Groves Falls Short in Title Challenge

By Mark Whalley

  • Challenger loses on a split decision
  • Groves down in the first round
  • Third world title defeat leaves Groves at a career crossroads

Las Vegas, USA. Those who paid attention to the pre-fight buildup to the Carl FrochGeorge Groves rematch last summer will recall that a particular highlight came in a press conference, when Groves pulled out a Rubik’s Cube and attempted to solve it before Froch could finish one of his rambling monologues.

The move was heralded by the media as a master piece of kidology on the part of the challenger – a statement that he had the cerebral upper hand, and that Froch’s talk was cheap.

What’s mentioned less is that Groves actually failed to finish the puzzle in time, which acts as a poignant metaphor for his two showdowns with the Nottingham native – he could not solve a riddle that he clearly believed he had the answer to.

And so that proved to be the case again yesterday, in his third shot at world glory – this time against the relatively unheralded Badou Jack. Once more he felt he had the solution, once more he failed to execute.

Groves suffered a split decision loss, having impressively recovered from a first round knockdown to establish a lead halfway through the fight, only to fade down the stretch as he succumbed to sustained pressure from the champion.

The matchup was billed as a “pick ‘em” fight, and the first two minutes proved why, as both Jack and Groves looked evenly matched when trading sharp jabs.

But then the narrative shifted dramatically when Jack landed a flush right hand to the head of Groves, who wobbled, then fell under the pressure of the follow-up.

He rose to his feet quickly – too quickly, in fact – as was evident as his legs betrayed him. Three-legged tables have looked steadier. Fortunately, rocky as he looked, there were only a matter of seconds for him to survive before the bell, and a minute’s rest.

Until that knockdown, Groves was probably fractionally ahead in the round. And he regained his composure to establish himself in the second round. Jack landed the better shots in the third – most notably some good hooks – but Groves had plenty of success in rounds four and five with his educated, piston-like jab.

By the end of round six, the fight was clearly in the balance. Groves was more active (and indeed the final punch stats showed he threw more than 200 more than his opponent) but Jack’s counters felt the more eye-catching and hurtful (the same statistics showed Jack was far more accurate, landing more successful punches).

It was at this point there was a crucial transition. Jack’s corner urged him to up his workrate, and he responded by getting markedly busier, getting in close to Groves and roughing him up on the inside. One suspects this was his gameplan all along, and it worked beautifully.

Entering the final third of the fight, Groves was noticeably fatigued. Clearly, the effort required to regain momentum following a fairly heavy knockdown was taking its toll, as were the body shots that Jack ripped in throughout the contest.

Before the start of the ninth round, Jack’s trainer screamed that Groves’ “legs were gone”, and his charge responded by pushing the pace even faster for the remainder of the fight. Groves showed a lot of heart, and probably won the eleventh round on guts alone, but Jack spent the rest of the fight looking noticeably stronger, and landing by far the most telling blows.

Boxnation – the British broadcast channel – had the fight scored level going into the final round, but we had Jack three points clear – and this extended to four at the conclusion, with Jack marginally winning a dramatic closing exchange of booming right hands.

The first score was declared 114-113 in Groves’ favour, but Jack won on the other two cards: 115-112 and 116-111. We had the fight scored at 116-112 for Jack.

Groves’ disappointment with the decision was palpable, and he fled the ring immediately upon hearing the outcome. He has since claimed he felt he was in control of the fight, and that he would pursue a rematch.

Aggrieved as he might feel now, it would be a mistake for Groves to kid himself into believing he lost a “home town” decision to Vegas-resident Jack. Though it was undoubtedly a close contest, few observers not clouded by British bias felt Groves warranted a win. Indeed, that he won on one of the official scorecards feels generous.

So how to diagnose the problem? What will gall Groves the most – and indeed what will be the most cause for concern – is that the oft-cited “truisms” of his limitations were all apparent.

Firstly, his suspect chin let him down in round one. True, his recovery did him credit, but Jack is now the third fighter to put “The Saint” on the canvas as a professional, and Jack is no banger.

Secondly, his arsenal seemed limited. His jab is superb, but he was over-reliant on his straight hand – rarely drawing upon the hooks and uppercuts necessary to break down a defensively-sound opponent. He’s also inclined to head-hunt: it was telling that Jack went to the body more than Groves, and that this seemed decisive in their respective fuel tanks come the latter stages of the fight.

Which brings us down to the most worrying element: by round eight Groves looked to be fading badly. This is exactly the same round in which he noticeably tired against Froch in their first fight, and the round in which he was ruthlessly dispatched in their second.

His natural movement is to hunch and prowl around the ring, which allows him to spring his attacks sharply, but also looks like it causes him to burn a lot of nervous energy. It’s a throwback to his kickboxing days, and something he will likely struggle with for the rest of his career. He also loads up with the majority of his punches, which means he carries plenty of power, but struggles to maintain this down the stretch.

Jack, meanwhile, moved a lot easier around the ring and looked relaxed. Consequently, he had the ability to slip up a gear as the fight reached the championship rounds, whereas Groves was constantly searching for a second wind that never came.

Questions will be asked about the impact of trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick, with whom Groves has a record of two victories and three defeats in five fights. Groves seems to have exactly the same flaws as he did two or three years ago. Is their relationship really working?

It’s likely that the relatively low profile of Badou Jack means that he an was underestimated opponent. Judging by his past two displays, he is a top-level operator. But the fact remains that right now he is the easiest route to a super middleweight title, and yet he looked superior to Groves.

This defeat will probably have stung Groves even more than the Froch knockouts. It’s not easy to see where he goes from here. He can probably leverage his long-standing rivalry with IBF champion James “Chunky” DeGale to force his way into contention for a shot at that belt, but the damning truth is that he doesn’t merit a fourth chance right now.

Like the Rubik’s Cube left on that media centre table, George Groves is an incomplete conundrum. The immediate solution is not clear.

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