Mikkel Kessler: The Viking Warrior Remains Underexposed and Underrated


30.11.05 – By Gabriel DeCrease: One of the most exalted figures in Norse mythology is Thor, the warrior god of thunder. Thor is depicted as tall and formidable—his frame wound in coils of sinuous muscle. His weapon of choice is a sacred stone-hammer called Mjolnir that returns by its own volition to its master’s hand when he is to do battle. Thor is able to increase his strength twofold by fastening a magic belt around his waist.

WBA super-middleweight champion Mikkel Kessler is so like the mythic hero of his homeland that it is hard not to make symbolic comparisons. The twenty-six-year-old Kessler has certainly maintained a godlike physique throughout his career in the ring , and he is extensively tattooed like so many of his Viking forefathers. His mighty warhammer seems to be broken in two and a half slipped into each glove before he fights and hard as he might throw wild punches they seem to return to his guard without delay. And while the fighting Dane’s magic belt happens to be one bestowed upon him by the WBA, it has seemed to harvest a notable increase in his fistic prowess and power.

Mikkel Kessler’s skill set is an impressive one. He has power in both hands and his excellent conditioning allows him to throw knockout bombs even late in a tough fight. His technical acumen is solid, and while not a defensive genius, he avoids Mickey Ward-esque death-marches through oncoming punches, and does not often look to brawl, though his chin seems solid. Kessler can operate as a pressure fighter, or he can pick his opponent apart with clever charge-and-retreat tactics. He knows how to breathe in a ring. He is aware of his good-but-limited handspeed and his style is catered to eliminate any strategic deficit that might result. In a more ethereal sense, watching Kessler is watching a fighter who loves what he does and is clearly willing to sacrifice in camp and in the ring for the recognition and respect he desires. He has the will and enthusiasm that was characteristic of glorious bygone eras. Kessler has the indescribable spark of a world champion in him and it is not hard to imagine that spark igniting an inferno in years to come.

Kessler languished in relative obscurity, and enjoyed only local notoriety as he quickly and impressively dispatched twenty-nine opponents that ranged from hapless to pedestrian to tough, if not brilliant. Along the way he took out game prospects Manny Sobral, Dean Williams, and Miguel Julio. He also dispatched rugged veteran Tony Menefee in only his 19th professional fight. Menefee had previously gone the distance with Hector Camacho, and lasted almost eight rounds before being stopped by Roberto Duran. In both cases, the living legends were in the late stages of their careers, but Menefee had been in with them nonetheless, and Kessler scoring a vicious TKO against him demonstrated that at an early age he could move and work aggressively in the ring with a seasoned professional.

Mikkel appeared on the international ring-radar in his 30th pro-bout when he seemed to almost effortlessly shutout two division world champion Dingaan Thabela in winning the IBA super-middleweight strap. “The Rose of Soweto” was—at his peak—a slick puncher with respectable power and a stern, totalitarian sense of ring-generalship. Thabela was boxing far above his best weight, and somewhat out of condition, when he tangled with Kessler, but again, Kessler demonstrated that at so early a juncture he could avoid being outsmarted, outhustled, outclassed, undone by a more experienced fighter.

After that fight, Kessler scored impressive knockout wins over Craig Cummings, Henry Porras, Julio Cesar Green, and Andre Thysse, picking up the WBC International super-middleweight belt along the way. With each fight Kessler looked more and more comfortable operating as a slick boxer-puncher. That string of victories bought Mikkel a shot at Manny Siaca’s WBA strap. Siaca had won the belt in a tough tumble with Anthony Mundine, flooring him in the first-round on the way to a split decision win. Manny had also twice taken the highly-regarded Byron Mitchell into the championship rounds in losing respectable efforts. Kessler put a precise and stinging attack to work from the outset, and a battered Siaca did not answer the bell for the eighth-round. Kessler, in that moment, solidified his status as a world champion and a force to be reckoned with in the super-middleweight division.

In his very next fight (also his most recent), Kessler did decisively what Manny Siaca could only accomplish by the most anorexic of margins. He beat Anthony Mundine, and did so despite the fact that a refreshed Mundine looked quick, motivated, and collected, while he had previously appeared somewhat sluggish and faded against Siaca. The Dane stayed sharp and focused as he consistently beat Mundine to the punch and hurt him when he attacked. Kessler’s superlative conditioning was a crucial factor in the victory, and he used his superior strength not only to outpunch Mundine, but also to bully him out of his preferred niches in the ring.

