When the referee stepped in and grabbed George Groves, handing Carl Froch a 9th round TKO victory, many boxing fans were outraged at what they perceived to be an early stoppage. But HBO Boxing Insider Nat Gottlieb has a different take on how things went down.
The headlines in the aftermath of Carl Froch's 9th round TKO of George Groves last November all said virtually the same thing: "Froch Beats Groves with Controversial Stoppage." But was it really a premature stoppage? What if there were several clear signs leading up to the 9th round that would indicate the ref actually did the right thing? And if this is so, what does it mean for the much-anticipated rematch of these two boxers on May 31 on Boxing After Dark before an expected British record crowd of 80,000 in Wembley Stadium in London?
First, let's set the stage for the "controversy."
By his own admission, Froch went into the first fight against Groves with the wrong mindset. One reason, he says, was because he was facing a fighter who, while unbeaten in 19 fights, had never fought anyone remotely of note. "What went wrong for me in the last fight was it was difficult for me to bring my A-game," Froch says. "It's difficult to fight somebody who's not boxed anyone in the top 15, and when everybody is saying it was a mismatch. After a while you start listening to it. Mentally last time, I was not at the races. I'm not going to make the same mistake again."
A second reason Froch's mind wasn't properly focused may have been because of the constant taunting Groves did of the champion in pre-fight comments. "In the first fight build-up," Froch says, "George Groves was very disrespectful and said a lot of things that irritated me. He got under my skin. So when I boxed, my game plan went out the window. I was trying to hit him hard from round one, which is always bad."
And indeed it was. The 36-year-old Froch's defense in the first round was sloppy at best as he came out of his corner looking to land bombs to punish the challenger. The 26-year-old Groves (19-1, 15 KOs) was only too happy to exploit this mistake by Froch. Groves knocked the defending champion down with a blistering right hand in the first round, and in the process colored the course of the early rounds. Froch (32-2, 23 KOs) got right back up, but his legs were wobbly and he was staggering a bit. Although he managed to survive the round, the usually aggressive, forward-charging Froch fought (and probably lost) the next four rounds in a cautious style ill-suited for him. "It was a hurtful shot," Froch says of the knockdown blow, "a wonderfully timed shot by George."
If you could take a perfect snapshot of rounds two through five, it'd look like this: the awkward-styled Groves, with his terrific hand speed, is fighting out of a half crouch, holding his left hand very low and his powerful right cocked liked a hammer by the side of his head. That low left hand must have looked oh-so tempting to Froch to fire a hard right over it. But the champion sees that cocked right hand. The same right hand that put him on his butt in the opening round. And he seems to fear that if he steps forward, Groves will catch him coming in with another right-handed missile.
Another intriguing snapshot: as the bell rings at the end of a dominant 4th round for Groves, he looks right at Froch and smiles. Yes, he smiles with disdain at a longstanding and proud champion. Four rounds later, when the bell would sound, Groves would look again at Froch. This time he wouldn't be smiling.
The reason why? Starting in the 6th round, Froch appears to have caught a second wind and cleared the cobwebs from his head. Although Groves catches him with several good shots, the champion isn't affected at all. As Froch starts to put his combos together and connects, Groves seems to be breathing hard, his legs a little wobbly. Is Groves, who'd only gone beyond six rounds three times before, beginning to tire?
More evidence of Groves' deterioration comes in the 7th round. When Froch catches Groves flush on the chin, the challenger seems stunned and hurt for the first time. Then, in the closing seconds of the round, Froch has Groves near a corner of the ring and unleashes a powerful, four-punch combo just as the bell sounds. When they separate, Groves staggers back a few steps and leans hard on the ropes, perhaps trying to get his balance.
For those who think the 9th round stoppage was premature, consider what transpired in the 8th. Growing increasingly aggressive, Froch connects numerous times with clean shots to the head. Groves' once fast hands no longer look fast and his legs are well south of steady. Barely letting his hands go you have to wonder if Groves is tiring even more.
And then the fateful 9th. With just under two minutes left in the round, Groves calls on some reserve of energy and connects hard with four or five shots. If those shots hurt Froch, he sure doesn't show it. That flurry of punches by Groves seems to have cost him what was left of his petrol reserve. Seeing Groves covering up, Froch senses this and moves forward firing shots. He pins Groves up against the ropes and keeps pounding away.
Here is where the controversy sets in: still pinned at the ropes, Groves suddenly pushes forward and fires a four-punch combo that connects, although with little effect. The immediate perception is if Groves is still fighting, the bout should be allowed to continue. But referee Howard Foster disagrees. He separates the two warriors, then gets Groves in a bear hug and waves off the fight, instantly triggering a thunderous roar of boos.
At first glance, it certainly does seem like an early stoppage. But after numerous replays of those dramatic final seconds there are clear signs that the ref's decision was the right one. Consider: when Foster grabs Groves and stops the fight, the challenger's chin immediately drops to his chest. And when the ref lets go of him, Groves staggers backwards, his head still down. Seconds later, the ref goes over to talk to Groves, who is so obviously weary that he bends in a crouch while he listens and then staggers back against the ropes.
In the post fight interview in the ring, with boos cascading down from the initially pro-Froch crowd, the champion says: "It was a fair stoppage. I hit him at the end with two clean shots and could have hit him with more. I was hitting him with free shots, and his head was looking at the floor. The referee was right there, six inches from us. The referee has to protect the fighter. He can't let me have a free hand because it is dangerous."
Which brings us to the rematch and raises new questions: what if Froch hadn't been so overconfident? What if he didn't come out in the first round with sloppy defense and hadn't gotten himself knocked down and hurt? Take away that, if Froch was able to fight the early rounds the way he did in the later rounds, could Groves have held off the hard-punching champion? And did the beating Froch laid on Groves that night take the young challenger's heart? Groves says emphatically no. "The first fight we went in believing (we could win). Now we go in knowing." Regardless of the controversy, one undeniable fact was that the first fight was a helluva good one. Stay tuned for the second.