By Elliot Worsell


BEFORE

Chapter I

A waiting room in all but name, what the room waits for on fight night is context. That and a boxer.

It is the boxer, in fact, who will provide the room with both its context and its story. It is they, the boxer, who will in time recall this place, this changing room, as either the scene of triumph or, conversely, tragedy. As in a waiting room, its context will soon be delivered by the very thing for which the boxer waits: their result. Either it’s the all-clear and therefore, when leaving the room, the air outside will have never smelled better, or it is something far worse. Something terminal. Something that will ensure the details of this room remain a blur and the time spent inside it will be difficult to remember no matter how hard they try.

At 8.20 pm, nobody knows whether to expect triumph or tragedy, least of all George Groves, the boxer. Entering the room with all the calm and certainty of a conqueror, the first person he meets is Howard Foster, a referee who means one thing to Groves now but will come to mean something else to him later. Indeed, not unlike the room itself, Foster, dressed for the occasion, is for now a face and voice without context. He merely represents authority; a man whose words must be obeyed.

“Don’t hit him while he’s down,” Foster says, “go to the furthest neutral corner and stay there. If you come out of that corner, I’ll stop the count, okay? When you’re in close, watch your head. No holding. When I say break, you break. Again, if you’re holding and I tell you to stop, that’s when you stop holding. You can work inside or you can step back; whatever you want to do. No hitting the back of the head, keep your punches up, have a good fight, and good luck.”

After that, Foster shakes the boxer’s hand and heads for the door. His exit, however, is waylaid by Paddy Fitzpatrick, Groves’ trainer, who lurks nearby. “I know yer in a hurry, so I’ll keep it brief,” the Irishman says. “I jus’ want to remind you o’ somethin’ Froch actually said…”

“Look –” interrupts Foster, eyes rolling, exasperated.

“No, please, listen to me. If he does get caught accidentally, he said he will deliberately foul back.”

“I’ve spoken to Carl just as I’ve spoken to George. No fouls. A nice, clean fight, that’s all I want.”

“I understand. And the other thing is, please let dem work inside, jus’ as you said.”

“Absolutely,” says Foster, offering his hand to Fitzpatrick before escaping.

With authority removed from the room, the boxer and trainer now begin to rearrange it, doing so with all the paranoia of a panopticon prisoner. They start by pushing chairs and a sofa towards the wall, creating a greater floor space on which to nervously pace, as well as re-apply to the same wall a picture of Groves knocking out Noé González Alcoba. (That had been hung up earlier in order for Groves to see it upon entering the changing room, yet had during the course of the afternoon fallen down.)

“When do you want to bandage?” Fitzpatrick asks.

“About an hour before,” Groves says, “so that we’re finished by nine-thirty.”

“Okay, so we’ll start at, say, ten past nine.”

The Board inspector, the one remaining authority figure in the room, then makes his presence known. “Right,” he says, “you want to do it at ten past nine. That’s fine. So if I get here for five past nine…”

“No,” says Fitzpatrick, “you can get ‘ere for ten past nine.”

“Well, five minutes won’t make much difference.”

“I’m jus’ sayin’, we’ve already made it clear dat we want dis place empty for as long as possible. We don’t want people comin’ in an’ out. So if you come in wit’ de guy at ten past nine it’s only one entrance rather than two. If you can let someone from de Froch camp know dat the time is ten past nine we’ll send someone over from our camp to watch dem do der thing.”

“No problem whatsoever,” says the inspector.

“Great. Thank you. We’ll let you back in at ten past nine.”

Groves, listening but trying not to care, moves towards a long table and begins to unload a sports bag. Soon finding their way out of it and onto the table is a large, round clock, something the boxer brings with him to every fight, an espresso shot covered by a tin foil lid, as well as his laptop and a Beats by Dre red and black speaker. “I had my playlist all set up on my iPod, then had a malfunction and now the thing won’t work,” he laments, revealing the frozen screen. “I’m hoping I might be able to get my laptop plugged into the speaker and get it going using Bluetooth.”

