Almost too close to call: Groves vs Smith preview

Graham Houston
28/09/2018 8:58am

Injury delayed George Groves’ WBSS super middleweight final with Callum Smith, but now the much-anticipated bout is finally
happening. Graham Houston looks at an intriguing pairing that pits Groves’ big-fight seasoning against Smith’s potential in the unlikely setting of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia...

It’s happening later than planned and in a location we don’t associate with big-time boxing, but the good news is that George Groves and Callum Smith meet in the World Boxing Super Series 168lbs final on 28 September.

The fight, at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, was originally set for 2 June, but Groves threw out his left shoulder when outpointing Chris Eubank Jr in February. For a while, it looked as if the WBSS would be obliged to substitute Eubank for Groves. A Smith vs Eubank final would have been a tremendous disappointment.

Groves didn’t just defeat Eubank, he gave him something of a boxing lesson. However, Groves’ shoulder responded to treatment and the fight everyone wants to see is going to happen. Groves is a narrow favourite at 7-5 on, which is as it should
be. Groves has fought at a higher level and enters the ring as a world champion, but Smith is undefeated, can punch and has
height and reach advantages.

The WBSS cruiserweight final between Oleksandr Usyk and Murat Gassiev looked 50-50 on paper but ended up a one-sided bout, with Usyk coasting to victory. Groves vs Smith, however, looks sure to be closely contested. It certainly seems unlikely that Groves will be able to dominate Smith the way he did the wild-swinging Eubank.

“Saint George” Groves (28-3, 20 KOs) hasn’t lost since Badou Jack narrowly defeated him in Las Vegas almost three years ago. The 30-year-old from Shepherd’s Bush in west London is on a run of seven consecutive wins. This includes winning the WBA’s “super” title at 168lbs - Britain’s Rocky Fielding is the “regular” WBA champion, and, yes it’s confusing - and making two successful defences.

Groves, 30, is of the try, try and try again school. Carl Froch twice stopped Groves in title fights, although controversially in their first meeting. The Badou Jack loss was especially disappointing for Groves because he was convinced he had done enough and even suggested he could have dug deeper had there been a greater sense of urgency in his corner.

However, it all came good in the end when, in his fourth title attempt, Groves stopped Russia’s Fedor Chudinov in the sixth round. Then came surely the most satisfying win of Groves’ career when he boxed rings round Eubank last February. Chris Eubank Sr had spoken of concern for Groves’ physical wellbeing and Junior “guaranteed” a knockout. On the night, though, Groves made Eubank look like an amateur for much of the fight.

What we know about Groves, then, is that he can box and punch, has a fighting heart and will never give up. Groves has one of the best left jabs in the business. Not only is Groves a technician of the highest order but he has shown he can rally from adversity. Cut over the eye in his fight with Chudinov, and under pressure against a strong and determined opponent, Groves responded with a blazing barrage that had the Russian fighter out on his feet. While Froch ultimately proved too seasoned and too strong, Groves scored a knockdown in the first fight and was leading on one judge’s card up to the eighth-round ending in the rematch.

With Smith (24-0, 17 KOs), we have the usual conundrum with an undefeated boxer: we can’t be sure how good he is until he loses. Or, to put it another way, we don’t really know the level he can reach.

Smith has never looked remotely in danger of defeat but the 28-year-old from the Liverpool fighting family hasn’t been in sparkling form lately. It took Smith 10 rounds to stop Luke Blackledge, a competent but essentially domestic-level boxer subsequently blown out in a round by prospect Zach Parker. Smith travelled the full 12 rounds in his last two fights, against Erik Skoglund and the former kickboxing champion Nieky Holzken, although he did floor the durable and game Skoglund.

I just wonder if Smith was boxing within himself in those bouts. He was a huge betting favourite and maybe he didn’t feel a sense of danger — what we now call the “fear factor”.

Smith has the capacity to win in crushing fashion, as he showed when blasting through his Liverpool rival Rocky Fielding in the first round. Indeed, Smith followed up that three-knockdown annihilation with a 101-second demolition of the French fighter Hadillah Mohoumadi, who on a previous visit to Britain had given James DeGale all he could handle.

I get the impression with Smith that the better the opponent, the better he will perform. The close betting line indicates that the oddsmakers feel this way, too.

Smith has a lot going for him. At 6ft 3ins, he is rangy and long-reaching. Groves jabs beautifully but Smith, too, has what the old-school writers would call an educated left hand. Smith is capable of delivering a hurtful left hook to the body. Just because Smith’s last three fights have gone long - a 10th-round TKO, two 12-round decision wins - doesn’t mean his punching power was overrated after the quick wins over Fielding and Mohoumadi. Smith might have been simply boxing to win, rather than trying to look spectacular, in his last three bouts.

Also, at least as far as the learning process is concerned, going 12 rounds is arguably more beneficial for a boxer than scoring an early KO. What’s important for Smith, facing by far the most difficult and dangerous fight of his career, is that he is ready for the challenge. I think he is as ready as he will ever be.

As to the likely winner, this is one of those “too close to call” contests. It is self-evident that neither man can afford to let
his opponent dictate the tempo. There isn’t too much margin for error on either side. It could be jab for jab, move for move, counter for counter in the early rounds. Where Groves has an obvious advantage is in the experience department. He’s boxed in six world title fights.

When it comes to staying composed and steady under the high pressure of being in a major fight with the boxing world watching, Groves logically has the edge. Maybe, though, we haven’t yet seen the best that Smith can produce. It’s fascinating. I believe Smith is going to be a world champion - just not on the night of 28 September. Groves is the pick, then, in a fight that looks likely to go the full 12 rounds.