Almost four years ago, a confident George Groves stood upon the upper deck of a bus, peering over a packed Wembley Stadium. It was the biggest fight British boxing had seen in years and 80,000 people watched on as ‘Saint George’ looked to finish the job he felt he’d started six months earlier. His opponent of course was Carl Froch, the man he’d floored so emphatically in that famous first encounter, before being controversially stopped by an overly eager referee. Groves’ performance prior to that underwhelming climax was a great one but now it was all about winning and in doing so, securing the IBF and WBA titles.
As is now etched in history though, it wasn't meant to be for Groves as he was instead finished by an emphatic right hand in the 8th round. There was credit owed to Groves for how far he’d so quickly come, rapidly changing his public perception from overmatched contender to people’s champion almost overnight. That shift had been pivotal in making the rematch so successful but now the dust had settled, Groves left the ring as the sequel’s undebatable loser and would have to rebuild in order to continue his publicized world title quest.
One week later, Chris Eubank Jr extended his undefeated streak with another win over relatively limited opposition. From a performance perspective, Eubank had continued to show progress but the public now wanted to see how he’d fare at a higher level as frankly, questions still very much remained over his legitimate ability. The boxing public is wise enough to know that looking flashy against unheralded foes is one thing but performing on a world stage is a whole other and it was now time for Eubank to try his hand at making that huge upward step.
After months of speculation and some interesting negotiations, Eubank Jr would agree to a major domestic clash with then European champion Billy Joe Saunders and while some would debate its relevance on the world stage, those in the know were very much aware of the threat Saunders posed. A heated build-up then commenced as the British public looked to find out Jr’s worth against a man with real ambitions of his own. World title or not, this fight had captured people’s imagination and quickly evolved into a real event.
The fight itself would prove to be an interesting one as Eubank’s lack of output early left him desperately trying to claw back a deficit in the later rounds. He’d win the majority of them too but in the end it wasn't enough as Saunders came out the split decision winner. Eubank certainly hadn't disgraced himself but at the top level, his skill level was still very much up for debate. In the meantime Groves had returned elsewhere, scoring two wins before 2014’s close.
Just like ‘Saint George,’ Eubank also quickly returned to the win column as he stopped Dmitrii Chudinov in a quite violent affair that really highlighted his ability to dominate more aggressive fighters, a trait that’d become increasingly clear in the coming fights. Though he’d impressively come back less than three months after suffering his first loss, Eubank’s 2015 would be quickly stalled by promotional roadblocks before he opted to sign with leading promoter Eddie Hearn and seemed set to regain any lost momentum.
Groves wasn’t very active in 2015 either but his one fight would be a pivotal one as he challenged Badou Jack for the WBC crown. It seemed that after all his ups and downs, Groves would finally secure a world title but on fight night, he’d once again fall just short. Jack is a quality operator and Groves pushed him all the way but he just couldn't quite secure enough rounds to take a decision win. It was a hurtful setback for George, who would now have to reset once more in his climbing of this seemingly massive Super Middleweight Mountain.
Whilst Groves had been unable to win a world title inside the ropes, controversy surrounded Eubank’s inability to fight for one. After calling out Middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin on multiple occasions, a stall in contract negotiations cost Eubank the opportunity and suddenly his professional relationship with Hearn was rendered non-existent. Though the history their fathers shared made for a great story, Team Eubank struggled to work alongside Hearn and whilst the partnership had brought Jr some decent in-ring wins, it had ultimately led to nothing and once again, Eubank now needed another fresh start.
On the other hand, Groves’ 2016 had brought him far less headlines but four victories nonetheless. Solid triumphs over fringe contenders had steadied the ‘Saint’s ship and it was now time for one more world title challenge. In Eubank’s mind, it was that time for him too as he challenged for the much less reputable IBO Super Middleweight title, beating Renold Quinlan on a brand new broadcaster that had quickly committed to his brand. It was a fight Eubank entered as a large favorite and one he understandably earned little acclaim by winning but a few months later, Groves entered the ring in a must-win position.
Fighting Fedor Chudinov for the WBA title, Groves overcame some troublesome moments to eventually unleash a vicious flurry that brought a relieving referee stoppage. After some heart-breaking disappointment on the grand stage, Groves was finally world champion after a dramatic affair very fitting for a career as up and down as his had been. Now proudly one of his division’s major champions, Groves signed up for the World Boxing Super Series tournament and after one more win, Eubank joined him too.
Now fast forward just over six months later and both men find themselves opposite each other in the tournament’s semi-final. In what felt like a performance very indicative of his development, Eubank battered Avni Yildirim in the quarter final and one week later, Groves stopped Jamie Cox to make the always likely domestic clash a confirmed reality. Even if admittedly for different reasons, Eubank and Groves are two of British boxing’s most visible stars and their own personal conflict only adds another layer of intrigue. What makes this fight really captivating though is the range of questions that still surround both men.
George Groves has had a very good career but after six straight wins, the public wants to see if he can truly vanquish a foe they recognize as a genuine threat. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a very real argument to be made that based on merit, Groves has beaten better than Eubank but to the general fan, this is a chance for the WBA champ to win with Britain’s brightest boxing lights shining on him. Rightly or wrongly, that 2nd Froch defeat will likely always define George and there’s nothing wrong with that but an emphatic win over Eubank would go a long way to confirming his genuine credentials at the top level.
By comparison though, Eubank has much more to prove. Though he’s the smaller man fighting a world class rival, Jr has pressure on his side simply due to the constant cynicism that has forever surrounded his career. He needs to prove he can beat a truly skilled performer and silence some of the lingering doubts understandably formed in his solitary defeat. Perhaps even more than that though, Eubank needs to take the step that his father once made all those years ago. The famed perception shift from flashy ‘pretender’ to valiant, defiant and unbreakable champion.
Truth is, this is a clash of two very talented fighters with their own unique strengths and weaknesses. I absolutely don’t see a loss here as the end for either but to the general fan that has followed both men from a far, only one can truly conquer their current critiques.