It was a moment of calm, a pause in proceedings that produced one of the most iconic boxing images this century. Challenger and lone wolf George Groves (25-3, 18 KOs) stood across from champion and British super middleweight pack leader Carl Froch. Nottingham’s sheriff flanked by nearly a dozen men in Team Froch t-shirts as the new face in town positioned himself in the middle of the ring eager to show confidence and fearlessness.
What played out under an hour later is the stuff of legend. Froch knocked down in the first round, out fought and out foxed for large spells of the fight before pulling the trigger on the will and resiliency that he showed throughout a must see career.
That image, that fight, that performance, Groves had played his part. The 29-year-old maintains, as do many others, that he was robbed of victory by Howard Foster’s own memorable part—a ninth round stoppage—in a boxing production never to be forgotten.
“You certainly need to have the courage in yourself to go it alone because ultimately, I said it from the first time I turned pro, you may step through the ropes with as many people as you want but they all climb back out before the first bell goes. The first bell goes it’s you versus him. You’ve got to be comfortable with that. There’s a lot of people that are not.”
The isolated, anti-establishment figure of Groves beforehand is now in a place he feels like he doesn’t need to go to these days. It’s not him against the world anymore. Experience, maturity and a better understanding of the sport has assisted the revitalisation of a career that, once again, has world title glory in his sights. This time the theatre will be outdoors in the springtime air of Bramall Lane in Sheffield—Groves’ role a supporting one alongside Fedor Chudinov (14-1, 10 early) as they vie for the vacant WBA world super middleweight championship.
“At that point I was resolute, I was fixated on the task at hand. I knew exactly what it was. It was Froch. I felt like I knew enough about Froch. I knew enough about the game and I could control enough of what was going on to succeed,” said a relaxed Groves who looked back on those final moments before going to war with Froch.
“The fight was made, the date was set, I felt like I knew how to get under Froch’s skin and I certainly felt like I knew how to beat him. It was a fight that I had been thinking about for 12 months prior because I envisioned that it could come about.
“I thought, apart from the fact it looks cool, I wanna show him I’m fearless. I don’t need anyone. At the same time, I was thinking: ‘This will make for a great picture, I hope someone gets it’. Because, you know, you have to be aware of your persona. But at the same time being that person is exhausting and I think I would have well and truly burnt out if I had carried on being like that.”
Groves was a man in demand in the minutes after the first contest, and the days and weeks leading up to their conclusive return bout. Everyone wanted a piece of ‘The Saint’ after that stoppage.
“All of a sudden I was appealing,” said Groves. “I had gone from having one sponsor for that [first] Froch fight, Exigo, who are a sponsor I still put on the shorts now because they are gentleman. They backed me from day one which I always appreciated.
The second Froch fight I had so many sponsors, so many media obligations, so much stuff to help promote that fight that it was exhausting by the end of it. Apart from the fact losing really helps with media obligations, the wife said to me: ‘I think you’ve done too much, you need to cool it back now’”.
Six months later on a Wembley Stadium pitch more suited to 22 men kicking a football about, a cat and mouse boxing rematch between Froch and Groves was fought out in front of 80,000 people. From the nosebleeds to the VIP’s they all saw a right hand filled with rage, which had been wound up by Froch not just for three minute rounds, but in the weeks and months prior. Each took their time to find their way into the fight but when they did it was the champion destroyed the second of Groves’ world title dreams.
The individuality of Groves remains, despite not just two, but three world title defeats in his career with the most recent a split decision loss to Badou Jack. Groves and then trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick would part ways not long after that Vegas tale of so near yet so far.
His courage, sometimes allied with defiance, is balancing itself in a relaxed manner knowing that the weight of other responsibilities can comfortably fall on new trainer Shane McGuigan.
“You certainly need to have the courage in yourself to go it alone because ultimately, I said it from the first time I turned pro, you may step through the ropes with as many people as you want but they all climb back out before the first bell goes. The first bell goes it’s you versus him. You’ve got to be comfortable with that. There’s a lot of people that are not. I like the spotlight. In that period if I’m good at something I don’t mind performing, I don’t mind people watching. I’m always happy to be in there all on my own and certainly at that point the only person I had any true faith in was myself so I’m glad it was just me in there.”
There’s a level of trust that Groves has in McGuigan that allows the fighter to take a step back and feel confident that his coach can attend rules meetings for example, and check that opponents’ gloves are factory sealed. It is perhaps something that Groves has missed and has needed since his days of working with Adam Booth. A rock to lean on. A trust fall exercise that he would be happy to take ten times out of ten.
“Other people in the past might have not had the same conviction or courage or confidence to do those sorts of things that Shane does, and that’s just one example of a lot of stuff I can put faith in other people now. I know what works and that’s experience.
