As he prepares to reinvent himself again on Saturday, there are a couple of ways of looking at the career of Hammersmith’s Saint George Groves. The one time super-middleweight upstart, now a seasoned campaigner, could either be encouraged by his extremely narrow, split decision failure to wrest the WBC title from Badou Jack in September last year, or written off as a nearly man, having lost three of his last five contests, all world title fights, including two stoppage defeats. What exactly can he achieve from here?
It is undeniable that until reaching elite world level, GG swept all before him. A commonwealth champion by his tenth fight, a slight wobble before claiming a decisive victory against dangerous Kenny Anderson in his twelfth, followed up by beating current IBF titlist James DeGale for the British title in his 14th, clearly marked him out as a cut above the domestic pack. An impressive two round blast-out of Paul Smith in his first defence confirmed that. Yet another fact too is undeniable. Regardless of mitigating circumstances, whenever since then he has stepped up to genuine world class, he has lost.
For followers of Groves’ career there is an inescapable feeling that momentum has petered out. The poor timing of his split with long-term trainer Adam Booth, before the first fight with Carl Froch in 2013, initially seemed to have few consequences. Perhaps this flattered to deceive. Despite losing in controversial fashion to The Cobra that night, it was arguably the best performance of his career. From the thunderous first round knockdown until a point around the seventh, he dominated the world no.2 in virtually every aspect of the game. Then he began to tire, referee Howard Foster played his part and everyone knows the rest.
A full training camp with likeable new coach Paddy Fitzpatrick for the Wembley rematch followed. If George improved on the previous showing, he would win, surely. A little less cavalier in early approach, with more conservation of stamina and the fight was his. Technically, he had looked so superior.
But on the night he merely held his own until being poleaxed in round eight, while the differences in movement, speed and sharpness that were so apparent in their first bout had disappeared. Questions were raised. Had that famous night in Manchester been his peak? At 25, was Groves already on the slide? Was the relationship with Fitzpatrick working?
Uninspiring, workmanlike, comeback wins over B-listers Christophe Rebrasse and Denis Douglin could not provide satisfactory answers to those questions and the sense prevailed that Groves had lost something since parting with Booth. The recent defeat to Jack deepened that sense. Boxing in Vegas, on a massive night against a good, but not exceptional title holder, George had a wonderful opportunity to revive his stuttering career. But he failed to take it.
Yes, he maintained his composure well after being put down in the first. Yes, he stayed in the fight throughout, but he was never able to press home any advantages or exert enough pressure to make an emphatic case for the judges dethroning a home-corner champion. His performance, much like the previous two, was flat and laboured, giving the impression that he was no longer enjoying his boxing, that the cortisone and adrenaline were not flowing as they once did. His body was going through the motions, but his mind and imagination were not engaged.
There then followed a minor tantrum, the acrimonious split with Fitzpatrick, accusations of amateurish training camps and a period of introspection. Groves has emerged from all of that, restarted his Twitter account and is now ready again it seems, to attack the top ten. At only 27 time is still his friend and he can take heart from similar stories. Sheffield’s Clinton Woods, for example, failed three times to capture a world light-heavyweight title, nearly retired, then picked one up in his fourth attempt. It can be done.
Yet with Woods, there was always a feeling of progression. That despite the defeats he was getting closer. That his game was improving. Can we say that about Groves?
In a recent Sky Sports feature, George described his 2011 win over James DeGale as his ‘greatest night’, as well he might. It is, after all, the only W on his record over top-drawer opposition, but it must be remembered that what decided that contest, on a narrow majority verdict (1 point on 2 judges’ cards and a draw on the other) was discipline. Groves contained DeGale with a tight gameplan. He kept much of the fight at close quarters thus negating Chunky’s reach advantage and speed. He tied him up and boxed well on the inside. George still deserves huge credit for the performance, but that win had Booth etched through the middle of it, like Blackpool on a stick of rock.
How about this for a simple theory regarding George Groves’ career? Here was a talented kid, who split with a trusted trainer and became an overnight star with his tragi-hero performance in the first Froch fight. As perhaps is only natural, all that went to his head.
He thought he’d cracked it and signed up with a coach he was comfortable with, rather than one who would drag the best out of him. In George’s mind at the time, flying high at 25, it was a secondary issue. He was a headline act, lit up by fireworks, who could ride into the Wembley ring atop a bus. But then he lost heavily. And he kept getting worse. Then he lost again.
George had to make a change. It was forced upon him and the realisation of that, from one who had been so cocksure of his glittering destination, is what led to embarrassment, his disappearance from that Las Vegas ring and then the public eye. No-one likes to admit they were wrong.
That’s what this is about. George has bags of ability but psychologically? He got it wrong.
As a result he has relaunched by working with flavour-of-the-month Shane McGuigan, who also handles David Haye alongside a lasting relationship with Carl Frampton, which already bears impressive fruit. It’s a stellar line-up for such a young coach, but it is likely GG will present McGuigan with an entirely new challenge. The wonderkid may have done well in polishing the raw talent and enthusiasm of Frampton, in stoking his youthful fire, but how well will he do in reviving the fortunes of one whose career is flagging, whose coals have grown colder, whose mind has not been right?
The first step is to try to reignite the passion George seems to have lost since 2014, when he lay like a broken doll on the Wembley canvas. If McGuigan cannot do that, recouping the split second of timing, the sliver of hand or foot speed it brings, a stale Groves will never leap the final hurdle. George’s comeback opponent on Saturday, the modest and limited Andrea di Luisa, will help to inform our judgements.
Upstart George would have played with him, outsmarted and dazzled him, then KO’d him before the middle rounds. Seasoned George would beat him to the jab all night, never really get to top gear and win an insipid fight on points. Which of those we see will tell us much about where ‘The Saint’ goes from here.
My last book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ has been longlisted for the William Hill Sports book of the year award and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.