SOPHIE GROVES enters the ballroom at the Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington, approaches her husband George, and is warmly greeted by Carl Froch making a beeline towards her in the fashion of someone reacquainting themselves with an old friend. “Who’s got the kids?” he asks.
The two retired fighters had arrived together with Carl’s older brother Lee, having met earlier in the day to record Groves’ podcast, and had already vented about Matt Hancock’s lucrative venture into reality TV by the time she had joined them. She and Lee are similarly friendly; so much so it seems unlikely Lee would have attempted to pull his brother’s underwear down as he had minutes earlier if she had been by her husband’s side when he did.
The unlikeliest of groups have been reunited for the seventh of eight dates of the second iteration of An Evening With Carl Froch and George Groves, and Sophie has showed up just in time to hear the two brothers indulge in a conspiracy theory and then Froch recommend to Boxing News, via Spotify, David Brent’s album Life on the Road, a Netflix documentary, and then revisit a scene from one of his “favourite films”, Liar, Liar.
When Froch and Groves make their way to the colorama in preparation for the arrival of those who have bought a ticket to see them speak and have their photo taken with them, Lee starts to tell Sophie about his hard-earned sobriety. While they wait the one-time bitterest of rivals remain occupied by their effortless repartee, and their two guests make their way to the table they will join them at once they have finished posing, for those photos, either side of the ticket holders who will gradually fill the other tables and seats.
Clearly, the one-time super middleweights enjoy each other’s company. Between smiling for the camera they continue to talk, by which point Sophie and Lee have discussed the fact she and her childhood sweetheart met aged two, started dating as teenagers, separated, reunited, and had been together ever since. “I like the way [Froch and Groves] talk about each other,” she tells BN, having previously only ever witnessed anger and resentment. “They get on really well.”
“He got in Carl’s head,” adds Lee, before also explaining how much Froch admired Groves’ persistence in continuing to pursue the world title that for so long had eluded him. “Psychologically done him, George. Ringside that time, Carl was fuming.” He then speculates about them having a friendly exhibition. “They’d have to have an argument on stage,” he says.“George still believes he’d win a third fight,” Sophie replies.
Caleb Plant comes up in conversation with a ticket holder who asked for a photo with Lee, who also then tells him about his previous addictions to alcohol and gambling. Even when there are none left queuing for photos with the retired world champions – among them have been children too young to remember even their rematch; one enthusiastically shadow-boxed after his turn had come – Froch and Groves stay put until they can be certain there won’t be later arrivals.
“George can come to me for Christmas,” Froch replies when asked about their rapport, and having overheard him, the 34-year-old Groves assists him by adding: “At his big house in the country.”
When Adam Leventhal, in his role as compere, takes to the stage and microphone and introduces first the two fighters, and then the unsuspecting Sophie and Lee, the round of applause that follows Sophie’s introduction is met by her laughing through the words “Fuckin’ hell”, and “How embarrassing”.
Groves’ introduction was met most enthusiastically of all by the cheering and whistling Lee, whose mannerisms are identical to those of his brother, and, on stage, the unlikely duo look and sound at ease despite having to talk to an audience about the very person they are sat alongside, often as though that person is not there.
While they do so the evening’s promoter, Dean McGuinness of Macmaker, brings some photos of their thrilling first fight to Lee to get signed. Lee’s instincts, as the older sibling, similarly extend to Groves.
Having joined the same table at the conclusion of their extended introductions, Froch, no less dry, but charming in a way he never was given the intensity he exuded while he fought, asks his brother, “Can you sign? I can’t be arsed”. Anticipating the arrival of food he proceeds to tell BN: “I went vegetarian for a year. It was more vegan. You feel healthy at first, and then you feel shit. Bloated.”
“Are we doing a 10km run?” the 45-year-old asks his older brother of their plans for the following morning, when they will run three miles, swim for a mile in open water, and then run for a further three miles. “I’m into cold water therapy,” he tells BN, before proceeding to steal one of the potatoes from the untroubled Groves’ plate while he waits for his own dinner to be served. “I only have cold showers. I’ve been doing it for two years.”
