“I FELT totally alone,” George Groves said quietly.
Boxing is the loneliest of sports. When the bell rings, the referee fades from view, leaving the fighter with just his opponent for company. But there’s a difference between being alone and feeling alone. When he finally squared up to Badou Jack in Las Vegas on September 12, George Groves’ support was far away. The fragile reassurance he used to take from his corner was now absent and, as if to make his doubts become real, Jack struck him down in the first round. If his third world title fight ended in a stoppage defeat, he wouldn‘t get another chance. But Groves, swamped by pressure, rose. He slowly stood back up.
“It felt like actual make or break,” he said. “You’re away from home, it’s make or break, you’ve waited so long for this, you feel like you’ve grafted for the last 16 months to get to this position just to get your shot. You can’t blow it. You know you’ve got to go out and win well because you’re away from home. It just felt difficult. You’re boxing and you get dropped in the first round. ‘Oh God.’”
But he told himself, “Get up. I’m not going to throw the towel in here, I’m not going to feel sorry for myself, I’m going to crack on, put the pressure on, keep winning the rounds.”
Trust in his trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick had splintered before the fight. By the end it had broken irreparably. “Sit down at the end of the rounds, you get told what you hope to be told, that you’re winning this fight, do what you’re doing. Then at the end of the fight you’ve lost. I thought I’d won. I’d been told I won this. It didn’t feel like a long drawn out process waiting for that result. Oh wait, no you ain’t, you lost, split decision. A real shock. Paddy Fitzpatrick said, ‘Three more minutes and you’re a world champion,’” Groves said. “Whereas you’ve got Kalle Sauerland ringside screaming, ‘What are you on about? This is close.’ You need to put it on him, you need to get the knockout even.”
“How can two people get it so totally different?” he asked. “It turns out the promoter is the one who was right. It was close, or at least the judges felt it was close. To go from ‘I’ve finally cracked this, this is it, I can relax now, just let go’… I haven’t had peace since the first Froch fight. This has been two years in the making and finally yes we’re here now, oh wait, no,” he laughs faintly, with no mirth in his voice. “Totally wrong, you’ve lost.”
“That,” he recalled, “was the worst feeling ever. That was worse than getting knocked out at Wembley, that was worse than waking up after getting knocked out at Wembley. That was certainly my lowest point in boxing because you feel like you’ve been robbed but not by the judges… It was horrible.”
He felt a ghastly deflation, that he’d been let down, that he’d cheated himself even. ‘Now what do I do?’ he wondered. ‘Do I go back to work?’
“I thought, ‘Sod it,” he said of that nightmarish evening in Las Vegas. “I’m going to bed.’”
Groves is often a thoughtful speaker. Here though sitting on the edge of the ring in his Hammersmith gym he is, if not withdrawn, certainly introspective. He strikes a very different figure from the man who radiated a surreal, persuasive confidence ahead of his two fights with Carl Froch. But even in those heady days Groves felt alone.
“I felt totally alone in the first Froch fight but I had much more confidence in my trainer in that fight, in my corner than I did for the Badou Jack fight,” he reflected. “I had to deal with everything for the second fight for the Froch fight. You’re much more paranoid of people.”
The James DeGale fight, back in 2011, was then a more innocent time and Groves emerged from it a national hero with all the hallmarks of a future world champion. Yet that sense of isolation persists. “The fight was sealed, I didn’t have to deal with any of the politics for the DeGale fight,” he noted. “Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t enjoy any of the build up to the DeGale fight. It was a cauldron of pressure. It was awful. I felt like I was the only one who thought I was going to win that fight. We’re talking about guys who were in my team as well. I’d have to almost convince people, talk to them, explain it to them. Whatever, at the time no one thought I was going to win and I did.”
He pauses to reflect. Perhaps this string of interviews hasn’t necessarily tired, or bored him. Maybe the process, maybe Saturday’s tune up fight against Andrea Di Luisa is affording him the chance to think through where he stands now. “It sounds like I’m moaning now because people ask me questions and I have to try to answer honestly. I’d just rather say nothing but you can’t get away with that. You have to answer questions, you have to talk about it, you have to move on if you want to be back in boxing,” he said.
Already the thought that 2011, against James DeGale, saw his finest hour gnaws at him. “Actually I feel I’ve improved an awful lot since then. I’ve improved an awful lot since the Froch fight,” he insisted. “I’ve improved in certain aspects over the last couple of years but stalled on the things I am essentially about, the things that I do the best and because of that it’s cost me. It’s cost me the big fights.”
Is boxing simple, is it straightforward? Has Groves had his chances to be a world champion and fallen irrevocably short? Or does he only need a few adjustments, and the guidance of new trainer Shane McGuigan, finally to make it? “There’s always going to be pressure in boxing but I feel like the more confidence you’ve got in the team around you, the less you have to worry about certain things which could come down to the two percent, the five percent you need at world level to make yourself the complete fighter or as complete as you possibly can be,” he said.
He didn‘t speak with same fervour that had possessed him after the first Froch fight. His faith in himself has been tempered by the harsh experience of the last two years. But he cautioned, “I’m not ready to throw the towel in yet. I’m feeling good. I know I’ve got so much more to offer. I owe it to myself really to go out and achieve what I can achieve or at least give everything. I’m not going to walk away from this game at 27 while I’m still intact and I still can earn money and I still can win big things and still achieve.”
“So I’m going to go about my business,” he promised softly, “and get the job done.”