The 168-pound division takes its first high-profile step into the post-Super Six era Saturday night when tournament runner-up Carl Froch meets perpetual challenger-in-waiting Lucian Bute at the Nottingham Arena in Nottingham, England.
Viewed through the lens of the World Boxing Classic’s legacy, Saturday’s contest appears somewhat of a mixed verdict. After twenty-six months of stops-and-starts, injuries and replacements, and the odd quality boxing match, the event’s failure to bring proceedings to a natural and climactic conclusion in the form of a winner-take-all contest between its freshly crowned champion, Andre Ward, and its most conspicuous holdout, Bute, leaves the tournament falling well short of one its stated mandates: to bring clarity to a crowded division.
Fortunately for the concerned fight fan, questions of championship lineage and legitimate divisional supremacy carry about as much general appeal amongst casual boxing fans as the pros and cons of Oxford comma usage do amongst grammar-school students. For those fretting over their sport’s tenuous grasp on mainstream relevancy, then, it’s the Super Six’s ability to leave entertaining match-ups in its wake that matters most, and on these grounds Froch-Bute may yet prove the headaches of the aforementioned twenty-six months a burden worth bearing.
Carl Froch, 28–2 (20), enters Saturday’s fight on the strength of a reputation forged largely in the fires of Super Six competition, but the take-all-comers policy enforced by Showtime’s matchmakers was merely a codification of an attitude long since embraced by the Nottingham native. A pair of aesthetically pleasing fights against Jean Pascal and Jermain Taylor-the latter of which featured Froch rising from the canvas in the third round to score a last-second knockout-set the pace for a three-year Super Six stretch that saw the lanky Briton run a gauntlet of some of the division’s toughest foes-a gauntlet as stylistically diverse as it was physically taxing.
Yet appraisals still vary wildly as to the Nottingham native’s true ring worth. Perhaps Froch’s unconventional approach in the ring can account for the consensus that has failed to materialize around his seemingly impressive resume of work. Quintessentially working-class British in spirit, if not in style, Froch’s manner of combat often gives the impression of a fighter working on borrowed time. Brandishing a rangy, educated jab and a working knowledge of the shoulder-roll defense, The Cobra’s often frantic offensive forays nonetheless can leave him relying on uncertain footwork to escape danger, bailed out only by a command of range that vacillates wildly between assured and barely sustainable.
Similar doubts surround the man to stand opposite Froch Saturday night. Time spent away from the Super Six spotlight has afforded Lucian Bute, 31–0 (24), the opportunity to sharpen his skills against a steady flow of pickings from the division’s meaty midsection. Ousted tournament hopeful Glen Johnson and one time near-foil Librado Andrade provided fleeting glimpses of questions asked of the champion, while Brian McGee and Edison Miranda proved to be little more than willing test subjects in Bute’s continual experimentation with his trademark counter left uppercut, a punch that has slowly climbed the ranks of the sport’s most punishing blows.
But Bute’s dilemma is a mirror image of his opponent’s. Whereas Froch’s substantial resume lacks the definitive performance capable of easing the doubts fostered by his erratic style, Bute’s style, and the polished manner in which he demonstrates it, is all that’s providing cover for a resume crying out for a name the calibre of Froch’s. Each man sees the possibility for affirmation in the other. A victory over the undefeated Bute would, in theory, bring Froch’s list of bested foes beyond the point of reproach. And for Bute, a win against an elite opponent-in that opponent’s hometown, no less-would cement his credentials as one of boxing’s truly gifted practitioners.
Paramount to the shape proceedings eventually take in the ring will be the issue of range. Both men will be looking to engage at different distances: Froch at arm’s length, operating behind the safety-net of his trademark jab, and Bute from within the range of motion of his slapping right hook, used in turn to set up the straight left.
For Froch, 34, the jab must be working at a premium to hold position. When forced into a jabbing contest, the Englishman can be depended upon to unveil a disciplined stick, as was witnessed against Andre Dirrell. But when not threatened with constant return fire, as against Jean Pascal in their 2008 clash, lackadaisical habits do arise, and what was once a stiff, strident jab deteriorates into a tepid pawing motion returned to guard low and without urgency. Such lapses in form will be exactly the opportunity the counter-minded Romanian expat will be looking to land the lead right hook over the top of Froch’s left hand, allowing him to close the distance and land in numbers.
There also exists a window of opportunity for the hometown fighter on the inside, but getting there will require Froch to expose himself to Bute’s most potent weapon, the counter left uppercut, delivered with concussive, fight-stopping force to either the body or the head. This threat is compounded by the fact that Froch’s technique tends to deteriorate when chasing the fight. Lunging attacks, reaching swipes, and cross-legged balancing acts are staples of what one is likely to see when the urge for the hunt overcomes the Nottingham man. Rather, Froch’s best opportunity for success resides in letting the fight come to him, limiting himself to short, fully extended one-twos, and thereby forcing Bute to take the initiative in closing the distance, a task for which the adopted Canadian may not be physically equipped to tackle.
Where Bute’s strengths do rest is in his impeccable balance. Operating out of a more or less straight-up stance, the affable Quebecois is capable of transferring his weight to either foot and back at a moment’s notice, allowing him to blend offense and defense seamlessly. This ability was most notably put to use in the return fight against Librado Andrade, where moving deftly from retreat to attack, Bute turned the Mexican’s forward momentum in on himself, catching Andrade on the back foot and planting the once-thought unplantable contender on the canvas with a timely short left hand to the chin.
Bute, 32, will look to force the typically squared up Froch by constantly turning the Englishman, carving concentric circles into the canvas in a bid to disorient his opponent and catch him in between pivots. Also integral will be Bute’s success in baiting Froch’s jab, a weapon he’ll have to time and neutralize if he is to move within range for straight left and right hook to take effect.
With a packed arena cheering him on and an always-measured Lucian Bute in front of him, the onus will be on Froch to keep his head and not fall prey to his predatory instincts. His success, or lack-thereof, in keeping his head in such heady moments could be the determining factor in a bout that will go a long way to shaping the reputations of both men.