GEORGE GROVES: FROM CHAMPIONSHIPS TO RETIREMENT AND A NEW START
BY RICHARD PRESCOTT
I first met George Groves through a colleague during my time working at the Rugby Football Union. Roy Headey ran a lot of the Sports Science work at the RFU and he had arranged for George to get some free gym time at the stadium. George was very approachable and easy to talk to. Over the following years Roy and I followed his professional career along his pathway from Commonwealth, British and European and including his career highlight WBA super-middleweight championship win against Fedor Chudinov in 2017.
When George announced his retirement from boxing, at just 30 years old in 2019, and because of his relatively young age in boxing terms, I was intrigued to know what his next steps would be as he faced a very long retirement. How would he keep himself busy, earn a living and live his life?
Some boxers can struggle both mentally and financially when they retire, and many have come back to fight again only to find themselves in a similar situation in a few short years or sometimes months later. So how has George handled walking away from the ring and what advice would he give other boxers who might not have put a ‘Plan B’ in place?
Before we got to George’s retirement from boxing, I wanted to re-trace the journey with him that took him to a World title.
STARTING OUT AND INSPIRATION
“I started Kickboxing when I was seven. No one else in my family had boxed and no one in my class boxed but I watched Rocky III and IV and they coincided with Nigel Benn fighting. His head band with ‘No Fear’ written on it and the way he fought really inspired me, so my dad took me to kickboxing for the first time at the Dale Youth Boxing Club in London. It was my local boxing gym. The gym really bred success. The kickboxers fought on the pro circuit and I got to ring walk at the York Hall and the Clapham Grand. I thought I was Prince Naseem! I enjoyed kickboxing but I really wanted to box.”
THE PATHWAY TO SUCCESS
“From seven years of age I thought I could make it and become a World Champion but as you get older a little bit of reasoning hits you! I fought for and won the Commonwealth Title in my 9th fight against Charles Adamu, and I felt that I was progressing. I then fought James DeGale a year or so later, which showed how much that I’d progressed, but also how much boxing had progressed as a sport. It was a domestic fight, but it was on Pay-Per-View and the 02 was a sell-out.
“It was a great fight for me. I’d beaten James in the amateurs and we sparred thousands of rounds together. Beating him again as a professional was another big win for me. He was a very good fighter and the only boxer to win a gold for Team GB in the Beijing Olympics. Fortunately, we caught the public’s imagination. We both did ‘Ringside’ on Sky to promote the fight, which got very good ratings.”
MENTAL PREPARATION AND GETTING AN EDGE AT PRESS CONFERENCES AND WEIGH-INS
“The weigh-ins for fights are always important and it was no different when I fought James. It’s all about belief at that point. You’ll rarely meet a fighter who said he hasn’t won it at the weigh-in! I also used the press conferences as an opportunity to remind James that I beat him in the amateurs. I trained in Miami and I was sponsored by the Park Plaza. It sounds great but it was lonely, even with my family just down the road.
“The press conferences and the weigh-ins are a performance. I would prepare for all outcomes and the mental side of the game is just as important as the physical side. I always prepared. I wore a suit with a lairy tie. I was in my early 20’s so I could get away with it! I knew that if James made a comment about my tie, which he did, then I’d won the mental battle! In my second fight with Carl Froch, I knew the best way to upset Carl was not to listen to him when he spoke!
“Carl had a tendency to go on a bit but he’s very intelligent. I decided to play with a Rubik’s cube while Carl talked, and it worked! Once you learn the algorithm for the Rubik cube it’s not that hard. I managed to get it down to two and a half minutes. I knew Carl would talk about his life story and with all the cameras clicking away I managed to finish the Rubik’s Cube, just as Carl finished speaking, and I then said, “Sorry what was that you were saying, Carl!”
ARRIVING ON THE WORLD STAGE
“When we sold 60,000 tickets in under an hour at Wembley for the second fight against Carl, I felt that I’d arrived. My neck wasn’t on the line with the ticket sales. I was pushing for a stadium. Carl had his own promoters but I was on my own, so I wanted to bluff my way to a better deal. Before the fight, I invested some money, and I took myself, my lawyer and trainer to New Jersey to get re-instated as the mandatory challenger.
“I knew he wouldn’t back out and to Carl’s credit, he’s not that kind of guy, and he didn’t. I heard that they could have sold out Wembley several times over and it’s a humbling feeling that so many people were invested in your title shot and the re-match.
“The fight was pretty even but one punch from Carl finished it. I do talks now about unwavering self-confidence and resilience. Both feed into the other and you need both to succeed. You need seven traits to help you get there. I was asked after the fight if I felt that I’d hit rock bottom but that came later against Badou Jack when I fought again for the world title.
“This time I was on the undercard in Las Vegas, and it felt like a fall from grace. I thought I’d won it but it was a new rock bottom for me. You’d think you’d never be lower than Wembley, but this was a new low for me. I felt that, apart from my family and some fans, no one really cared. At this point, it was where trait number seven kicks in, “be willing to start over.
