SATURDAY night won’t be the first time I have watched George Groves fight Chris Eubank Jr in a boxing ring.
I watched the pair fight for the first time in 2011, when Eubank Jr had yet to even turn professional, and then watched improved versions of the two go toe-to-toe on many different occasions in 2012 and 2013. I’ve watched Groves and Eubank Jr fight more, in fact, than I’ve watched any other two fighters fight.
By fight, of course, what I actually mean is spar. Yet to watch George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr spar is to realise that not all spars are necessarily spars – which is to say practice – and that some, those special ones, the ones you remember, bear a closer resemblance to a fight. (If not fights, by the truest definition, the rounds produced by Groves and Eubank Jr certainly represent the best spars I have ever witnessed.)
Now, nearly seven years on from when they first sparred, I’ve seen enough of Groves and Eubank Jr to know what they look like together in a boxing ring and I know what they will look like together in a boxing ring this Saturday (February 17) when they collide in the semi-final of the World Boxing Super Series’ super-middleweight tournament.
I know the fight will be a classic and will most probably be brutal and action-packed, more so than the spars, and I know the winner will have to have truly grafted for their victory and that, in doing so, in prevailing, they will have suffered, endured and ultimately done something they were never able to do in all those years of sparring. They will have raised their game to new heights. They will have left their rival in the dust. They will be in need of a lie down.
Yet, despite witnessing the dress rehearsals, I still struggle to pick a winner (a testament not only to the competitive nature of their spars but also how both have since grown as fighters). It might be Groves. Then again, it might be Eubank Jr.
What I do know, however, is this: I know how to beat George Groves and I know how to beat Chris Eubank Jr.
To beat George Groves I need to be ignorant and arrogant enough to convince myself I am better than I am. I need to intimidate him, climb inside his head. I need to unsettle him and do that through either my boxing style or the unpredictable and detached nature of my character. I need to be poker-faced, cold, vacant. I need to be ruthless. I need to drain myself of all emotion and empathy. I need to be scary. I need an aura.
I need to ensure he doesn’t talk rings around me. Better yet, I need to remove all possibility of chit-chat and instead utilise the virtues of keeping quiet and remaining enigmatic. I need to be aloof, distant. He will want to study me, categorise me, and take comfort in doing so, but I cannot let this happen. I cannot allow him to feel secure or all-knowing. He must wonder, he must speculate. I need to be a language all of my own.
In the ring I need to be everywhere. I need to be on him. I need to be on his mind even when I’m off his body. I need to push and pull and pull and push and I need to suffocate him when he wants to escape. To achieve this, I need my father’s chin and resolve; I need my own ungodly work ethic. I also need to be steely, indomitable, and use the fact I am a natural middleweight to my advantage and find liberation and extra energy in not having had to cut weight. Feel fresher for it. Feel fitter for it.
For my own good, I need to move my head. Keep moving it. Always move it. I need to evade his jab, his beautiful jab, his consistent jab, and force anxiety upon him by not being there for the punch that starts everything. I need to not dawdle in middle and long range, visit for only a short stay, and close the distance quickly, get him on edge and pressure him. I need to pressure him. I need to pressure him. I need to pressure him.
Rather than fall for feints, I need to be aware they are coming and understand the reason for them. I need to dodge the traps. Anticipate them.
I need to work the body when up close and throw my hands in combination. When an opening presents itself, take it. Don’t think about it. Let it go. Let more and more go. Rattle off dizzying six and seven-punch combinations like they are the last I’ll ever throw. Hit pale flesh and make it red. Do it often. I need to avoid standing off, admiring his work, admiring my work, and instead get to work. I need to avoid aimlessly following – worse, trying to outbox this man – and cut the ring off.
I need to be explosive. I need to be athletic. I need to compensate for inferior technical skills with superior athleticism and use it to be first and do more. I need to embrace the fact I am instinctive rather than technical. Exploit it. I need to improvise and do things he doesn’t expect; attack and punch from angles he doesn’t see.
I need to be different from his other opponents. Different in a way that shocks him, unsettles him, and has him questioning whether a measured approach and meticulous game plan is enough to tame the beast that roams before him. I need to be a beast. Not merely call myself one, not merely act like one, but embody one on the night. Simply the beast.
