Too Soon For Saint George?

Upon learning of George Groves’ plans to take on Carl Froch, the overwhelming reaction amongst the British contingent seemed to be one of joy. It was a childlike emotion for many, one that could be traced back as far as the early 1990s when British super middleweights regularly squared off in megafights commanding television audiences that would nowadays make even the likes of Floyd Mayweather blush. Many were thrilled at the prospect of the young, undefeated Londoner taking on the ageing but by no means past it title holder. Yet I could not count myself in their number, even though I’ve recently been rereading Donald McRae’s seminal “Dark Trade” and found myself inundated with returning memories of that glorious era some twenty years ago.

Make no mistake, it’s a fantastic contest on paper. Carl Froch is one of the finest fighters these islands have ever produced and George Groves is arguably the best prospect in the super middleweight division. There are currently few better bouts to be made at the weight, but I still can’t shake the feeling that it’s too soon, and will ultimately morph into a fight that could have hugely damaging consequences for the challenger should he lose. In those first moments after the announcement, I was reminded of all the fighters who’ve stepped up too quickly, who’ve seen their level of competition swell with disproportionately rapidity. For as much as we like to boast of boxing’s incomparable ability to turn on its head in the split second it takes to throw a power shot, it is equally a sport that is defined by levels.

Simply put, barring an absurdly rapid decline in Froch’s skills and resilience, or the type of punch that arrives once a decade to detonate spectacularly on the face of an opponent, he is a level or two above Groves. That’s not to say that Groves can’t rise to those heights in the future, just that I would be amazed if he could pull such a feat off now. I have every confidence he’ll give it everything he’s got and no doubt do his ever-growing legion of supporters proud. I just don’t see where he is going to find that extra something required to break down an opponent as determined, experienced, and, above all, tough as Froch.

The aforementioned once-in-a-generation punch has been felt in the sport before, of course. But it’s predominantly been on the jaw of the young pretender. Fernando Vargas will tell you that much, for he was another fighter who stepped up competition rapidly, arriving in the ring opposite Felix Trinidad just five days after his 24th birthday in December, 2000. With Tito at the peak of his powers then, the fight came too soon for the man they called “El Feroz,” and I still wince when I watch the initial knockdown in the opening round. You know, the one everyone remembers. The one where Trinidad landed a left hand to Vargas’s chin that made such a resounding crack it sounded like the arena itself had been rent asunder.

That frenzied Nevadan evening marked Trinidad’s 19th title fight. Vargas had only six by contrast. Similarly, the bout in England later this year will be Froch’s 11th consecutive appearance fighting for a world title, while it will be Groves’s first. The accepted theory back then was one of Vargas biting off more than he could chew at such a nascent stage in his career, and while he showed tremendous guts en route to a 12th round knockout at the hands of Trinidad, the sense that he never truly recovered cannot be shaken.

I fear we may witness the same fate befall Groves in this fight. I fear it precisely because he will be stepping in against a man who has, like Trinidad, faced a relentless run of quality opponents before. In fact, Carl Froch has undergone arguably the toughest run of fights of any competitor in the sport over the last five years, beginning with his titanic contest against Jean Pascal in 2008 and encompassing bouts with Andre Ward, Jermain Taylor, Arthur Abraham, Lucian Bute, as well as a thrilling duology against Mikkel Kessler along the way. This has been a true murderers’ row of opposition, perhaps the only one from the broadly defined modern era brutal enough to hold a candle to the legendary sequences of opponents taken on by the likes of Roberto Duran way back when.

In this sense the developments of recent weeks become even more prescient, for they have been marked not only by the continued downfall of another youthful contender in welterweight Andre Berto, but also by the raging of debate within boxing circles on the importance of that mischievous “0” on a fighter’s resume. Here, attention has been drawn to the fact that Berto’s record is far from that of a failed fighter, with observers bemoaning the fact that, seemingly in the modern era, even the smallest sprinkling of defeats is enough to condemn a guy to the doldrums, to devalue them entirely in the eyes of the network executives and casual fans who provide the cream of the sport with their pay-per-view income. For George Groves’s sake, I hope that this apparent rejection of commercially appealing but shallow win/loss ratios continues to ring out, yet one only has to look at another of Trinidad’s victims, David Reid, to witness the true price of being matched against overly tough opponents too early in a career.

Reid, an amateur standout who boasted a gold medal from the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, was discovered to have an eye problem and — unbeknownst to most fans at the time — rushed along upon entry into the pro ranks. After just 15 professional fights, he entered the ring against the wily (and at that stage still undefeated) Puerto Rican veteran. Reid suffered a detached retina during the fight and took one of the worst beatings I can recall on the way to losing a 12-round unanimous decision. He fought just four more times before retiring the following year and now lives a hermitish lifestyle which has seen him cease all contact with the sport he once loved and sink into a deep depression.

Although undoubtedly extreme in the case of Reid, fight fans would do well to take a moment as they soak up the hyperbole and bombast that will doubtless be flung our way as the Sky machine kicks into gear over the coming weeks. Whilst readying their St. George’s Crosses and knights templar attire they might pause and think back on the once great Olympian’s rapid downfall, as well as Vargas’s tumble from grace. After all, there’s nothing quite so tortuous in boxing as that age old question of what might have been.