By Frankie Mines
When the World Boxing Super Series was first announced, and the entrants in both weights set in stone, I made two predictions: Oleksandr Usyk and Callum Smith to clean up. Whilst the former wasn’t exactly a wild forecast, the latter raised eyebrows, and looking back I’ve already begun to doubt it myself.
The fighters have led different paths in the build-up to this final, not just within the tournament, but their overall careers. Smith remains unbeaten in 24 bouts (17 Kos), whilst Groves has 3 blemishes on his record, two of which came most famously at the hands of Carl Froch, and the other a nasty split-decision against Badou Jack in Vegas. If experience was to play a part on Friday night, Groves has the upper hand.
After his fight with Andre Dirrell collapsed due to location issues, Smith joined the WBSS as the number two seed, and the WBC offered up their Diamond belt as a prize for its quarterfinalist. Smith chose to match up against 26-0 Erik Skoglund, and the fight was set for Liverpool in early September, with the hometown fighter putting in an impressive shift, dropping Skoglund in the 11th round on the way to a unanimous decision.
Despite his teams’ best efforts to fight literally anywhere other than Germany, with Dublin and Monte Carlo eventually flouted as possible semi-final destinations, Smith was travelling to Nuremberg to take on the experienced and vastly resected Jurgen Brahmer who’d overcome Rob Brant in another of the quarters. Just four days before the fight, Brahmer pulled out having failed to overcome an illness in the week leading toward the fight – 14-0 Dutchman Nieky Holzken stood in instead.
Whilst the cards ultimately ended up wide, Smith didn’t have things his own way the entire time, with Holzken (a former kickboxing world champion) backing him onto the ropes a couple of times, particularly late in the 12th. In reality, however, it was a fairly pedestrian win for Smith, who’s jab and overhand right combos landed effectively to secure his place in the final. Groves entered the ring for an interview and final stare down, having booked his place a week earlier.
George Groves career up to now has been an unstable but fixating mixture of disappointment, heroism, frustration, and eventually, glory. At domestic level, he captured the nation’s attention with wins over bitter rival James DeGale, his next opponent’s brother Paul, and the veteran Glen Johnson before the Carl Froch saga put him on the world stage. Gunning for Froch’s WBA and IBF world titles, the first fight will always be a memorable affair when discussing the great British domestic fights of the post Benn-Eubank era – firstly for that punch from Groves to drop Froch, mocking Froch’s sneering “you don’t deserve to be here” arrogance – secondly for Howard Foster’s stoppage of the fight, still one of the biggest boxing controversies of the decade.
After coming up short in both Froch fights, and then losing out on a world title for the third time in a gut-wrenching split decision, Groves was at a difficult stage. Stripping his team back and bringing in Shane McGuigan as his new coach, Groves fought middle-of-the-road opposition until he reached Martin Murray, where further questions about his conditioning and ability to go the distance were raised.
On his 4th attempt for a world title, Groves knocked out Fedor Chudinov on the undercard for Kell Brook vs Errol Spence, breaking his jaw in the process. It was a fine sight for fans of George who’d seen him come so close, and on the night Groves had looked a different fighter to the one who’s average performances just a few fights before had the country questioning whether he was ever going to make it.
The first entrant at Super Middleweight, Groves brought his WBA title to the table when he handpicked unbeaten Londoner Jamie Cox as his Quarter Final opposition. Groves had labelled Cox as the “easiest” of the available fighters, and was surely regretting his choice of words in the first 3 rounds of their Wembley fight as Cox came out ready to trade, throwing caution to the wind, before taking a nasty peach of a body shot in the 4th, from which he was unable to respond. Another domestic showdown was set in place: Groves would face Chris Eubank Jnr in the Semis.
The build-up for Groves Eubank was as good as any I remember for two British fighters for a while. It was exciting, it captured interest from many spectators normally resigned to the big world title fights, and tickets disappeared within seven minutes of going on sale. The stage was set for Manchester Arena during a cold night in November, and whilst Eubank had amassed an army of new followers and supporters in the time leading up to the fight, his profile at an all-time high (unlikely to be built on any time soon), he simply did not deliver on the night. It wasn’t easy by any means for Groves, and a cagey, often dirty fight resulted in a dislocated shoulder in the 12th, but importantly he dug-in where needed and got the unanimous vote from the judges.
So that’s how we arrived here. Where exactly is here? Saudi Arabia – the King Abdullah Sports City stadium to be exact. Host of Saudi football games, and more recently a star-studded WWE event, it is disappointing that British fight fans won’t get the opportunity to experience such a massive world tournament final on home soil. But with injuries and other setbacks, most of us just want the fight to happen now, and this Friday either George Groves or Callum Smith will walk away as the WBA Super world champion and the WBC diamond champion (David Benavidez currently holds the main title).
If Groves’ shoulder holds out, and he utilises his main strengths as well as he has done since becoming world champion, I feel my original prediction could fall flat. In any case, Smith won’t be relying on such luck and will likely seek to end things early. Groves can open up and walk into big shots, especially when feeling frustrated and that’s the sort of chance Smith should be preying on.
This should play out as a chess match rather than a shoot-out. My boxing head still says Smith. My boxing heart hopes for Groves – the WBSS should be commended for giving us such situations to fantasise over.