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An Ode to The Cobra

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Last July I sat and watched new IBF world super-middleweight champion Carl Froch re-construct a tea sandwich. It was more exciting than it sounds. First he removed the cocktail stick joining two pieces of bread, and then he snatched at two slices of yellow cheese and clawed away excess grease lingering on either side of a rasher of bacon. He wiped his hands on a nearby napkin. From there, he scraped remnants of butter and grease from the tops and bottoms of the bread, before reapplying the lonely cocktail stick to its refurbished home.

"There's no need for that much grease and rubbish in it," explained Froch. "They use that silly plastic cheese anyway. It's like putting rubber in your mouth."

The image stayed with me. Froch was on holiday in Jamaica, some 14 weeks away from the first scheduled date for his world title clash against American superstar Andre Ward, and yet rather than relax and embrace the distance -- both in location and time -- he was already thinking ahead, admirably anxious. As each mouthful was chewed and swallowed, the former WBC champion could even be seen poking and prodding a barely-there roll of fat that had congregated above the waistband of his Paul Smith swimming shorts. Though only 10 pounds above the super-middleweight limit of twelve stone, he was disturbed by its presence.

"I'm 12 stone, 10 lbs right now, and that's the ten pounds right there, at least in my mind," he muttered. "The older you get, the tougher it becomes to shift that bit of looseness around your waist. It takes a different kind of discipline to keep it off in between fights."

Froch was 34 years of age, hardly a dinosaur, yet in the midst of making up for lost time in an Indian summer. Following years of noteworthy wins amid widespread anonymity, he was now starting to be recognised, appreciated even, for a run of fights that had led him to a spot in the Super Six final.

"I'm a big snooker fan, and a little while ago I went to a function that was attended by Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor," said Froch, mid-chew. "I was itching to get a picture with Steve Davis, so I made a beeline for him and remember walking straight past Dennis Taylor on the way to Steve. I only went and greeted Steve Davis that day, and I felt a little bit bad afterwards. Dennis Taylor must have watched me and thought, 'Hang on a minute, I beat that guy in '85.' Sometimes, as fans, we just warm to certain sportsmen and don't warm to others as much."

'The Cobra' eventually lost to Ward in December and, in doing so, seemed destined for nearly-man status, runner-up, bridesmaid, Dennis Taylor. However, an innate desire to test himself, as well a fearlessness of defeat, drove the beaten man towards a fight with IBF champion Lucian Bute last weekend in England. It was a test he didn't have to pursue and, moreover, one many people would have advised him against taking. Lest we forget, Bute, undefeated in thirty pro bouts, was a dangerous southpaw puncher, the consensus number two guy in the division after Ward.

Yet Froch didn't care. On Saturday night, he enticed Bute to his Nottingham lair and promptly beat him up. And never has the phrase 'beat up' been more accurate, for there was nothing pretty or clean about what Carl did to the favourite through the course of four-and-a-half rounds. After all, he couldn't afford for it to be. Whenever the fight did become clean and clear, Bute's shoulders relaxed, his toes gripped the canvas and his wandering right lead began to probe for openings. It didn't take a genius to realise the Romanian relished this kind of laid-back environment, whereby lots of time and space could be generated.

Froch, on the other hand, is nothing if not visceral and confrontational. When the Nottingham man is in whacking range, there is no sight more manly or rowdy. He punches because he can and ensures every piece of available flesh is struck hard and often.

The champion, a man accustomed to being treated with respect, space and time, found a challenger feeding off the animosity of a 9,000-strong crowd and struggled dealing with it. Pre-fight niceties aside, Froch was an evil, snarling son-of-a-bitch on Saturday night. There was little in the way of touching gloves or welcoming smiles, but much in the way of scowls, punches on the break and shoulder barges. While Bute chose to bang his gloves together in appreciation as Froch was announced before the first bell, the only thing on the challenger's mind was getting close to his opponent as quickly as possible. The alpha male, he wanted to blast Bute with everything he could.

And that's exactly what Froch did in the opening three minutes. Though rarely clean or particularly rewind-worthy, the challenger banged Bute's head whenever an opening arrived. If they got up close and messily fell into a clinch, Carl ensured he cracked his foe inside, to the back of the head and then on the break. Bute, meanwhile, merely frowned, glanced towards the referee and then presumably wanted to touch gloves and feel safe. He wanted the fight on his terms, yet Froch was doodling over the small print and promptly snapping the pencil.

These initial subtle signs of aggression became explicit and pivotal as the bout progressed. By the third round, Froch had treated Bute's request for time and space with utter contempt. Not interested in being on the receiving end of a tepid shoe-shine job, he closed the distance, got in Bute's concerned face and proceeded to pummel a bewildered champion against the ropes. Then, for whatever reason, the southpaw refused to move, perhaps due to shock, or perhaps an inability to do so. He stayed hurting inside the lion enclosure, screaming for help, none forthcoming.

It was during these moments that Froch not only dominated, but showed sheer disdain for the champion's defence and pretence. He punched through Bute. Through his flimsy guard and through his heart. This wasn't a display of punch-picking in its purest sense, as the man in question wasn't concerned with accuracy or variety, but more a demonstration of will-to-win. Because whenever the fight entered Froch's preferred zone -- up against the ropes, close quarters -- he ensured time spent there counted for something. He kept throwing until an impression - both in the minds of the judges and in the mind of Bute -- had been well and truly made. Conversely, in the spots where Bute was expected to excel -- at range, with time to ponder -- the champion stuttered and produced very little.

Bute sampled Froch's power early and refused to take the risks required to close the gap and unload punches of his own. Furthermore, Froch's lengthy reach and unorthodox punching angles perplexed a man accustomed to straightforward, respectful challengers. Niggling elbow problems have troubled Froch through his career, and robbed him of ever being your standard, textbook boxer, yet it works for him. He attacks aggressively and awkwardly from out wide and cuffs, chops and hammers with more authority than most. Nothing smooth or expected, everything felt.

A lot has and will be said about Froch's victory on Saturday night, but I'm simply thankful for the answers this fighter has provided us with over the years. While some boxers cynically craft resumes shrouded in question marks and speculation -- could he beat this opponent or that opponent? What's his chin like? Just how good is he? Froch has done his utmost to eradicate such grey areas from his own. We now know everything there is to know about him -- the good, the bad, the ugly -- due to a willingness to step up and fight the best available opponents time and time again.

In truth, there can be only one remaining question mark hovering over the head of the three-time world champion. How much more does he want to achieve and prove? Because, for my money, cold, hard facts suggest he's the best super-middleweight Great Britain has ever produced. Notice him, recognise and appreciate him, and please don't walk past Carl Froch to get to Steve Davis.

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