Elliot Worsell reveals the complexities of George Groves’ mind. It’s a puzzle the fighter solved a long time ago and it’s why he’s now so hard to beat
Revealing the complexities of the WBA super-middleweight champion’s mind
TEN years ago, George Groves was preparing to make his professional debut in a sixrounder against a Lithuanian and busy doing what he does best: thinking.
He thought about his first six-rounder, he thought about the quickest route to North Greenwich’s O2 Arena, he thought about Kiril Psonko, his opponent, and he thought there was no need to be nervous because boxing history, as well as their respective records, ensured he was a near-enough guaranteed victor on that November night in 2008.
Moments before the first bell, he did a lot more thinking. He thought about what it meant to have been late to the venue, thanks to the Jubilee line being closed, and thought it was strange, a bad omen perhaps, that he, this stickler for punctuality, had ended up being delayed ahead of his pro boxing debut. He thought about how he typically liked to warm up “ridiculously early” and didn’t like to feel rushed. He thought about the similarities he shared, in that respect, with his father, Donny, and wondered if that’s where he got it from. “It’s so unlike me,” he would tell himself, before then thinking about how small the gloves on his hands felt and how different they seemed to the ones he’d worn en route to two ABA middleweight titles.
Soon, he was thinking about walking down stairs in the dark, something he’d done many times before, and reckoned because it was dark it would be entirely natural to suddenly lack confidence and be unsure of his footing. He thought about the fear of missing a step or treading on a pin, he thought about the doubt, and he thought about how the process of preparing for a pro boxing debut shared many similarities with walking down stairs in the dark.
After that, he was thinking about the fight. That first fight and others down the line. Bigger ones, better ones. He was thinking about how he’d win several world titles and then retire rich and undefeated. All in good time, he thought. All in good time.
Even when the first bell rang, Groves, now officially a pro, couldn’t stop thinking.
“During the first 30 seconds all I’m thinking about is not getting hit,” he once explained to me. “I don’t want to give anything away early.
“As an amateur I knew whether I’d won a fight or not in the first 30 seconds. If I’m finding it easy to protect myself and am spotting openings, I know the fight is mine, even that early. I can gauge and assess everything in that first round. It’s not about starting quickly or aggressively; it’s about starting correctly and giving nothing away.
“I get just as much confidence from knowing my opponent is struggling to land and struggling for confidence as I do from landing my own shots. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside.
“I’m happy to go a whole first round and watch nothing happen, because I’m ready for that. I’m planning on that. My opponent will likely see things the other way, though, and will need to land something to ease their way into the fight. If they’re not expecting a stalemate, that alone can be enough to f**k with their head.
“It takes a lot of confidence in your own ability to box without punching because the common reaction to stress is to go out there and do what we do naturally: fight and scrap for every possible advantage. That’s the way most fighters approach the first round of a fight because it’s the quickest way to shed insecurity and doubt.”
To a greater degree than most, Groves thinks about what might go wrong in the ring and reckons the greatest fear for any boxer is being caught clean and cold in the very first round, thus forever blighted by a first round knockout defeat on their record. Boxing, he thinks, is cruel and unforgiving like that, and defeats, three of them, two by stoppage, have shown this to be true. If only momentarily, they dented his pride, stunted his progress and forced him to rebuild. They changed his team. They changed his style. Crucially, they changed his thought process.
“Being in the ring opposite a seminaked man with tiny gloves on trying to take your head off is about as far from enjoyable and fun as you can get,” said Groves. “I hate the sense of danger. It’s not something I chase my life. But, when it comes to boxing, I’d be lying if I said it didn’t get me going.
“It feels like you’re being tickled. On one hand it’s the worst feeling in the world and you want it to stop, but, at the same time, you’re giggling and kind of enjoying it, too. Boxing and tickling share a lot in common.”
Ricky Hatton used to think boxing was no tickling contest and would repeat this after many of his fights. A line said to emphasise the fact that getting hurt and feeling pain was a by-product of the sport, it also went some way to summing up the Mancunian’s style and personality and explaining the welts on his face.
Yet, Groves’ tickling analogy is the better of the two. Unlike Hatton’s, it isn’t played for laughs. It reveals more. There is an honesty to it, some insight, and, most of all, a greater amount of thought behind it.
Frankly, Groves, the only boxer for whom completing a Rubik’s Cube at a press conference seems the done thing, has a better way of humanising his profession than most. It’s why he remains a fascinating interview, whether in victory or defeat, and why his name, whether attached to Carl Froch, James Degale or now Callum Smith, will always generate interest. The thinking man’s fighter, Groves challenges the notion that a boxer should be seen and not heard. “Fights are won mentally, not physically,” he understood shortly after turning pro. “Physically, you can only do what your brain tells you to do. If your brain gives up, no amount of huffing and puffing will get you through it. You don’t stand a chance.
