Las Vegas, January 2013
A parking lot without cars, it was a slow Saturday morning and only a solitary swivel chair could loosely be classed as a wheeled vehicle. The chair was isolated in the middle of the lot, seemingly abandoned along Schiff Drive by a disgruntled member of staff working for any one of the modest businesses situated in the area west of the Las Vegas strip, and, for the purpose of entertainment, and motivated in large part by sheer boredom, Paddy Fitzpatrick sauntered over and claimed it. He sat down, clicked it into first gear and then scooted it back towards where George Groves stood, just inches from the doorstep of the Mayweather Boxing Club, its name spelled out above it in bright red, white and blue lettering. Groves smiled. He was entertained by the trainer’s antics, for it helped ebb away some of the time.
Punctuality, you see, ensured Groves, Fitzpatrick and fellow trainer Darren Chan arrived in Chinatown at 11.30 am, a full half an hour before they were told Floyd Mayweather Jr’s gym opened, and even then they weren’t sure the gym would ever open, and were merely hanging on the word of an Irishman on a swivel chair, who had earlier that day completed a covert mission to find the phone number of an old Las Vegas friend, Roger Mayweather, and ask him if it would be okay for him to bring down a fighter to train at the gym. “Black Mamba” apparently said yes. Consequently, Groves, though in Sin City less than twenty-four hours, jet-lagged, and presumably still bloated from the three bottles of beer he sank at a hotel bar the previous evening, stuffed his training gear into his large suitcase and wheeled it through an empty parking lot in pursuit of sparring.
Rather than feeling flustered or ill-prepared, though, he was instead excited by the prospect of gatecrashing Mayweather’s gym and beating up one of the many fighters who train there. He spoke of nothing else and was open to sparring anybody, be it a super-middleweight or a heavyweight. It didn’t matter to him. And he wasn’t at all anxious about the gym’s reputation, either, or the propensity of its inhabitants to goad and deride any newcomer who dare take on one of their own. If anything, it was that element, the idea of being an unwanted stranger in a foreign land, which most appealed to him.
Admittedly, when waiting patiently outside the door marked 4020, Groves by his suitcase and Fitzpatrick sucking liquorice root on a swivel chair, there could be no doubt as to who the foreigners were. To the uneducated, the Commonwealth and former British super-middleweight champion, kitted out in a grey hooded top and grey bottoms, appeared nothing more than an overzealous fan desperate to catch a glimpse of one of boxing’s most famous gyms, and Fitzpatrick his protective father. Certainly, Groves’ demeanour was a far cry from the shit-talking and boisterous prizefighters who regularly rocked up in hefty Range Rovers and Bugattis and barged through door 4020 with the help of minders. No, he – they – were unquestionably tourists, and that was presumably also the view of John Sinclair, Floyd’s uncle – the other one – when he finally prised open the door at 12.15 pm and stared at a peculiar Irishman in a porkpie hat joyously spinning around on a desk chair.
‘I spoke to Roger and he said it was okay for us to train here,’ said Paddy.
‘All of you?’ asked Sinclair.
‘No,’ said Fitzpatrick. ‘Just him.’
The trainer pointed at Groves and Sinclair eyed him up and down like a fake designer suit. He then shrugged.
‘Okay, but you’ll have to leave the chair outside.’
‘Not a problem, brother,’ said Fitzpatrick.
The reception area, like the gym itself, was essentially an homage to its owner, and upon entry Groves and company were immediately ambushed by various Mayweather murals. On one wall there were images of Floyd dressed as an unconvincing gangster – pin-striped suit, fedora, wads of cash and machine gun in hand – and on the other were dozens of Mayweather versus Miguel Cotto fight posters, all stuck together in some kind of confused collage. Then, next to that collection of posters and to the side of the entrance to the gym was a message scrawled on white A4 paper that informed all guests: “The gym is closed at 5pm and only those under Mayweather Promotions will remain to train. NO ONE ELSE. Thank you, Mayweather Boxing Club.”
