Two southpaws stepped inside the empty ring and began sparring. One of them was J’Leon Love, unbeaten in fourteen professional bouts, who had left the Kronk Gym in Detroit to train among the Mayweathers in Las Vegas, while the other lefty, name unknown, was essentially Floyd Mayweather Jnr without the money and talent. Together they got busy with tricks, feints and, occasionally, punches.
Soon a procession of other boxers entered the gym and either prepared for sessions of their own or stood around the ring to watch the sparring. The 220-pound heavyweight, meanwhile, decided against watching. Instead, after finishing on the bag, and doing a few half-hearted rounds of pads, he disappeared into the changing room to shower, his training session having seemingly come to an abrupt end.
Rather than spar a super-middleweight, the heavyweight was on his way home and the dream crumbled before George Groves’ very eyes.
Mercifully, he wouldn’t have to wait long for a replacement, though, as shoved in the heavyweight’s place was Lanell Bellows. Bellows, a fighter with three professional bouts and thirty amateur contests to his name, hadn’t been due in the gym that day but had been called out of the blue and informed there was an English super-middleweight looking to invade. There in a matter of minutes, Bellows lacked the muscles and shoulders of the heavyweight, but was definitely closer to Groves in weight. A genuine super-middleweight, in fact.
His reputation preceded him, too. The old guy in the cap knew all about him, and wasn’t afraid to tell the visitor just how big and bad he was. ‘You’ll be sparring a kid called Lanell,’ he said, as Groves and Fitzpatrick waited their turn. ‘The kid hits like an ox. But you’ll be okay if you move and keep out of his way.’
As the old man left, Groves grinned. The endorsement failed to shake him. ‘First bit of trash-talking today,’ he said. ‘I love it.’
‘How hard does an ox actually hit?’ pondered Fitzpatrick. ‘I mean, I assume it’s quite hard, but just how hard? Do you think you could take the hit of an ox?’
‘I guess I’ll find out in a minute.’
Not quite an ox, Bellows was nevertheless an impressive physical specimen. He had won all three of his pro bouts by knockout and had yet to go beyond the second round, so surely packed a considerable punch. But he was also 27 years of age, relatively inexperienced, and in something of a hurry. He looked the part, as they all did, but appearance counts for little once two men step inside a ring and only the movement of gloves provide identification.
Still, when Groves finally positioned himself opposite Bellows, the common belief, from the old man on the plastic chair to the many boxers and trainers that had now congregated around the ring, was that the Englishman was going to get shown up. Mayweather called it “The Doghouse” for a reason. You didn’t come into his home unannounced and survive to tell the tale. They’d let you inside and show you around, maybe even offer you an overpriced T-shirt, but eventually they’d have to kill you. That seemed to be the Mayweather modus operandi.
As video cameras and phones found their way into the hands of bloodthirsty spectators – presumably to record and then replay the limey’s downfall – DeJuan Blake, the man in charge of Bellows that day, picked up two head-guards from the ground and waved them in the direction of Fitzpatrick.
‘Hey,’ he said, calling out across the ring, ‘we’ve got a couple of head-guards for your guy.’
Fitzpatrick looked over at Groves, who was already perfectly comfortable in a head-guard of his own. ‘No, it’s fine,’ he replied. ‘You guys can wear them. We’ve got one, thanks.’
Blake hadn’t expected that response. He shook his head despondently, before repeating, more firmly, ‘But we want you to wear one of these.’ The head-guards in question were lifted even higher above the top rope.
Sensing what was going on, Fitzpatrick’s shoulders loosened. ‘No, we’re good, honestly,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t want to take it off now.’
‘But we want him to.’
‘I know you do.’
Plan on the brink of failure, Blake smiled. ‘Well, we don’t like that ball at the front of the head-guard,’ he said.
Groves’ head-guard consisted of a nose strap, or aforementioned “ball”, which covered his nose and face, as opposed to the traditional chin strap, meaning his chin was exposed while his nose was fully shielded from incoming punches, elbows and head-butts. Yet he wore it because his nose was broken in sparring the previous year and he was still nursing it back to full health.
This was something Fitzpatrick was quick to explain to his opposite number, before then pointing across the ring at the head-guard encasing the head of Bellows. Interestingly, that too came with a nose strap rather than chin strap. The Americans had been rumbled. ‘Okay,’ conceded Blake, smiling, ‘but if we ain’t happy with the spar, he’s changing.’
‘Okay,’ yelled Fitzpatrick in response, as he climbed down from the ring and cleared the decks. He winked at Cornelius Boza Edwards, the former world super-featherweight champion sitting on one side of the ring, and then explained, ‘That was all about control. That wasn’t about head-guards. They just want to control you and let you know who’s boss.’
