Wednesday, 4 June 2014

A tale of two punches

31 May 2014
As I hurry towards Wembley Central tube station, the light ever darkening and the shouts and cheers of 80,000 people slowly ebbing into history, I pass a subdued although not yet disconsolate street vendor. With increasing desperation, he is trying to hawk the last of his blue George Groves t-shirts.

“Last few shirts, only a fiver! Come on, just a fiver! Somebody? … Surely?”

It’s an apt metaphor for the rapid decline in Groves’ standing and reputation. A couple of hours earlier, these T-shirts were selling for £20 a pop and Groves was - in his own mind at least, given the controversial nature of his first fight with Carl Froch - an unbeaten and unbowed professional prize-fighter. On the verge of banking £2million and potentially dethroning the mighty Froch, Groves could have been forgiven for harbouring extravagant dreams of further multi-million pound pugilistic pay-days, as well as a lofty place in fistic history. One punch to his jaw had since changed everything though; a punch that not only separated Groves from his senses, but also left his long cherished World Championship ambitions and dreams in rubble.

As I gazed at the crumpled blue T-shirts by the vendor’s feet, I pondered how Groves must be feeling right now. I imagined him, sat in his dressing room, head bowed, no doubt surrounded by the sympathetic murmurings of friends and family. Deep down in his subconscious, beneath the confident, philosophical shrug which accompanied his post-fight insistence that “I got caught with a shot and that’s boxing”, was the fear festering that he may never achieve the lofty goals he set himself when he first laced on a pair of boxing gloves? Was he now pondering the cold, harsh possiblity that perhaps his career had already peaked? 

And all because of one punch ... One perfect parabola of controlled and precise violence.

With the pre-fight hype and histrionics, as well as nearly 17 rounds of shared combat, now reduced to the unreachable and unrepeatable recesses of historical record, I came to a realisation myself at the end of that special Wembley night; a realisation that the entire Froch-Groves rivalry, which had so consumed these two proud men and boxing fans across Britain and the world for so many months, could actually be condensed into two physical actions and their respective outcomes.

Two punches. Two knockdowns. And two contrasting effects.

*          *          *

It had the feeling of a special night from the very start. Sat in a cramped Metropolitan Line tube heading towards Wembley Central, the distinct odour of beer, BO and Lynx which enveloped me could mean only one thing – a big sporting occasion. Accents from the length and breadth of Britain peppered the air with their distinctive twangs and variant vowels, while raucous laughter punctuated the bursts of banter and excited chatter and anticipation. Unsurprisingly, the subject of every conversation was merely a subtle variation on the same theme, as everyone wrestled with endless hypothetical speculations concerning ‘the fight’.

Groves or Froch? Stoppage or points? Late or early? And so on ... Ad infinitum.

All around me, the anxious wait for the opening bell was tinged with a sort of sweet sadomasochism; none of us could wait for the fight to start and the pangs of anticipation to be over … Yet at the same time, we all, in our different ways, feared the outcome, as well as the tortuous, nerve-wracking process of watching the fight unfold. Among the throng of eager faces on the tube, spotting people not going to the fight was a near impossible task – even the quiet moustachioed Anglo-Indian man sat next to me with his young son, who couldn’t have been older than ten, was proudly brandishing a pair of fight tickets. Tuning out the hubbub of pro-Froch chanting which had gradually built up in response to some lusty pro-Groves chants, I eavesdropped on their quiet conversation.

“What will the view be like from our seats, dad?” the son asked wonderingly.

“Pretty good,” his dad replied. “Much better than the old Wembley anyway, you know, from before you were born.”

Ah yes, 'old Wembley' – venue of legends and unparalleled scenes of British glory: Bobby Moore lifting the Jules Rimet trophy in 1966, Frank Bruno overcoming Oliver McCall in 1995 to lift the WBC Heavyweight crown. Lest nostalgia cause us to lose perspective though, we must remember that, conversely, ‘old Wembley’ was also, so often, a graveyard of broken dreams;  Henry Cooper’s gallant failure against Cassius Clay in ‘63, Bruno coming up short against Witherspoon in ’86 … to say nothing of humiliations and disappointments for the England football team too numerous to mention, too painful to recall ...

Despite its nostalgic value, ‘old Wembley’ was also, for the paying spectator, a tiresome anachronism for its final couple of decades. Poor sight-lines, that seldom-used track around the central turf and the outdated and frequently filthy lavatory facilities were bad enough. Even worse, though, was the fact that, for years, the old stadium reeked with the unpleasant stench of racism and echoed to the sounds of unrestrained, violent tribalism. At ‘old Wembley’ I saw England fan turn on England fan at an England match because of club rivalries; I saw foreign fans, including women and children, spat at and abused. I heard right-wing racist chants and I seldom saw any faces that weren’t white. Truth be told, I was glad to see it bulldozed.