“After some soul searching my question changed from ‘what’s life like after boxing’ to ‘what’s my life instead of boxing’ and that was a tough question. I didn’t have an answer at that stage for a Plan B.
“I decided to start over and re-build. I won my next three fights and became a mandatory challenger again. It was a strange period for me as I also became a father for the first time. I then fought Eddie Gutknecht who had three kids himself. Eddie got severely hurt and he was never the same again.
“Throughout my career, I asked myself ‘what’s my exit strategy’ but now I’m thinking part of me doesn’t want to do this anymore, but I couldn’t leave boxing without becoming world champion.”
“I knew that the fight against Fedor Chudinov for the WBA title was the last chance saloon. Boxing is semi-unique. You’ve got to be physically fit as well as mentally strong, but you also need a lot of emotional strength. You’re playing with a calorie deficient diet, and you have the chance of hurting someone and they you. At 20 I didn’t care too much but at 28 I did, as by then I had a family and I was now thinking of my exit strategy from the ring.
“Before Chudinov I’d also signed up to the World Boxing Super Series. Immediately after beating Chudinov the journey that began as a seven-year-old, the wins, the disappointments, and my whole career hit me at the post-fight interview. Although my jaw was broken the weight was off my shoulders. It was the first time I’d really let my guard down because of Eddie, being a father and now a world champion.
“During that journey, some people decide that they might not like you. Your family have to defend you and bear the brunt of it, but as I’ve said before a lot of the pre-fight is a performance and a mindset. For my fight against Chris Eubank Jnr, in the semi-final, I told him ‘You used to be my sparring partner, I used to pay you £500 a week!
“I dislocated my shoulder in the semi against Chris. I had the best surgeon who put it back together, but he said I’d lose a bit of range. Ben Carraway in London helped me rehab it. Ideally, I needed 12 months before I fought Callum Smith, but I only had three. After I lost it only took a few months before I decided to retire.”
NEXT STEPS AND A NEW CAREER
“I was very interested in public speaking, and I liked certain aspects of motivational speaking. I’m not fully trained in that respect but I’m using my unique selling points; that I’ve headlined at Wembley, fought around the world and won a World Title.
“I still had my manager’s licence and the TV work started to come in and I really enjoy it. I went to the premiere of Steven Gerrard’s documentary, when he wasn’t coaching, and asked him if he enjoyed the work with Sky. He said he loved it as he could give his opinion and walk away, although he now seems to be doing well as a Coach. I’m also really enjoying the talking tour with Carl Froch. The second part of that starts in September.”
ADVICE FOR UP-AND-COMING BOXERS
“Put in place some building blocks and have a Plan B. Everyone’s different. I know that it’s always difficult to plan ahead and think about being good at something else, especially when you invest so much time in boxing to be the best that you can be. Jamie Moore, for example, is now a successful coach and Frank Buglioni works in the family business.
“In my early 20’s I tried to keep a few things separate from boxing. I’d advise any boxer to get a good accountant, one who isn’t affiliated to anyone else, and when you need one, get a good lawyer. I always say that you need to ‘build strong walls to make good neighbours!
“Most importantly of all, figure out what you’ll need out of boxing to make yourself happy. I always encourage people not to aim for the ceilings but aim for the stars and push beyond it. I’ve worked hard but I’m one of the lucky 1% of boxers who have won a world title and earned enough out of it so I can focus on something else.”
“I knew it was time for me to retire when I was rehabilitating my shoulder. I’d just had a second child between the Eubank and Smith fights, the in-laws were living with us, cooking for us and walking the dog. I knew my days were numbered before my last fight, but I left the sport happy because of all things I’ve got right now.
“It could have been better but also a lot worse. I could have won at Wembley or won the WBSS but who knows what would have happened, but I wouldn’t roll the dice on any of those for what I’ve got now.
“My final words of advice are to have an exit strategy and to stick to that, win, lose or draw. It’s so tempting to go back. My young family brings me a lot of joy but it’s also challenging to answer questions from my six-year-old, who when I ask him what he would like to do, replies that he wants to do what I do. What do you think I do? I ask him and he says, ‘you go to the gym sometimes and walk the dog!!”
So more than ten years after first meeting George, has he changed? The short answer is no. George arrived early for the interview and we had agreed on a slot of 30-40 minutes. We chatted for much longer than that. He kindly said he’d enjoyed the interview, thanked me and the hotel reception staff who had looked after us, and left.
As George said to me during the interview, his persona in the ring was one thing and something he had to create and adapt at times, depending on his opponent. Outside of it, he is a humble person who speaks animatedly about his life and his family and who is, quite rightly, proud of what he achieved in the ring, and now also what’s he’s now achieving outside of it.
He timed his exit from boxing perfectly and he has clearly reached a sense of contentment through the good place he is in now with his family and his new career.
George Groves and Carl Froch start the second part of their Q&A tour on September 29th in Nottingham.