This is a guest piece written by Rich Wharton.
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"We have to get a rematch", they said. And so we are.
Boxing fans divide over the smallest of things, from the literal, to the pedantic, to the hypothetical. This guy would have beaten that guy, we cry, full of self-righteousness and the courage of our convictions. What differs on this occasion is that while we don't really have any true or objective frame of reference for the ways in which the styles of Aaron Pryor and Floyd Mayweather would mesh and collide, on this occasion we have the last occasion, the fight from late last year which provided us with a winner. One could argue that said winner was not the same man who walked away from Howard Foster and clapped upon hearing "and STILL...", but we'll leave that for a little later. In the style associated with either Charles Dickens or Wilkie Collins, depending on your source, on this occasion you'll be made to wait.
It's amazing to think that a fight which provided so much still required so much from us, or perhaps we from it. Gone from the memory, in large part, are the ferocious exchanges which should have defined the best super-middleweight title fight since the last time Carl Froch laced up and went at it. As yet another implicit riposte to the rhetorical statement "this is why we cannot have nice things", we are faced with yet another "controversy" in a sport which seems to breed them at a rate some would associate with Bokanovskification. Like Huxley's nightmare, these incidents and arguments all begin to wear us thin, and lose their sense of initial identity. Once you've seen one stoppage controversy,> as some wit might have it, you've seen them all. Comparisons with the first Meldrick Taylor vs Julio Cesar Chavez encounter, for example, are thrown around all too casually, and this time is unfortunately no different.
As the rotund form which calls itself Howard Foster draped an arm over a figure whose arms were also draped, but this time over the nothingness which comprised the gap between himself and the canvas, this observer put his head in his hands. Not for the sake of the fight, or for the sake of the defeated fighter. The spectre of the Once-Per-Year Cus D'Amatos looms heavily, and never more so than when a high-profile fight is stopped without a man on the canvas. Add the all-British factor and it becomes tempting to begin pre-empting: maybe the surreptitious disposal of one's card, the one with the metaphorically embossed designation of Boxing Fan, would be enough to remain sane?
Even the most ardent and unashamed Carl Froch admirer can admit that there was controversy surrounding the stoppage we saw. And admit it he duly did, as we all saw when Froch himself admitted that while he thought the stoppage was ‘fair and square', it was also ‘controversial'. Even with the aid of a cool dark room, a backward-facing chair and the rabbit-in-headlights reciprocal glance from Johnny Nelson, Groves seemed unable to compute these two terms, obviously believing them to be mutually exclusive.
While wishing to remain firmly on the "this is just my opinion" side of the "and you idiots don't know what you're looking at" line which is so easily stepped over, ignored or just plain disregarded by aspiring scribes on this great sport, I would like to revisit the stoppage itself, if only to elucidate my views on the catalyst for most of the discourse surrounding the necessity of this rematch. I can absolutely see the points of people who believe that Foster was wrong. I would, however, argue that the referee did his job perfectly on this occasion, and I have several reasons for that belief. For risk of getting caught up on precisely the point I was hoping to avoid, I'll explain these quickly before moving on.
To understand if the referee is doing his job right, as with so many things, it's important to first understand what that job is, and give him a list of priorities. Only via comparing his achievements with his objectives can one argue for or against his performance. Personally, I would rate fighter safety as the man's number one priority, and I would assume that is the same for most right-thinking fight fans. The thing which distinguishes this sport from wanton aggression or assault is precisely this: there is a referee there to uphold the rules and make sure that the fighters are safe, as much as can reasonably be expected in what is, at its core, a blood-sport.
