The Colourful and Courageous career of George 'The Saint' Groves

As super-middleweight supremo George Groves called time on his scintillating career, some may have been forgiven for thinking it was too early, given that at the age of 30 he still had plenty to offer. However ‘The Saint’ has always been his own man and made his own decisions and as a consequence, will long be remembered as one of the most charismatic, not to mention courageous fighters in modern UK boxing history.

Future conversations of Groves will undoubtedly conjure those wonderful memories of the Froch battles, the mind games and the way he usurped the MEN arena crowd with that thudding right hand at the end of round 1, drawing a collective gasp from the 20,000 people in attendance. That is a moment incomparable to anything else I have witnessed at any sporting event. The man from Hammersmith, London has given us so much more than that though.

From the early stages in his career under the tutelage of trainer Adam Booth, Groves wanted to take on the best fights out there. After a scare against Kenny Anderson (a fighter from Ricky Hatton’s stable) where he was sent to the canvas and had to survive a period of trouble, before stopping him in the sixth round, undeterred by the scare, he immediately looked to take on old amateur foe James Degale. It was during the build up of the grudge match with Degale that boxing fans saw a glimpse of Groves’ ability to unnerve his opponent, largely through an unwavering self-confidence and precise, intelligent statements of intent. It was very clear during an interview on Sky’s ringside that Degale was becoming increasingly irritated by Groves’ confidence and resorted to personal attacks calling him ‘ugly boy’ and other such remarks. The sly smirk from George was a little giveaway that he was happy that the tactics were prevailing and so it proved on the night as Groves (the underdog) came away with a points win against the 2008 Olympic Gold medallist who had been tipped for great things. Groves didn’t have to take that fight, they were both unbeaten and many of today’s fighters would have been advised to swerve such a bout in order to make more money further down the line. Not George, he had self belief and after the Degale fight quickly set about moving through the division and up the rankings.

He then had wins over respected fighters Paul Smith and Glen Johnson, despatching Smith inside two rounds before facing Noe Gonzalez Alcoba, a fighter who had only previously been beaten by Felix Sturm and Adonis Stevenson. Groves stopped him in round 5. A left jab to measure up was followed by a chopping right that sent the onrushing Gonzalez crashing to the canvas. It was a shot that will definitely make it onto the career highlights reel.
Buoyant from his victory and his increasingly apparent power at 168 lbs, Groves went after Carl Froch and got his wish as the pair met in Manchester on 23rd November 2013 in what was billed as the battle of Britain.

Froch was the IBF and WBA champion, but few could have predicted that the champion would look so disturbed and bereft of answers during the build up to the fight as Groves, the younger man and challenger bemused him with a confidence and swagger that had Froch floundering at times. Groves even found time to take on Froch’s brother Lee via social media and at press conferences, as he was always by Carl’s side trying to instigate a bit of needle. Froch has since admitted that the psychological warfare got to him during the first battle.

Despite switching trainers from Adam Booth to Paddy Fitzpatrick only weeks before the fight, Groves showed that his confidence was not misplaced and an eerie prediction of how the beginning of the fight would unfold proved very accurate. He insisted during one of the final press conferences. “I’m gonna meet you in the middle of the ring and I’m gonna win the jab exchanges and I’m gonna hit you with two right hands, just two, just to let you know that I can hit you whenever I want”. After winning the jab exchange in round 1, Groves hit a tentative Frochwith a heavy right hand and then slammed home a right hand with beautiful timing that sent Froch to the floor and as he stood up the effects and ferocity of the shot meant he was still pedalling backwards towards the ropes in the corner of the ring. If the round had been a few seconds longer he may have been stopped and the rest, as they say is history. This reaction from Amir Khan, David Haye and Glenn McCrory will forever be synonymous with this fight.

Groves out-boxed and out-fought Froch for the majority of the fight but suffered a controversial stoppage while comfortably ahead on the scorecards. However that night in Manchester Groves claimed the hearts of many. I was one of the few who entered the arena a Groves fan, but I certainly was not in the minority by the time I left that evening.