It is, like the fallen picture, an unwelcome glitch in Groves’ matrix; or, for those with a predilection for such things, an ominous sign. However, Groves, although often prone to superstition, is tonight also fully prepared for some problem-solving, so therefore sees no issue with it beginning now. To this end he feeds his pre-prepared playlist through the tinny speakers of his laptop, giving life to “Electric Feel” by MGMT, the sound of which acts as the cue for him to finally relax, settle. Sitting down now, with his coat draped over the back of a chair positioned next to him, he elects to continue wearing his cap and scarf until the room warms up. He then starts to lose himself in the mundane but oddly therapeutic process of ripping bits of tape with his teeth and hanging them, equal distance apart, from the edge of a nearby table.

“I want Froch t’know dat de second he thinks about punchin’, either with his jab or somethin’ bigger, he’s goin’ to walk into somethin’ comin’ back de other way,” says Fitzpatrick, perched on the same table from which these strips of tape currently hang. “When you see his arm twitch an’ he’s revvin’ up dat jab, you get der first; you anticipate it. In time, dat jab o’ his dat he loves so much will become weaker an’ weaker an’ it will be thrown to stop you comin’ forward rather than wit’ the intent to do damage.”

Groves nods his head, no longer to the music but to the voice of the trainer in the brown pork pie hat.

“I want him to be fearful of you in de first round,” Fitzpatrick continues. “When he starts flickin’ it out an’ not thinking ‘bout his own attack, dat’s when you place de right hand, jus’ to make ‘im aware of it. Then, when he starts to get desperate, he’ll make a lunge an’ cross his feet. His punches will start comin’ from de gunslinger position. They’ll be t’rown out o’ desperation. Dat’s when you find somethin’ heavier. Stay composed, stick wit’ de belief dat yer de more refined an’ technical fighter, an’ you’ll spot de opening quickly.”

Convinced his man is listening, Fitzpatrick flashes a smile, climbs down from the table, and begins to sing along to “Hospital Beds” by Cold War Kids. Meanwhile, Barry O’Connell, Groves’ strength and conditioning coach, senses a lull and instinctively slips into the mode of host, offering tea to all in the vicinity. “Sure, why not?” says Fitzpatrick, somewhat amused by the question. “Why would we change a thing? Let’s keep it de same as it is in de gym. All we need now is an orange an’ almond cake an’ we’re rockin’.”

In waiting for his tea, mind you, the coach starts to become restless. There is only so much winking, grinning and wisecracking one man can do, it appears. He asks Groves, at 8.48 pm, “Is it all right if I walk out der an’ see what it feels like?”

“Yeah, of course,” says Groves, perhaps eager for silence. “Do what you’ve got to do. If I need you, I’ll call you.”

George Groves hits Paddy Fitzpatrick’s pads at Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush ahead of his super-middleweight title fight with Carl Froch on November 19, 2013 in London, England (Jan Kruger/Getty Images)


Chapter II

TEN weeks ago, George Groves made the trip to Manchester by train on a Tuesday morning to announce a fight, knowing only the opponent and the date. He did not at that point know the identity of the trainer with whom he would work for this fight, nor the gym in which he would for ten weeks prepare for it. Instead, on the train with him that day and in lieu of a coach was his best friend, Luke Ramos, in addition to a million questions in his head that only he could both ask and answer. It was not the job of his friend, for example, to press him on these matters. His role was in fact quite the opposite: complete and utter distraction. He achieved this by extolling the virtues of pop star Rita Ora, a fellow west London native, and then wisely waited until Groves disappeared into the train’s toilet to divulge his true concerns. “There are other trainers in London, but none of them will know him the way Adam does,” he said, alluding to Groves’ recent split from Adam Booth. “He won’t just be able to suddenly click like that.”