If we are to accept as a given that this is a truth: that the referee is there to protect the fighters, then one should also expect that the referee is going to step in, a fair proportion of the time, before a fighter is permanently hurt. I have watched, several times, and in slow-motion, as Foster leans in, and looks closely at the eyes of George Groves. I've watched his reaction to the punches Groves was taking, whereby his head was being snapped back and his eyes were becoming increasingly glazed at every turn. I listened as Adam Smith, commentating on the fight for Sky Sports, first yelled about Groves being in trouble, then said his legs were gone, then made clear that Froch was about to stop his man: before then expressing his disgust when his predictions came true. Why the outrage? We can only hope that the root of it cannot be found in some sort of blood-lust, because expressing such sentiment when a man has taken multiple clean shots and then fallen forward, unable to defend himself, gloves dropping away from his chin as surely as his body falls away from the ropes, is tantamount to encouraging Froch to put his younger counterpart into the hospital.
What is clear upon close examination is this: Foster was prepared to stop the fight as and when Groves was no longer willing or able to defend himself. Yes, he threw back while he was on the ropes. And he missed, before getting hit with yet another hard, clean right hand. Foster was ready to pull the trigger on the fight as soon as Groves was seriously hurt: and this is the way it should be. He waited, and waited, and when Groves' hands went down, Foster stepped in. For all that it might have looked early within the context of the fight in its entirety, a review of the stoppage from an angle which shows Foster's timing and position would show that he was concerned, and that he stepped in when one man was no longer defending himself. I find myself remembering the way in which Danny Green's stoppage win over a man who looked remarkably like Roy Jones Jr was roundly vindicated, despite Jones still having his balance and his hands up, and yet this stoppage is lambasted as being that of a referee too quick on the trigger. In the eyes of this writer, that particular dichotomy is hard to reconcile.
One of the key arguments against the timing of the stoppage seems to be a comparative one between Froch (round 1) and Groves (round 9). Of course Froch was hurt over the course of the fight, but he never dropped his hands (well, any more than he usually does). He never slumped forward with his head down. And for all that the Sky Sports team screamed outrage when Foster stepped in, Glenn McCrory's repeated statement about Groves only being hurt once in the fight was so wide of the mark that it made me wonder if there was some pre-ordained narrative in play. Groves was staggered in the first round, at the end of the second, with a minute left in the third, was wobbly again in the sixth round with 15 seconds to go (just before Foster pulls them apart for yet another cozy chat), and hurt again in the eighth round. Yet through all of this Jim Watt tells the world about how George Groves can't miss.
To be clear: I'm not making the case that Froch was in some way dominating this fight. But the one-sided story told by Watt and Smith in the booth seems to have had a serious impact upon the way in which this fight is seen, remembered, and regarded. In the eighth round, Jim Watt started to try to disregard a clean Froch right hand because Groves turned his back as it was being thrown, as if this is now to be accepted as a legitimate defensive strategy. It's been said about Watt that he tends to find his narrative and stick with it, come what may, and this was just another example. It unfortunately came as no surprise when Watt was to be found screaming in outrage when Foster prevented Froch from unloading further punishment upon an opponent who was no longer defending himself.
For the majority of this fight, George Groves looked imperious. He floated in and out of range, surprising us all with his ability to not only outpunch his more accomplished dance partner, but to also push him around on the inside, to walk off the ropes when Froch attempted to keep him there. Some of this can indubitably be attributed to Froch's lack of balance, post-first-round-wallop. Froch is not exactly the Nijinsky (the ballet dancer, not the horse) of the boxing ring, but he doesn't usually appear quite so flat-footed and immobile as he appeared during the fall-out of what was probably the hardest punch he's taken in his career. Groves was indeed better than previously considered by the majority, but he was also facing a wounded animal, one which had not yet remembered that it had teeth too.
And so the M.E.N Arena watched, in varying degrees of surprise and awe, as a man in whom even men such as Mikkel Kessler, Jean Pascal and Glen Johnson could not make a dent, was bullied, out-paced and caught again and again by a fearless reincarnation of a boy who was dropped hard not too long ago by Kenny Anderson of all people. At around the time Carl Froch was engaging in an attempt to beat the best his division had to offer in the post-Calzaghe era, and fighting tooth and nail with Kessler in Denmark, Groves was still taking on overmatched men and learning his trade, fighting on undercards and building his name.
