(photo of Carl Froch-George Groves I via Matchroom/HBO)
Boxing exerts such a mental toll on its participants that often they’ll shy away from reality. It is the reason so many hucksters and carnival barkers have managed to pillage the sport through the years (and why an ever expanding number of elite-level boxers attempt to distance themselves from its pressures by referencing themselves in the third person). Self-confidence provides a necessary breastplate ahead of such a nerve-jangling pursuit – one that can wither a man before a punch has even been thrown. Rarely will a boxer admit to feeling sub-par before a fight, to a lacklustre training camp or to having been beaten fair and square in the ring; frailties and weakness are confessed to in retrospect – only to be dismissed and forgotten just as quickly, once the vanquished reconvene with a heavy bag.
Throughout the protracted build-up to Saturday’s sequel, a super middleweight grudge match that takes place before a record 80,000 strong audience at London’s Wembley Stadium and that will air on HBO, Carl Froch and George Groves have attempted to undermine one another at every turn — mind games compounded by their conflicting interpretations of November’s original, bittersweet encounter.
That thunderous affair unfolded amid a noxious air. Groves had ruffled Froch’s feathers pre-fight with his construal and subsequent critique of the Nottingham man’s record. Froch, in supercilious form having avenged a defeat to the Dane, Mikkel Kessler, announced that he was an “international superstar” who’d beaten everyone he’d faced save for the imperious king of the super middleweights, the Californian Andre Ward (while being sure to mitigate that setback by demeaning the American as an awkward, boring fighter). Groves, wide-eyed and earnest, then curdled Froch’s mood when he highlighted that, aside from clear defeats to both Kessler and Ward, Froch had been outboxed by the faded former middleweight kingpin Jermain Taylor (before he managed to rescue the fight with a last-ditch knockout) and the enigmatic Flint stylist Andre Dirrell, who many felt had been the victim of a hometown decision.
So frank and forthright was Groves, he was construed as a cocky young upstart who’d insulted an old hand. After being booed into the ring, Groves, surprisingly, performed precisely as he’d pledged. He engaged the older man in mid-ring, outjabbed him, outsped him and then exploded a ruinous right hand into his face in the dying embers of round 1 that might have torpedoed any normal competitor. Froch, though, is unusually tough; when the action resumed, the pair embarked upon a spiteful punch-out before Froch, who’d worked up a scrappy head of steam from the 7th round on, laid into a wilting Groves along the ropes in the 9th. As Groves began to melt under the ring lights, referee Howard Foster fumbled his cards and called time ahead of the fight’s seemingly imminent and natural conclusion.
In Groves’ mind — and that of the majority of the British public’s – he was on the cusp of a famous victory before falling victim to an unfair bias; Froch meanwhile claimed he’d overlooked Groves, had underperformed as a result, yet had whittled his man down to the nub and so was robbed himself, of the opportunity to end the argument definitively (which is where we pick up from).
Groves has continued to molest Froch’s psyche – to the extent that the older man has been cowed into visiting a psychologist from the English Institute of Sport. Groves has reportedly hired a psychiatrist to analyse Froch’s relationship with long-time trainer Robert McCracken, while the duo have engaged in umpteen tit-for-tat TV infomercials since – battles of intellect which while not exactly JFK vs. Nixon or Bobby Fischer vs. Boris Spassky, have generated reams of copy nonetheless.
Froch, 36, has lost only two of 34 fights. Since 2008, he has battled the aforementioned Taylor, Ward, Groves, Kessler and Dirrell along with the world-rated Jean Pascal, Glen Johnson, Lucian Bute and Arthur Abraham; it is a level of opposition that remains unsurpassed among his peers. Only Ward has managed to contain him.
Hammersmith’s Groves, 26, meanwhile has little in the way of international experience, save for a 12-round rout over the faded 43-year-old road warrior Johnson; in 20 pro fights he has bested domestic rivals Kenny Anderson, Paul Smith and James DeGale against that sole, contentious reverse to Froch. There is a gulf in experience between them.
Froch is slower of both hand and foot, is less skilful and lacks Groves’ dynamism to end a fight with one punch. For long spells last time, he had to wait until Groves had his way and then fell into a clinch before he could land his own crude and clubbing punches to both head and body.
Groves is a reflex boxer, who’ll look to draw a lead or a mistake before pouncing cat-like into action with fast, explosive shots. Unfortunately for him, he lacks any real inside game to speak of; despite all his success in Manchester — and there were occasions when Groves teed off on Froch with abandon — he does not appear comfortable when bartering up close.
Unpredictable and contrary, Groves seems sure to box from range this time around – looking to conserve energy while minimising Froch’s opportunities to engage. As calculating as Groves is, however, one suspects he’s awoken a sleeping dog in Froch with his pointed jibes and juju. Froch is likely to box on red alert in the early stages before seeking to savage Groves with his patented windmill-like volleys.
There is a sense that Groves has inadvertently whipped Froch into an impervious state of determination. We have seen this before in super middleweight bouts held on British soil. Chris Eubank, who’d rendered himself bomb-proof against Nigel Benn in a 1990 middleweight clash, encountered Michael Watson in a similar state of tunnel vision in ’92; Benn subsequently employed a hypnotist in order to steel himself for the ferocious American Gerald McClellan in ’95. McClellan and Watson suffered horrific injuries in those bouts, while Eubank and Benn were never the same.
Those tragedies aren’t touched upon lightly. They remain millstones, though, sinister and uncomfortable reminders of what can unfold when sporting goals yield to pride and defiance. These are dangerous incentives, especially when one considers that the referee, employed first and foremost to safeguard the boxers, is under public pressure to let the fight go until one of them is beaten unconscious.
Froch, the 8-to-11 favourite, should prove too strong; his method of victory will depend on which version of Groves turns up: the bomber or the boxer. With such a budding audience at boxing’s disposal, one can only hope for a good, clean fight that produces a conclusive and deserving winner. What could possibly go wrong?