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George Groves vs James DeGale 10 years on

George Groves
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images
Ten years have passed since George Groves got the better of bitter amateur rival James DeGale in the professional ranks. Elliot Worsell was closer to the rivalry than most and remembers it well

HE appeared heavier in the face but lighter in both the head and shoulders than before. His skin, too, usually paler than alabaster, at last welcomed colour and that colour was red; not anger but passion, warmth, and pride. As for his breathing, that had become noticeably slow and erratic, suggestive of some great race having been run or some great battle having been won, neither supposition wide of the mark.

All in all, with a Corona beer, his third that afternoon, cradled by his jabbing hand, and a fork in his power hand, it’s fair to say George Groves was both bigger and happier than he had ever been in his life. He remained an athlete, and would at some point need to again act like one, but that day, six weeks after his world stopped, he was an athlete without a single athletic thought on his mind or a single athletic twitch in his body. That day, he was a tourist. A fan. A winner.

That day, a balmy Saturday in July 2011, Groves could be found sitting outside a fish bar in Hamburg, Germany, just hours before he would watch someone else attempt to fulfil their life’s ambition in a boxing ring. His friend, David Haye, would ultimately lose his world heavyweight title fight against Wladimir Klitschko that weekend, but, in all honesty, this hardly mattered. All that mattered was that Groves was watching rather than fighting and that his own battles were over, at least for now.

Six weeks earlier Groves himself had endured all the common stresses, anxieties and fears associated with a big fight. His was a British title fight but felt bigger than that. It felt bigger than that on account of James DeGale being in the opposite corner and it felt bigger than that due to the fight being held at London’s O2 Arena and sold as a pay-per-view event.

This wasn’t the first time Groves had fought DeGale, of course. The first time this happened, back in October 2006, they were both teenagers and gym mates representing Dale Youth ABC and their fight was a three-round amateur contest. A win over DeGale helped catapult Groves towards one of two senior ABA titles, whereas DeGale, once wounds were licked, later gained some form of indirect revenge by going one better than Groves to win an Olympic gold medal in 2008.

Most considered DeGale’s success to be the last word in their argument, yet for DeGale there was always one fight, and one fighter, on his mind, irrespective of whatever he eventually went on to achieve. Somehow, and for some reason, Groves was the bane of DeGale’s existence for the best part of five years and this feeling only intensified when the pair got the chance to settle their dispute, as pros, on May 21, 2011.

George Groves
Esther Lin/Showtime

At the time, Groves, unbeaten in 12 bouts, was a Commonwealth super-middleweight champion and DeGale, unbeaten in 10, was a British super-middleweight champion. But, together, with just 22 pro fights between them, they successfully turned their bitter amateur rivalry into a lucrative pro event capable of capturing the imagination of the British public. Why? Because, when together, they boasted the one thing other domestic rivalries often lack: authenticity. Nothing about their hatred for one another was faked or enhanced with the idea of making money a driving force. Instead, the Groves and DeGale rivalry was as pure a rivalry as British boxing has seen in the modern era and will stand the test of time as a result.

It was always about bragging rights. That had been the case since they were children. But now, as adults and professionals, it was just as imperative to secure victory because the thought of carrying on – to focus on other opponents, other fights, and other accomplishments – seemed almost impossible without it.

“It felt like life and death before the fight,” Groves said, coming up for air between bites of potato and mackerel. “There was no in-between for me. I didn’t want to lose and then walk away, eat humble pie, and hear about how great James DeGale was for the rest of my life. That wasn’t a life I was looking forward to living.

“Even before the fight, in those final moments in the changing room, I was telling myself under my breath that my life only lasted a maximum of 36 minutes from the moment that first bell rang. I needed to make every second count. I had instructions and a game plan from Adam [Booth, trainer], but I was ready to do anything it took to get that win.”

One night inside his Vauxhall gym, I retreated to the gym’s office where Groves, tired after sparring, later sat down and stared like a child in the direction of the television. We were both watching some inane Jonathan Ross chat show, but were, without mentioning it, thinking about James DeGale. It was then Groves said something that altered my view of the fight in an instant.

