It is hard to imagine the sense of relief that Carl Froch experienced on Saturday night in Nottingham, when the referee hauled him off a stricken Lucian Bute after just 65 seconds of round five. The win changed him forever as a fighter.
During a night of bold, brave and satisfying redemption for Froch there was the sweetest of victories in a fight that looked difficult on paper and in many ways an unnecessary risk too far.
Froch, as boxing insiders know, had nothing left to prove as he walked towards the ring in his hometown, but after two world titles and 30 fights there remained a considerable distance between the respect of his peers and recognition as a great British fighter. Froch was, as his promoter and poker addict Eddie Hearn said, "in the last-chance saloon".
Bute had the unbeaten record, the title, the bulk of the money and the bookies in his corner but he was found short on real fighting experience very early on a night of raw emotion. Froch has been apologising to his devoted flock for a long time as they have had to negotiate the volcanic ash, remote Scandinavian destinations and cold nights and bad fights in Atlantic City during the last four fights and three country initiation process. "It's not cheap following me," Froch said. He is right, but on Saturday night, for his first fight in Britain since 2009 and only his third in his last eight outings, all of the travel pain and debt was forgotten.
Froch has been exceptional for too long and neglected by too many for too long and on Saturday night, as the odds and critics and sceptics formed an orderly queue, the first bell was so nearly drowned out by the roar of 9,000 people. In that moment Froch looked like a man aware that the next hour or so would shape his destiny, and that his quite brilliant sequence of seven fights against seven tremendous fighters, arguably a run that is the best in the business, would count for little if he tasted defeat one more time. It looked, let's tell the truth, like a heavy burden and Froch sucked in breath like a man going on a potential one-way mission.
Bute was making his 10th defence of the IBF super-middleweight title and was confident enough to fight away from his adopted homeland of Canada and away from the luxuries that a big attraction enjoys with home advantage. It was a risk but he had a return clause embedded in the contract – that is a clause that now looks like pointless scribble, battered by Froch's desire into a sideshow that surely only the bravest fans would pay to see again.
Froch, two years older than Bute at 34, took a tense first round, moved up in pace by closing angles of retreat in the second and took over in a third round that left Bute looking anxious at the bell.
Froch had promised to break Bute's heart and as round four unfolded the Canadian, who was born in Romania, was showing that he was hurt, which is one of boxing's quickest ways to get a beating. In round four there was a persuasive argument that had the round been 10 seconds longer, and the referee a bit less brave, the fight would have been over.
Bute was gone, staggering back to his corner like a comical drunk without the laughs. The corner, it needs to be said, looked stunned and slightly sickened as their paymaster and friend wobbled back at the end of four. It looked as if there was a growing debate about their fighter's health in the seconds before the fifth-round bell sounded.
It was all over 65 seconds later as Bute slumped deep into the lower ropes, his head loose and disturbingly exposed by Froch's fists. There was confusion as the referee, Earl Brown, moved to give a standing count as Bute's corner showed compassion to enter the ring and save their boxer. Froch was the champion again, this time for the third time and this time with the type of fanfare lacking from the two previous nights when he won titles.
"It was all or nothing," Froch said. "I knew that I had to take a risk and go for it. I wanted to break him and I did. He hurt me, he can bang but I was relentless."
Great British fighters have won bigger titles in bigger fights, kept their titles for longer and made far more money but now Froch belongs in their company. He has the type of blue-collar devoted fanbase that made Ricky Hatton such an attraction and he also has the reckless sense of fighting at the edge that made Nigel Benn so special. He has taken his sequence of fights against top boxers to eight since beating Jean Pascal, another unbeaten Canadian, in Nottingham for the WBC super-middleweight title in 2008.
It is possible to argue that this is the best sequence ever by a British boxer and one of the finest in history. The world champions from the 1970s such as John H Stracey, John Conteh and Charlie Magri were exceptional, possibly better on any given night, but careers are measured over a span and Froch has done better. In the last 20 years Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton all mixed their great nights with bad nights. Froch has put together a better run than any of his predecessors would have possibly considered.
Froch is not after the moniker of the greatest British fighter of all time. His ego works in the ring. But perhaps his name will now be linked with the greatest British boxers. He deserves that.