Journey's end: The George Groves story
Photo: Richard Heathcote/Getty Images
As George Groves retires, James Lupton traces his career from prospect to contender, nearly man, Cinderella Man and, finally, world champion...
“The right hand can take you around the block, but a jab will take you around the world.”
I don’t think there is a better sentence to sum up the career of recently retired George Groves. The former WBA super-middleweight champion, sprinkled in lucky charm tattoos, found the mindset of a champion to regroup time and time again before finally becoming a world champion at the fourth time of asking when he defeated Fedor Chudinov in May 2017.
The Groves story, in a sense, begins on 25 February 1995, when a young boy found himself fixated to his television in Hammersmith, London. Taking in every punch, bob and weave on display by two warriors as Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan went toe-to-toe, the young Groves was in awe of what he had witnessed and decided that he too wanted to be a boxer.
Ten-year-old Groves got himself to an amateur boxing gym and the rest, as they say, is history. At the age of twelve Groves joined the Dale Youth ABC, where he had somewhere he could call home.
Sixty-seven wins out of 75 amateur bouts saw a young Groves win back-to-back ABA titles at middleweight and earn his first win over Dale Youth stablemate and eventual long-term rival James DeGale in the Northwest London divisional.
Fast forward to 15 November 2008 and we saw the professional debut of ‘Saint’ George; touted as a top British prospect he had signed to Hayemaker Promotions. Trained by the fantastic Adam Booth, Groves found himself unbeaten in his first eight bouts.
By this point Groves had signed with Frank Maloney, with the promoter securing his first title shot against Commonwealth champion Charles Adamu.
It was just eight days after his 22nd birthday and George was a developing talent, ten years younger than the champion. However he was not fazed - filled with youth and skill he sent his opponent to the canvas in the first, fourth and sixth rounds, twice in the latter forcing the referee to halt the bout, albeit with Adamu on his feet. Groves was the first man to stop the durable Ghanaian, and only Billy Joe Saunders has done it since.
The first defence of his Commonwealth title was against the then unbeaten in 16 fights Kenny Anderson - a real brute who loved a brawl.
Groves was troubled and dropped in the third round. For a while it looked like a man against a boy inside those ropes. But George fought fire with fire and in the sixth round body shots saw Anderson’s dominance crumble. Like a shark that has smelt blood, Groves ambushed Anderson, piling on the pressure and forcing the referee to save the Scotsman from further punishment. Groves was the only blemish on Anderson's CV when he retired in 2012.
Soon after came the grudge match. Groves and DeGale didn’t like each other, they still don’t today.
It’s not often you get a gym rivalry which gets settled in the ring... twice.
Groves' Commonwealth title was on the line along with DeGale’s British belt. It wasn’t ever going to win the fight of the year award, but it was certainly a chess match. Adam Booth got the tactics spot on, turning the Commonwealth champion into a counter-puncher for the night, and into the British champion to boot. A game plan that was executed to perfection by his protege.
With the DeGale spat put to bed, for the time being, former British champion Paul Smith wanted his belt back. That challenge was soon repelled after Groves ended Smith’s efforts with two big right hands in the second round, with both flooring the Liverpudlian, the second concluding the match-up.
Time for the next step up. It came two fights later in the shape of former world champion Glen Johnson, the Jamaican had previously been involved in no less than 14 world title bouts before facing the unbeaten Groves.
Although past his best, the 43-year-old still represented a considerable step up in opposition but he was resoundingly beaten after a dominant performance from Groves.
After beating Noe Gonzalez Alcoba for the WBA inter-continental title on the undercard of Carl Froch vs Mikkel Kessler II, Groves had found himself ranked number two with WBA. With that, the hope he would get an opportunity to face the champion was coming close to reality.
The opportunity arose and so too did a new rivalry - one that split British fight fans down the middle.
Nottingham's Carl Froch, aka 'The Cobra', was a hard man who had been around the block a few times, and was considered a big favourite to beat the Londoner. The WBA and IBF world titles were at stake and the kid from Hammersmith thought he was about to realise his dream in the same venue where he had won his first professional title, the MEN arena.
In round one Groves dropped Froch in what was a huge shock. The boxing world momentarily came to a standstill, Froch falling in what seemed to be slow motion as he visited the canvas for only the second time in his career.
All of a sudden, the world believed 'the Saint’ could do it.
Referee Howard Foster stopped the bout in round nine in Froch's favour when it appeared to many that Groves could have continued.
Outrage set in for the fans.
Controversy ignited a rematch which sold out Wembley stadium (I won’t tell you how many seats were filled.) 'The Cobra' put the rivalry to bed with a highlight reel one-punch knockout.
Time to rebuild.
Frenchman Christopher Rebrassé was in the opposite corner to Groves. This time the WBC Silver title and the EBU title were up for grabs with the winner promised a shot at the WBC title. Dominated and well beaten Rebrassé heard the final bell but knew he hadn’t done enough. The search for the fairytale ending continued for Groves.
Third time unlucky. This time Groves came up short against the well respected Badou Jack and the rebuild had to begin all over again.
David Brophy and the durable Martin Murray were repelled and then tragedy struck...
Friday 18 November 2016 and what should have been a routine defence of the WBA international super-middleweight title. Instead, Groves found himself ending the night filled with guilt rather than pride.
Eduard Gutknecht suffered a bleed on his brain after losing to Groves, spending his Christmas that year in a coma. It hit George hard.
Choosing to box on, the Briton ensured he had the blessing of the Gutknecht family, and made sure he visited his in-ring foe before he was transferred back to his residence in Germany.
From agony to ecstasy, a few months later Groves was victorious.
Finally, a lifelong dream was achieved, and the new WBA 'super' super-middleweight champion was George Groves.
Stopping Fedor Chudinov inside six rounds at Bramall Lane the man from Hammersmith piled praise upon trainer Shane McGuigan for all his hard work behind the scenes. It's a win that George dedicated to Gutknecht.
By now his career was approaching its final countdown. Comosa-led tournament the World Boxing Super Series was a breath of fresh air in boxing, many complimenting it as the best thing to happen to the sport for many years. A tournament which pitted the best against each other, something we don’t often see in boxing.
Groves found himself facing three fellow Brits during the course of the tournament. First up was Jamie Cox, the hard-hitting man from Swindon walked into the ring having won all his previous 24 professional bouts. Groves inflicted the first loss on Cox’s career with a devastating, soul stealing body shot.
The win brought the Groves journey into the path of ex-sparring partner Chris Eubank Jr, some heated words were exchanged, giving the match-up a rivalry akin to Groves' verbal spars with DeGale and Froch. After twelve gruelling rounds of blood, sweat and tears Groves once more was victorious.
Just once more.
A shoulder injury suffered by Groves led the WBSS final to be postponed, conflict over rumoured venues followed with Dubai and Stamford Bridge allegedly considered.
Finally, we had a fight on our hands in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, 6'3" scouser Callum Smith towered over Groves and doubts set into the fans' minds.
How was Groves’ shoulder? How much impact would Smith’s superior height and reach have?
Those questions were soon answered. Smith produced a career-best performance and ended Groves’ challenge in the seventh round. ‘Mundo’ was anointed world champion while the Ali Trophy and Ring magazine belt also ensured him near universal recognition as the number one super-middleweight in the world.
Four months to the day had passed since that night, when Groves announced his retirement on Monday 28 January.
Classy as ever George said a prayer for Eduard Gutknecht in his retirement statement.
The desire to fight had gone, Groves having accomplished all of his hopes and dreams and along the way captured the hearts of the boxing fans, leaving behind a significant legacy in British boxing.
Thank you, George. It was quite a journey.