How Callum Smith won the world title and came of age against George Groves in Saudi Arabia, writes John Dennen
THAT WAS THE ONE I ALWAYS WANTED SO I CAN FINALLY BE HAPPY. I CAN RETIRE NOW, I’VE FULFILLED MY POTENTIAL”
CALLUM SMITH has proved his point. He felt he was one of the best fighters in the country. He thought he was the best in the division. This year he had to go all the way to Saudi Arabia to confirm it. It was however by no means
guaranteed. Sitting in Jeddah, only days before challenging George Groves for the WBA supermiddleweight world title, in the final of the World Boxing Super Series, Smith couldn’t be sure he’d ever get another chance like this.
“I remember sitting thinking it’s taken me so long to get this world title. I’ve been here there and everywhere to just finally get the one shot,” Smith told Boxing News. “I was thinking I’ve got to take this shot. I’ve got to take advantage of it, otherwise I’ve made good money but I couldn’t retire without winning one. I know it would eat away at me for the rest of my life because potential-wise I knew I was good enough to become a world champion. If I retired without winning one I would have massively underachieved.
“Getting close to this one I did question it was so hard to get this one maybe I might not get another one after this.”
Yet by the time he weighed in, towering over Groves in their final face off, the pressure was melting away from him. “Normally as the days get closer your nerves get worse, mine were disappearing closer to the fight. After the weigh in I remember just thinking I’ve had the best camp I’ve ever had, I’m in the best shape possible and if he does beat me, good on him. I knew I’d given myself the best opportunity on the night. I was more nervous for [Nieky] Holzken and [Erik] Skoglund than I was for Groves, which is weird because it was a much bigger fight and a much tougher fight,” he said. “I remember the [Rocky] Fielding fight was a big local derby and there was a lot of eyes on it and on the night for that one, I was the same. I had less nerves for that one than I had some of the journeyman fights. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just when I know I’ve prepared well. I feel more pressure in the fights where I’m expected to go in and knock them out early. I think that’s where I feel more pressure than the fights where I know it could be a tough fight and there’s a few people picking me to win, a few to lose. I just feel the pressure comes off me then.”
Groves however was a tougher fight, the hardest challenge he could have faced. So much so that for the first time in his career Smith was not expected to win. That bothered him.
“Going off the form guide I understood why people probably leaned towards him. But it was more the fact that people weren’t just picking him, they were writing me off. People were just judging me as if that was my best against Holzken and I knew it weren’t. I had shown beforehand that that weren’t my best but it was like people had forgotten about the other fights I’d ever had and just judged me on them too,” Smith said. “Just disregarding me as if I was no good. It was that that gave me a point to prove.
“So that was kind of annoying me but the only way to prove them wrong was to do what I done and I was always confident. The better the opponent, the better me and I think I showed that.”
Groves had recovered from a shoulder dislocated in February, putting his fight with Smith back to the end of September. Smith was relieved though that he was getting to challenge for the WBA world title. Fighting Chris Eubank Jnr as a replacement for the final had arisen as a possibility but Smith was eager for ³
Groves to take all the time he needed to recover.
“The aim was to become a world champion but it was to be the best in the division as well,” Smith said. “I believed I was the best but I knew I had to prove it to be in a position to say it. Groves was the fight I always wanted and it wasn’t to be beat him personally it was just because he was the number one.”
But there was a hint of personal animus. Groves had stopped Paul Smith, Callum’s eldest brother, as far back as 2011. For the most part Callum had refused to dwell on it. “I never ever think about that fight, I was an amateur when it happened,” he said. But in the days before his tilt with Groves, he watched back his brother’s first round with the champion. “It was the first time I think I’ve probably watched it. It was only then it refreshed a little bit,” Smith admitted. It would be good, he thought, to get “a bit of revenge.”