By now the issue was plainly weighing as heavily on Luke’s mind as he presumed it was on his friend’s. And yet still he managed to smile again the second Groves exited the toilet and required not an interrogation but a friend and a distraction and some advice. Dressed in a dark blue suit and white shirt, Groves, when reemerging, could be seen holding two ties: one red, the other black. He lifted both and his eyes said pick one.

“I don’t know,” said Ramos, caught off-guard, suffocated by the responsibility. “Both look fine to me.”

To help, Groves next placed each of the ties against his shirt, alternating them to deliver the required visual. Still no definitive answer arrived, however. “I need you to pick,” he said. “Which one looks better?”

Drowning now, Ramos stuttered and scratched his head before saying, “Black looks good.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah. I’d go black.”

The boxer, unconvinced, took one last look at the two ties and settled on black. He returned the defeated red tie to its bag. “All these decisions I’ve got to make on my own now,” said Groves, sitting back down. “Wasn’t like this before.”

“What have you got up your sleeve for the press conference, George?”

“F**k all. I haven’t even thought about it much.”

His friend nodded. It wasn’t the answer he had wanted.

“To be honest, this whole thing with Adam has put me in a horrible position today. I’ve never felt this worried or nervous before a press conference and it’s all because of what has gone on.

“I’ve got no idea which f**kers will know what has happened and which f**kers won’t. Adam could have told them all for all I know. And you know what people in boxing are like. As soon as one hears a bit of gossip, they all f**king know.

“So now I’ve got to go there, put on a brave face, and sit in front of all these journalists, who may or may not know what’s going on between me and Adam. Then you’ve got Froch. He’ll definitely know. Eddie Hearn [Froch’s promoter] will have told him straight away.”

The tie was fixed and Groves left it alone.

“Looks good,” said Ramos. “Sharp.”

“Thanks.”

The press conference was held at the Radisson Hotel and featured little in the way of the trash-talking many had come to expect from two boxers prepared to use animosity as both selling tool and motivation. Low-key, it was instead more of an exercise for promoter Eddie Hearn to express his joy at selling all 20,000 tickets for the event within just eleven minutes of them going on sale. That supercilious Hearn smile, still a prototype back then, was matched only by that of Carl Froch, a champion clearly in possession of knowledge he would be able to use to hurt his challenger, if he so wished. Beside him, too, and to make matters worse, was his trainer, Rob McCracken, who, unlike Adam Booth, had made the trip to Manchester to support his fighter.

Groves, meanwhile, gave nothing away, and yet still the impact of recent dramas was evident. At times, for instance, the focus in his eyes would drift, his mind restless, elsewhere. He also frequently swallowed hard as if to compose himself and rid the inevitable lump in his throat and shakiness in his voice; another thing he now couldn’t trust. (In even just getting himself there and holding it together, he had shown, at the age of just twenty-five, more courage than most boxers show in the ring, I thought.)

George Groves stares at Carl Froch following their press conference in Manchester in 2013 (Getty Images)

Relieved when it was all over, Groves, on the train home, started to loosen up somewhat. Reaching deep inside his rucksack, he removed a plastic container of fruit, predominantly mango and melon, and began to judiciously devour the pieces in his hand, refusing to be seduced by the smell of crisps and cakes whenever train staff wheeled a food trolley back and forth. A stone above super-middleweight, his fighting weight, Groves, with ten weeks to go and no trainer, was starting to reassess the value of time.

“What did Froch say to you up there?” Ramos, again sitting opposite him, asked.

Groves then frowned, as if to try to remember, before saying, “Straight away he said, ‘You’re out of your depth,’ and I thought, Fair enough. Then he pulled a face and said my breath smelled.” Ramos, hearing this, shook his head in the manner of a disappointed parent. “I felt like saying, ‘Well, you can clearly smell better than the rest of us, Carl,’ but was a shade too slow. Then I thought, Let’s leave the nose humour alone for today. I can beat him without it.”

