Despite ABA victories and a roaring start to his pro journey, in the early days few tipped Carl Froch for true greatness. By his 20th bout he was British and Commonwealth titlist. Only four opponents had heard the final bell, but his hands down, face first approach did not convince everyone. When asked to comment, undisputed world champ Joe Calzaghe called him a “one dimensional fighter” and the perception of many was similar – that he lacked the technique to really mix it with the elite. Perhaps those doubts, openly expressed by many, fuelled him and gave rise to his own belief that he was never given due credit for his achievements.
Froch was unfortunate in that much of his career was played out at a time when boxing’s status was uncertain. World title fights sometimes went untelevised, meaning that to the wider public, they didn’t exist. BBC pulled the plug, ITV were about to, while Sky and Setanta made their football based priorities clear. By the time Froch won his first world title, in one of the last bouts ITV showed (before recently rekindling their interest), Calzaghe had just retired and public interest was deemed to be at a low ebb.
In 2011, when Carl emerged from the super-six tournament with two defeats (to Mikkel Kessler and Andre Ward) yet was legitimately viewed as world no.3, Setanta had ceased to exist and Sky was seriously considering its options. The pay per view model, it seemed, was inviable. The company publicly turned their backs on it.
Titleless and 34 years old, Froch appeared destined to fade from memory, while boxing itself would struggle on, searching for a niche. Broadcasters and promoters had begun their quest, scouring the new generation for a star to excite the masses.
That all began to change when Froch dismantled Lucien Bute in Nottingham. Many had tipped him to lose. Many thought Bute was better than Ward. They were wrong.
What a performance the veteran put up! He old-manned Bute and battered him. The Canadian IBF champ wilted under The Cobra’s relentless pressure. The wild joy on Eddie Hearn’s face at the end, as he leapt into the ring to celebrate was a signifier of that bout’s importance. If Matchroom had lost Froch (and if Bute had beaten him, he may well have retired) they could have faced a few lean years. No-one had heard of Anthony Joshua yet while Brook, Crolla, McDonnell and the rest were still building their resumés.
Froch’s resurgence led to the revival of pay per view for the Kessler rematch. Hearn convinced Sky to give it another whirl, it sold well and provided a thunderous battle between two ageing warriors. And then? Where could they go with Froch then?
Initially, eyebrows were raised by the challenge of George Groves, who was considered too green to last with the seasoned champ, but the needle between the fighters, which was genuine, aroused interest. Their first epic fight in Manchester and its unsatisfactory ending created a perfect storm, leading to an event to cement a new era.
May 31st 2014, two years ago today, with 80,000 spectators in Wembley Stadium. The Froch / Groves rematch is the biggest ticket selling UK boxing event of the televised age. (The all-time attendance record of 90,000 is claimed by Len Harvey v Jack Peterson, for the Commonwealth and British heavyweight title, but it came in 1936, before the arrival of television.)
It was a fight that got everybody talking, even non boxing fans. The hardcore found that exciting but unsettling all at once. We wanted a revival in the fight game’s fortunes, a return to the glory days, but our thing was suddenly everybody’s thing. Opinions were thrown around like confetti. The Guardian cited the capacity crowd and blanket media coverage as proof that boxing “can still captivate the masses.”
For the businessman who surround rings like hyenas, Froch Groves 2 was magical. The fight grossed £22 million and clocked up over 900,000 PPV buys. Gate receipts were reported to be £6 million, with another £2 million in sponsorship from the likes of RockStar energy drinks. It was beamed live to 60 countries around the world.
In KOing Groves that night, after such a torrid affair the first time around, Carl Froch did not only seal his own legacy, but that of his promotional company and to some degree British boxing in general. The current revival, which sees eleven British world title holders, is largely a Matchroom / Sky party. Seven of them are signed to the Hearns and they continue to be the go-to company for young fighters with high ambition. Pay per view, after all, much as many despise it, is where the real money is.
That bout also solidified Sky’s future commitment to the sport. Profit potential was proven. If Bute had beaten Froch in 2012 and the Groves nights never happened, there is no way bouts like Joshua v Whyte or Bellew v Cleverly would have ended up on pay per view. All of them, from AJ to Kell Brook and of course Eddie Hearn, owe a massive debt of thanks to Carl Froch. They are rich because of him.
That is the true offshoot of his legacy, which can be seen as an unwelcome stain or a money-spinning affirmation, depending on your point of view.
In the end Froch was a British great. Of that there is no question. In world terms he was never the best fighter in his weight division, a mantle assumed by Andre Ward after Calzaghe’s retirement, but in the Indian summer of his fighting days and through his own sheer bloody-mindedness he did revive UK boxing’s fortunes. With his iron chin, power and fitness he dragged the fight game, kicking and screaming, into a modern, corporatised era. And his last, great night at Wembley, the second anniversary of which falls today, encapsulated that.
Speaking after the fight, his promoter Eddie Hearn stated that Froch “single-handedly resurrected pay per view in the UK.”
That is the postscript to the Cobra’s career.
My book ‘Journeymen, the other side of the boxing business’ was longlisted for William Hill Sports book of the year and named one of the sports books of the year by The Guardian. It is still available from all usual outlets.
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