“Sometimes you’ll be doing your long run with somebody and he’ll be just as quick as you, but, if he kicks and you’re not ready for it, it becomes a mental battle. It’s not about the physical at that point. You’re both equally fit and strong, but he’s gone and tested you mentally.
“If you’re strong mentally, you’ll react and match him. If not, you’ll get left behind. That’s what a fight is like. A lot of fighters are equal physically, but you’ve got to be ready to either initiate the mental challenge or react to it. If you can’t do either, you’ll lose.”
Admittedly, his was a quick pro apprenticeship, and the presence of David Haye and Adam Booth, two men thriving in the upper echelons of the sport a decade ago, no doubt left an indelible impression on his young mind, his belief system and his moral compass. Groves would be thinking a lot, sure, but listening a lot, too. Soaking things up, observing, learning.
At first, he was the protégé, the flame-haired, wide-eyed slugger Booth once compared to Gerald Mcclellan. Yet, by the time he was British and Commonwealth super-middleweight champion, Groves walked taller, formulated his own thoughts, worked out to his own gym playlist, and hankered for the respect he deserved.
Keen to catch up, Groves, on a balmy May night in 2012, watched Carl Froch upset Lucian Bute in Nottingham to win the IBF title and thought about challenging “The Cobra” there and then. Driving back
“IF YOU’RE NOT READY FOR THE MENTAL CHALLENGE, YOU WILL LOSE”
“I HATE THE SENSE OF DANGER. IT’S NOT SOMETHING I CHASE IN MY LIFE. BUT I’D BE LYING IF I SAID IT DOESN’T GET ME GOING”
to London, he thought about the sparring sessions they’d once shared, and how he had enjoyed success, and he thought about how Froch was too pedestrian and hittable for him, and how he could probably beat him fighting southpaw. He then thought about the possibility of getting an IBF ranking, and couldn’t help but think the fight would be a pay-per-view event if Booth, his then-manager, would only pull his finger out and text Eddie Hearn to put the wheels in motion. “Relax,” said Booth, horizontal along the backseat. Groves, he suggested, was thinking too much.
As a kid, he’d have never thought to pursue a fight like that. Not so soon anyway. Shy and uncomfortable among groups of people, Groves’ earliest memory of his time at Dale Youth ABC was seeing the other boys shake hands and finding this, the handshake between boys, the most peculiar sight in the world. Kids, as far as he was aware, didn’t shake hands.
“I didn’t come out of my shell at Dale (Youth, ABC) until I was probably 15,” he said. “I went there for three or four years before anybody really spoke to me or had any idea what I was about. And that was all my choice. I had maybe one fight at school and that was more of a squabble. I think, on the whole, the other kids respected me. I was also cautious and knew not to upset the wrong sort of kid. I was always thinking and strategising.
“The kids that get in fights all the time are the ones that operate purely on emotion. They don’t think things through all that much.
“I was different, though. Even if I felt I had the measure of a kid, I was always worried about how many brothers or cousins he might have waiting outside the school grounds at the end of the day.”
He’s all grown up now, of course. Grown up in a boy to man sense, but also grown up as a prizefighter and businessman. At 30, his mind is his own, no longer moulded by older statesmen, and his thought process seems streamlined, centring less on legacy and more on providing for his family.
Perfection, he now realises, was unobtainable, an unrealistic goal. Yet the WBA super-middleweight title around his waist – a token of perseverance, of never giving up – is wonderfully real. It offers additional challenges to think about; it makes it easier to not think about setbacks.
Best of all, the arduous journey required to come to this realisation – the ups and downs, the joy and tragedy – seems to have helped form a mindset as strong as any fighter in Britain.
“I don’t believe in luck, in that you’ve either got it or you haven’t, but some things work out for you and some things don’t,” Groves said, five years before beating Fedor Chudinov to become a world champion. “I try not to dwell on bad things or curse my bad luck. I think there’s an energy, not like karma or an aura, but something different, that travels along with us through life and you can influence that energy depending on whether you’re a positive or negative person.
“If, when you wake up in the morning, you look in the mirror and say to yourself, ‘Today is going to be a good day,’ there’s a pretty good chance it will be a good day, even if you only think that because you feel as though you should.
“On the other hand, if you wake up and start thinking, ‘Oh, s**t, my throat hurts, I’m coming down with something,’ then your path is set for that day. You’re going to feel terrible and your day will likely turn to s**t.
“I try to stay in the right frame of mind and remain positive. My tattoos are just a bit of fun really, a bit of decoration, but they also cheer me up and put me in the right frame of mind.”
On Groves’ left arm you’ll find lucky charms like the Maneki-neko, the Gingerbread Man, a four-leaf clover, and the number seven. His frame of mind, meanwhile, has been inked, stained and scarred by trauma, but is now stable, realistic and positive, and every bit as sharp and important as his left jab.
THE WISE MAN: Groves is a master of psychological warfare
THE DEBUT: Groves cruises to 1-0 against Psonko on the Haye-monte Barrett undercard in 2008