“You have experience thrown in your face when you haven’t got it and sometimes when you think you’ve got it you either rely on it or you ignore it, but it ain’t there. Now, I’ve certainly not got all the experience, but I’ve understood and processed a lot more of the stuff that has gone on for me and so I have a better understanding of it and maybe I’ll change my mind again in a few years’ time. Hindsight will tell me you didn’t quite know it the way you did, this is more like it.”
Hindsight is pushed to one side as thoughts now turn to this Saturday night in Sheffield. Another big night in the rollercoaster career of George Groves. The controversy of Froch 1, the shattering KO defeat in the rematch through to the rugged stubbornness of Jack in what was not third time lucky. Number four is Chudinov, 29-years-old, with only 15 fights to date and not seen in a ring since February 2016 after rounds 13 to 24 with Felix Sturm.
“Essentially, I am on the undercard challenging for a world title like I did in my last world title challenge. Would I have preferred the prestige of headlining my own show in London at the O2 or something like that? I think we would have done well but it certainly wouldn’t have been part of a pay-per-view event and considering the fight now, I think it genuinely adds a significant value to the Brook-Spence undercard.”
Their fight is a weighty addition to a welterweight superfight in the main event featuring Kell Brook and Errol Spence Jr. The big stage and Groves have a habit of finding one another.
“It’s Kell Brook’s date, it’s his pay-per-view date,” Groves remarked. “Essentially, I am on the undercard challenging for a world title like I did in my last world title challenge. Would I have preferred the prestige of headlining my own show in London at the O2 or something like that? I think we would have done well but it certainly wouldn’t have been part of a pay-per-view event and considering the fight now, I think it genuinely adds a significant value to the Brook-Spence undercard. It will open up to a wider audience now. Not just because of me but it’s another great fight added to a great card and it’s where ultimately every fighter has the ambitions to be.
“Last week (at time of interview) we watched Anthony Joshua and [Wladimir] Klitschko at Wembley Stadium. A massive, massive event. I’ve been part of big events before and I’d like to be part of the big events in the future. As [Tony] Bellew would say ‘It’s to secure a future for your family’, but also because you have a bit more fun along the way when you’re part of those things.
“I’ve got some pantomime villains in my weight class and I ain’t shy of being a pantomime villain when the time comes. I think this fight being up here and being part of the razzamatazz of an outdoor stadium fight was the one for me and, yeah, I’m really excited.”
By the time fight night is over there is a very real possibility, more so than the three attempts prior, that Groves will have finally reached the world championship summit holding a belt aloft. The past pushed off the cliff with a look into the distance, the view filled a potential rematch with James DeGale.
It is a rivalry that goes back to the amateurs, and then played out in the professional ranks on Sky Sports—a British super middleweight title fight that was the headline attraction on PPV. The insults, the arguments all finally boiled itself down to 12 cagey and at times uneventful rounds which culminated in a joyous Team Groves jumping to the skies as the scores were read out favouring ‘The Saint’ 115-114 twice and 115-115.
That was six years ago.
The Groves-DeGale feud appears to have had a rebirth. DeGale has made enough noise to indicate that a stadium rematch with Groves is very much in his thoughts. The IBF super middleweight champion had a right old ding-dong with Badou Jack in their 168lbs unification back in January. ‘Chunky’ came out the other side with missing teeth and a draw on his record after slugging it out with ‘The Ripper’ in Brooklyn.
The DeGale fight is there, it will always be there.
“I think DeGale came away from the Badou Jack fight and thought ‘I don’t fancy this boxing malarkey much longer’. And you know, I’m going to be honest too, and say there’s been moments in my career where I’ve thought ‘This is heartbreaking, I don’t really fancy this much longer.’ But you come in waves and you have high points and low points etc.”
Groves admits that on paper, yes, Chudinov is the weakest of his three world title opponents but complacency has placed a banana skin in front of him before.
“I’m very cautious of complacency now as well. Especially [because] I feel [like] I took my eye off the ball in some ways against Badou Jack and definitely against Froch. I prepared the body correctly, or what I thought was correctl,y and had the tactics right but there were things that were wrong on fight night. It’s only hindsight than prove them to you.
“So, now I feel I’m at that point in my career I try not to permit too many bold statements just yet. Because things that you say, and you’re not sure whether to truly believe them or not you just say them because they’re the right things to say. You don’t want to ever anchor a negative to anything that’s coming up in your not too distant future, but I think it’s fair to say that possibly Chudinov is the weaker out of the three.
“I feel like this is my time. I’m hearing it a lot from people around me saying… and I can see it in their faces, and hear it in their voices. No-one isn’t hiding away from this. No-one isn’t saying this isn’t a massive pressure fight. This is the one, this is important. This is the one you have to make count but at the same time I can do it, I will do it and I’m hoping this is my time. I’m just going to commit and give it my very best shot. So far in camp I feel like I haven’t had had to cheat or compensate with anything. And therefore the best me should show up on the night and I should know whether the best me is worthy.”