Today Wembley is a far more pleasant, comfortable and inclusive arena, in which even the remotest seats high up in the gods offer a decent enough view. More significantly though, and representative of a wider shift in British culture as a whole, there seems a difference in attitude at major sporting events in these post-Millennial days. This was an impression reinforced by Froch-Groves 2, where rival fans bantered good naturedly rather than swap violent invective or fisticuffs. Even the boos that accompanied the boxers’ entrances, introductions or appearances on the big screen were more pantomime in nature than vitriolic.

I know there are traditionalists who condemn the modern stadium sporting experience - sans terraces and uncontrolled alcohol consumption - as unforgivably sanitised but in my view such backward-looking nostalgists are quite simply wrong. Froch-Groves 2 demonstrated that deliberately serving beer slowly (as one of the bar workers admitted to me he had been instructed to do) and stopping selling alcohol altogether at 9.30pm, allied with firm but good humoured policing and a willingness to open events up to the mainstream fan as well as the hardcore, doesn’t necessarily lead to a deficit in atmosphere. In fact, I’d argue that removing the hint of menace and tension that plagued live sport in the 1970s and '80s when I was growing up has not sanitised sporting spectacles, but has actually liberated them. These days a wider range of sports seem to appeal to a far broader variety of people from a much more representative sample of social classes and cultures. In more basic terms, that primeval dread of being punched in the face or caught up in a riot, an ever present fear when I attended sporting events as a child, has finally receded, hopefully forever.

In fact, the mood at Froch-Groves 2 was almost carnival-like at times; Wembley way was festooned with traders merrily hawking their wares – including Froch and Groves T-shirts, (some of them laughably but charmingly bootlegged), as well as a wide array of banners, flags and programmes. Meanwhile, in the burger vans the onions and sausages sizzled satisfyingly and among the advancing throngs of spectators the mood was one of merry drunkenness, rather than bacchanalian excess.

Wandering to my seats at around 6.30pm I discovered, to my unrestrained joy, that my £60’ pitch-side’ seat was well within sight of the ring, and only a matter of yards away from a block of seats that cost five times as much or more. The two friends who I was meeting inside the stadium were similarly overjoyed with our serendipity – and as we sipped that first beer of the evening and watched the sunlight slowly recede towards the horizon of the stadium roof, with the roars of the crowds swelling all around us, a sense of utter peace and satisfaction enveloped me. Here was life reduced to its simplest and most satisfying dimension: a drink, good company and an eagerly awaited sporting spectacle.

As the early bouts flew by in a whirl of frenzied punching, and a flow of further beers lubricated my throat, my nervousness increased. This wasn’t a nervousness borne out of anxiety about the result; as an admirer of both Froch and Groves and a cheerleader for neither, I was fairly ambivalent about who would win this set-to. Instead it was a nervousness which represented my desire for the fight to live up to its lofty billing, a desire for it to be a 'good evening' for British boxing. I know how the media operates, you see, and have nothing but contempt for the inbuilt biases, prejudices and anti-bloodsport guilt which so often operate against boxing and colour much of the reporting surrounding it; because of this, I desperately wanted it to be a night to remember … to savour … a night devoid of controversy, tragedy or embarrassment.

I needn’t have harboured such fears. From the moment the lights were dimmed and the two fighters made their way to the ring, a communal electricity flowed through the combatants and their respective fans, an atmosphere that did not relent until well after the final, decisive punch of the contest had been thrown. Groves’ entrance, befitting his ‘St George’ nickname, mined the very concept of Englishness for all it was worth, from the recital across the PA of a stirring speech from Henry V to his appearance atop a red double decker bus. It was, I felt, a classic example of Groves psychology, a conscious and calculated attempt to seize the patriotic high ground, and perhaps win over some of those undecided neutrals among the vast crowd. Froch’s own entrance was equally appropriate to his personality, and thoroughly in keeping with his own less bombastic approach to prize-fighting – a couple of old school rock music tracks and a confident stride to the ring, all while clad in funereal black.

Both fighters were greeted with a cacophony of noise comprising both boos and cheers in fairly equal measure, adding to the impression of a stadium utterly and equally divided in its loyalties and allegiances. Meanwhile the flashing lights and explosions of theatrical flames leant the requisite fight-night razzmattaz to proceedings. The ring introductions were soon over in a blur of tinny sound and, suddenly, the two men were once again engaged in fistic confrontation, resuming from where they had been so rudely interrupted six months previously by Howard Foster’s controversial stoppage.

Groves, in his familiar alert crouch, right hand cocked menacingly, edged the first round for me, landing a couple of crunching shots which momentarily stiffened Froch’s rather robotic legs. However, he failed to find a blow to equal that firecracker of a right hand that he landed on Froch’s chin back in November in Manchester.

Remember that punch? Seems so long ago now, doesn't it?

*                                  *                                  *

23 November 2013

I'm sat in one of my best friend's living rooms. It's his birthday, there are eight people in attendance and the relatively drunken but still civilised revelry has resulted in a lively board game. I forget the name, but it involves making rude and outrageous statements about various things. To the disgust of some others present, mainly my understandably embarrassed fiancĂ©e, I've spoilt the comfortable middle-class, middle-aged ambience of proceedings by selfishly insisting that images of two men looking to knock each others' heads off are beamed into the living room via the TV. Froch-Groves 1 is about to start.

