Collision course: Groves vs Eubank Jr preview
Photos: Peter Banke, WBSS
Chris Williamson previews the World Boxing Super Series clash between George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr on Saturday night in Manchester - a showdown with a decidedly retro flavour...
With the glow from two sensational World Boxing Super Series (WBSS) cruiserweight semi-finals providing a feel-good aura within the sport, the focus of the competition tilts towards Manchester for the first semi-final in the super-middleweight competition as George Groves defends his WBA 'super' title against Chris Eubank Jr on Saturday.
The clash feels superbly timed with both men fresh and showing excellent form having booked their place by blasting out preliminary round opponents in quick fashion. I was ringside for BM in Stuttgart last October when Eubank outclassed unbeaten Turk Avni Yildirim in three spiteful rounds. It wasn’t that Eubank beating the untested Turkish prospect was so impressive, but that he did so in an intimidating atmosphere with such little fuss. Eubank appears to have inherited his father’s ice-cold veins and told us later that he simply can’t be intimidated. Within the busy structure of the tournament, Eubank had no desire to extend his evening any longer than necessary.
There is a deliciously retro feeling attached to this event, taking those of us old enough back to the ITV ‘Big Fight Live’ era of the 1990s, when British and Irish super-middleweights Eubank Sr, Nigel Benn, Steve Collins and Michael Watson fought for bragging rights in front of millions of television viewers. It seemed to matter little that we were watching big fish in a little pond - often for the then-lightly regarded WBO belt - while the likes of James Toney or Roy Jones had a more convincing claim to the division's number one spot. October’s quarter-final between Groves and Jamie Cox could pass for a remake of the short, violent and wildly exciting Nigel Benn vs Lou Gent shootout back in 1993. For Benn, the Gent match preceded the blockbuster Manchester rematch with arch rival and fellow 12-stone champ Eubank.
Groves (27-3) is rangy with an excellent jab, jarring straight right-hand and superb power. Despite excellent pedigree and sound fundamentals, his form can be alarmingly sloppy and revisiting tape of Groves’ career it’s surprising how much he has struggled against lower level opposition. Fans remember the exciting up and down Kenny Anderson bout, but Groves was also badly buzzed at the end of the first round against Paul Smith and overcame several shaky occasions before he moved up to world class with the iconic Carl Froch contests.
Power is often the great equaliser in boxing and Groves has hurt or stopped some very sturdy opponents. Froch was, of course, in all kinds of trouble in the first round of their first fight after a peach of a right hand floored him. Even at lower levels, nobody has stopped Paul Smith Jr as convincingly as ‘Saint’ George did after feinting to the body and flooring the scouser with a right hook, finishing him with the same punch seconds later.
Groves also stopped the durable Charles Adamu with hurtful hooks at the midway point of a twelve rounder and displayed fighting heart to stop Kenny Anderson to conclude their torrid argument also in the sixth. Throughout his career, Groves has proved extremely dangerous with body shots up close, a discovery most recent victim Cox found painfully apparent.
Having failed in high profile, competitive ‘world’ title challenges to Froch (twice) and Badou Jack, Groves finally won a belt against Fedor Chudinov last May in Sheffield. Traditionalists may grumble about the legitimacy of winning a vacant title against battle scared Chudinov - fresh from MD ‘defeat’ to Felix Sturm, who subsequently failed a drugs test - but seeing nearly man Groves finally win a ‘world’ crown represented a cheery sight for even the most cynical of observers. The truth is that former rival James DeGale’s upset loss to Caleb Truax last December means the tournament winner will probably be decreed the best at the weight.
Given Eubank’s much less extensive amateur grounding, he lacks certain fundamentals which are ingrained in Groves. The Brighton man’s footwork can be clumsy and when tired and against better opposition he is prone to swing and miss in amateurish fashion. Eubank’s advantages lie in speed, athleticism and rapid combination punching, an asset which may have been flattered by the pedestrian nature of his last two carbon-copy opponents in Abraham and Yildirim.
After a fleeting amateur career, Eubank Jr has been forced to publicly learn 'on the job' as a professional. Treated in the earlier days as something of a gimmick - a description Groves used even this week - Eubank took an absurdly steep jump in 2014, moving from a scheduled eight rounds against 23-17-3 Omar Siala to a 12-round challenge against Billy Joe Saunders for British and European honours at middleweight, losing on a split-decision despite a strong finish after doing little in the first half of the contest.
Since this sole setback Eubank (26-1) has rebuilt at British, European and fringe world level against Dmitrii Chudinov, Gary O’Sullivan and Nick Blackwell before the WBSS tournament eliminator against former middleweight titlist Arthur Abraham.
In the early hours of Sunday morning last July, after Eubank Jr had convincingly outpointed Abraham, Ronnie Davies - trainer to both father and son - was asked how his charge might cope with Groves. A scowling Davies admonished the reporter for his question, citing how well known in boxing circles it is that the two had sparred extensively together, with Eubank having the upper hand. Through the six months leading up to the moment of truth at 10pm on Saturday, the significance of what happened all those years ago has been debated at length.
The question is, all these years after the sparring and at the current stage in their career arcs, who holds the advantages and will progress to the final at London’s 02 Arena on 2 June?
Given the relative amateur pedigree, experience and quality of opposition, it’s surprising that both are around the same age, Groves is 29 years old and Eubank Jr one year younger. Interestingly, Boxing Monthly rank Eubank Jr third in the world, one place ahead of Groves. WBO champ Gilberto Ramirez is ranked at number one with rival WBSS semi-finalist Callum Smith at two.
At the final press conference this week, Eubank was clear about what is at stake on Saturday and his plans once he collects a first widely recognised ‘world’ title.
“This is the fight that can propel me to the top of the sport, a defining one, and George is just the first one to bite the dust before I go after all the belts,” Eubank said, before suggesting that trainer Shane McGuigan will likely save his fighter from too much punishment. “His trainer has one job on fight night and that is to wave that white towel”.
Groves responded to Eubank’s confidence with bemused detachment, before highlighting the respective gap in experience and quality of opposition as the key factor. "It could be over-arrogance or it could just be naivety, him thinking he doesn't need anyone's help or will get to the very top without any help," said Groves.
“I am not for one second taking him lightly because I don't think he has any quit in him. He might have a good chin, he definitely has a good engine but as soon as I hit him I am going to hurt him and put him away. There is a massive difference in opposition we have both faced. He is going to have to make a huge step up."
Boxing Monthly magazine’s expert poll of trade professional perhaps surprisingly tipped Eubank to win by some 20 votes to 10, while the online BM writing team were split 5-5. While tempted by odds of up to 6-1 on a Groves points win, my pick is for Eubank to have too much for Groves, and that Junior's freshness and ambition will propel him to stop the champion sometime after the mid-point of a fight which crackles with thrilling atmosphere and tension - delivering yet another terrific all-action WBSS contest.