It was after midnight on Saturday when Carl Froch finally had his revenge over Mikkel Kessler, the crowd of 18,000 at the O2 had their bruised hero and British boxing had a classic fight to rank with the very best.
Froch retained his IBF super-middleweight title, added Kessler's WBA version to his trophy cabinet and is now the attraction, even if American Andre Ward, a grudgingly respectful ringside guest, is considered the best at the weight, and arguably the world's best boxer. Ward recently sent his WBC belt back to the Mexicans who run the sanctioning body like a private club and advised them to store it where the sun does not shine.
In the glow of the fight's many excesses the men from HBO, the American broadcaster and boxing's main benefactor, talked in private with Eddie Hearn, Froch's promoter, about getting the man from Nottingham back in the ring with Ward; the pair met in an oddly low-key fight in 2011 and Ward was a comfortable winner. Saturday's fight was shown live on HBO in America, which is why it started and ended so late, and Ward had been flown in to sit in judgement on his nearest rival.
"I want Ward over here next time," said Froch. "He can't draw a crowd like me, he is not exciting and he needs to fight here; he needs to leave his safety zone to be considered a true champion."
Ward insisted that nobody had ever asked him to fight in Britain and refused to rule out a fight with Froch at a stadium, possibly the Millennium with the roof closed. Outdoors for real next May seems to make more sense, but before that Froch deserves an easy night in his hometown later this year.
"Everybody seems to be talking about me; discussing what I will and will not do – hey, nobody has called me or asked. Let's see what happens, let's see if Eddie calls me. I will beat Carl easier the next time, and the first fight was not close," insisted Ward. "Carl wants a rematch now, but let's see if he feels the same on Monday morning." Froch promised that he would and I believe him.
There is a chance that as the swellings start to subside this morning a clearer picture of Froch's immediate future will be available. A third fight with Kessler is a possibility, the Ward rematch is very real and some type of catchweight clash with Bernard Hopkins, the light-heavyweight world champion, is also in the mix. There is no need to rush at dates or names because nothing will happen until November and even then the elite names are likely to be relegated to dates in 2014. "Right now, I need a rest," Froch said.
On Saturday night, in the debris of a ring illuminated by fireworks and screaming cornermen, there was a moment of reflection when Froch, his face swollen from 12 rounds of combat, moved on unsteady legs to each side and bowed in respect to the fans who had played a crucial role in his victory.
In 2010 the pair hit each other to a standstill in Denmark and Kessler took a tight decision, but on Saturday their devotion to their sport surpassed any previous limits and rounds eight and 11 belong in a very special book. As the final bell sounded the pair turned the last punches of their brutal fight into wide hugs and collapsed into a deep embrace of exhaustion and respect.
A few minutes later Froch, marginally older at 35, had his hands raised with all three scores from the judges, which was the right decision, but there were dozens of moments on Saturday when it appeared likely that Kessler would triumph again. The dreadful second in round 11 when Froch's knees finally buckled after a life of glorious resistance was so disturbing that it looked like his night was over; savage fights and careers can end with single punches like the one that dipped Froch's knees, especially at that late and draining stage in a championship fight.
Kessler knew at that stage that he needed a stoppage but Froch circled, held, ducked and dived and survived until the bell. It was the moment when Froch became a great fighter and a man who will now be fully and belatedly embraced by more than just boxing's fanatical and bamboozled flock. It was Froch's 10th consecutive world title fight since 2008 – most have been gruelling slugfests – but bizarrely it has taken a long time for him to become a star.
Froch took an early lead in a furious opening few rounds and then by the end of round six Kessler, having adjusted his feet to make Froch miss, had evened the score; it was 3-3 and the level of expectation was fused with dread and anticipation as the pair bounced out for round seven. Froch took the seventh and in the eighth he simply refused to be hurt, refused to wilt and take a backward step. Kessler repeatedly connected with rights over Froch's low guard and then a short, sickening left hook that sent Froch's head back, but he simply could not hold him off. It was a shattering round to watch from six feet away at ringside and Ricky Hatton, working with me on Five Live, simply shook his head at the bell. "Froch's unbeatable tonight, unbeatable," Hatton said.
The stunning 11th round was followed by a relentless final 180 seconds, with each taking turns at throwing and missing with Rocky-style punches in an endgame that seemed to play out in slow motion. Their last embrace was separated by their cornermen and they were each patched up before Michael Buffer took the microphone to delight the late-night faithful with the verdict.
The repairs were easy, cosmetic dabs with towels at cuts and blood, but fights like Saturday leave a deep wound inside even the bravest warriors. They will both be back but it needs to be acknowledged they each left something in the ring on Saturday night that they will never get back; in its place they get respect, which is boxing's real title.