By Terence Dooley
There is something special about a stadium fight night here in the U.K. The British love gathering en masse, dividing themselves into tribes and focussing their attention on a pitched battle. Jock McAvoy’s meeting with Len Harvey at White City Stadium, London on July 10th 1939 attracted so many people that contemporary attendance figures veer between an amazing 92,000 into a hundred plus thousand souls, many of whom headed to battle for their country months later. It is as if the fight was a recent reminder to the British that they are fighting people, steeling them for the impending war.
Carl Froch and George Groves will enter the pantheon of stadium stars tomorrow night when they settle their unfinished business in front of 80,000 paying, and some non-paying, punters, stars and alleged blaggers at London's Wembley Stadium live on Sky Sports PPV.
Froch won the first fight in controversial fashion when referee Howard Foster stepped in at 1:33 of the ninth to end Groves’s world title dream. The crowd went wild, for all the wrong reasons, and Foster was wrongly vilified for a split-second decision made under duress.
Groves vowed revenge; Froch promised a return; the IBF got involved and mandated it and Daryl J. Peoples revealed it was on during an impromptu chat with BoxingScene in February. Promoter Eddie Hearn swiftly secured Wembley Stadium, the tickets flew out and the psychological warfare began.
Like most warfare, it has been haphazard stuff: barbs fired indiscriminately, shoves, hand grabs and petty disputes. Now, though, we are about to come down to the nitty-gritty, actions speak louder than words and one man will made himself heard on Saturday night.
Billy Graham, Ricky Hatton’s former trainer, spoke to BoxingScene both during and after Friday’s weigh-in. He believes that he saw enough to finally settle on a final prediction.
“I’ve been excited about it ever since the last one ended, the same as anybody else, but I’m getting more excited the closer it gets—I keep changing my mind over the winner,” said Graham. “This is one where you can see ways for them both to win, which are the types of fights you want to see—they’re too rare to be honest.”
Froch, 32-2 (23) hit the scales at 167.5lb; Groves, 19-1 (15 early), weighed 166.25lb; the fans took to Twitter to dissect the challenger’s decision to come in well under the 168lb division. However, Groves always comes in just under and was in a similar vicinity last time out. For Graham, the main thing to take from the weigh-in is that both men looked good to go.
“As soon as I saw George today, I knew he was lighter and leaner, which is probably a good thing, but I don’t see him in the gym so it might be because he has a conditioner now,” he said. “He looked as light, but in better shape than last time. They both looked great on the scales, though.
“All fighters have an optimum weight, maybe George has found his—he looks great. This might be perfect for him now. He’ll know what he’ll put on by tomorrow night as well. I don’t think he’ll have left anything to chance, but it really registered with me today when he weighed in.”
Groves floored Froch in the first round of their first meeting, he dominated the early going but was too gung-ho, gunning for the big KO even when it was clear that Froch had dug himself in for the night. Graham believes that “Saint” George will allow himself a few more breathers this time around, chalking the mid-to-late rounds raggedness of fight one down to inexperience rather than bad stamina.
“George has all the right ingredients, but you only gain experience through experience,” he said. “Win or lose tomorrow, Groves is nothing like the finished article yet. Groves has all the natural attributes, the things you can’t teach people: great balance, rhythmic movement, anticipation and calm—with a lot more to come as he matures.”
Froch felt aggrieved after the first fight, claiming that the stoppage denied him a clean KO opportunity and that, if anything, he was the injured party. The ill will between the two has carried over yet Graham believes that Froch has a healthy respect for Groves, and that he will rise to occasion in front of the huge crowd.
“As Carl said, he couldn’t be any worse than he was the last time,” argued Graham, making a case for Froch despite picking Groves. “Carl got caught early. Groves proved himself to be more versatile early, and that’s speaking as someone who admires Froch and all he’s done throughout his career, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Groves moves better, is versatile and athletic—I’m sticking my neck out here and going for a Groves win.”
Still, if Groves tags Froch hard and early, he could gun for a spectacular finish and replicate the mistakes he made at Manchester’s Phones 4U Arena in November. “Look, George is young, ambitious and precocious; he lives in the moment, so you expect that from a young kid like him,” countered Graham.
“Maybe it would have been wiser to play it safe then and in this one, but I don’t think he will because he fights with passion and can get involved in a shootout. Stealing a decision and the title might be the wise thing to do. I don’t see him doing that. Obviously they’ve said it will be like [Marvin] Hagler and [Thomas] Hearns, but that might be a lie to conceal the real plan, which should be to stay one step ahead of Carl and out-point him.
“We’ve often talk about what a fighter should do to win the fight easier. In reality, they have ambition and Groves wants to take the title from Froch. Groves knows what he wants to do. In his head, he wants to take this and has that passion in him, which makes you take more risks. Which do you favour: is that passion a fault or a positive quality? Well, it depends on how you use it, and when.”