Froch had been supported by a large proportion of fans before the fight and he attempted to sway the crowd even further by choosing to enter the ring to legendary Manchester band Oasis as opposed to his usual ‘Welcome to the jungle’. Groves stormed in accompanied, as always by Prodigy’s ‘Spitfire’. This photo perfectly illustrates the intensity and defiance that Groves displayed that night.
The spectacle was such that there was a clamour to see the rematch and after Groves appealed to the boxing authorities, a rematch was ordered. It took place in front of 80,000 at Wembley. Groves, (who contributed massively in terms of selling the fight) suffered a devastating knockout and faced the proposition of rebuilding his career.

He began another assault at a world title and after victories over Rebrasse and Denis Douglin, he worked himself into a position for a crack at Badou Jack’s WBC title. Jack, who fought under Floyd Mayweather jr’s banner, gained a narrow split decision victory which meant a third unsuccessful world title attempt for ‘The Saint’. Many would have thrown in the towel, at least at that level but Groves wasn’t to be denied and still felt he had more to offer and wasn’t ready to slide into obscurity without a final tilt at a life’s long dream. To realise his ambition he knew he had to make changes and he did, taking the decision to part company with trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick.

Hooking up with Shane Mcguigan and Mcguigan’s gym saw a reinvigorated fighter. A very good jab was recognised by Shane who honed it into one of the most potent weapons in the business. Steady comeback wins against Brophy and Di Luisa were then followed by an immaculate display against the very capable Martin Murray and a win over German Eduard Gutknecht that will stay with him for reasons other than boxing. After the fight Gutknecht suffered a brain aneurysm and now has a full time carer.

The incident is one of the reasons that George was keen to retire , realising the dangers of boxing and the importance of his young family and wife and childhood sweetheart Sophie, though not before realising his dream of becoming World champion. He did this at the fourth time of asking against Fedor Chudinov for the WBA super-middleweight title in Sheffield If any young, aspiring boxers ever wanted to see the level of desire required to succeed at the top, they should watch the finish delivered by Groves in Sheffield. The sheer determination etched on Groves’ face as he powered shots into the temple of Chudinov indicated that he didn’t intend on leaving anything to chance. It was almost tangible, seeing all of the angst release from his body, all of the set backs and obstacles from his career had been lifted. An encompassing relief that he was finally a world champion and few would have denied him that moment.

Typically ‘The Saint’ wanted to prove once again that he was the best in the division and signed up to fight in a new world boxing super series format, created by the Sauerland brothers promotion team. It drew names such as Chris Eubank jr, Callum Smith and Juergen Braehmer (who later pulled out with injury). After choosing to fight in the same half of the draw as Eubank jr, Groves opened up his tournament with a victory over compatriot Jamie Cox, ending the fight with a vicious inside body shot. Another for the highlights reel. After Eubank’s demolition of Yildirim, it set up an all British semi-final.

Remarkably Groves wasn’t favourite, maybe the bookies had social media and were influenced by the many videos of Eubank hitting the heavy bag, rattling off speedy combinations Unfortunately for him George Groves didn’t stand still and punched back. There was also an element of humour during the build up with a more relaxed Groves demonstrating again his sharp wit at press conferences. Midway through speaking Eubank said “When the going gets tough” and without hesitation Groves stepped in with “You’re going to sing to us now?”.

Groves served up a very comprehensive win, completely out-boxing Eubank in a tactically perfect fight and even survived a shoulder dislocation in the final round to win unanimously.

Sadly for Groves there was no fairytale in the final as Callum Smith proved better on the night and stopped the Hammersmith man following a spate of big shots following a trade in the centre of the ring. That was enough for Groves to want to call it a day. It won’t be the end for him in terms of boxing though. Such is the diligence of the man, he already has a boxing manager’s licence and has managed himself for the last 5 years so he will soon be nurturing the next wave of talent coming through. He has also already agreed to work on the punditry panel for the Eubank v Degale fight. Who better to talk us through the strengths and weaknesses of both having fought the pair and I’m sure the opportunity to sneak in one of his customary little quips won’t be lost on him.

Maybe one of the biggest things George can take from retirement is the influx of respect shown from his peers, fans and people from all corners of the boxing fraternity. It enhances the already well established opinion among many that he is a genuine, well respected person as well as a respected fighter who always gave everything, always entertained and wanted to fight the best. Plenty to admire, good luck in your retirement George.