“Don’t you think it’s funny how your perception changes when you meet somebody you’ve seen on television?” said Groves. “We put everybody we see on television on a pedestal, when, in reality, they’re just like you or me. Everybody has an opinion of someone like Jonathan Ross, for example, but until you’ve spent time with him, that opinion makes no sense. It has no worth. It’s just guesswork. The same goes for boxing, too. We only see what we see on fight night. We don’t get the chance to see how a fighter prepares and trains for a fight.

“But it’s not even that. In the case of James, nobody knows him better than me. This isn’t a normal fight where you prepare to face an opponent, watch tape of him, and then hope you’ve got the preparation right. People are predicting James will beat me based on what they’ve seen on television and their perceptions of us. This fight isn’t as simple as that, though. This is like having a fight with your brother; a brother you massively dislike, but still a brother.

“I’m not nervous in the slightest because I’ve already been in the ring with this guy. I’ve shared time with him, in and out of the ring, and I know what makes him tick and what makes him cry. The public perception of James is that he’s really brash and confident, but I know that’s a front. I’ve seen the real James, and there’s no way he’s changed that much in the years we haven’t been speaking. He’s still that same guy.

“When I picture this fight in my mind, I visualise two little boys going down Dale and sparring in front of a few club mates. I don’t think about a packed-out O2 Arena or all those people watching it on pay-per-view. It’s just me and ‘Chunky’, the same as it always was.”

It was entirely possible that at the same time Groves was performing something of an inventory on himself, flushing his mind of hate and impure thoughts, DeGale, his enemy, was going the other way – that is, focusing on uglier matters like destruction and revenge. Certainly, based on the sounds he was making around that time, Groves’ rival had become obsessed with the idea of an early knockout win and redemption, which, as it turned out, were two things Groves had hardly considered.

“I felt so relaxed and happy that night,” he recalled. “I remember being in the changing room beforehand and looking around at my tiny crew of people and just feeling so much pride. We were boxing on another promoter’s show, in the away changing room, and we were brought in to lose to the Olympic gold medallist.

“The whole crowd were on my side, I knew that, but how many people truly believed I was going to do it? The guys close to me did, but that was only a small circle of people. All the so-called experts had been singing DeGale’s praises since day one and were drunk on him after the way he’d beaten Paul Smith. None of those guys backed me. I just felt so happy that night – before, during and after the fight.”

Thanks to a decision win, this sustained period of happiness then continued overseas, where Groves could for one week be found sampling the local pubs of Hamburg in summer clothes, mingling with British fans in town for the heavyweight title fight, and gleefully accepting drinks from whoever was kind enough to offer him one.

His only enemies now were James DeGale, a reality never likely to change, and also, in something of a surprise, Wladimir Klitschko, the heavyweight champion of the world. If, in the case of the latter, ‘enemy’ is perhaps too strong a word, the giant Ukrainian definitely didn’t appreciate Groves, camera in hand, taking photographs of him at every opportunity during a fight week press conference in Hamburg.

George Groves boxing

To Klitschko’s annoyance, Groves, having been told to make himself a nuisance by his trainer, Adam Booth, carried out his task with aplomb and grew hungrier and hungrier for both Klitschko’s photo and a reaction. This meant that whenever Klitschko broke away to be interviewed by a member of the world’s media he would invariably find himself confronted by Groves and his camera, often positioned just inches from his chin or nose.

Finally, Klitschko snapped – kind of. “Do you like what you see?” he said, smiling, his hand on Groves’ camera.

“Yes,” said Groves, returning the smile. “You look great, Wlad. Let me take another picture of you.”

Klitschko, so accustomed to dominance, was evidently flummoxed by Groves’ show of defiance. He assumed the young fighter-turned-photographer would jam up the way many fans and opponents did when in his presence. However, Groves, thrilled to have gained a reaction, went on unabated, which led to Klitschko, ever the gentleman, suffering the indignity of striking a pose to allow his photo to be taken.

Battle won, Groves would continue to shadow Klitschko from interview to interview, frequently appearing in shot, until Klitschko eventually asked him, politely but with a straight face, to “stop it now”, while savouring a moment’s respite at the back of the room. Groves, a good boy at heart, obeyed. He did as he was told, wished Klitschko good luck, and returned his camera to its bag.

