If a fight is like a brief encounter, a fling, between two suitably-matched fighters, then a tournament is like a marriage.
It will start with the all the right intentions; all parties on their best behaviour, eager to make it work. There will be fun and frolics. There will be great Kodak moments. There will be forward-planning and giddy optimism. But, inevitably, no matter how promising the honeymoon period, there remains the everpresent danger of it fizzling out, going wrong, and falling apart.
Typically, in a tournament, this occurs around the semi-final stage, as cracks start to appear in the form of injuries, pull-outs and postponements, at which point the foundations become unsteady, resentment sets in and TBAs and TBCs replace names and dates. It’s then a tournament becomes not only a failed experiment and an inconvenience but something that regrettably stalls and confuses what it once set out to simplify. (Oh, and it’s never the tournament’s fault.)
Owing to injury or politics, tournaments invariably fall by the wayside, or drag on longer than first anticipated, and this is precisely why most promoters are unwilling to host them in a sport as inherently unpredictable and troublesome as boxing.
It’s a testament, then, to the ambition and diligence of the Sauerlands (Kalle and Nisse) and Richard Schaefer that the World Boxing Super Series is even a thing, let alone a thing now entering the semi-final stages, and that it has remained clear and concise and in one piece. (I’m fully aware that someone will now get injured and withdraw from one of the scheduled fights.)
They ensnared the world’s best cruiserweights. They got the Eubanks. Even their first minor wobble, regarding a date and venue for the super-middleweight semi-final between Callum Smith and Juergen Braehmer, was one they survived and resolved last week, when announcing a date of February 24 and a venue in Nuremberg, Germany.
The details of that announcement might not have pleased Smith or his trainer, Joe Gallagher, who both preferred the idea of a fight against a German on neutral ground, but it did, at the very least, give them, as well as fans of the tournament, some much-needed forward momentum and reassurance.
“There were a few rumours that I’d pulled out, but that wasn’t the case,” said Liverpool’s Smith, 23-0 (17 KOs). “I was always fighting, I was always staying in the tournament. I knew as much as them. I was just waiting for the date to get finalised. I’m just happy it’s all sorted now.
“A little switched is flicked when you get confirmation. You manage to get that bit more out of yourself in training sessions. I’m always inspired and motivated, but I feel like I’ve upped it another gear since the date was announced. It’s hard to describe why, but it definitely has an impact.”
The announcement of a date and venue for Smith vs. Braehmer didn’t just provide a boost for those directly involved. It also lifted the spirits of sceptics questioning whether the tournament would reach its conclusion with the original line-up of fighters intact.
Best of all, though, the announcement allowed us to once again fantasise and picture a scenario in which the winner of Smith and Braehmer fights the winner of the other super-middleweight semi-final between George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr. That, lest we forget, is what tournaments – good, worthwhile tournaments – are all about. The fun. The anticipation. The idealistic matchmaking.
“It doesn’t matter,” Joe Gallagher said when asked who he’d rather see his boxer face in the final. “The great thing about this tournament is you can’t pick and choose.
“I have huge respect for all the fighters in the tournament because so many out there try and avoid each other. So it doesn’t matter who wins – Groves or Eubank. We just want to be in the final. We want to come out of it as the first to win it. We’re not even looking at that fight. We’re looking at Juergen Braehmer.”
Ultimately, they will do both. Such is the nature of a tournament, boxers will always have one eye on the immediate opponent and the other eye on the next one. They can afford to do this, too, because the tournament format gives them a security and guaranteed schedule (well, almost) they are ordinarily without. They can look further ahead because their destiny, so long as they win, is somewhat predetermined (providing injuries and politics don’t intervene).
Smith and Gallagher, therefore, despite saying all the right things ahead of their next assignment, will certainly be casting an inquisitive eye over Groves and Eubank on February 17.
“It’s hard to pick a winner,” said Smith. “I probably sound like 90% of other boxing fans but I think Groves is the better boxer with the better jab and I think he outboxes Eubank at times. I think he’s the bigger man. I can see him winning a lot of the early rounds.
“But it’s no secret that Groves is known to tire in fights and Eubank’s best attribute is probably his work ethic and engine. If that is the case and Groves does tire, the worst person to be in the ring with is Chris Eubank. I think Eubank could come on late and have success. It just depends on whether he has left it too late, as he did with Billy Joe Saunders, or he has been gradually breaking Groves up and winning rounds in the process.
“I think it’s a fight of two halves: Groves early and Eubank late. If I had to pick a winner, I might go for Groves struggling but clinging on and winning on points having won more of the early rounds. But I wouldn’t like to put my life on it.”
In what is a mark of a great fight, Gallagher, the second opinion, is similarly indecisive.
“I keep changing my mind,” he said. “I think Shane (McGuigan, Groves’ trainer) and George are building a relationship. They’ve had a couple of years now and had some decent wins during that time.
“This fight is coming at the right time for both fighters. It’s not like one is on a roll and the other isn’t. Eubank is on a great run of form with wins against (Arthur) Abraham and (Avni) Yildirim and Groves had good wins against (Fedor) Chudinov and (Jamie) Cox. They’re both coming in on good form.
“If we get the George Groves that showed up against James DeGale and Carl Froch the first time, I’ll go with him. That was a George Groves with good feet and good boxing ability. But he needs to be that George Groves to win this fight. If he isn’t, it might be difficult.
“Chris Eubank is very hard to nail. He comes in ducking and diving, slipping really low, and throws more uppercuts than he does jabs. You’ve got the blueprint with the Billy Joe Saunders fight. Boxing skills can beat Eubank. But if Groves neglects his boxing and turns it into a dog fight, Eubank could do George down the straight.”
Here’s another reason why Callum Smith isn’t that fussed who wins the fight between George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr: Smith knows there’s probably a decent chance he boxes not one but both of them before his career ends. The winner will be first, of course, probably around May, but Smith isn’t ruling out a scrap against the loser, either. Not when the UK remains a hotbed of super-middleweights and not when fights against fellow Brits continues to be the main source of income for a lot of British boxers circa-2018.
“I think we will all end up fighting each other,” Smith said. “The three of us, as well as James DeGale, are ranked in the top five in the world, so it’s more than likely the fights between us will happen. They are the biggest fights, the domestic ones. They are the ones people want to see. There’s no reason we can’t all box each other at some point. That’s why I’m in boxing, to be in the big fights. And, luckily for me, the big fights are all in Britain at this point.
“I’m focusing on my fight, but I believe I’ve got the beating of Groves and Eubank. I’ve just got to take care of my job first and beat Braehmer.”