“That’s poor from him, though. That’s some [James] DeGale-type shit.”

“I know,” said Groves. “That’s what I said to him. Really? You say something that doesn’t work, so you go straight to getting personal. I could tell he was nervous and that he’d planned on saying all this stuff because he said it before we’d even made eye contact. It was like a nervous reaction.”

“Did he say to you, ‘Where’s your trainer?’ I’m pretty sure I heard that.”

“Yeah, because he knows I ain’t got Adam.”

“He would have really enjoyed punching you.”

“I’ve never seen someone so angry in my life. He desperately wanted to punch my face in. His eyes glazed over and he started welling up, taking deep breaths, biting his lip. It looked like steam was about to explode out of his ears.

“Also, before we did the face-to-face, I was kind of leaning on him. Then, after we did the face-to-face, he tried elbowing me out the way because I wouldn’t stop leaning on him. Some people are okay with confrontation so long as they have space and they’re not being touched. For others, it f**ks them up. They think, Why is he on me? Why is he touching me? That will especially get to him if he thinks he’s better than me. He’ll think I’m taking liberties with the great Carl Froch.”

A phone then vibrated on the table. It would do so sporadically for the next ten minutes and, without looking, Groves knew the reason why.

“Apparently Froch said something on talkSPORT about Adam,” he explained. “I’m getting loads of texts from people asking if it’s true.”

The phone was now picked up, just to make sure.

“What are you saying to them?” said Ramos.

“Nothing. I’m texting my mum.”

Phew, Ramos thought, reaching for more fruit.

“He would have got so much relief from seeing me without a trainer today,” said Groves. “He’s frightened of Adam. He thinks Adam and David [Haye] know him inside out, which they do. But so do I.”

The phone went back on the table, where at last it stopped moving.

“And what was Eddie Hearn trying to say to you?”

A roll of the eyes preceded Groves saying, “At one point he asked me if I was going away for training or staying at home. I said I was going away but was waiting to finalise the details. I wanted it to sound like I had a plan.” He laughed because there was still time to laugh; that is, there were ten weeks to go; plans could still be made; trainers could still be found. But the sound of laughter wasn’t nearly enough to mollify his friend. “Seriously, though,” said Ramos, “what are you going to do about the trainer situation?”

“I’ve got no plans,” Groves said, biting into another piece of fruit. “I thought Adam was calling my bluff to begin with, so I wasn’t going to make any arrangements for, like, a week or ten days. But seeing as I’ve gone all the way up there on my own, it’s clear what’s going on. So I’ll make arrangements now.”

“You know who I miss?” Ramos would later say. “Ernie.”

“Dale’s Ernie?” said Groves, referring to Dale Youth matchmaker Ernie Harris, who sadly passed away in 2012 at the age of seventy-four.

“Yeah. I remember when Ernie died, I went on Twitter and one lad at the gym said the last thing Ernie ever said to him was: ‘You’re going to be a great champion one day, son,’ blah, blah, blah. Well, I wrote: ‘The last thing Ernie ever said to me was, Luke… you’re a c**t.’”

Groves laughed, again thankful that his friend understood the importance of levity.

“I was only joking,” continued Luke, “but he did say that a lot to me over the years.”

“If you knew Ernie, you’d laugh at that and think it’s true,” said Groves. “Ernie would laugh at that.”

In 2008, Ernie Harris, as well as Mick Delaney and Peter Carson, fellow Dale Youth stalwarts, guided a twenty-year-old amateur boxer towards the open arms of Adam Booth, a professional trainer, manager and promoter, and at the time the boy’s number one admirer. However, just five years and nineteen professional bouts later, the same boxer arrived at London Euston station, ten weeks from his first world title shot, without a trainer, manager, or promoter. In other words, alone.

Beneath the departures board that day, Groves, perhaps never more alone, slung his bag over his shoulder and said, by way of last words, “I’ve sent a text to Paddy.” He then waved goodbye.


(PART II)