Thursday, 20 December 2012

Groves enters world level, but can he claim a world title in 2013?

By Jack Sumner @Jack_Sumner_

In May 2011, George Groves met fellow super-middleweight prospect James DeGale in a grudge British & Commonwealth title clash between unbeaten talents at London’s 02 Arena. With the fight televised on American network EPIX, it was meant to be 1/3 favourite DeGale’s stateside coming out party and springboard onto the world stage.

In the build-up to the fight, Groves – the Commonwealth titleholder – was subjected to some overly personal jibes from the British Champion DeGale, who fully believed his own hype and talked of his superiority regarding ‘levels’ in boxing.

The brash Beijing Olympic Gold Medallist was being lauded for his impressive ninth-round stoppage of Paul Smith, being talked up by trainer Jim McDonnell as ‘a once in a generation fighter’ and being fast-tracked by then promoter Frank Warren towards a world title shot. He had the lion share of the publicity going into the bout, with many feeling that Groves was a stepping stone on DeGale’s route to the top.

Groves would force DeGale to eat his words as it turned out, as it was his career that would springboard off the back of the fight.

‘The Saint’ repeated his victory over DeGale from the amateur ranks, getting the nod from the judges with a tight decision verdict and after joining Frank Warren’s stable has subsequently gone on to prove that he is the real arriver on the British 168lbs scene.

Last weekend, the 24-year-old entered world level by defeating veteran campaigner Glen Johnson unanimously on the scorecards with a near shutout decision, even dropping the iron-chinned ‘Road Warrior’ in the final round en route to scores of 120-107 (twice) and 119-109.

Groves made a huge statement with such an emphatic victory. Despite fast-approaching his 44th birthday and with double-figures in the losses column, Johnson was still a big test of the Londoners’ credentials. It’s only eighteen months since he pushed Carl Froch all the way in the Super Six semi-finals and asked a lot of questions of the three-time world champion before losing a majority decision. He’s been fighting the elite between 160 and 175 ever since challenging Bernard Hopkins for the IBF middleweight title in 1997. Groves threw everything at Johnson to try and get him out of there, but since Hopkins stopped him on his feet in the 11th round fifteen years ago, nobody has come close to stopping him again. Groves also became only the second man to officially send Johnson to the canvas in a 70-fight career.

The heavy-handed youngster from Hammersmith now heads into 2013 with a wealth of big fights on the horizon. Could a world title shot materialise before next year is out? Is Groves ready for a title shot now, or are further tests required beforehand?

Evidenced by the Super Six tournament, for a while now the super-middleweight division has been extremely competitive at the top. The weight-class arguably boasts the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world in Andre Ward, with the tough duo of Froch and Mikkel Kessler immediately in his wake and other names such as Lucian Bute, Arthur Abraham, Robert Stieglitz and the returning Andre Dirrell in the mix. Groves isn’t the only contender on the way up either. Big-punching Canadian Adonis Stevenson and unbeaten hopes Thomas Oosthuizen and Edwin Rodriguez are also on the cusp. Now that former middleweight king Kelly Pavlik has stepped up in weight, the division is getting very congested.

There is of course one guy in that discussion who Groves was scheduled to fight in May of last year. When Robert Stieglitz held the WBO strap, Groves was indeed deemed good enough for a world title shot, however had to withdraw from that bout due to injury. Stieglitz went on to lose his title to Abraham, who made a successful defence by knocking out Medhi Bouadla on the same night that Groves put in his impressive display against Johnson.  

If Groves is to target a world title fight in 2013, Arthur Abraham for the WBO title makes the most sense. Froch and Kessler are expected to announce their rematch to unify the IBF and WBA titles in the spring and if victorious Froch will likely be looking at another rematch either with Bute or Ward towards the end of the year. In the meantime, WBC champion Ward has a February date with Pavlik.

Having both competed last weekend, the timing would be perfect for Groves to challenge Abraham and more to the point, he’s the one champion that Groves would be ready for now. He isn’t prepared for and also hasn’t earned a fight with any of the three big guns. Abraham on the other hand is the weak link.

The German-based Armenian lost three of his four bouts in the Super Six all in lopsided fashion to Dirrell, Froch and Ward. Stieglitz is the best opposition he’s faced since and the two were very competitive, with Abraham taking a narrow unanimous decision.

Stylistically also, Abraham looks like he would be a good match-up. If there’s one weakness that has been exposed in Groves’ career so far it’s that he’s hot-headed under pressure. Kenny Anderson had him in trouble early on and threw George off his game plan and Francisco Sierra dragged Groves into a slugging match and was able to catch him on a number of occasions. Groves came back to stop both of those guys at a lower level, but it’s unlikely Abraham would even put him under that kind of pressure anyway as he’s not a come-forward fighter and has a low workrate. He also struggled greatly to deal with counter-punchers in Dirrell and Ward, and Groves is a decent counter-puncher.

There is however no rush. Warren came out after the Johnson fight and said he expected Groves to challenge for a world title in 2013. But he’s only a 24-year-old with 16 professional fights and there’s certainly not a shortage of decent tests in the division, whether they’re fellow unbeaten contenders or even the guys who haven’t quite made it at the top level and are on the way back down, perhaps the Brian Magees of this world.

Then we go back to James DeGale. He was last seen outpointing Fulgencio Zuniga a week before Groves once again upstaged him by beating Johnson, and has now announced he will relinquish his European belt to pursue world honours under the dubious header of WBC ‘Silver’ champion.

Given the relative opposition they’ve faced, it would be unjust if DeGale received a world title shot before Groves but that’s also his stated aim for the coming year and he could possibly manoeuvre himself into contention. Groves has been operating on a higher level than DeGale since their domestic meeting, but the Harlesden man has been riding his coat tails along the way and because we know that they are destined to meet again at some stage, he’s never that far behind.

Could it happen again in 2013? For a world title even? If Groves gets a shot at Abraham and beats him he shouldget a voluntary defence. So why not?

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