LONDON: It will be Friday’s fight at the King Abdullah Sports City that will ultimately determine whether George Groves joins the pantheon of Britain’s super-middleweight greats, or whether with his considerable talent he has underachieved.
The WBA champion had long been considered one of Britain’s finest prospects, but at 30 and toward the end of an eventful career he is a fighter who in the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) final, against his compatriot Callum Smith, should be at his peak.
It was his natural power and ability and a close association with then-WBA heavyweight champion David Haye, and Britain’s leading trainer Adam Booth, that first created such excitement surrounding his potential. His place in the 168lb division — made glamorous in the UK by the successes of Joe Calzaghe, Carl Froch and others — and a natural, long-term rival in James DeGale had given him the platform to make a big name for himself.
Groves’ progress was not always smooth but it remained swift, and included a high-profile victory over DeGale in 2011, when three years after his professional debut and as the underdog he outpointed an Olympic gold medallist.
By 2013, when he had earned the status of mandatory challenger to IBF and WBA champion Froch, Groves retained that excitement and intrigued as the confident opponent against a fighter few felt could realistically be hurt, and yet it was from then that the setbacks began.
Despite his speed, spite and aggression, a lack of punch resistance and questionable stamina meant that he would always remain vulnerable, and that very reputation undermined him on what could otherwise have proved his finest night.
Groves overcame an unexpected split from Booth to meet the proven Froch in the center of the ring, knock him down in the opening round and then, in what was widely considered the fight of the year, proceed to deliver a beating to him that no other ever had while building a convincing lead. It was in the ninth round that, while finally hurt by Froch but far from out on his feet, those perceptions of vulnerability robbed him of the chance to see out a remarkable victory as referee Howard Foster controversially intervened to rescue him from further punishment.
The challenger could later be seen crying at the injustice, but under new trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick and as a fighter free of any promotional ties they admirably challenged the British boxing establishment to force a rematch, unusually to be staged at Wembley Stadium in front of an 80,000-strong crowd.
Again he proceeded to outbox the champion until, in a life-changing, eighth-round instant, the long-term flaw of retreating to the ropes left him exposed and open to the most powerful right hand Froch ever threw, instantly knocking him out.
The remarkable mental strength those around Groves speak of would never be tested more than in the following months, but he rebuilt with conviction, and to the point of gradually earning a shot in Las Vegas at WBC champion Badou Jack.
Against a fighter who has since proved superior even to Froch, he again suffered a narrow defeat, this time on points, and partly as a consequence of the relationship with Fitzpatrick that had completely broken down.
Disillusioned and demotivated — and while IBF champion DeGale excelled — London’s Groves considered retirement. He instead appointed Shane McGuigan as his trainer, and after a lengthier period of rebuilding that including the heartache of his victory over Eduard Gutknecht that left the loser disabled, last May he finally achieved his world-title dream by stopping Russia’s Fedor Chudinov.
Timing and circumstances had previously worked against Groves, but since then they could not have been more on his side. The creation of the first, lucrative WBSS followed, and after stopping Jamie Cox in the quarterfinals, in his highest-profile fight since those against Froch he fought Chris Eubank Jr. in the final four.
Again fighting under the British public’s attention and again when widely considered the underdog, Groves outclassed his challenger to secure one of his most convincing — and his most cathartic — victories as a professional fighter.
He insists he has since fully recovered from the dislocated shoulder he suffered in the final round. Friday’s fight was postponed so that he could participate, and in a reversal of roles from that when he was the young challenger, if he can overcome the promising, imposing Smith — a far more dangerous fighter than Eubank Jr. — he will have secured his defining win.