Frontline diary: Class tells in Manchester

Chris Williamson
23/02/2018 9:20am

Photos courtesy of WBSS

Even from the lower tier of the Manchester Arena, as opposed to ringside, it was clear to Chris Williamson that George Groves had outclassed Chris Eubank Jr in their WBSS clash on Saturday night. Mind you not everyone saw it that way...

groveu1It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when boxing was relegated to being a niche sport in the U.K., hidden from the mainstream lens of national newspapers and network television.

I suspect it was sometime in the 1990s, a decade bookended by a thrilling domestic ‘world’ title fight on British soil as Nigel Benn vs Chris groveu3Eubank was broadcast to around ten million viewers and the compelling but paywalled ‘robbery’ (as the New York Post memorably put it) when Evander Holyfield escaped Madison Square Garden with a draw in a heavyweight unification match with Lennox Lewis nine years later.

Well, whisper it quietly, but the dial is shifting back towards mainstream popularity. On the morning of George Groves’ WBA 'super' super middleweight title defence against Chris Eubank Jr in the first semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series (WBSS), BBC breakfast news hosted a ten-minute segment discussing the match, treating it respectfully as a serious and important event. Elsewhere, national newspapers invested wide-scale, prominent coverage to the clash.

This welcome spike of attention among the national press might explain why much of the media in Manchester - including BM online - found itself allocated in seating away from ringside, located in the lower tier of the arena. At the risk of irritating readers tired of an expanding, often self-appointed media with a dubious sense of ‘press pass’ entitlement, it must be emphasised that a view of this kind doesn’t facilitate serious analysis of the fight or fabric of the event.

One website outlet scored the twelve-round main event in favour of Eubank Jr, which one might charitably suggest could be explained by the distant view of proceedings or - more jokingly - by the strong smell of marijuana wafting around this section of the crowd. Even more incredibly, a national newspaper seated at ringside also scored the fight for Junior.

Lineal heavyweight champ Tyson Fury was present at the Manchester Arena to support his friend Isaac Lowe’s challenge to British featherweight champ Ryan Walsh. The relatively svelte-looking Fury is no longer The Ring magazine heavyweight champ with Tom Gray, the associate editor who presented Fury with the belt, telling BM the title would remain vacant until Anthony Joshua fights the man considered the clear number two, Deontay Wilder.

Walsh vs Lowe proved an entertaining hors d’oeuvre to the main event, a quality technical battle in which most reporters I sat with favoured the switch-hitting Walsh. Walsh is about to embark on a first trip to New York and despite being teetotal is looking forward to visiting Jimmy’s Corner, the famous Manhattan pub run by boxing trainer Jimmy Glenn.

Kalle Sauerland reacted to recent debate on the appropriateness of employing female models performing arguably peripheral tasks at sporting events by announcing he’d increase the number of ring girls from four to six. Boxing Monthly could only count five on duty, so it could be that one was a reserve, sick, or perhaps even interviewing elsewhere.

There’s nothing like the atmosphere surrounding a truly big fight and the WBSS deserve great credit for their timekeeping, with all Europe-based main event ringwalks occurring at 10pm U.K. time. In the minutes leading up to the entrances the Manchester air crackled with anticipation.

A gently amusing prominence was given to Eubank Jr’s lightly regarded IBO title through the evening, with announcer David Diamante - owner of a cigar lounge in New York if you’re reading Ryan - referring to its title ahead of the more established but increasingly frustrating WBA on several occasions. Ed Levine of the IBO revealed how much esteem Groves held the belt in a few days after the fight, confirming the belt was now vacant, as though Groves had woken up with small change in his pocket deemed more trouble than it was worth.

Eubank played the pantomime villain to perfection in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Groves crowd, extending his arm like a sporting Darth Vader, menacingly and theatrically following the direction of Groves’ ringwalk. Groves appeared unaffected, exuding the quiet confidence of someone who knew what he was there to do, lightly tapping his gloves as Eubank was introduced.

It was time for business, at last.

The storyline which unfolded during the 36 minutes of action seems obvious now, even for those of us hoodwinked by a clear case of the Emperor’s new clothes (in this case ‘NXTGEN’ branded attire finished with an IBO belt). Groves dictated most of the action with vastly superior footwork along with a long, accurate left jab and a sharp, piercing straight right hands. These are fundamentals Groves learned as a young boxer and has practiced again and again as he further developed under professional instruction from respected trainers Adam Booth and Shane McGuigan.

I made a note as early as the second round that Eubank felt the power of Groves, perhaps more so than in their much discussed early spars. It was a clear round for the more experienced fighter and the template was set. Groves controlled the pace and Eubank - on occasions he was able to get close to the champ - telegraphed his left hook enough to be avoided or blocked by Groves, or was effectively tied up, thus nullifying one of Eubank's other key weapons, his uppercut.

Eubank was cut and the two glared at each other as the bell sounded to end the third. Groves kept his distance brilliantly and by midway through the fight Groves was regularly hurting Eubank, his body language displaying supreme, understated confidence as his crowd roared their appreciation.

The slow, deliberate beating continued until at the end of the eleventh, Eubank trudging back to his corner weary, bloody and beaten. There was drama to come though as Groves’ shoulder dislocated with two minutes left in the fight, evoking memories of Danny Williams' brave victory over Mark Potter.

The champion stirringly opted for a one-armed attack strategy rather that evading Eubank like a defensive sitting duck and repeatedly threw right hands at the challenger. Still, while Eubank’s desperate and unexpected opportunity energised him enough to win the round, it was much too little, much too late.

Eubank shook the hand of Groves’ good arm before the beaten fighter wiped blood away with the white towel he once claimed his corner didn’t require. As the injured but triumphant Groves paced slowly and deliberately away from his workplace, he sought little acclaim from the crowd while boos continued for Eubank Jr. He didn’t need to look for it because the esteem for Groves was solid and assured, just like the fighter the majority of fans in attendance had supported.