Groves eyed up the message, and the pictures, and even the plasma television showing a college basketball game, then peered through the door that led to the main gym area. He tried to resist enthusiasm, but it was tough. Sinclair stood nearby and sensed it.
‘You can go through and take a look around, if you want,’ he said, assuming the boxer to be high on hero worship. ‘It’s pretty empty right now, we’ve only just opened, but it will get busy later.’
‘Have you got any super-middleweights coming down?’ asked Groves, ever the pro.
‘I’m not sure. Why? You looking for sparring?’
Sinclair appeared sceptical. ‘And you’re a super-middleweight?’
‘Well, not right now. Probably more a light-heavyweight. But, yeah, that’s the weight I fight at.’
Sinclair nodded his head and again looked him up and down.
‘I’ll spar anybody, though,’ added Groves. ‘Even heavyweights, if you’ve got them.’
Shocked by this confidence, Sinclair chose to flash a wry smile and close the conversation there. Clearly a non-believer, he had no idea who Groves was, nor how talented or accomplished he was in the ring.
And Fitzpatrick was keen to keep it that way, too. At least for now. Indeed, as they both finally walked through the door into the gym, he grabbed George by the arm and whispered into his ear, ‘Don’t tell any of them who you are, okay? Let’s just do the job we came to do and go home.’
It was a job easier said than done, however, as within minutes of arriving, Groves, international man of mystery, cracked open his suitcase and pulled out a number of T-shirts, all of which featured his name and logo.
Floyd Mayweather, of course, was also a fan of self-promotion and T-shirts, but was beyond using them as unofficial ID cards. Besides, his entire gym acted as a shrine to his name, face and achievements; like one almighty mirror, his reflection stared back at him and everybody else lucky enough to shadowbox in front of it. There were Mayweather Promotions logos splashed all over two ring canvases, as well as the corner pads, and countless fight posters, new and old, all involving Mayweather, plastered on the surrounding walls. Sponsors such as Grant and Reebok also received kudos on ring ropes, and the flags of America, Mexico and Panama briefly hinted at a world consisting of more than just one man.
On the whole, though, this was all about Floyd. Even when not present, he was everywhere. Contagious, too, as time and time again youngsters would filter through the door and each wrap their hands, step inside one of the two rings and shadowbox exactly as their hero and mentor would. Hands low, smiles bright, they’d take comfort in the shoulder-roll defence and perform every move with typical Mayweather swagger, as though it all came far too easy to them.
Even Sinclair, the reluctant host, was a walking, talking advert for his boss and nephew. The oversized T-shirt on his back was decorated with images of Floyd, and the manner in which he and the other employees spoke was in keeping with the way the fighter carried himself. They were brash and positive and their words seemed rapped rather than spoken, emphasis always on promotion and money.
‘You want T-shirts?’ Sinclair asked Chan as he toured the gym. ‘I can get you T-shirts. I’ve got to go home and get them, but I can get you T-shirts. You can’t find them anywhere else, either. I got them done, so trust me on that. And I’m Floyd’s uncle. I’m not just some nobody. I’m his uncle.’
The title of uncle appeared every bit as prestigious as the many Floyd had held over the years. It carried status, power, gravitas, and put Sinclair a notch above the numerous other cronies who spent their days whooping and hollering the champ’s every move. It also meant he was connected by blood, not any desire to penny-pinch from a man considered the best boxer on the planet. That day, though, when pressed for his actual role, the best Sinclair could offer was ‘masseuse'; masseuse to a boxer absent from the gym.
Ultimately, Groves and Fitzpatrick didn’t care for T-shirts. They were there for business and, despite an alarming lack of fighters, especially super-middleweights, Fitzpatrick wrapped his man’s hands as though in preparation for battle, a real fight, all the while Groves looked over the trainer’s shoulder and jumped in anticipation every time a fresh face entered the gymnasium.
‘You guys English?’ asked an elderly man dressed in a sky blue shell-suit and cap, sat not far from where Groves had his hands seen to. A typical gym rat, the man had a free Saturday afternoon and loved nothing more than parking up inside Floyd’s gym and watching the latest up-and-comers go to work.
