GEORGE GROVES, on this day, is free to eat and drink as much as he wants, which is to say he has carte blanche to overindulge. A week ago, he had a fight, which he won, which was the culmination of a 10-week training camp, and today he hosts a barbecue in the back garden of his lavish Isleworth home and enjoys the sun, the company and the feast without restriction, without guilt.
There’s no longer a weight to make, there’s no longer a need for discipline, and it’s presumably for this reason he feels no way about loading his paper plate with two burgers, a hot dog and a chicken kebab, nor does he second guess washing it all down with first a bottle of Corona and then a jug of Pimms.
Insignificant at first glance, these small moments mean more to fighters like Groves than most, and they mean more to Groves now than they did just three years ago when he was undefeated, full of lofty ambition and on the way, in his mind, to being crowned Britain’s greatest ever boxer. They mean more to him now because he has become a reluctant realist of late, a transition triggered by setback, and is now only too aware that the thrill of victory can only truly be appreciated when one is well-versed in the sour taste of defeat.
After that, it all tastes better. Victory, food, even beer.
“The overwhelming feeling right now is satisfaction,” he explains. “Martin Murray (his last opponent) is a good fighter, everyone said it was a 50/50 fight, but I won and I won well. I dominated him and nearly got him out of there a handful of times. People have been saying nice things about me. But it’s not that I care what people think or even care whether people like me or not. I don’t box for that purpose and I know people can change their minds in a flash. It is just nice when people say you boxed well and looked good and that you’re back to your best.”
The words satisfaction and relief are probably interchangeable, for the meeting of Groves and Murray on June 25 at London’s O2 Arena was beforehand deemed a make-or-break fight, winner goes on, loser goes home, and the question asked of both more than any other in the weeks preceding it was, simply, “Will you retire if you lose?” Well, Groves avoided defeat, and often that carries even greater value than a belt.
“In hindsight, there probably was a lot of pressure,” he says. “If you lose to Murray, with no world title on the line, there probably is no way back. I’m not going to move up a division, I’m not going to change training teams. I knew that if I didn’t win I’d have to go away and assess myself more than anything else.
“I felt really good going into that fight, though. I’ve got real confidence in Shane McGuigan (trainer) and the guys he works with. That relieves a lot of the pressure I had before. Being around winners gives you that winning mentality. I didn’t have that when I left Adam Booth (in 2013).”
An hour before he’s due in the ring to face Murray, the super-middleweight from Hammersmith sits on a plastic chair and has his hands wrapped by McGuigan under the watchful eye of a board inspector and a member of Murray’s camp. He has been here before, of course; in this position, in this very arena and changing room, in fact. It’s becoming old hat. Shane, though, the latest and freshest face to sit opposite him during this process, is a relatively new addition, and so too is his famous father, Barry, who enters the changing room minutes later, places a calming hand on Groves’ shoulder and then asks a question of his own: “Are you all right, son?” It’s a question directed at George, not his actual son, and there’s a noticeable tinge of concern in the former world featherweight champion’s voice, as if he, more than anyone, understands the pressure and weight of expectancy the boxer currently feels. Groves smiles. He values the affinity. But his response – “I feel great, Barry.” – is a reminder, if one was ever needed, that he has been here before, that he’s no pup, that pressure is no obstacle.
Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that Groves, with three world title defeats in his past and a ‘damaged goods’ label cruelly slapped on his forehead, might be forgiven for feeling a little introspective if not downright vulnerable at this precise moment in time. And maybe that’s why McGuigan, someone who retired at 28, shows he cares.
“The things Murray was saying, in terms of me being past it, were more for his benefit than anything else,” Groves says. “You want confidence going into a fight and you want to plant seeds of doubt in the mind of your opponent. He said I’d talked about retirement before and that meant I didn’t want it anymore. Bringing that up could have worked if I’d been in a different frame of mind. I might have questioned myself. But I’m in a good place right now so it wasn’t a factor at all.”
Granted, that’s the stock answer, one he churns out to anyone with a dictaphone in the vicinity, but there must be more to it than that. Carl Froch, a man he despised, famously defeated him once controversially and then once conclusively, and Badou Jack, a man he and everyone else assumed he’d dominate, eked out a split-decision win over him in Las Vegas last year. There is no defeat more painful than one that is unexpected and Groves didn’t anticipate losing to either of the men who beat him. Worse still, in the case of the Froch rematch, no greater was the stage and thus no greater was the humiliation; there was nowhere to hide.
“I had to get my head around the fact I’d lost to Carl Froch and Badou Jack and I still think I’m better than both of them,” he says. “I can sit here and make excuses as to why I lost fights I should have won, but the frustration doesn’t go away and it all comes back to you in the end. You ask yourself, were there things I should have done or changed? I try not to beat myself up too much. I like to think I made the right decisions at the right time.”
