By Terence Dooley
Paul Smith’s hopes of taking his old super-middleweight belt back to Liverpool were dashed at Wembley Arena on Bonfire Night when defending titlist George Groves produced a peach of a right hand to floor ‘Smigga’ heavily in the second.
Although Paul (137¾lbs, the same weight as Groves) beat the count his legs were unsteady and a second right, this time to the temple, dropped him again. Prompting experienced referee Victor Loughlin to stop the British and Commonwealth title showdown at 1:18 of the stanza.
Prior to the first bell, Smith’s training stablemate Matthew Macklin had told me that the ‘Real Gone Kid’ was in the shape of his life. Paul applied himself in the gym; Joe Gallagher, Paul’s trainer, spent hours analyzing Groves in order to come up with the shots needed to take the titles.
Indeed, the challenger landed a perfectly timed right hand over a Groves jab late in round one. Capitalizing on George’s tendency to hold his left low when bringing back the jab to uncork a shot that stunned Groves for a moment. The bell signaling end of the round ensured that Smith was unable to follow up on this moment of success.
‘Saint’ George’s two shot reply in the second wiped away any chance of the former champion regaining the cherished Lonsdale belt yet Smith put aside his disappointment to praise the victor.
“Great shot,” Smith’s verdict of George’s first right hand. “I didn’t see it and don’t remember it. I caught George at the end of the first. It is all ifs and buts but if I caught him at the beginning instead of the end of the round it might have been a different story. Credit to George, powerful kid, big puncher who caught me and I paid the price.”
The 29-year-old told me that his mind had instructed his body to continue only for his legs to let him down, his knees gave way just as Victor was stepping in to stop the bout. In the confusion that followed, Smith protested the decision. However, upon reflection the beaten fighter praised the third man, pointing out that the Scottish official is one of the best in the business.
“I complained at the time but I’ll watch it back and might change my mind. Referees are there to do a job. Victor Loughlin is one of our best and I got caught with a shot that I don’t even remember,” mused Smith, 31-3 (17).
Adding: “He’s a top referee and I’m not going to argue with him. I’ll take his word for it and that is that.”
Smith lost his belt to James DeGale in December of last year, the defeat prompting him to join forces with Gallagher ahead of a mooted move to middleweight. Smith, though, could not turn down the chance to contest his old belt; he had no regrets about having another crack at the 168lb division.
“I got the chance to fight for my old title and took it. I’ll speak to Joe in the gym and see what we’re going to do next,” his answer to questions about his optimum weight. “It is boxing – I got caught with a very good shot after catching George at the end of the first round. That is it. It was a cracking shot and George is a good kid, a good finisher.”
Frank Warren promotes both fighters; he has worked with Smith since the start of his career and insists that the Liverpool-based boxer can come again. “I spoke to Joe after the fight. Paul moved up from middleweight to super-middle and Joe feels he can go back down. I don’t know if that is the case but we’ll speak about it,” Warren’s take.
“I’ve got a very good relationship with Paul so we’ll do what we have to do (next). The ref was right to stop it. It could have been stopped sooner, as Paul says that is boxing.”
Joe has lit a fire under Smith, who relishes his training sessions at Gallagher’s Oldham base. The trainer had always hoped to work with Paul – talking about the 2002 Commonwealth Games silver medalist in glowing terms throughout the years – and had believed an upset was on the cards.
Despite this, Joe was on his way up the steps to stop the contest in the interest of his charge’s safety after the second knockdown. “Yes, after the second knockdown I was stepping in to stop it,” confirmed Gallagher.
“We’re disappointed because we had worked on great tactics and got to George in the first but Paul got caught. We’re frustrated because he was in the shape of his life and had the beating of George if he hadn’t got caught.”
Groves is moving at a rapid rate under Adam Booth’s watchful gaze, his left hand was impressive in his maiden defence plus the punch put Smith down for the first knockdown one the finest orthodox right hooks you could ever hope to see. Groves slipped the shot into a gap in Smith’s guard, blindsiding his foe to ensure that the blow did maximum damage.
There is now talk of Groves-DeGale II. Andre Dirrell, 19-1 (13), has also thrown his name into the mix; ‘The Matrix’ sparred with Groves ahead of the showdown with DeGale and has since admitted that he would face the Londoner. A sign of how far the 23-year-old has come since his 2008 debut win over Kirilas Psonko at London’s O2 Arena.
“Dirrell is a great fighter,” Groves opinion of the Detroit southpaw. “I spent many rounds sparring with him. It was a bit of an eye opener for me because I feel he is an elite fighter in the division. I’ve sparred with Froch and then had Dirrell turning up trying to take my head off. If you want to be the best then at some point you have to cross paths with these guys.”
The 14-0 (11) double title-holder has looked vulnerable once or twice in the past, most notably against Kenny Anderson last November. This time, though, Groves took a shot late in the first, retained his composure in the corner and worked behind the jab to set up the finish in the second to produce a solid night’s work.
“It was an explosive finish,” Groves summation of the ending. “I didn’t quite empty the tank tonight. I wanted to take away any attacks he had. It must have looked much worse than it was (when he was caught in the first). You’re still finding your feet in the first round. Smith’s a great fighter. At the start of camp, I wanted and needed to improve – I showed that tonight.”
It was a sold win for Groves, a disappointing setback for Smith. Still, the build up and post-fight breakdown was full of mutual respect and bucked the saying ‘Good guys always come last’, in this one at least, the good guy came first and second.
Speaking of nice guys, Anthony Crolla worked Smith’s corner, the British lightweight boss summing up the nature of title fights as we left the presser. “The highs are massive but the lows devastating in boxing,” outlined Crolla, who will bid to get Gallagher’s Gym back on track when he defends against Willie Limond on November 25th.
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