Yet it was the London boy who took it to Froch in Manchester, inspiring reminiscence of Victor Ortiz taking on his own fantasy troll in the shape of Marcos Maidana; but this time it was the younger man who had the commentary team noting that he simply could not miss with the right hand. Watt screamed that Groves should not throw anything else, and it looked like he was right. The next thing Groves threw, however, was caution. And he threw it firmly to the wind, with the sort of nonchalance and complacency which has gotten better and more famous fighters than Groves knocked out for their trouble. The Watt/Groves love-in faltered for the first time, as Saint George dropped his hands and waved the resurgent Froch in. As Watt lamented Groves' lack of maturity, Froch, the turtle to the Booth/Fitzpatrick moulded hare, truly take over the race for the first time.
So which of these men wins the second fight?
Aforementioned is the objective frame of reference, which, as I'm sure all you fine people are aware, doesn't exist. Sorry. When the first fight divides opinion so much, and there are still unknowable variables which relate to, among other things, precisely how much the first fight took from the winner, one simply cannot claim objectivity. But I will at least attempt to break down what I believe to be the two key factors.
1. The Psychology.
It is difficult to recall a fight in which so much has been made of the mind-games being enacted. Armchair psychiatry is becoming an art-form, fun for all the family. We read into folded arms, and stares, and Froch interrupting yet more of Groves representing some sort of esoteric knowledge for the benefit of a camera and Johnny Nelson. To my knowledge, having read The Interpretation of Dreams hasn't yet won anyone a fight, and while I'm interested in the interviews and the clashes therein, I'm a little perplexed as to how people claim that they can foretell how a left-hook will land in two weeks based on the way George Groves sips his water today.
With that said, as the recipient of a PhD in Armchair Psychology from the University of Fronting-On-Nowt, I'll impart some pseudo-wisdom for the purposes of entertainment, or something like that anyway.
I believe that Froch has a huge psychological advantage going into this fight. My logic is as follows: George Groves can stand in front of as many cameras as he wants, and say he wasn't hurt. He can protest, and he can fight back tears at the sheer injustice of it all. He can stare down Carl Froch when he's pretty sure Froch isn't going to punch him in the face. He can use his mouth to entertain and delight, and in turns provoke and antagonize. He can do all of this, with the lens of the world upon him, and he can do a good job of it too. But in the dark of the night, when he's only telling the truth because he's the only one who's listening: George Groves knows he was hurt, because he was.
Having come out second best in the odd altercation myself, I can attest to the reluctance I felt to go back and tangle again with a man who had gotten the better of me. Excuses and explanations: I slipped, I didn't see the shot coming, I was drunk/stoned/tired... None of it matters when it's only yourself you're having the dialogue with. As has been pointed out by cleverer people than me in the past, when the body knows it has been hurt, it hesitates all on its own. It can back up all on its own too, but I don't expect that in this case. What I do expect is that when George Groves is back in that ring, and the person he sees across from him is Carl Froch, what comes flooding back is the memory of having been beaten down by this man already.
Froch himself alluded to this when Groves was giving the usual lip-service to what he's going to do in the second fight. As the younger man was telling Nelson all about all the things he knows about Froch and what he could do to him, Froch interrupted: "The only thing you learnt from the first fight, the only thing you know is that you got beat. You got stopped, in round nine. So [turns to Nelson] he went in thinking and believing and this time he goes in knowing he can get done, stopped, and beaten up, [turns back to Groves] because that's what happened, you got bashed up, you got bashed up rounds seven, eight and nine."
Given the choice of being the fighter who, at this point in time, knows that he can take everything the other man can give him and still win, or being the guy who knows that no matter how much he controls the fight he can still lose, most people would choose to be the former. While Groves can claim to be finding consolation and confidence in his status as a guy who put on a good show while losing, it would be surprising if, underneath the press-talk and the attempts at intimidation, Groves doesn't wish things were the other way around. Were it the case that Groves had taken a warm-up fight to dispel some of these demons, then this would potentially be less of an issue, but since the last time he was in a professional ring he was being pounded by the man he faces Saturday night, a certain amount of mental hesitation is to be expected, even if it isn't readily apparent from the outside. How Groves deals with Groves in the face of Froch will be nearly as important as how Groves deals with Froch himself.
