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

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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



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

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