And as for a rematch with DeGale should the WBA title be in Groves possession on May 27. “I think DeGale came away from the Badou Jack fight and thought ‘I don’t fancy this boxing malarkey much longer’,” stated Groves. “And you know, I’m going to be honest too, and say there’s been moments in my career where I’ve thought ‘This is heartbreaking, I don’t really fancy this much longer.’ But you come in waves and you have high points and low points etc.
“He’s had a long-dogged road much like me. He’s got a belt to make himself feel better at the end of the day but there’s certain things that he craves, and he craves not just the payday but he wants to have the home glory. He knows he don’t get that without me. He came back and he called me out as such on Twitter in January. I was in Vegas with [Carl] Frampton at the time, and then I had (promoter) Kalle Sauerland on the phone saying Eddie Hearn is talking on behalf of James. They want to make the fight, they want it to be big, they want to do this and that. It was spoke about for a while and then it fizzled out.
“Problem James has is he’s greedy and he can’t be greedy because I’m in a good position myself so Then it came back and it was possible, and then it wasn’t and then they tried to move the goalposts again. It’s a fight that makes sense for a lot of people and in many ways it makes sense for me and DeGale. I put a lot of hard work in the last year to secure a WBA shot and that’s what I want. There’s absolutely no reason why I need to walk away from the table when I’m doing well. I’m going to keep my head down.
“I’m not thinking about any other fight other than the WBA and the Chudinov fight and I’m not thinking about anything that’s going to come after that because, I mean, I’ve done that before. I was dreaming what it would be like to become world champion when I boxed Froch and certainly in the rematch against Froch, and everyone I spoke to had a long-term plan for me. What would happen after ‘you’ win at Wembley Stadium and it didn’t happen, and it was tough to get over so I’m never going to take my eye off the ball again.
“At the same time I’m self-managed, I know that the boxing world don’t stop for no-one. You do need to concentrate on what is in one or two or three fights time so I think the DeGale fight is there, of course it’s there. I’ve got to win for them to take place and if I don’t it might never. It’s certainly a fight I’ll enjoy the build-up for, I’ll enjoy the training for and I’ll enjoy on the night but until May 28 it’s something I’ve pushed away to the back of my mind.”
Groves has done an exemplary job of putting the past away and reminding everyone in 2017 that he is a force to be reckoned with at 168lbs. The ability has always been there, the addition of McGuigan and working alongside talents like Frampton, Josh Taylor and old friend David Haye appear to have put a spring back in his step. Even at only 29, Groves feels like he has to tell the world that there’s life in the old dog yet.
“I think I’ve still got more to achieve and more to get on and get done but I need to get this belt first. Need to win, need to not be complacent. When the time comes I don’t think anyone will see it, and I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”
Against Froch he was out to prove he was not Adam Booth’s project. He was a good fighter before they met and a good fighter afterwards but it’s the little differences that come with time, experience and sadly heartbreak on the big stage that can bode well for the future. The clock is ticking and approaching the midnight hour on his world title opportunities, but a win over Chudinov adds a chapter to the George Groves story that once did not look possible.
“I genuinely feel we’re in a good place,” Groves emphasised. “I used that phrase a lot I in the past but we are in a good place. The goals are the right goals. The camp ideas are different now and I alleviate the pressure of being in charge. Since I’ve worked with Shane I spent honestly too much time thinking when I lost the first Froch fight. I thought right where did I go wrong. Maybe I put too much on myself. I need to start listening to people. Then I did start listening and I lost again.
“Then maybe I thought maybe I’m not listening hard enough, so I listened a bit more and I didn’t box well. I listened more and I boxed even worse and I listened even more and I lost again. And maybe it’s like I shouldn’t have listened in the first place! Let’s start listening to someone else, and since I’ve been listening to someone else I think it’s been working out okay.
“I think Shane certainly understands what I do well and knows how to bring that out of me and I’m confident that the best will be there against Chudinov and the best will be good enough to become a world champion.”
Of course, there is a thought—despite all the DeGale and life in the old dog yet talk—that the nearly man in Groves could walk away on top once if he conquers a story that has been a case of so near yet so far. It’s tempting, but there is still work to be done, money to be earned and more memorable nights to be a part of too perhaps even up the number of big fight losses and replace them with victories.
“There were periods in my career when I thought: ‘Do you know what? I would like to win a belt have a big long rant that’ll probably get cut off halfway through’ and sail off into the sunset, but I don’t think I’ve got that in me. I think I’ve got more. I think I’ve still got more to achieve and more to get on and get done but I need to get this belt first. Need to win, need to not be complacent.
“When the time comes I don’t think anyone will see it, and I’ll go out in a blaze of glory.”