The job was done anyway and his friendly pursuit of Klitschko that day, whether owing to beer, a newfound confidence, or both, had ended up being not only amusing – for the pair of them – but to some degree revealing.

“I remember being at Dale and feeling so intimidated by all the boys in the gym,” Groves once told me. “I was incredibly shy and could just about handle speaking one-on-one to people. Big crowds were too frightening for me, and at the gym there were so many different faces and they all had something to say. I was happy enough to go there on my own and go home on my own through Ladbroke Grove, but the gym was terrifying. I found it hard to speak.

“I’d come in, refuse to talk to anybody, put my bandages on, hit the bag, and wait patiently for somebody to call me forward to do pads. I’d never ask anybody for anything.

“Then after the session you had to have a shower. You had to. If you didn’t, all the boys thought you were weird, and they probably thought I was weird to begin with, so I had to make sure I at least showered. In that situation what I’d do is sit and wait until every person in the changing room had showered, collected their kit, and left. I did this because I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say goodbye to everybody on the way out. I hated speaking up. I wanted to be the last person to leave so there’d be nobody left to say goodbye to.”

In the end, Groves’ amateur victory over James DeGale did more than just deliver him bragging rights. It also served to clear his throat and give him a voice. It brought him out of his shell. It allowed him to finally express himself.

Years later, having repeated the trick as a pro, one could only wonder what a second unshackling at 23 would do to the ‘Saint’.

★ ★ ★

Back at the hotel Groves put down his beer, started feeling guilty, and called my room at some point late in the afternoon. “I think I want to go to the gym for a bit,” he said at the door. “I’m going to try anyway.”

Despite the three beers at lunch, it was easy to see something like intent, however transitory, on his face and body. If only for show, he wore training gear – shorts and T-shirt – and had a white towel slung over his shoulder. “I feel like I should try to do something,” he said, “just to remember how.”

With this in mind, Groves entered a relatively empty gymnasium situated at the basement of the hotel and began to slowly walk on one of its treadmills. After walking, he then jogged, and after jogging, he then stopped. He stopped because five minutes was enough, he stopped because he was soon exhausted, and he stopped because he was also distracted by the various televisions in the room, as well as a screen on his treadmill playing highlights of the women’s World Cup. “I’m done,” he said, stepping off the belt. “I’m going to go watch television.”

A couple of months prior to this I had seen Groves break the gym record on a versaclimber beneath the railway arches in Vauxhall, the magnitude of which had an entire gym on its feet applauding him. Working in what appeared to be a constant sprint motion, he had remained on the versaclimber for almost an hour and, by the time he jumped off, his legs had turned to jelly, his mind was spinning, and he had to be guided by others, borrowing their strength, around the gym towards the nearest bottle of water. The sound of clapping could be heard from wall to wall as the rest, including David Haye, tried to better his score, but never came close. Groves was out in front, way past the point of being caught, and was clearly the fittest fighter in the gym. In fact, it would be no exaggeration to say that for a two-month period I never saw the man out of breath, much less exhausted. Then closer to a super-middleweight, Groves was as fit as he needed to be and as fit as he had ever been.

Which is to say, a lot can happen in six weeks. Now, with the DeGale battle won, hard muscles had deflated, his stomach had grown, and his gas tank, limitless in May, was all but empty come July. Crucially, too, the drive had gone. And why shouldn’t it go? Groves, after all, had no need to get fit, even less need to stay fit, and, having dedicated his entire life to doing both, was almost rebelling against himself; or at least that selfish part of him. Once off the treadmill, he sat down on the nearest bench and stared at one of the numerous television screens on the wall, every one of them showing the women’s tennis final at Wimbledon. His jaw dropped and stayed open, for it apparently required too much effort to close it, and now Groves, a picture of contentment, found himself comforted by the sight of others having to hold it together in their big moment. That afternoon it was the turn of Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitová. Later that evening it would be the turn of David Haye and Wladimir Klitschko.
George Groves, though, much to his relief, had already done his bit, so could now relax. And breathe.

“After the DeGale fight I felt the same as I did after watching The Shawshank Redemption for the first time,” he said. “Amazing film, one of the best I’d ever seen, but I don’t know if I could watch it again. I wouldn’t want the memory to be tainted. I also hoped it wouldn’t all be downhill from there.”

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