Groves had also relit the fire that burned in the youngest Smith. “In camp you know how big the fight is and it kind of made me train that little bit harder and Groves made a few comments. He said I die a death after three rounds or something and my concentration goes. I remember just going to the gym the next day and saying, ‘We’ll see who dies after three rounds.’ It brought a little bit more out of me again. Especially coming from a fighter who’s known for having stamina issues himself, I was thinking a bit rich coming from you. I never felt the pressure in the camp but I knew how big the fight was. I knew I had to take the opportunity.”
“I knew he’s heavy handed,” the Liverpudlian added. “I’d like think my brother had a very good chin and he was the only one to knock him out. I knew from even back then that Groves was very heavy handed. I had to be switched on… When I’ve got respect for someone’s power, it keeps me switched on and it makes me box a lot better.
“I had respect for his power, going in I think he had respect for mine. Or he does now.”
Smith was alert to the Londoner on the night. From the opening bell Callum moved out to take the centre of the ring while he boxed with control and precision. When the openings came, Smith also hit with spite. “He was more dangerous when I thought I hurt him,” Smith said. “He’s at his most dangerous when he is under attack. [In the third round] his legs stiffened a bit and then I went for him but then the minute he threw back I thought, ‘He’s still all there, you’re not as hurt as I thought you were’.”
Groves was jabbing, his shoulder holding up as he landed lead lefts to the body. But crucially Smith used his size and judgement of distance to neutralise that jab.
“His jab’s his best shot and that sets his right hand up. So when he couldn’t get his jab off as much, it kind of took everything else away from him.”
The finish, when Smith delivered it, was expert, even if it surprised Callum as well. “The first time I tried the counter left hook it landed, that wobbled him badly. I remember just thinking, ‘Get rid, get rid of him… This is it… It’s your chance to become a world champion’,” he recalled. “I just unloaded. I was going head hunting. I was landing but none of them were landing really clean.”
So he threw a body shot just to open up his guard. Replays show it as an almighty right hook to the ribs that brought Groves down. Smith didn’t even think about the punch itself. He just threw. Even as Groves slumped to his knees, he didn’t realise how much damage he’d done. “Even when he went down I thought it was the head shots,” Smith said. “Looking at it, it was a good body shot because I didn’t throw it to finish the fight, just to go back upstairs again because it was the head where I’d hurt him.”
Smith was expecting the fight to continue, he was primed to charge back in while Groves was vulnerable. Then he saw the champion with a slight shake of his head nod to his trainer Shane Mcguigan. It signalled enough. This contest was over.
Smith dropped to his knees, overcome with a confusion of relief, delight, triumph. “I think that’s why it made my reaction a little bit better,” he said. “I thought the fight was going to still carry on so when it weren’t I was like, ‘Wow, it’s done.’ It was a weird reaction, I wanted to cry, I wanted to laugh, I wanted to jump and celebrate, everyone went in the ring and I couldn’t believe it was over.”
His brothers and trainer Joe Gallagher mobbed him. “That’s the one I’ve always wanted so I can finally be happy. Like I said, I can retire tomorrow and I’ve fulfilled my potential. I’ve done what I set out to do,” he said. “I’ve been working towards this since I started boxing. Everything, even the amateurs, the aim was always to be a world champion. It’s when I look at it like that’s when I realise what I’ve achieved. I’ve finally done it. “No one can take that away from me.” But Smith is only 28 years old. His prime years stretch ahead of him. He has to discover just how good he can really be. As for his new dreams, the list is extensive. By beating Groves he became the top supermiddleweight in the world. Now he wants to unify the division, headline at Anfield and even become a two-weight world champion.
“We can see what chapter two, Callum Smith 2.0 is,” he said with a smile.
NEW CHAMPION: Smith poses with his haul of trophies after defeating Groves in September
CHANGING OF THE GUARD: Smith senses the ԴQLVK DQG MXPSVon Groves [left] EHIRUH KLV WHDP DQG IDPLO\ UXVK into the ring to FHOHEUDWH Photos: ACTION IMAGES/ ANDREW COULDRIDGE
FOLLOW THE LEADER: Smith goes into 2019 as the No.1 in his division