By Shaun Brown
THE moment has finally arrived.
Today, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia George Groves and unbeaten Callum Smith will have a desert duel to contest the super middleweight final of the World Boxing Super Series.
It has been a long time coming since both participants moved into the 12st finale back in February. In the first semi-final Groves, the WBA champion, out-fought and out-thought Chris Eubank Jr to put his fellow Brit in his place in Manchester, while one-week later Smith went through the motions against late replacement Nieky Holkzen in Nuremberg, Germany to win the WBC Diamond title.
After the Eubank fight Groves found himself in the back of an ambulance, with his wife, getting ready to go to hospital after dislocating his left shoulder in the final round forcing him to fend off a whirlwind of pressure from his cocky adversary.
A successful operation allowed Groves to rest, recover and wait – as we all did – for his date against Smith. What followed was weeks and months of speculation that saw, at one stage, the rumour mill telling us Groves was out of the final, Eubank Jr would be taking his place and even James DeGale might be entering the fray and so on. Finally, late in July, boxing fans got the news that they really should have had long before then – Groves vs. Smith was on. The only catch was it would not be at the Manchester Arena, nor at the O2 Arena in London but in a location out of left field, where money follows money but means fans miss out.
“Where there’s a logical answer and it’s not presented, you’re usually thinking ‘Well, we’ve got some sort of curve ball coming our way,” said Groves when Boxing Scene caught up with the world champion earlier this month to discuss, amongst many other things, the location of his 32nd fight.
“I knew that there was some sort of a Saudi deal on the table, but we always thought it was going to be for the cruiserweights. As soon as they announced the cruiserweights were going to Russia, I thought ‘Well, we’re going to Saudi Arabia’. When it came out, to be honest, I wasn’t really excited. There’s no nostalgia attached to this place. I’ve boxed in Vegas before and although it didn’t go my way (against Badou Jack) there’s obviously an element of excitement when you’re talking to people and they’re excited about going to Vegas, but this time round no-one was really excited about going to Saudi Arabia which is a bit sad and disappointing but oh well, it’s the business, it’s a job, we just have to do what’s instructed.”
No one is quite sure what to expect inside the venue, also nicknamed ‘The Shining Jewel’. The country has recently opened its arms to the WWE and will be hosting the Italian Super Cup next year. Boxing, however, may feel as suitable in Saudi Arabia as it does when Eddie Hearn and Matchroom roll into Monte Carlo for their annual show. As John Lennon once said at a 1963 Beatles gig in London’s Prince of Wales Theatre: “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And for the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelery…”
As Groves said, however, he is there to do a job, but the lack of atmosphere may unsettle one or the other. The fervour, the noise, the passion and excitement at venues across the U.K will be missed by both. It can be fuel to a fighter running on empty before or during a fight. The chant of your name, the roar of a punch landing has spurred many a man on to heights they never thought possible. Groves, who was as nonchalant as ever with his answers, said he will roll with the punches and insists that atmosphere is not something he relies on.
“I’ve got plenty of experience in boxing all over the world,” he explained.
“I’ve been the A-side, the B-side on the card, I’ve been in hostile crowds, friendly crowds… sometimes you’re surprised by how hostile things are and sometimes you’re surprise by how many people are on your side. This time around I’m not really sure what to expect. It might be a real subdued crowd, there might be a small round of applause at the end of each round or they might be in there going crazy.”
“Being reliant on atmosphere can be a problem,” he countered.
“Of late I’ve been able to be very disciplined when I’m fighting, crowd on my side or not. The Eubank fight was very disciplined, I had to stick to the task at hand, fighting (Fedor) Chudinov with the pressure of it being the fourth time (for a world title), breaking my jaw in the third round, cut over my right eye in the fourth round, I had to stick to my plan, stay calm, keep composed and get the job done. I think there’s going to be much the same this time around with Smith. I’m going to have good rounds, I’m going to have big rounds, I’m not going to let anything make me slip away from the plan. We know what we need to do, and we need to stick with it. Just get the win. I think there’s varying options of how I could win but the most important thing is to win, to win with minimal risk.”
That’s not to say he won’t pass up the opportunity of a knockout should it present itself against Smith. These days though Groves is not as consistently explosive as he once was. The power remains, and if you fall into a trap – as Jamie Cox will testify to – you are going to come unstuck. The Groves of 2018 is a much more relaxed animal nowadays. The brain is outvoting the brawn. And more than ever he is paying attention to what his trainer has to say to him.
As he admitted to ‘Scene, he used to hang off every word that former trainer Adam Booth would say to him when he turned professional.
“Near the end that wasn’t the same.”
Out of the fire and into another one. World champion Carl Froch across the corner from him in 2013. ‘The Cobra’ saw no threat but Groves said he would land two right hands in the first round. That he did. Down went Froch and up off the seats came the crowd in disbelief. The challenger got greedy, relied too much on his offence and became right hand happy.
“He [Froch] got numb to it.”
Paddy Fitzpatrick was in his corner that infamous night, and for one far greater at Wembley Stadium in the rematch. The loss to Badou Jack in Vegas brought that working relationship to an end. Two trainers, three world title losses.
“After a while with the next trainer [Fitzpatrick] I was just going through the motions, didn’t feel like I was improving, and I needed that clean break. I was harping on about everything for a reason a good few years ago now and hearing it now it sends shivers down my back. I don’t like it, it’s cringey. But, you know, every now and then, a soft moment, I might be talking to a close friend, family or my wife and they’ll say: ‘Do you know what? Maybe so. Maybe it wasn’t to be then’. If I’d come out of that Adam Booth situation and gone and trained with Shane straight away, we might have imploded because I wouldn’t have been listening to a 24-year-old trainer at that stage and might have made the same mistakes. Maybe everything was supposed to work out this way and right now I wouldn’t risk changing anything for the world. I’m in a happy place inside and outside of boxing which is just amazing for me and I’ve still got big fights on the horizon, probably my biggest fight on September 28 and I just can’t wait to get out there and get the job done.”
Groves is in the form of his life thanks in part to being at ease, finally becoming world champion and putting to rest the ghosts from 2013 to 2015. These have brought ‘The Saint’ into a new chapter of his life. Experience, maturity, becoming more-wiser and efficient have taken him and Shane McGuigan on a seven-fight win streak that began at the Copper Box at the beginning of 2016 against Andrea Di Luisa.
“For me he [McGuigan] has enough experience and knowledge to get it across and I’m listening. I’m in a position now, a stage of my life where I want to listen and he’s the person I want to listen to.”
And as for the shoulder, well it is doing its job as it always has, according to Groves. The jab, so crucial to how he controls fights, and how he wins fights, is popping out just as fast, as are the hooks that follow. If he is concerned, he wasn’t showing it to ‘Scene. It’s an elephant in the room for many but the champion’s greater concerns came before when he endured dark times wondering if he would return and whether or not he would be firing on all cylinders.
“We’re there now and it’s lovely,” he said.
“It’s taken a lot of work. It’s been painful and physically it’s been the hardest thing that I’ve had to do. It’s strong in every movement. I can’t thank my team enough and my medical team that have got me back. I’ve got full confidence in the left arm, not just to survive the fight, but to actually go out there and do a job. It’s strong, it’s powerful, it’s got the endurance, it can keep working, it’s better than ever.”