Carl Froch threw nearly a thousand punches to beat Mikkel Kessler on points – one score a ludicrously lop-sided 118-110, alongside more reasonable verdicts of 115-113 and 116-112 – but he surely knows he shared the honours if not the decision with the beaten Dane.
Their 12-round war, even more brutal than their first encounter in Denmark three years ago, was one of the finest fights seen in a British ring for a long time, the titles almost superfluous to their commitment.
"I deserved to win but there were some close rounds," said Froch, the new WBA super-middleweight champion, clinging on to the IBF version he already owned. "He's a great fighter and a great man. It was my aggression towards the end that won it for me."
He might have added that the first few rounds, when he had Kessler reeling all over the place, had something to do with it too but there can be no justification for that 118-110 score, because his opponent without question took at least five rounds, and shared a couple of others. I had it even at 115-115.
Froch, as agreed, entered first, with his belt, and Kessler, the visiting champion, followed. The overwhelming sentiment in the heaving, steeply banked arena was that it would stay that way for the rest of the evening.
The roar of 18,000 fans for the Nottingham man was as loud as any I can remember for a British fighter, even Ricky Hatton, who was on broadcast duty at ringside.
Respect is an odd concept in boxing: good to have for a boxer's own safety, as much as anything else, but not so beneficial if it overflows into apprehension. There was no danger of that between these two, who, from the first bell, were like twitching spiders in front of each other, seething with venom. Froch, hands low, did most of the leading in the early moments, Kessler sitting on the right-hand counter. Froch shaded the first with a burst at the end that clearly unsettled his opponent.
For months they had both shouted their warrior credentials and now, in round three, there was plenty of opportunity to prove it. The Dane, though, looked nervous about moving into hitting range, and Froch remained dominant, his jab flowing smoothly in front of a jack-hammer right.
Then there was a mood change, Froch banged his gloves together at the start of the fourth, and shared that percussion with Kessler on his unguarded jaw, rocking him back on the ropes. Kessler finally found some rhythm, though, and edged the round with flurry of body shots.
Having warmed to the fight, Kessler moved with more assurance and sharpness and a couple of roundhouse left hooks and a heavy right caught Froch off guard. They finished on level terms but there was a sense that this was building up in to another uncompromising contest.
Froch's aggression had troubled Kessler in the first few rounds, and the visitor was now giving his opponent problems with his speed – and a low blow in the sixth. Kessler stunned Froch with two wicked head shots in centre ring and his combinations flowed lethally. At the halfway stage, there was nothing in it.
Andre Ward may be best 12st fighter in the world but these two are by a distance the most entertaining, especially when in the same ring. Kessler's more orthodox boxing skills had dragged him back into the fight but it was his deep fighting instincts, and the determination of Froch, that made the seventh another don't-look-away round, The "oohs" and "aahs" from the crowd were now a steady symphony in the dark, as these outstanding fighters continued to inflict serious damage on each other, with Kessler almost gone in the middle of the eighth, only to be trading on level terms at the bell.
Kessler said that if he lost he would retire; there did not seem the slightest inclination on his part to walk away from the battle as they moved into the championship rounds. How they took some of these punches only they and their doctors would know.
The anticipation of a brutal finish was palpable, as neither man wilted. Their limbs were tired but their hearts and chins were as strong in the 10th as in the first. Froch seemed indignant when he walked on to a couple of belting right hands and his work grew ragged as he searched for an equaliser but Kessler was outboxing him.
Kessler's hand and feet were quicker, and just about anyone else but the very best in the division would have crumbled in front of the assault he launched in the 11th. Froch not only was still standing he was still throwing.
The final round was loaded with as much high tension as in Herning in 2010, but it surpassed that one and many more for ferocity, one of the great three-minute wars in a proper world title fight. Froch was never going to accept that Kessler was the better man; just as he showed when he came from behind to knock out Jermain Taylor in the 12th round four years ago. He did not knock Kessler out, but he took him as near to it as it is possible against a man whose legs simply refuse to bend.
On the undercard, there was another impressive cameo from George Groves that, perversely, probably did nothing for his chances of getting the fight he wants more than any other: a domestic dust-up with Froch.
For four rounds and 50 seconds of a contest billed for the vacant WBA Intercontinental super-middleweight title, he entertained his 34-year-old guest, Noe González Alcoba, with a pleasing repertoire of shots to head and body, over, around and through the Uruguayan's gloves, which were so determinedly attached to his rib cage he risked muscle spasm. When that guard finally came down in the 51st second of the fifth, the unbeaten Londoner delivered a textbook right cross that floored Alcoba and duly won him the belt, which is a decent bargaining chip for bigger prizes.
Groves angered Froch all week by insisting he can beat the Nottingham man, and compounded the friction by working out with Kessler at David Haye's gym in south London. If he saw that finishing punch, Froch is likely to keep him waiting a little while yet.
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