If the opinionated Froch is the alpha male, he is unchallenged because Groves is not only equally comfortable in his own skin, but because he is equally cynical. The benefit of hindsight even makes it obvious that, in retirement, they would gel.
“What’s the veggie option?” Froch asks his brother. “That chicken’s processed.” After Lee makes sure he gets the pasta alternative for him, he’s told, having asked how it is, “It’s shite”, and immediately offers to get him the chicken.
“Guy out there face-planted the mirror,” Froch recalls, barely smiling, and taking a sip of the Guinness he, like Groves, is drinking. “Did he not think, ‘I recognise that geezer there’?” Helping himself to Groves’ last potato, he expects more of a reaction, but Groves, talking to his wife and their two friends, only responds by taking the last shell of Froch’s pasta as though doing so is the most natural thing in the world.
While Froch asks the waiter if he can, after all, have some of the chicken, his brother notices water has been spilt on the photos he was halfway through getting signed, and therefore attempts to keep the evening running to schedule by trying his best to dry and preserve them. Froch again mentions the lamentable Hancock, and this time about how “People couldn’t visit dying relatives or attend funerals, and they [the Tory party] just carried on doing whatever they wanted.
“If you fuck up in business you’re held accountable,” he continued. “Look who they gave millions of PPE contracts to – their friends. It’s an insult. Remember when he was crying? He’s a prick.”
By the time he has also spoken of how much he’d like to be a guest on Russell Brand’s podcast, Froch’s attention returns to Groves, first via drawing a moustache on another of the photos Lee has asked him to sign, and then when asking: “You got that snide watch on?” “Yeah, from Turkey,” he’s told.
He and his brother are equally unimpressed by their deserts. “I feel guilty,” he says. Whether he’s aware Groves has finished his is unclear. “I feel shit. We’ll have to sweat it out.” Offered a drink, he says to BN: “Tap water? No thanks. The fluoride calcifies your pineal gland.
“I’ve got a reverse osmosis system at home, for all of the water I drink and wash in. I take pride in looking after myself. Your body’s your vessel for life. That’s what I liked about Mikkel Kessler – he’s like me. An athlete. I used to admire Naseem Hamed. [But] he’s a fat mess. When I met him I felt let down. I felt myself judging him, which is bad.”
By the time the auction has resumed, prompting Groves to tell Froch of McGuinness, “He’s done alright tonight, ‘int he?”, Groves and Lee have spoken about the Eubanks and Chris Snr’s unsettling recent interview, and Froch, who spoke of placing £1,000 on Andy Ruiz to beat Anthony Joshua in their first fight in New York, has also said: “[Wife] Rachael’s my soul mate, whatever that means, and we’ve got three kids. This is the longest I’ve been away from them. Fucking hell, I’m not criticising Eddie Hearn, but he works so much.”
Perhaps tellingly, Froch then responds to the auction of a glove signed by Joe Calzaghe with mock laughter, insisting “He lost to Robin Reid”, and it eventually being bought for £600 with “Chucking money away. Sucker. He’s had his pants down”. Talking to BN, he explains: “It’s where [McGuinness] makes his money.”
“I really can’t be arsed with this,” he adds, aware he and Groves, the more natural showman, are about to be summoned back on stage to talk about their two fights. “I can’t be bothered.”
“When they talk about the knockout I get a bit…” says Sophie. To have spent time around her husband while he remained an active fighter is to know he is again about to prove an engaging and entertaining talker. To have listened to Froch just moments earlier is to wonder if he is about to struggle to do the same, and yet he is instead revealingly honest, and often self-deprecating.
“I had a lot of respect for George going in [to our first fight],” Froch says, back on a stool on stage, with a microphone in hand, where he and his one-time rival have already been for over 10 minutes. “[But] I started to believe it myself – that this was an easy fight.
“But when I walked to the ring that night in Manchester, the demons came in; the questions started coming in. ‘You’ve not done the sparring. You’ve not done the runs you should have done.’ It’s a lonely place, that boxing ring, when you’re questioning and doubting yourself. I got woken up, just after I got put to sleep by George. My head hit the canvas, and it woke me up, and that was the kick up the arse I needed, as stupid as that sounds.”