2. The Tactics.
Three things were readily apparent in the first fight. Firstly, Groves is a faster and possibly stronger athlete than Carl Froch. Secondly, Carl Froch understands, in a way which Groves may never do, what fighting a twelve-round fight is all about. Thirdly, for a former world-level boxer, Jim Watt seems to understand very little about what is actually going on in the ring.
To take the first one first, so to speak: Yes. George Groves has significant advantages in terms of hand-speed and athleticism. For the first time in a while, Carl Froch was being pushed around the ring, losing ground in clinches, and furthermore, seemed reluctant early in a fight to engage. Having hand and foot advantages on Froch is no mean feat, either, since he was once a decorated amateur, and has comfortably outboxed men such as Arthur Abraham and even Mikkel Kessler at points during their two fights. The Abraham performance in particular allowed Froch to exhibit hand-speed and footwork which some guessed he had forgotten how to use, or had simply never really had. What is also clear is that Froch can be outboxed, as Jermain Taylor, Andre Dirrell and Andre Ward have proved with varying degrees of success.
Moving forward from there, what is key to note is that this didn't stop Froch getting to him in the first fight. In a way quite different to that which found Froch unable to catch up to Andre Dirrell, and unable to do anything with Andre Ward even when he did find himself exactly where he wanted to be; Froch, single-minded and ferocious, eventually found that Groves was not like time and tide, and did indeed wait for a man, but only if that man was willing to weather enough by way of return fire to get to him. Froch, seemingly impervious to everything except the Howitzer which had made a mockery of the only other time fight fans have seen Froch touch down, got there in the end.
The most important way in which this was achieved is simple at heart, but devilish to enact. First and foremost - after the detonation which had Froch out before he hit the deck, only to be awoken by the impact of his body landing on the canvas - you have to survive. This is what is meant by Froch understanding the nature of a twelve-round fight. In the situation Froch was faced with, he could either choose to lose the fight quickly or win it slowly. Other possibilities exist, of course, and it remains within the realms of possibility that Froch may have been able to return fire, catch Groves with a headbutt the like of which once did for Ricardo Torres in a firefight with Kendall Holt, and triumph in a fantastic, cataclysmic display of balls-to-the-wall disregard for everything: the fight, the fans, the occasion, his health, his legacy. Of course, this course of action, the sort favoured by such luminaries as Amir Khan, would almost certainly have ended with Froch back on the canvas, prostrate, with Groves' hand aloft in a show of victory.
No. Froch had a choice to make, and he opted for winning slowly, for respecting the very nature of the contest he was embroiled in, and using as many of those twelve rounds as he needed to give him the best possible chance of escaping with his belts and his pride. "Don't do anything stupid: get through the rounds," was the sage advice of Rob McCracken after the first round. While it always felt like Groves was fighting very much in the moment, doing what was right at that precise point in time, the impression Froch gave was that there was a bigger picture, a grander scheme in play. The sort of plan which brings to mind Mike Silver's analysis of fighters from the famed ‘Golden Era', and the ways in which, to both colloquialize and clumsily paraphrase, they used to play chess, not checkers. Setting traps, learning about an opponent during the course of a fight, in the type of reciprocal game of information and misinformation which would make Forsyth's Sam McCready proud.
It became clear very quickly, as has been noted, that Groves was the faster man. He beat Froch to the punch over and over. What quickly emerged was a pattern which saw Froch attempt to throw, if only to keep himself going after that first round. A jab, a lead right hand (which would find little success, despite his repeated attempts: Ali vs Foreman this was not). Either way, we saw Froch move, and Groves react, and this is important. While Groves dictated rhythm with his jab, he was the proactive fighter of the pair, but there were long spells where Froch was almost forced into being proactive, and Groves took it upon himself to be reactionary. And yet, like an old West gunfighter who inexplicably waits for his opponent to move first and then shoots him in the eye ("You're no daisy. You're no daisy at all!!), Groves seemed to be able to both allow Froch to strike, and then beat him to the punch anyway. Not quite a counter, more an overt display of handspeed, Groves utilized a straight right hand again and again to take Froch off-balance, and more importantly: made him reluctant to throw.