So absorbed am I in the ring walks and the build-up to the opening bell that I need to be nudged every time it's my go at that game-whose-name-I-still-can't-remember. I even deliberately make a mess of my turns so I can quickly return my gaze to the flickering TV screen, my fierce intensity matching the icy stares of Froch, the defending champion, and Groves, his upstart challenger.

Like many within the boxing cognoscenti, I'm expecting Froch to dismiss the impudent Groves in fairly short order. I'm in for a huge shock though as, with just 18 seconds left in the very first round, Groves connects a perfect punch to Froch's jaw, and the Nottingham man is sent sprawling to the canvas. On rising, Froch, his legs wavering, staggers back towards the ropes for support and comfort.

I leap from the sofa and into the air: "Froch's hurt! Oh my god! This could be all over in the first round!"

No one else in the room cares.

Regardless, I continue to leap up and down, shouting and shrieking. By now the arena in Manchester is in a state somewhere between shock, uproar and delirium. Viewed in slow-motion replay the knockdown is frightening; as Froch tumbles he winces, his eyes narrow and for a split-second it looks like he is maybe about to lose consciousness. It's a punch which would have felled most men in the super-middleweight division for at least ten seconds. Perhaps the thud of landing on the canvas jolts Froch back into awareness, or perhaps it's his incredible powers of neurological recovery; whatever the reason, somehow, against all the odds, against all sane logic, he survives the round. And the next round. And the next …

Although he's surviving, though, Froch is still taking a beating, with Groves landing clubbing right hand after clubbing right hand on his unguarded skull. Indeed, the challenger is accumulating so many clean blows that it looks inevitable that he will eventually triumph on points. Then, however, in the ninth round, unbelievably, albeit controversially, the ferocity of Froch's will and determination sees him roar back with concussive punches of his own. Groves staggers and half turns away from his foe, convincing referee Howard Foster to stop the fight. It's the first time all evening that Froch has put Groves under sustained pressure.

So often in boxing one punch is enough. However, for the unfortunate Groves, one punch, even though it was the sweetest, most aesthetically perfect punch thrown all evening, is not sufficient to secure victory - largely because Froch is a man with an uncommonly granite chin and an abnormal propensity to absorb punishment.

Those qualities, more than any other, explain why, in retrospect, it now seems so obvious that Froch was always destined to beat Groves, even though Groves landed the best punch of his life right on Froch's unexposed jaw on that shocking and violent November evening.

*                                  *                                  *

Back at Wembley, on the heady evening of 31st May, Groves, on my scorecard anyway, wins the first four rounds. Not everyone is seeing it that way, but for me the precision of his work is a shade superior to Froch's. Those thudding right hands, which we had seen so often in Manchester, are landing with enough regularity to snatch the points, albeit they don't quite appear to possess the same conclusive power as before.

However, from the fifth round onwards, there is a perceptible shift in the balance of power between the two men. Perhaps Groves slows slightly, or perhaps Froch realises that, having taken Groves' best shot already in Manchester and survived, there is now nothing to fear. Whatever the reason, the occasions on which Froch backs Groves up towards the ropes and lets his hands go in a flurry of violent fury are becoming more and more frequent. Although Groves connects with a big left in the seventh round, Froch rides the punch well and by the eighth, on my card, the Nottingham man has narrowed the deficit to just two points.

I am beginning to feel there is a sense of inevitability about the fact that Froch is slowly but inexorably going to overhaul Groves. The most likely result to me now seems a Froch stoppage victory in one of the later rounds, possibly with Groves still on his feet, provoking yet more controversy.

But then it happens.

Froch paws with his left, in response Groves raises his right to safeguard his chin, dropping his left shoulder and exposing the opposite side of his face and vulnerable jaw, whereupon Froch cracks the sweetest of right hands on to the utterly unguarded and unprepared left side of Groves' face. Groves crumples alarmingly, collapsing to the canvas like a marionette whose strings have been cut, his left leg twists horribly and awkwardly underneath the muscled bulk of the rest of his body. As the referee waves the contest off, Groves doesn't appear to be conscious, although he does eventually make a desperate attempt to regain his footing and equilibrium. However, with his legs looking like they are made of soggy spaghetti, it is all in vain.

The fight is over. One punch, this time, was enough. In fact, when you strip away the glitz, the glamour, the £10million in combined purses, the shouts of 80,000 fans, as well as the layers of absurd hype and exaggerated kiddology, the truth is that two punches, ultimately, are all that mattered across these two fights. Two punches with two contrasting effects have created one straightforward in-equation, which will remain, for evermore, a source of pride for Froch, and pain for Groves: Froch could take Groves' best shot, but Groves couldn't take his.

Sometimes, boxing is that simple.

Luke G. Williams

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