The WBA’s “Super World” and IBF “Super” titlist has consulted a sports psychologist to add an edge to his game yet he can barely conceal his dislike for his 26-year-old challenger. Graham can relate, he pointed to the Nottingham man’s incredible run of tough fights and fighting pride as the source of the 36-year-old’s ire.
“It was alarming to see Carl respond to the mind games first time around,” stated Graham. “Then again, Groves knows how to get under your skin. I can understand where Carl was coming from. Look at what Carl’s done: the wars, the world titles, the revenge over [Mikkel] Kessler, the demolition of [Lucian] Bute and his amazing run of fights. In his mind, all that would be undone if he lost to Groves, someone who he was not expected to lose to. In his eyes, a loss to Groves would have been catastrophic.
“The world didn’t know that George was that good, so Carl was on a hiding to nothing going in and indeed that’s how it has turned out, but we’ll see a better Froch tomorrow, for sure.
“Carl is very awkward, and makes it work for him. Plus he’s strong, game and can punch. He’s a right handful, but he doesn’t move well. For Groves, that’s a nice style to face because he can counter everything. If you were in Groves’s skin, you’d know where he was coming from with his confidence.
“I said to [Hatton’s former nutritionist and Graham’s close friend] Kerry [Kayes] before the first fight that I was worried for Froch early because he comes out full of it and Groves would catch him. I used to like fighting pressure fighters myself. They’d come at you. If you had quick hands they were a gift. Groves is so much quicker, his punching is fluid—he could use that right hand as a lead to pot shot his way to a win.”
On the other hand, Froch will not quit. There is not an ounce of give in him. He can build a head of steam by sheer force of will. You cannot count him out.
“I can also see Froch destroying Groves by sheer willpower and experience,” Graham concurred. “Sure, the stoppage was premature, Howard should have given Groves a chance, but I couldn’t swear that Froch wasn’t going to end it because things were changing. [Froch’s trainer Rob] McCracken is a big plus, he loves him and is a good coach, so that familiarity’s a big factor for Froch.
“This is a huge fight. I’ve been around all of them—[Floyd] Mayweather against Ricky and all that—so I’ve seen big fights impact on people. The man on the street, the guy who doesn’t know boxing, has an opinion on this fight—it is massive.”
It’s certainly a shot of adrenaline into the arm of boxing, which has apparently been in its death throes since time immemorial. Graham’s heard it all before. He said: “They’ve been saying that for years. I know we’ve been going through a recession, but I think British boxing’s healthy, enjoyable and will improve. There’s good fights to be made, people coming up and it will bring another golden age.”
The physical match-up is one thing, but a lot of fights are decided by the stronger mind and the ability to force your will on your opponent. Boxing’s a mental game, in every respect, so the fight could hinge on who handles the event better. Will Froch rise to yet another occasion or is Groves the man in the ascendency?
“I know the difference between those who swallow and those who rise to the occasion. Groves will rise to the occasion. The bigger the better for him as he’ll thrive of it,” stated Graham. “Some people freeze, they feel the occasion and can’t get a handle on it.
“I’ve just read an article by [The Guardian’s] Don McRae on Groves—I like Don, you get to know his interviewees—and I like the way George has been standing up for himself. He wants to do it all his way. I was the same way myself, but you can make mistakes and he’s still young, so time will tell if it’s the right thing. It isn’t always the right way. You sometimes need guidance.
“There’s something that came through about the kid, a sign that he’s got spirit and he’s got balls. The boxing world’s a tough world—you need to be able to handle yourself. I’ve really warmed to him. I don’t appreciate all of his behaviour, especially before the first fight, but he’s his own man and that’s commendable.
“I worry about his youth—he’s not the finished article yet, despite what happens tomorrow—as you sense there’s more to come, but you have to make sure this all didn’t come too quickly because there are fighters who got ruined by doing too much too young.”
My gut instinct tells me that Froch will be in trouble early once again before biting down and forcing his way into the fight. Groves is the better boxer. Froch will keep coming. Once Groves tires Froch will take those scrappy, ugly rounds that no one likes to see but that help you carry crucial rounds to take a decision win.
Graham’s a Groves convert; the “Preacher” has put his faith into Groves’s burgeoning maturity, with one proviso. “I’ve said Groves, he’ll find a way, but I won’t be betting my house on it!” he said with a laugh.
“Groves has got greater flair, put it that way. It won’t be one-sided—it will be a barnstormer. We’ve talked about Groves being negative, but that’s not what I want to see when I turn my telly on to watch a fight—I want to see a f***ing shootout where the best man wins.
“There’s just something about Groves, there’s so much potential. Lots of fighters come up then find they’ve gone out of their depth. I don’t get that impression with Groves. He’s versatile and impetuous. Comparatively, Groves is like a fucking ballerina compared to Froch—that’s what he can take advantage of the most. Froch has many, many strengths, his movement isn’t one of them.”
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