Callum Smith tells Chris Walker about the frustration of waiting for a world title fight and of the certainty that he will defeat Groves now it’s here
The unbeaten challenger explains how his frustration will help him beat Groves
FOR a number of years, Callum Smith has been accompanied by a perpetual air of frustration. More a lingering nuisance than something capable of derailing his ultimate goal of world supremacy, it resembles the facade worn by a youngster in November as they impatiently wait for Christmas Day. The youngest Smith brother is adamant that glory still awaits him, but his lengthy voyage to arrive there, longer than everyone expected, has irked Smith. The wait could be over in a matter of days.
On Friday night (September 28), Smith faces George Groves in the World Boxing Super Series super-middleweight final in Saudi Arabia. ➤
The contest comes almost seven years after Groves halted Callum’s big brother Paul in just two rounds at Wembley Arena. Callum, then still an amateur, was there that 2011 night, watching uncomfortably with his brothers. Despite the misery of Paul’s defeat, Callum had to move on quickly. His amateur ambitions, to qualify for the Olympics, were at a crucial stage. They too would end unhappily.
Failure to qualify for London 2012 hurt Smith far more than any opponent has ever managed. A lifelong odyssey ripped at the seams due to errant judgement from ringside officials had Smith supporting his Team GB teammates from the sidelines like an injured forward missing the Champions League final due to injury. Amateur boxing had taught Smith an awful lot, but he felt the code ultimately let him down. His vested ambitions morphed into professional ones and now he stands at the door Groves, the WBA champion, aiming to extinguish an age of disillusionment rather than settling a family score.
“Of course it’s common to think about the fight with our Paul, but that was a long time ago,” reveals Smith to Boxing News in his softly spoken Scouse tone. “There was no way back then that I ever possibly thought that me and him [Groves] might one day fight because so many things happen in boxing and things change all the time. I hadn’t even had a pro fight at that point and was still a few months away from even turning pro. George had just beaten our Paul and was heading towards big fights. I was miles away from him in terms of where our careers were, but he’s still around in big fights and I’ve done enough to earn my shot at his world title.”
Obtaining this opportunity has been a strenuous task for Smith. Turning back the clock three years, the 2010 Commonwealth Games silver medallist was one of the hottest fighters in British boxing. A summer showdown with France’s Christopher Rebrasse was handled with care and then came the local battle with city colleague, Rocky Fielding, as the former Rotunda ABC teammates shared almost three minutes of violence with Smith at his most vicious. Fielding did not hear the bell to end the opening round. The same fate greeted Hadillah Mohoumadi in 2016 as the Frenchman surrendered his European strap with the action barely underway. Boxing is a sport with myriad levels and Smith was moving through them with ease.
The final climb to the top dominated Smith’s focus throughout 2017, but it was delayed by a number of complications. Smith, with trainer Joe Gallagher, was a ringside spectator in January of that year as James
“GROVES USED TO GET CAUGHT, BUT HE’S CHANGED A LOT... THERE’S NO WAY THOSE IMPROVEMENTS ARE ENOUGH TO BEAT ME”
“I WAS BORED AGAINST HOLZKEN, I WANTED TO LET MY HANDS GO”
Degale and Badou Jack participated in a red-hot super-middleweight unification contest in Brooklyn.
Smith, hoping to meet the winner, applauded wildly at the final bell, but the announcement of the draw left the situation without any real clarity. Jack would protest against the result before moving up a division to enjoy success at 175lbs, while “Chunky” would nurse a niggling shoulder injury before losing his IBF strap to unheralded Minnesotan, Caleb Truax, at the backend of the year.
Smith would pursue Anthony Dirrell for Jack’s leftbehind WBC belt, but once again, Smith was denied, albeit through no fault of his own.
“To go to New York with Joe was to create enough interest in the fight with whoever won, but at the back of my mind I knew it had to be Degale because I knew Jack was moving up,” Smith reveals.
“If Degale would’ve won then he would’ve got the WBC title and I was the mandatory for it, so it would’ve been a straightforward fight to make. But when he got injured later that year then that was that. Me and Dirrell was a done deal at one point, I was going over there to fight him and then they wanted to start changing the dates and change where the fight was to be taking place. It just didn’t look good at all. In the space of a few months a couple of big fights had just gone.”