They said Froch damaged him physically and Jack damaged him psychologically. They said he’d never be the same again, that he’d have to resign himself to the role of ‘nearly man’, that he’d one day appear on lists comprising the best British fighters never to win a world title. Yet, on June 25, following a couple of solid tune-up wins, Groves dazzled in beating Martin Murray inside and out and this opinion switched in an instant. His demise, it seemed, had been greatly exaggerated; a career saved and revived in 36 minutes.
“I’ve never really felt like I’m a ‘shot’ fighter or that my best days are behind me,” he says. “It’s probably been a process for me, though, in terms of recovering from losing first of all to Carl Froch and then losing again in spectacular fashion. There’s no better – or worse – way to lose than in a stadium where you’re knocked out for the first time in a fight most people thought you were going to win. There was certainly soul-searching after that and it went on for a long time. I chose to box my way through that process.
“Losing to Badou Jack made me think, right, do I really want it? Can I really be bothered? But, when you put so much in over the years, you don’t want to sell yourself short through fear or something similar to that. You don’t want to waste time and then one day look back and think, oh well, I still had more to give, but now I’ve missed the boat.
“I’m certainly capable of doing a lot more. Many people said Murray was a good fighter and I was a good fighter and that’s why it was a competitive fight. I didn’t want to say it before the fight, but I always felt I was more than that, that I was a great fighter. I can understand why nobody would think that at the moment. I’ve made a few mistakes and I’m not worthy of that statement right now. But I’m sure I’ll get there and that my performances in the next couple of years will show I’m one of Britain’s best fighters.
“It’s down to me to realise that as well. This year, in particular, I have realised it. I maybe lost a little faith in myself the last couple of years, which was partly down to the people I was hanging around with, and the results, but now I’m training with winners and nothing but being the very best is acceptable.”
It’s worth remembering that less than three years ago Groves was believed to be too green and rough around the edges to give then-IBF and WBA world super-middleweight champion Carl Froch a competitive fight. So the fact that Murray, a 33-year-old with four world middleweight title losses and eleven rounds of Gennady Golovkin punishment to his name, was said to be fresher than Groves in 2016 appeared a damning indictment. But, then, Groves, a maverick, has always seemed old beyond his years. Consider, for example, the driven pursuit of ‘The Cobra’, or the personal hounding of world governing bodies, or the desire to self-manage, or the willingness to self-promote, or the ballsy arranging and boarding of a big red bus in front of 80,000 fans at Wembley Stadium, or the cynicism which accompanies him at every press conference and in every interview, or even his decision to rock Tom Ford suits instead of tracksuits. These are not the actions of your typical 28-year-old, yes-sir-no-sir prizefighter.
“Physically, I don’t feel beat up, but, mentally, I do feel much older,” he says. “Whether that’s a good thing or not, I don’t know. I don’t want to be mentally fatigued and burnt out and feel like I’ve had the life of a 40-year-old. But you can also call it experience. I’ve experienced a lot in this game, the good and the bad. I’ve been able to progress quickly, I’ve been involved in some big fights, I’ve been exposed to the business side of things.
“It’s down to my character, I think. If I was the type of person to stick my head in the sand and let someone else take care of jobs, I might have a younger head on my shoulders. But I’m not capable of doing that.
“I feel I’ve got plenty left. I don’t feel too old.”
He wants to live a normal life this summer and then fight for another world title before the end of the year. That’s the plan, anyway, not that Groves, 24-3 (18 KOs), places much value in those things these days.
“Yeah, I’ve realised things don’t go the way you dreamed it,” he says, “and not even as you planned it sometimes. Boxing, and life, doesn’t work like that. You need a tiny bit of luck along the way and you need a good support network. If you don’t have those things, you won’t get there.
“I wanted to be the greatest ever. But you start thinking, well, what does that mean? It’s just someone’s opinion. It’s not up for you to decide. Will you ever get that? Will you ever be satisfied if you don’t? You need to find something that satisfies you and, for me right now, that means beating everyone who is put in front of me and winning a world title.
“Nothing’s perfect. I’ve had a few ups and downs. But it all makes for a good speech one day.”
Two weeks after the fight, and a week after his celebratory barbecue, Groves succumbs to the pleas of his pregnant wife, Sophie, and drives her and her friends to Bicester Village, an outlet shopping centre, for a spot of retail therapy; it is important, George says, to shop following a big win, for never does overspending feel more acceptable, more deserved, than in that moment.
Yet, once there, as is his custom, the boxer splits from his wife and her friends and goes it alone. “I’m too selfish to shop with other people,” he explains. “I can’t stand there and watch while they try on stuff and take ages to make their mind up. I just need to focus on myself and my needs.”
It will be this way for a while, I suspect. He still has world titles to win and, because of that, still has every right to be selfish. He’s not about to mellow, nor is he about to turn it in and fully, completely embrace the next phase of his life, despite a baby on the way. He is, lest we forget, only 28. “I’m not ready to tap out yet,” he says. “Not even close.”
This feature was originally published in Boxing News magazine