Rob McCracken, characteristically, was the first to pick up on this trend, and went to pains to counter it. At the end of round two he told a still-dazed Froch what was happening, and how to deal with it. "Every time you throw the jab he rushes in: move off," said McCracken, calm as the grave. "You lunge, he counters off that right hand." It took Froch more time to begin to implement what his trainer was telling him, but the long-game had begun at the very moment at which Froch picked himself up off the canvas and wobbled into a neutral corner with his hands up, almost daring Howard Foster to stop the contest, and this was just another example: make sure you don't lose the fight now, and you can see about winning it later. But if you lose it now, you can't win it later.
As round 4 began, Froch came out with a smile. Beginning to find himself again, and ready to begin fighting without perpetual fear of losing the fight that very second, Froch started to set his trap. Not, as Groves would have done: looking to set a trap in order to capitalize within that minute or that round, but in order to begin to create an opportunity for later in the fight. Froch jabbed, and moved back immediately as Groves looked to reassert his particular form of fistic superiority. Groves, slightly off-balance, immediately looked to cover himself with the jab, and it worked. But the moment was significant, inasmuch as it showed how the younger man might be taken slightly out of his comfort zone.
The pattern continued, with Froch leading, and sometimes just feinting to lead, Groves looking to lunge and beat him to the shot, Froch pulling back to make him miss and Jim Watt screaming about how Froch was being too tentative. "He's trying to jab and pull back at the same time!!" came the ever-perceptive commentary. The slightly humorous part of this is that Watt meant this as a criticism, while Froch was actually doing exactly what McCracken wanted. Yes, Froch was taking shots, but he was taking a lot of them going backwards, lessening the impact, while Groves was over-extending more and more.
By round seven, even Jim Watt realized what Froch was doing, and he acknowledges it in his own way. "He's setting a trap!" said Watt. "Everything he's doing is aimed at setting up that right hand!" Well. At least he noticed it while the fight was still going on, which is something. By now, of course, it was clear to everyone present (or watching on TV AROUND.... THE WORLD!!) that Froch was beginning to take over the fight, and the pattern had developed a new wrinkle: Froch feinted, Groves lunged, and now Froch was making him pay. Again, and again. Not accustomed to taking shots like this going into the second half of a fight, and especially not from this calibre of opponent, Groves was wilting, and the trap, which had been set nearly half a fight ago, was really beginning to pay dividends.
Froch then looked to put the hurt on the younger man; to put his foot on his throat, so to speak, and in round 8, with Groves flagging and starting to look like the lesser man, Froch bulled him into the ropes, forearm up, and snapped his head back. He'd out-thought his man, and now he wanted to make the point that he was ready to out-fight him too. The Groves response was predictable: he tried to fight fire with fire, with a clean rabbit punch, and was quickly shown the error of his ways: a resurgent Froch turned and landed one of the cleanest, most vicious shots of the night, and with that, this fight, in the eyes of this observer, was over bar the shouting. What could Groves do against this man, who had been hurt but had come back to find himself the stronger of the men in the ring? What could he do against the slower man who had found a way to make him miss and make him pay?
Whether or not Carl Froch can re-enact this sort of pattern, whether he can withstand another storm the like of which he's never faced before; these are the unknowables. The mix of long-term thinking and dirty fighting combined to first wear Groves down, and then take him to places he'd never planned to go. One thing which Carl Froch now knows, but didn't mention, is that he has proved that he can adjust on the fly, make changes and trust McCracken, the white wizard with the keys to the vault, to lead him to where he needs to be.
