George Groves, who has retired from boxing at the age of thirty, was not only one of the finest British fighters of recent years but also one of the sport’s great characters.
Articulate, idiosyncratic and resolutely autonomous, Groves has been lauded by boxing writer Jeff Powell as ‘an independent thinker in a world confined to tunnel vision,’ a strange and wonderful antidote to sporting cliché and interview soundbites.
A former world champion in the super-middleweight division, boasting wins over boxers as gifted as James DeGale and Chris Eubank Jr, Groves will nevertheless be remembered for two fights he lost in the course of a few months, both against Carl Froch.
This legacy is, however, no bad thing, as, while he may not have captured Froch’s super-middleweight title on either occasion, Groves won the nation’s hearts with his impressive boxing displays and entertaining personality.
That the Froch-Groves rivalry became one of the most memorable and antagonistic in twenty-first-century sport is largely down to the latter’s ability to get under his opponent’s skin.
He taunted Froch before their first meeting, in Manchester in 2013, predicting exactly which punches he would throw, and when, to knock out the older fighter. An upset seemed likely, as Groves floored Froch in the first, then dominated the following seven rounds with his quick hands and piston-like jab, all whilst spookily matching his cocksure prophecy.
Ahead on the judges’ scorecards, Groves lost in the ninth round, following what appeared to be a premature stoppage by referee Howard Foster.
The rematch was inevitable, after such a controversial denouement to the initial bout, and a post-war British record was set when 80,000 seats were sold for a first fight at Wembley Stadium in almost twenty years. Recently, boxing fans have gorged on a steady diet of huge stadium fights, to the point where it is easy to forget just how significant Froch-Groves II was in terms of ceremony and scale.
Their rivalry re-invigorated boxing in this country at a time when popular figures like Joe Calzaghe and Ricky Hatton had retired, while Anthony Joshua was just embarking on a professional career, albeit following Olympic success. With former heavyweight champion David Haye in temporary retirement, Groves and Froch were the biggest draws in British boxing.
Had Groves’s conduct in the run-up to the two fights been unexceptional, it is unlikely that sufficient interest would have been generated to sell out England’s national stadium. A former stand-up comic, he maintained the relentless trash talk and surreal humour as the 2014 rematch date drew nearer.
In one instance, as Froch spoke at a joint press conference, Groves sat a few feet away, instead concentrating on solving a Rubik’s cube.
The Wembley fight was closer than the first instalment, but the result was largely the same, as Froch won inside the distance, felling Groves with a superb straight right.
Following these two losses, and a further defeat in a world title clash against the Swede Badou Jack, Groves was in grave danger of becoming another one of boxing’s nearly-men, a sad footnote in a story teeming with real heroes.
That he finally won a world title on his fourth attempt, against Russia’s Fedor Chudinov in 2017, proves his extraordinary resolve.
He retires now with an admirable record of twenty-eight wins in thirty-two fights, and at a time of his own choosing, rather than having his hand forced by a murderous cocktail of dotage and damage, like so many less fortunate fighters.
Indeed, he knows just how cruel his trade can be: his opponent, Eduard Gutknecht, suffered a brain aneurysm following their 2016 clash, and can no longer walk or talk.
Groves has stated that he wants to leave the sport before ‘injury retires me’, and such a decision is reflective of an intelligent and self-aware man: he deserves our very best wishes in whatever he chooses to pursue next.
Image: Mac Dreamstate via Wikimedia Commons