‘Some of us are,’ replied Groves.
‘I tell you what,’ he said, ‘I do miss that Princess Diana. What a lovely, lovely woman. There isn’t a day goes by when I don’t think about what happened to her.’
Groves and Fitzpatrick nodded in agreement, both unsure what exactly could be added to this opening statement.
‘I don’t think that country of yours will ever be the same without her,’ he continued. ‘What an incredible woman she was. So beautiful as well.’
The infatuation stopped there. Seconds later, Diana made way for Ricky.
‘And that Ricky Hatton,’ said the old man, raising his hand to his head. ‘That boy’s sure popular over there, ain’t he? I couldn’t believe the support he gets in England. You guys love him. Floyd loves him, too. We all do.’
Though hardly said with spite, the comment put the out-of-towners in their place and let them know exactly whose house they’d entered. Hatton had, of course, been one of Mayweather’s many victims during an incredible unbeaten run, and, like Hatton, the latest addition to the Mayweather household was also British and suspiciously pasty. Evidently, in the eyes of the locals, this didn’t bode well.
Yet there was never any hint of trepidation on the face of Groves, never any sense he was wary of stepping on toes or acting out of turn. In fact, just moments after having his hands bandaged, he shunned further small talk with the locals and instead climbed inside the main ring – slightly more elevated than the other one – and began shadowboxing as though he’d been training there all his life. He covered every inch of the canvas, throwing punches, avoiding imaginary counters, and never once second guessed his decision to do so.
But then the gym started to fill up. Younger, smaller fighters made their way through the door and prepared to wrap their hands. One of them, a spindly boy in glasses, wearing yet another Money Team T-shirt, instantly made his presence known by skipping towards the CD player and sorting through a number of homemade CDs sat on a table. Each of the discs had song titles, album titles or the name of an artist scribbled haphazardly upon them and the boxer grabbed one, simply labelled A$AP Rocky, then called out to his friend, who by now had entered the second of the two rings and begun shadowboxing. ‘Yo,’ he said, ‘you want that new ASAP Rocky joint?’
His friend nodded his approval and on it went. Yet this was not the kind of Rocky most boxing aficionados expect to be name-dropped in a gymnasium. Rather, in place of “Eye of the Tiger” were a number of abrasive, profanity-ridden rap songs, one of which, “F****n’ Problems”, started up at precisely the moment a six-foot-three, 220-pound heavyweight trudged through the door and straight into the eye-line of Groves, whose face brightened and pace quickened at the mere sight of him. Finally, a breakthrough, he thought, and, at the end of the round, he darted over to the corner, took a swig of water from Fitzpatrick and said, ‘I’ve not seen any super-middles yet, but I’ll stick it on that big bastard if none show.’
The big bastard in question was an amateur heavyweight, with a physique better suited to body building than boxing, all comically large arms and shoulders, but most definitely a big bastard nonetheless. And when he finally gloved up and wailed away on the heavy bag, he left clear indentations following each and every predictable swing.
No amount of muscle could spook Groves, however, and, even when shadowboxing, as he did for a good fifteen minutes, the tourist constantly glanced the way of the heavyweight working the bag. He wanted to get to know him, to figure out his tendencies, before hopefully then exposing them in the ring.
The entire gym sensed what was about to happen, too; now and then as the heavyweight abused the bag he’d be interrupted by gym mates, many of whom whispered something in his ear and then pointed at Groves, who had by now finished shadowboxing and was stepping into his groin protector. They told him stories of a deluded super-middleweight from England who believed he could hang with the best young talents the gym had to offer. Each time they laughed.
Groves, meanwhile, was oblivious to the putdowns and the scathing looks; as well as his groin protector, he had now slipped into a different mindset, one of a hard-nosed, ignorant destroyer. He spoke sparingly from that point on and seemed to switch on to the fact he was on the brink of sparring an unknown heavyweight on foreign territory, surrounded by countless Americans who would revel in seeing his oh-so-British demise.
Click below to read Part II