How Much Can Change in Three Years?

by Eric Raskin

Mikkel Kessler, Carl Froch

When Carl Froch and Mikkel Kessler renew hostilities on March 25, it will have been three years, one month, and one day since they first fought. In that initial affair, Kessler won a close, unanimous decision in his native Denmark. But a lot can change in three years, and with the rematch set for London’s O2 Arena, Englishman Froch is listed as about a 2-1 favorite.

Standard rematch protocol following a very close, entertaining first fight, which is what Kessler-Froch I was, is to arrange an immediate rematch. That wasn’t an option here because Kessler-Froch I took place as part of the “Super Six” tournament and both men were pre-committed to other future fights. So this could never be like Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward or Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez, classic rivalries in which three bouts were crammed into just 12 or 13 months. If there was going to be a Kessler-Froch rematch, there would be time for the rivalry to breathe first.

Maybe that’s not boxing’s standard protocol, but it does happen. There have been plenty of famous fights throughout history that led to a rematch three or more years later.

Probably the most well known case is Sugar Ray Leonard vs. Thomas Hearns. In 1981, they met to unify the welterweight championship. It wasn’t until 1989, when they were super middleweights, that they shared the ring again. Though both were somewhat diminished as fighters by the time they rematched in their 30s, the product was similar: a close, dramatic, action-packed fight. In the first fight, Leonard rallied late to win by 14th-round TKO. He might done the same in the rematch—but it was only scheduled for 12 rounds, so Sugar Ray ran out of time and the bout was ruled a draw.

If the eight years between Leonard-Hearns fights sounds like a lot, that’s nothing compared to the 17 years separating Roy Jones’ 1993 win over Bernard Hopkins and the revenge Hopkins exacted in 2010. When that much time passes, it’s almost certain that circumstances will be wildly different by the second go-round. In this case, Jones was all but spent and coming off a first-round knockout loss just four months earlier, and the rematch was an embarrassment all the way around.

In most cases, however, the result doesn’t change from the first fight to the second. History repeats itself, often more quickly and less memorably.

Julio Cesar Chavez defeated Meldrick Taylor via controversial 12th-round stoppage in 1990 in arguably the best fight of the decade. Four years later, Taylor was no longer an elite boxer and was dispatched in eight one-sided rounds.

When Billy Conn challenged Joe Louis for the heavyweight championship in 1941, he led on the cards before Louis caught up with him in round 13 of a legendary duel. World War II got in the way of a rematch and forced them to wait until 1946, by which time Conn was rusty, old, or both, and Louis dominated the eight rounds that the fight lasted.

Joe Frazier’s first fight with Jerry Quarry, in the summer of ’69, was not exactly summer-of-love-appropriate, as Frazier won on cuts in seven rounds in a bruising Fight of the Year. When they fought again in ’74, the battle was almost as violent as their first but a bit shorter, ending with Frazier’s hand raised in the fifth.

If Frazier had Quarry’s number, so too did George Foreman have Frazier’s. In the iconic “Down goes Frazier!” fight in 1973, Foreman stomped Smokin’ Joe in two rounds to capture the heavyweight crown. Frazier lasted longer when they went at it a second time in ’76, but he was no more competitive, getting wiped out in five rounds.

The general perception is that Froch is closer to his prime right now than Kessler is, which is why the man who lost the first time is favored on May 25. But sometimes time changes nothing and the style matchup assures the same type of fight no matter how many times they do it. If that turns out to be the case with Kessler and Froch, no fight fan will complain.