Much — some say far too much — is made of mind games in boxing.
On Tuesday, down countless flights of stairs in the luxurious dungeon of The Savoy, a forthcoming world title fight brought together several of the sport’s very sharpest tongues.
While they have in common intelligence, George Groves and Chris Eubank Jr. are markedly different in the way they present themselves.
It was Groves who entered first. Sharply-suited and with closely-cropped ginger hair, the WBA world super-middleweight champion is a 29-year-old who has seen all this — and indeed done it — several times before. Methodically and calmly, he and trainer Shane McGuigan took their seats alongside promoter Kalle Sauerland.
Moments later came the challenger — clad all in white, figure-hugging casual clothes and with three companions. His famous father Chris Eubank Sr., trainer Ronnie Davies and a minder joined him in circumnavigating a legion of journalists. The noise that broke a sudden quiet was Eubank Jr. rubbing his hands together as he stepped up to the stage.
Whether it’s with rolling eyes, pricked ears or a confusing combination of both, people tend not to talk too much when in earshot of the Eubanks. They want to hear what they’re going to say. Sure enough, it was left to Eubank Sr. to declare the press conference open… “Gentlemen! Good afternoon.” Straight on to the front foot came his son. “Fight time. Are you ready, George?”
There are few fighters who have been under such hot glares of psychological scrutiny as Groves has. How much his systematic irritation of Carl Froch contributed to Froch walking on to an early right hand we will never know — but most believe Groves won most if not all of the verbal battles ahead of that classic first bout.
The Londoner certainly came up with the standout quip of Tuesday’s debate. As Eubank Jr. dismissed Groves’ appetite for battle and began a concluding sentence with: “When the going gets tough…”, Groves interjected with: “Are you going to sing now?” Several of the journalists were probably still sniggering as they dusted off long-forgotten Billy Ocean LPs.
There’s been a change in Groves’ demeanour since he first tasted defeat, though. The stoppage in the first bout with Froch was a poor one. That Froch administered a chilling knockout second time around is not a retrospective excuse for the referee’s decision and, regardless, Wembley is — somewhat ironically — a mere footnote in Groves’ evolution.
Eubank Jr. assured Groves: “What Froch did to you that night took something out of you.” Physically, that’s likely. Mentally, too — being put to sleep at a full national stadium with millions more watching at home would have broken weaker spirits. The change in Groves, though, was underway before Froch’s famous right hand landed. It was the opening defeat — however unfair — that was a slight turning point in his attitude.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It simply suggests he came to know how much losing in the ring hurts and would sooner focus on avoiding it than expend energy on relatively pointless skirmishes outside the ropes. He was also feeling — by his own admission — abandoned in the wake of an ill-timed split with trainer Adam Booth.
It’s not to say he became devoid of all the swagger he possessed as an undefeated fighter. He may be more introspective and more cautious in his output now but he remains a sharp talker. He is also still an enthusiastic one; as the bodies began to disperse and with most camera tripods long collapsed, Groves was one of two from the top table still giving interviews.
The other, as some might have guessed, was the force of nature that is Eubank Sr.
There is Tyson Fury. There is Adrien Broner. In fact, there are countless figures in boxing who polarise opinion. None do it quite like Chris Eubank Sr. does it, though.
In the past, there has been his monocle, the cane, the giant truck, the suits with no sleeves. Nowadays — a pair of remarkably pointy and blindingly shiny boots aside — Eubank Sr. attracts attention primarily through the things he says.
The weekend preceding the press conference, Eubank Sr. requested that the referee “look after” Groves because he and the rest of the division are in “clear and present danger” at the hands of his son. Eubank Sr., Eubank Jr. and Groves have all sent opponents into comas, so it came as something of a relief that nobody chose to pursue this line of debate.
Eubank Sr. was, if anything, uncharacteristically restrained at the curtain-raiser. The most controversial he got was to imply McGuigan was ill-equipped to prepare his fighter for success because he is “a PE teacher.” Whether he economised with his salvos because he knows his son is in his first truly competitive fight in years or whether he is pacing himself in order to build crescendo into the pantomime, we don’t yet know.
The apple has certainly not fallen from the tree, in any case. If Eubank Jr. has ever been nervous or doubted himself, he has done an exceptionally good job of hiding it. Undaunted by the fact he is noticeably smaller than Groves and has not faced anyone of his class since his sole career defeat in 2014, he is full of Biblical warnings: “Nothing can outweigh the fire and the heat that will be brought down upon you.”
It’s tough to know who is ice and who is fire in this whole scenario, strangely.
As former sparring partners and men of great pride, there are bound to be some disagreements over the next few months. The truth is, though, this fight is so hard to call, so intriguing, so meaningful, so classy, trash talk might seem incongruous.