With his expected elevation to the grand stage on hold, Smith maintained his grip on the continental scene without encountering much resistance. The prizes Callum craved, seemingly within reach, still taunted him, but his purses were set to be bolstered with the unveiling of The WBSS, an eight-man tournament designed to generate top-tier competition, one winner and economic reward. Smith was drafted into the inaugural season but admits the event’s promises initially appeared too good to be true.
“I was interested,” he recalls. “Who wouldn’t be? With everything that had gone on that year with big fights being on the table then falling through for whatever reason, at least this looked like the chance to earn good money and finally have the chance to walk away with a world title at the end. With the money that was being offered, I did have doubts because you see first-hand how hard it is to get fights over the line. Then you’ve got injuries and fighters wanting certain advantages and you wonder how things ever get sorted. Look at the Super Six [tournament] that Carl Froch went in. How many things went wrong with that? There have been a few problems with this one, but overall I’m happy with how it’s gone up to now.”
The nuisances Smith hints at presumably relate to the withdrawal of Germany’s Jurgen Braehmer, who was set to be the Merseysider’s opponent at the semifinal stage after Smith had defeated Erik Skoglund in the first round. When injury precluded Braehmer the chance to steal Smith’s undefeated record it was left to Dutch kickboxer, and unheralded substitute, Nieky Holzken to try his luck.
Groves, who defeated Chris Eubank Jnr one week earlier to reach the final, was watching at ringside as Smith toyed with an outgunned Holzken over 12 rounds. In the end, it was an outing that bore little relation to the relentless bombardment that had greeted Fielding and Mohoumadi.
“I was fighting to instructions, plain and simple,” Smith explains. “I was bored in there if I’m being honest and I wanted to let my hands go a lot more and a lot sooner. Joe was in the corner telling me to just stay out of trouble because the final was around the corner. He didn’t want me in no messy clinches or exchanges where I might get cut or pick up an injury. People perhaps got a little used to me just going in there and knocking people out, but that can’t happen every fight even though it would be nice. I’m going in with Groves now and it was right not to take any risks.”
In Groves, Smith finally gets the elite assignment he’s long pined for. Once a sharp-shooter capable of explosiveness from nowhere, Groves has matured into a fighter reliant on experience and savvy, rather than the sharpness and elusiveness that he displayed under first pro trainer Adam Booth. What he’s lost in crispness has been replaced with an ability to fight a lot smarter. The work carried out by current coach Shane Mcguigan has been of the highest order, particularly when one considers the two stoppage losses to Carl Froch and points reversal to Jack looked like making Groves an eternal nearly man. But victory over Fedor Chudinov for the WBA strap propelled the Hammersmith man to the form of his life.
“Where his power was once a big thing for him, it’s no longer the thing to keep an eye on because he has got a lot smarter the more his career has gone on,” Smith notes. “I’ve known Groves for years from going to shows with my brothers and he was always someone you rated but believed could get knocked out at any time. Travis Dickinson flattened him in the amateurs, Kenny Anderson had him everywhere, Froch, Jack [who dropped him], he’s a fighter who you always thought was going to get caught at some point. That’s changed a lot recently and he deserves credit for that, but there’s no way the improvements he’s made will be enough to beat me. This has come at the perfect time for me and even though I’ve had to be patient, it’s going to be worth it because I’m doing it in the final against a big name and everything is at stake.”
For once, Smith’s view is fixed on the immediate rather than the distant future. He’s been rudely awoken in the past when dreaming of Degale or Dirrell, but a fight to sink his teeth into has finally materialised. He’ll soon find out if boxing’s most coveted environment is everything he envisaged. Smith’s crusade to Jeddah has been a mission laced with promise and discontent as chances to show his true potential have fallen through on multiple occasions. If victorious against Groves, Smith’s long wait will have been worth it.
LONG ROAD: Smith attacks Tommy Tolan back in 2013. Back then, Smith was knocking out his opponents for fun
ASSURED PRESENCE: Smith is ready to rule the world