I was a big George Groves fan, before the first fight. I always championed him over James DeGale, and I think that's been borne out in large part. There was always something very solid, dependable and efficient about Groves: no wasted movement or action. When I watched him live against Charles Adamu, himself a seasoned pro, I was expecting a close fight, with Groves getting the nod. What transpired was that the older man was flummoxed, manipulated, moved around the ring by Groves with ease. If someone had told me that one of these guys had nearly three times as many fights as the other, I'd have had my house on that man being Groves. His footwork reminded me of Juan Manual Marquez in many ways: not lightning fast, but flawless in its simplicity and economy of movement; the result of hours and hours of study and work. If he wanted to close range, he closed eighteen inches by moving six. If he wanted to give himself some distance, Adamu couldn't get near him. This is the sort of thing a camera doesn't often pick up: the angles are calculated to emphasize the punches, without allowing for much by way of perspective when it comes to the factors which enable those shots to land. This is the pugilistic equivalent of showing a long-jump world record attempt only from the moment of take-off, paying no heed to the run-up. In any other sport this would be considered strange.
Groves stopped Adamu with a lethal combination of clean, hard punching and smooth, efficient movement. In so doing, he achieved something which has eluded Vitali Tsypko, Isaac Chilemba, and even his current nemesis, Carl Froch. Adamu doesn't get stopped: except the night he did. The other thing Groves did was make a believer out of me. I'm pretty confident in my guess as to which of those two things matters most to him.
Despite my regard for Groves, before the first fight, I predicted that Froch would end him inside four rounds. How could a largely untested kid believe he could head into a ring with Froch and come out anything but hurt? This was, lest we forget, the same Carl Froch who brutalized Lucian Bute, brushed him aside with barely concealed contempt. The same Carl Froch who went twelve with everyone's favourite Dane not once but twice, and fought damn near even both times. No matter what we thought Froch might have lost, no matter what Kessler or Ward or anyone else may have stolen from him: he still had too much for this kid. Right?
Inside four rounds. How little I knew.
But then again...
BANG. Froch goes down. And he gritted, and he agitated, and he refused in his spite to end his night there. And he went on, he endured, and he found his strength again. It took him approximately fifteen minutes of full-blooded attrition. And then, if you'll forgive my temerity: he won inside four rounds.
I know. Really, I know! Don't think I don't know, because I know. I always said I thought a fully-fit Froch ends Groves inside four, because I don't think Groves can deal with the ferocity and the fire which Froch brings with him. I'm well aware that I can't just forget the first five rounds, and I'm not even attempting to take credit away from Groves for lamping Froch and hurting him badly. But from this corner, it seems that my first impression was kinda-sorta right. Faced with a firing, focused and angry Carl Froch, from the start of round six onwards, Groves wilted inside four rounds.
I don't expect a similar result here. Froch knows now that he can be hurt, and I don't expect that he'll make the same casual mistakes which got him tagged, lit up and seeing stars the first time. He'll ship shots, of course, but I doubt that they'll be quite as concussively unexpected. I expect Froch to go in thinking ‘long-game' this time, rather than having that forced on him. I expect that he sets traps rather than going balls-out, and I think he works harder on wearing Groves down with shots to the body. As much as he says he wants a three-round war, he knows Groves can win one of those, and as such I don't expect that this will be his plan.
The same applies to Groves, too. He knows he can be hurt and stopped. If anyone knows that about him, he does. He knows Froch can come on strong, and he knows that even when the fight looks un-losable, he can lose it. For these reasons I expect both to be more tentative early. Groves will look to use the jab to dictate pace, and Froch will look to stay out of range until the right time comes to come in full-force.
But come in full-force he will, eventually. My tentative prediction for this fight is that we see Froch caught with a lot of not-so-heavy artillery early, and that he loses the first two rounds. At some point, though, we can expect to see Froch land something meaningful, and with his increased focus and festering animosity toward his antagonist, we could see another night where Froch beats his chest and goes all HULKSMASH, much like the Lucian Bute fight. Without having had the benefit of a badly hurt Froch to outbox in the early rounds, and with the spectre of his own defeat from the first fight looming in his mind, Groves could yet wilt again. Carl Froch TKO-6 (with reservations).