Mikkel Kessler’s current situation is this: Before Jeff Lacy’s sudden rise to dominance and mainstream popularity, Kessler was widely-considered to be the heir-apparent to the 168-pound throne that was dubiously held in stasis by a lily-livered fight-dodger named Joe Calzaghe. Calzaghe had considered fighting Kessler when he was still a green, untested fringe contender, as it is the Welshman’s way to pick off those who are (too inexperienced (or too moth-eaten) to pose a threat. In this way, Calzaghe is not unlike a mangy jackal or a flea-bitten coyote. Calzaghe must have seen some indication of Kessler’s talent because the match never materialized, and when pressure began to mount in all four corners of the boxing universe for Calzaghe to take a serious fight, the more vocal and well-known Lacy became the people’s choice of opponent. Calzaghe’s detractors got the best of him and he has chosen, at this late hour, to walk the line. Lacy and Calzaghe are signed and set for a unification battle in March 2006. In a boxing ring three is company (including the ref), and four is a crowd, so Kessler must now return to the tedious and often fruitless waiting game.

Kessler is widely recognized as being at or around Lacy’s level, and many fans and augurs of the sweet science believe the truculent Dane could give Lacy more of a run for his money than Calzaghe will. But Calzaghe and Lacy are looking more for money than they are for someone to give them a run for it. And so the stage has been set. Also, it would be unfair to say that Kessler has been tested quite so sternly as Lacy. He hasn’t. However, the disparity in experience is not so great as it is often described, Lacy’s popularity promotes the illusion that no fighter in the division has faced “Left Hook’s” trials, and that Jeff is more fully tested than he truly is.

The hope is that Kessler will be successful (and prolific too) in the coming months, thus making himself the most alluring opponent for the winner of the upcoming unification rumble considering he will hold one of two remaining stars of the alphabet title galaxy. Mikkel will defend his title against former world champion Eric Lucas who holds wins over Dingaan Thabela, Vinny Pazienza, Omar Sheika, and Segundo Mercado. Lucas also drew with Antwun Echols, and nearly went the distance with a prime Roy Jones. He will prove a stern test for Kessler, but even if Mikkel blows out Lucas, he will have to make an even bigger statement in an even bigger fight (or two) if he wants to render himself a relevant, mouth-watering risk for Lacy or Calzaghe.

Kessler has options, and good ones, assuming he gets by Lucas. He could seek a unification match of his own with a geriatric and much-diminished Markus Beyer, who would likely crumble under the pressure of the younger, stronger, bigger Dane. And even if the old lion’s will keeps him on his feet, there is little danger for Kessler as Beyer has never been much of a puncher, and appears to have lighter, slower hands with each passing fight. Owning two alphabet titles would be nothing but good for Kessler even if he does not immediately find himself squaring off with the king of the division.

Mikkel might also be well-served to tangle with the highly-ranked, hard-punching Danny Green, who likes to brawl as much as he likes to complain about the judges thieving what would have been well-deserved rematch-vindication after his disqualification loss to Markus Beyer. “The Green Machine” can knock any man in the division out if he can land clean shots and maintain his balance while he does. Green is wild and ferocious. He would force Kessler to float and counterpunch carefully and accurately much in the way that he would have to going up against Jeff Lacy. However, it goes without saying that against Lacy the bar would be raised in every department.

The recently hot Carl Froch might also make a good match. Froch is still green, but he is getting better with every fight and the propaganda machine at Hennessy Sports has done an excellent job keeping “The Cobra’s” profile high and his skills highly-touted. Froch’s talent is as undeniable as his marketability. He can box and punch, and may well be the next big thing at 168-pounds. He would stand up to Kessler and likely give him a stiff test.

However Kessler proceeds, he needs to make his every move a thunderous one that shakes the very ground of the super-middleweight division. Jeff Lacy has again made 168-pounders capable of achieving superstar status in the sport, and so the top of the division will be reserved for fighter with the punch and the panache to make legendary fights. It is not a stretch to say that Mikkel Kessler possesses the raw ability to prove himself as a world champion, but, one question remains, will the Viking Warrior make a big enough noise to earn a spot on the international stage?

If Kessler has doubts about how badly he needs to score thrilling wins over name opponents, he should look no further than his native Denmark for proof. Mads “Golden Boy” Larsen was a pure fighter with hard hands and a good jaw. He had a reservoir of talent that, sadly, was never made to show itself. He let his best years be eclipsed by meaningless fights in which he fought down to the level of pedestrian opposition and took the longest possible road to a predictable hometown robbery loss to the loathsome and forgettable Sven Ottke. Kessler should look to his countryman as a tragic reminder of what can happen when a fighter stops pursuing the next great trial.

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