To beat George Groves, I need to be Chris Eubank Jr.
To beat Chris Eubank Jr, meanwhile, I need to be astute and patient enough to complete a Rubik’s Cube. I need to be a thinker. I need to have an answer to every question, before the fight and during the fight, and make him doubt himself. I need to inform the beast it is only human and, what’s more, is inexperienced, flawed and hasn’t been boxing all that long.
I need to tell him his biggest fan is his father and that his father would wave pom-poms for me with just as much gusto if I too shared his surname. I need to convince him his father, for all his wisdom and charisma, is less of a help and more of a hindrance and that the company of cheerleaders and lack of an actual leader has led to the downfall of greater men. Oh, and integrity trumps Instagram and snapbacks are less juvenile than Snapchat. I’ll need to remind him of that, too.
In the ring I need to be more than just the bigger man. I need to behave and fight like the bigger man. This means imposing myself physically; standing my ground and stifling his attempts to bully. I need to tie up his arms and put his hands in cuffs when he tries to use them. I need to blast his body with uppercuts. I need to turn him in clinches. I need to shove him off. I need to make him feel how strong I am and make him wish I was a middleweight like the others.
Where possible, I need to avoid this type of contact altogether, this intimacy, and keep him on the end of a jab I have perfected for nearly twenty years, one many say is the best in Britain. I need to throw it in all the ways I am capable of throwing it: straight and from the shoulder; in the form of an up-jab from a low, wide stance; quick and from the hip; long and loose; short and hard; doubled-up.
I need to keep him guessing with it, not allow him to grow accustomed to one particular rhythm and then use the mastering of this rhythm to counteract and get inside it. I need to let him know my jab, once it lands, will be used for more than keeping him at bay. That it will also be used to set up my right cross, my concussive right cross, and any uppercut he fancies dipping his chin towards as he encroaches my space.
When he breaks and enters, I need to hurt him. Punish him. Humble him. There needs to be a price to pay for every one of his reckless missteps. I need to show him experience is everything, that substance conquers style, that there is no substitute for technique and smarts, and that training yourself is the opposite of smart.
I need to be economical with my punch output and movement. I need to do everything for a reason and make it count. Stay relaxed, stay composed, and don’t, whatever happens, get anxious. I need to preserve enough energy to flourish in the final third of the fight but not become hesitant or find myself overwhelmed in the process. I need to bounce and explode when it’s time to bounce and explode and I need to settle and walk off when it’s time to settle and walk off. I need to take my time, kill time, make him work on my time. I need to silence his daddy and become his daddy.
To beat Chris Eubank Jr, I need to be George Groves.
So there you have it. I’m not Chris Eubank Jr and I’m not George Groves. I don’t really know how to beat Chris Eubank Jr, nor really know how to beat George Groves. Only they know. But it’s true that I’ve seen them spar, shape up, give and receive punches, and reckon I know enough about both to at least discern that Chris Eubank Jr could prove to be George Groves’ worst nightmare in the same way George Groves could prove to be Chris Eubank Jr’s worst nightmare.
In fact, were it not for the tournament, this godsend of a tournament, it’s more than likely both would have swerved this fight for the duration of their professional careers. Eubank Jr, 26-1 (20), would have stuck at middleweight, not needing to take the risk against a heavy-handed super-middleweight like Groves, while Groves, 27-3 (20), having shared a ring with Eubank Jr over a number of years, might have turned his nose up at the idea of defending his WBA super-middleweight title against someone who was less of a sparring partner and more of a conjoined twin.
Frankly, it’s a headache both could do without. Eubank Jr reminds Groves of all his faults, just as Groves reminds Eubank Jr of his, and Saturday’s fight, more akin to a therapy session, strips away the pretence and hype and forces both to confront all the things they strive to ignore: their defeats, their demons, their insecurities, the truth.
One truth, by the way, is this: George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr, perceptive men in warrior clothing, know the only thing scarier than fighting an unknown quantity is fighting someone who knows you as well as you know them.