“I’d split from my long-term trainer Adam Booth,” continues Groves with a schoolboy’s mischief that often extends to him openly giggling, having paused to look blankly at Froch after being interrupted by him saying, “Here he goes”.
“Some people thought he was The Dark Lord; The Messiah; The Greatest Trainer Of All Time. But our relationship had run its course. I didn’t trust him as far as I could throw him, so he wouldn’t have been the right man for me on the night, because it’d got to that point where if he’d said, ‘Hit him with a right hand’, I’d have gone, ‘Nah, what’s in it for you?’ ‘You’ll knock him out with the right hand.’ ‘What if I don’t knock him out with the right hand? It might be better for me.’”
Froch uses his phone to play mock sorrowful music into the microphone when Groves is revisiting the injustice of the controversial stoppage by the referee Howard Foster Jnr, prompting a laugh from Sophie, who then produces a melancholic smile when her husband continues to speak. “The last thing I wanted to do was shake Carl’s hand,” continues Groves, revealing admirable clarity at what was then the most emotional and testing moment of his career. “I want to scream at everyone, but I can’t. That was the worst bit – I thought I could relax and switch off, basically stop being an arsehole, once I’ve beat Carl. But I couldn’t. The performance has to stay.
“Sit down, edge of the ring. You’re fake – I’m detached from it. I don’t show emotion – I didn’t show vulnerability until I won a world title.
“All I’ve got on my side is the momentum swing where everyone’s, ‘What the f**k?’, so I’ve got to try and use that. ‘I’ve got to show enough vulnerability so that people still like me, but still ram it down people’s throats that [the stoppage] is complete bollocks. Paranoia with everyone, but don’t point the finger at everyone, just in case they stitch me up and freeze me out.’”
“That’s a new insight for me,” Froch responds. “He played his part; played his role, from what he just said there. I got coins thrown at me; people spitting in my face. I was getting abused; I got ushered out of the ring; booed. I was the villain. They fucking hated me. A couple of people tried to get hold of me; I weren’t worried but I didn’t take my gloves off, so I could a least fight back [if necessary], because you don’t want to be bare-knuckle. It was really hostile. That’s why, after the fight, I thought to myself, ‘This has got to happen again’.”
Continuing to relish playing to the gallery in front of him, as the subject evolves the self-aware Groves makes a point of describing, with a wry smile – and is met with hearty cheers and applause when he does so – one influential promoter as a “Big slimy c**t”. When the subject returns to their rivalry, and indeed their rematch and its conclusive ending, despite the warmth, comfort and light-hearted tone of both of their takes, his wife shivers in response to a chill that no doubt travelled down her spine, and instead turns her attention to her phone.
“If I’d not won a world title, I don’t know who I’d have been,” reveals Groves, equally as content as his one-time rival, when they have reached the point of discussing what followed. “I could finally forgive me ol’ mate Carl; put that shit to bed; become a nicer human being; a happier human being. The weight of the world was lifted from my shoulders that night [three years later when beating Fedor Chudinov]. It’s happiness and joy, but relief. I couldn’t have left the sport without winning a world title.”
The two fighters took significantly different journeys that briefly crossed, and that started and finished at significantly different points. They are also considerably different characters – both from each other in retirement and who they both were while they fought – and naturally reflect differently on what they have both been through separately and together. Yet for all of that – though not because of that, and the mutual respect it created – they reach further common ground on which they unmistakably see eye to eye.
“I’ve got a 12-year-old boy, a nine-year-old girl, and a seven-year-old girl, and they all box,” Froch says, oblivious to the fact Sophie is again listening intently and about to start nodding in the most heartfelt of agreements. “They all hit the bag in the gym; they all do the pads with me. I love it. They’re fit, they’re strong, and they box. But would I let them box and compete boxing? No, I wouldn’t. I don’t fancy it. I don’t like it.”
“I’ve got two young boys, and you want them to have the by-products that come with boxing,” continues Groves. “The discipline; the confidence; all those lovely traits. But, yeah, anything other than boxing [for their futures]. I don’t want them to get punched in the face for a living.”