170 lbs in a close fight. Clearly, he should not be fighting at higher than 160 lbs. Still, Wright called out Calzaghe, who had just beaten Kessler, sensing the big payday. Kessler, however, beaten by the man who was fighting the man who beat him, Winky Wright, clearly couldn't have been good enough or enough of a draw for Wright himself, since he declined Kessler's offer! None of the big American names in the light-heavyweight division have so far answered Kessler's call, despite the fact they are still highly ranked by American boxing magazines like "The Ring". On paper, according to these rankings, they should beat Kessler. In fact, however, Kessler would most likely beat everyone from 160-175, save Calzaghe and possibly, Chad Dawson, if his chin is indeed better than he has so far proven. I guess this is why they're ducking him!

Let's turn to Kessler's own division – 168, however. Here, he was let down by three fighters. Lucian Bute, the only other holder of a world title that could be unified, save Calzaghe, pleaded inexperience. The very day after the Calzaghe v. Kessler fight, Bute and his trainer declared he still had a long way to go before he would be good enough to give the likes of Calzaghe and Kessler a good run for their money. In the meantime, he said he hoped he will have developed and improved sufficiently by 2009 to fight someone of Kessler's talent and ability. We'll hold him to his promise! For his honesty, however, he deserves to be left off the hook, somewhat. Let's hope that the calibre of opposition he chooses for himself from now on in his voluntary defences will be high enough to allow him to improve sufficiently for Kessler by next year. After all, fighting American names for the sake of it didn't do Calzaghe any good! It certainly didn't increase the chance of him fighting Hopkins, for example.

Then, Kessler was let down by Calzaghe himself! Had Calzaghe lost against Kessler, he would of course have expected to be given a rematch. Calzaghe, however, denied Kessler a rematch! Instead of re-matching the man against whom he gave his best ever performance and against whom he proved himself as one of the best of his generation, Calzaghe has decided to fight has-been legend Bernard Hopkins, a 43-year old fighter who, whilst still formidable for his age, is well past his prime. Suffice it to say Calzaghe doesn't think much of his next opponent and is fighting him mainly to prove his American detractors wrong. The latter, surprisingly, still see Calzaghe, the non-American, as the underdog! What is also strange is that Calzaghe insists on believing his legacy would be enhanced more by a demolition of old, faded Hopkins than by another close win over prime Mikkel Kessler, for example. Given that Calzaghe is almost 36 and fading, he also deserves to be let off the hook somewhat. Perhaps Calzaghe simply doesn't believe he would beat Kessler a second time…

The third person who let Kessler down is former IBF super-middleweight champion Jeff Lacy. Lacy is ranked the fourth best fighter in the world at 168 by "The Ring" magazine, which is owned by his promoter Golden Boy Promotions. The American claims he has fully recovered from the shoulder injury which plagued him late last year. He also claims he is ready for a big challenge and eager to impress in his next fight on the 31st of May, after disappointing against Peter Manfredo Jr., barely a top 20 fighter, at the end of 2007. Shouldn't Lacy fight Mikkel Kessler then, to prove he is still a force? Given his high ranking and these statements, he should certainly not refuse Kessler, who called him out directly. It seems however his promoter has lost faith in him; he might indeed be finished at the highest level, as indeed many of us feared. The latest word is that his fight on the 31st of May, on an HBO PPV card, will not even be televised, because his opponent is not a draw. This suggests brave Lacy will not get the chance to prove himself either against Kessler or against Bute, who is also looking for a fight in May.

The one who has let down Kessler most, however, is, without a doubt, Anthony Mundine – the "regular" WBA super-middleweight champion. Let us not forget it was Kessler himself who brought his full WBA title down under to give Mundine a shot at it, in the Australian's back yard, immediately after the Dane became WBA titlist. Why doesn't Mundine return the favour? He could at least put his regular WBA belt at stake – a belt that cannot even be unified as long as Calzaghe remains WBA "Super" Champion. Whatever excuse the other three might have, not to fight Kessler, Mundine doesn't. He is not inexperienced, like Bute. In fact, he claims to be the best fighter in the world full stop, at any division! Not least, he claims he would beat Kessler in a rematch. He is also not too old or faded, like Calzaghe – he is 30 and very much in his prime; in fact, he is better now than he was when Kessler beat him, last time! So, unlike Lacy, he is not finished either... Nor is Mundine suffering the effects of injury. His eye condition, which he used as an excuse to get into the ring with three fighters outside the top 50 one after another in the last year couldn't have affected him; if it had, he wouldn't have been allowed to fight anyone at all! It is hard to find any excuse for Anthony Mundine for not giving Mikkel Kessler a rematch. In fact, with every statement he makes, Mundine only goes further to condemn himself for not doing so!

Let us turn now to those who have betrayed Mikkel Kessler. Firstly, he was betrayed by the IBF – one of the four main sanctioning bodies. The IBF ranked Mikkel Kessler 7th in line to become Lucian Bute's mandatory challenger, behind Librado Andrade, for example, a fighter Kessler completely dominated in his second but last fight. Clearly, they have ranked Kessler as low as that to protect their champion, who, by his own admission, wouldn't be ready to face Kessler this autumn, when he is likely to fight his mandatory – the winner of Andrade v. Stieglitz. The earliest Kessler would be able to become mandatory for a shot at the IBF title, the title of his main competitor left in the division, is at the end of 2009… Secondly, he was betrayed by Frank Warren's WBO, where he was rated fourth in line for a shot at the champion.

These betrayals, however, pale into insignificance compared to the betrayal at the hands of the WBA, a body Mikkel Kessler represented with honour and pride as Champion: the WBA ranked Kessler only second in line to a shot at Mundine, after Jurgen Brahmer. What is much worse is that they have not enforced any mandatory challengers against Mundine for a year, nor do they seem to be in a rush to enforce any this summer, giving Mundine free reign to defend against mediocre competition time after time, to the disappointment and stupefaction of his fans. The fact that Mundine does it regularly, however, should please the WBA, who seem to be interested in the sanctioning fees more than they are interested in the fighter that represents them as champion. The WBA could at least announce an eliminator between Brahmer and Kessler to become Mundine's mandatory challenger this summer. Instead, they continue to look away. Not least, Kessler could end up being betrayed even by the fourth main sanctioning organisation, the WBC, whom he represented proudly as Champion as well, if they don't require the winner of the eliminator for the mandatory position between Carl Froch and Denis Inkin to fight third ranked Kessler for the vacant title, when Calzaghe vacates. These last two options could be Kessler's last chances of becoming a titlist this year. Slim hope, alas!

Of course, the sanctioning bodies have nothing personal against Kessler. Unfortunately, due to injury, Mikkel Kessler fights only twice a year, rather than three times a year, as the other champions tend to. This of course means he provides much less in sanctioning fees than the other champions, and sanctioning fees is the bottom line for sanctioning bodies, even when it comes to a hero of boxing, a truly great fighter, like Mikkel Kessler. In boxing, like in life, it only pays to be a hero if you win. But at least in life, a hero is worshipped. In boxing, a hero who dares to be great, gives the fans what they want and gives boxing credibility and a much needed lifeline is ignored, let down and betrayed, not least by the very people who should look after the well-being of the sport. In doing so, they let down the fans and they let down boxing itself…all sold down the river for some silver, to the disgust of the fans. What a disgrace!

Article posted on 07.03.2008

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