BOXING finds a way to salt your wounds. Callum Smith sits in high up in the stands in Trabzon, a small backwater on the shore of the Black Sea in Turkey. It’s 2012 and everything he has worked for is bleeding away.
Only recently Smith was a welterweight. For this Olympic qualifying event he’s leapt up to light-heavy. He boxed well, his speed telling, his chin standing up to the odd punch he shipped. He needed to reach the final to book his place at the London Games. One win away, he was outboxing Azerbaijan’s Vatan Huseynli. He timed his shots, his left hook thudded him. Not enough to knock the Azeri down but these were scoring shots. Or they should have been. The judges somehow conspired to have Huseynli a win by two points.
Smith had no luck. He sits in the stands the next day, watching below the final that should have been his. If he finishes third in this tournament, if, that is, Huseynli wins this bout, Smith would still have been qualified for London 2012. The Azeri instead goes through the motions. Callum knows exactly what he is watching, his face, even at light-heavyweight, hollow under the lights of the arena. Huseynli hands a lightly contested win to the Turkish boxer he’s facing and with it Smith’s hope of going to London 2012 is swept away. He is robbed twice over.
It is his lowest moment. “I never left the ring thinking I’ll still go. I never ever thought that, I just assumed he would lose anyway. I was never going to make it that way. It wasn’t just your average tournament. Every tournament I went to on GB was all gearing up for London and to fall at the very last hurdle, and just the realisation that was it. There were no more chances. I wasn’t going to be in London. It was tough,” he says. “That was hard. In the amateurs you’ve kind of mapped your whole career out and you kind of think you’ll turn pro an Olympian, maybe an Olympic medallist, you get that headstart in the pros. I was having to turn pro without that. It just makes your question, ‘Is it going to be harder?’”
Years later he is speaking from Jeddah, on another trip to the East, but this time he hopes for it to lead him to the pinnacle of his boxing career. On Friday (September 28) he will challenge George Groves for the WBA super-middleweight title in the World Boxing Super Series final.
It has been hard to get to this point. Smith won British and European titles but a world title shot eluded him until he entered this Super Series. “I got off to a good start in the pros. A year in, the Olympics was completely gone and behind me. I had a new challenge to go for,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming but I’ve enjoyed it all. I’m just thinking I’m one step away from being finally able to say I’ve done it, I’ve achieved what I set out to do. It’s a nice feeling, it gives you excitement, butterflies, a bit of everything mixed in. But I’ve got a job to do this weekend. I’m fully focused on it.”
He has had plenty of time to dwell on the Groves fight. The contest was put back to allow the champion to recover from a dislocated shoulder. “The fight’s been made since February so it’s been a long time just focusing on George Groves,” Smith said. “I have been ticking over, I never really leave the gym and go balloon up. So it’s been a long time coming but an extra few months aren’t important with the amount of time I’ve waited previously. We’re here now it’s fight week. I’m just glad that the fight’s happening and touch wood it’s George Groves who will be in the corner because there was a lot of doubt about that as well. So everything’s gone to plan.”
“I’ve watched a lot of his fights over the years. When I turned professional you kind of keep your eye on ones who are there ahead of you. I’ve known George since the ABAs, I remember watching him,” he continued. “I know him very well, he’d probably say the same, vice versa. He’s probably studied me and feel he knows me well. I think that’s what makes it a good interesting fight. We both know each other well. We’re both going to come up with gameplans and see who can execute it and nullify the other person. I think whoever’s successful in doing that will come out on top.”
There is a more personal score between them. In 2011, when Smith was still an amateur, Groves knocked out his eldest brother Paul. Callum however isn’t using the thought of revenge for motivation. He doesn’t take much from that fight at all, saying in his matter-of-fact tone, “It was a long time ago and it was a pretty short fight, I don’t watch much of it back especially when it doesn’t go the way we want. Paul had some success in round one, landed a couple of good shots and he got caught with a good shot in round two and obviously the round was over.”
The lesson from it remains obvious. “He’s a good fighter, he’s dangerous, he can punch, he’s added experience to that, George Groves now,” Smith warns. But Callum compares himself favourably to Groves, “I still believe I’m good enough to go out there and do a job on him.”
“I’m looking forward to getting in there first round and see how the fight’s going to pan out. I think it’ll be a lot of thinking and both trying to set each other up for the big shots,” he said. “This is what I’m in boxing for. These type of fights. I know I need to perform when I get in there.”
Groves is undoubtedly a class above anyone Smith has met as a professional. But in his long amateur career the Liverpudlian has shared the ring with the world’s elite. “I beat Serik Sapiyev, who was double World gold medallist at the time, he went on to win gold in London [at the Olympics, where Sapiyev also won the Val Barker trophy for boxer of the tournament]. I beat him in Sheffield. I remember not only just the fight but the week we boxed we did a lot of sparring together. It was a camp with a tournament at the end of it, I remember his footwork being very, very good, being very clever when we were doing tech sparring and his counter-punching and moving me into positions. I learned a lot from sparring him, which probably gave me confidence as the week went on I was doing better and better with him, I beat him at the end of the week, if I probably hadn’t sparred him that week I would probably have gone in and been in awe of him a bit and probably felt a bit out of my depth. It gave me the confidence that I could cope with him, that I could deal with him and I could beat him.”
In the semi-finals of a minor tournament in Hungary, Smith also boxed Dmitry Bivol, who has become a star light-heavyweight. “I boxed Bivol as well, who’s doing pretty well in the pros now. He’s managed to win a world title and he’s making some noise in the light-heavyweight division,” Callum said.
Then, in 2012, Bivol was just “some random Russian”. “I think I’d heard he’d done well in the World Youths,” Smith recalled. “I remember watching him thinking he’s a decent fighter. It was a good fight. I remember thinking there’s a lot of stuff he does well… I remember having a good first round and feeling I’d probably edged it.
“I kept seeing bits of him on Instagram and before you know it, he’s on a Matchroom show in Monte Carlo and now he’s world champion.”
Smith though cannot match Groves’ experience. But, even though the champion is a big super-middleweight, the Liverpudlian is strikingly the taller man. “There is a bit of size difference,” Callum notes. “I’m used to height advantage with people, he’s probably not used to giving away height so that’s probably something for him to deal with and it’ll be interesting to see how he is against a tall opponent. I’m sure he’s had tall sparring partners.”
But whether Smith can take full advantage of that remains to be seen. Groves’ jab is one of his most impressive tools. To win Smith would need to take that away. He’d have to be good enough to outjab the champion. “That’s a question a lot of people are wondering. George Groves has got a very good jab, obviously he gives away height to me. My jab has got to be good on the night to match him, to outjab him and not let him dominate the jabbing match. I feel when he does get the jab off, the shots then come off his jab. The jab’s a big factor in his way of fighting. My jab has got to be good on the night and I’ve worked on that throughout camp for hours, he’s probably done the same,” he said.
It will start with jabs, it will come down to ringcraft, power punches and each man’s resilience. For Smith in particular this long journey to Saudi Arabia will bring him to his moment of truth. Groves is already an established champion and one of the stars of British boxing. His legacy is assured. For Smith this fight in Jeddah will reveal what he really is and what he can really do.
It’s his moment “to see how good I really am and to see what I can achieve”.
“It’s a fight that’s been talked about for a long time,” he said. “I’m just glad that it’s finally here, I get a chance to hopefully show how good I am and show I’m good enough to become a world champion.”