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George Groves on fighting in Saudi Arabia

George Groves (R) and Callum Smith fought at the King Abdullah Sports City in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on September 28, 2018. (PAMER HILABI / AFP) (Photo credit should read AMER HILABI/AFP via Getty Images)
I’ll never forget being in Jeddah and I suspect Joshua won’t either, says George Groves

IT’S a strange old place, Jeddah. It’s where I had my last fight, against Callum Smith in the World Boxing Super Series final, in September 2018. I lost.

Since then, Amir Khan and Anthony Joshua have boxed in Saudi Arabia too, but by the time AJ fought there, it was similar to what we’re used to in the States or in the UK where it was more organised, open and the people around it were a bit more boxing intuitive.
But when I was there, the questions coming out at the press conference were from people who had never seen a boxing match in their life. I’d gone from fighting Chris Eubank Jnr in a massive fight in the UK to what felt like off the grid in Saudi Arabia where nobody really cared.

We didn’t know about visas and I spent a lot of money and time making sure they were fine. We didn’t take any women with the team and not even my wife came because we weren’t sure about logistics. It was the first and only one of my fights she ever missed. That was a bit weird and quite sad for me.

The place itself was very hot, of course. You’re not outside that much. Why would you be? But you have that feeling where you don’t want to spend any time outside, because it saps your energy. If there is anything happening outside during fight week, they need to be careful.

Everyone is friendly and it’s a nice place, but it just doesn’t have that buzz. It’s hard to tell whether or not that will help or hinder Joshua. What is certain is that it doesn’t matter where Usyk is – he will show up and perform, because that’s what he does. He doesn’t care, he doesn’t rely on the crowd, he goes out and gets the job done regardless. I make him the heavy favourite.

For me, it was really strange. I knew it was going to be my last fight, so from the end of the [WBSS] semi-final, I was just thinking, ‘how am I going to get fit?’ We were arguing with the promoters of the tournament because they wanted me to fight in June, but Eubank was the end of February and it was going to be at least 12 weeks until I could throw a punch again.

The date finally got set for September and I’d done a s**tload of rehab, I was dead set that I had to box and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. This was destiny and this was what it had to be. I backed myself to get fit enough to beat Smith in the final, but he’s a great fighter and big for the weight, which isn’t ideal when your shoulder won’t really go very high.

I’d spent all that money on visas and flights and everything else, but it got down to the point where I could pull out and maybe go again, but I didn’t want to do that. I just thought ‘I’ve done the work now, I’ve just got to fight’.

I remember going for a sweat run on the morning of the flight to Saudi. I was all packed and ready to go but I was going to flip a coin to decide whether I’d get on the plane or not. That was before the run – and then the run didn’t go very well.

I remember running and then walking down the A4 crying, getting back to my house and then telling myself – you’re not going to flip a coin, just go and get on with it. That’s what I did. But, annoyingly, I didn’t win. If I had won I would’ve said ‘f**k you, coin, what do you know?’

This might sound like one big excuse. And it’s not like I finished boxing on a negative, but I was genuinely very tired; physically, mentally and emotionally tired. I was ready for a little break, but I hadn’t ever had a break before, from the age of seven when I first thought I’d become a world champion.

I got to a point where I could be happy with what I had and what I achieved and I was ready to part ways with the sport – preferably on a win, but it wasn’t meant to be. I keep my hand in now by doing some punditry, taking some of the boxers on the pads down at my old club, Dale Youth, and I’ve started a boxing podcast, too.

But I’ll never forget that fight week in Jeddah. I stayed in a suite at the Sheraton. A hotel room for a whole week can get quite repetitive, but this suite was the biggest I’d ever seen. It must have been 2,000 sq ft. It was bigger than my house, room after room, so I got lost there for a week. That helped, because there’s not a lot to do.

I took a Lego Bugatti Veyron over there and I challenged myself to build it. It was about a foot long and I had the whole fight week to do it. In the suite I had this presidential banqueting table where I could spread out all the different pieces.

I got to a point where I built the front half and the back half, but I couldn’t connect them together. I got Shane McGuigan and Josh Pritchard in, but they couldn’t do it either. I never completed it, so really Jeddah was a complete bust. People say I didn’t win the fight – but I didn’t complete the Bugatti!

I think this might be bust for AJ, too. It’s very difficult to predict with heavyweight boxing, not just because one punch can change everything but because sometimes they just don’t show up. But I think Usyk shows up – no coin toss required.

Listen to the George Groves Boxing Club wherever you get your podcasts. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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