Well-accustomed to the way of the American gym, having spent many years based Stateside, Fitzpatrick emphatically outwitted Blake that afternoon, and Groves, the fighter, would now try and do the same to Bellows.
On paper, of course, it was pretty much expected of him. He was the champion, the one with sixteen pro bouts to his name, whereas the American boasted a mere fraction of that. He knew that, we knew that, yet nobody else in the vicinity appeared to know or want to believe that.
In fact, the overall feel of the place brought to mind good old Billy Hoyle stepping on court for the first time in “White Men Can’t Jump”, only Groves was spared the goofy baseball cap and cargo shorts. To those unaware, though, he was undoubtedly a source of amusement: a fall-guy, the last-pick, the chump.
It then took Groves roughly thirty seconds to convince the non-believers. A few snappy jabs, some flashy head movement and the occasional jarring right hand did the job, as Bellows heroically stumbled forward in the direction of most of what Groves slung his way. The pace was frenetic, influenced no doubt by the pressure from those around them, but never did the Englishman relinquish the upper hand. Whenever he controlled Bellows with his jab it appeared one-sided, and only when Groves allowed him to have fun inside did the ox seem remotely comfortable. (Even then, when in his kind of zone, the American often failed to capitalise and would wind up in a nervy clinch.)
Round one ended and Blake was worrying about more than just head-guards. He saw to Bellows in the home corner, then called out to Groves, ‘Hey, this ain’t no hockey, man’.
George’s laugh was muffled by the nose strap of his head-guard, but he was nonetheless amused. The comment, no matter how obtuse, suggested he was winning them over and that he wasn’t bad for a white guy. Slowly but surely, his plan was coming together.
Rounds two, three and four followed a similar pattern to the first, but consisted of more in the way of action, as Groves became bored and went after a little fun of his own, the idea of chinning Bellows in front of his homeboys no doubt in the back of his mind. This resulted in a few messy exchanges, no shortage of big punches, and, as the spar progressed, and Groves’ dominance increased, the attention span of Blake and the supporting cast noticeably waned. Fed up, they began to watch the action in the adjacent ring, where a young boy threw feeble punches at the pads of his trainer. It was a distraction of nothing else. It diverted their eyes away from the sight of one of their own getting beaten up and taken to school by an outsider.
In the end, video cameras were turned off midway through the final round and one-by-one the listless cheerleaders evaporated from ringside, their pom-poms dumped on the floor. Groves, meanwhile, returned to his corner at the end of four completed rounds to be greeted by a smile and a tender tap on the head from Fitzpatrick. ‘When the Mayweather gym goes silent you know you’ve done your job,’ he said.
Groves, the king of the playground, walked a little taller and with renewed bounce in his step when exiting the ring and removing his head-guard. There was no longer any need to prove himself or validate his place in the gym as once pitying eyes now looked at him with respect, maybe even envy, and fighters like Bellows and Love, in spite of all their showy arrogance, warmed to him. Not only that, they now recognised him.
‘It was an honour to spar with you,’ said Bellows, as he shook the Brit’s hand minutes after they sparred. ‘I’m sorry for doing so much holding. I’m still learning, man. Still finding my feet in there.’
‘Don’t apologise,’ said Groves. ‘How many fights have you had?’
‘Three so far. I’m fighting again next month.’
‘That’s good. You’ve got a lot of potential.’
‘No,’ said Groves, ‘thank you for coming down at late notice. You really helped me out.’
‘Shit, as soon as I heard you were down, I got here as quickly as I could.’
Love, waiting in the shadows, went one better.
‘It’s great to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m a big, big fan.’
‘Seriously?’ said Groves, surprised by the admission.
‘Hell yeah! I saw what you did to Glen Johnson last year and I said to myself, ‘Boy, I need to keep an eye on that guy.’ So, honestly, it’s great to actually meet you today. I never thought I’d see you here.’
As he picked up his suitcase and prepared to leave, Groves was once more accosted by Bellows and Love, both apparently in need of pictures, and then Sinclair, the T-shirt designer, masseuse and uncle, who urged the fighter to return as soon as possible and to always call the Mayweather Boxing Club “home” whenever Stateside. ‘Here,’ he said, ‘let me show you guys out. It would be my pleasure.’
Upon exit, Groves stopped to notice the lonely swivel chair still in the exact same place it had been left. Only now it resembled more of a throne. His throne.
Well, at least until Floyd arrived.
This Saturday night (September 12), two-and-a-half years on from conquering The Doghouse, George Groves returns to Las Vegas and once again looks to tame a member of The Mayweather Team. This time it’s Badou Jack, the WBC world super-middleweight champion, and this time Floyd Mayweather Jr, the top dog, the headliner, will be present to watch it all unfold.