William Hazlitt, the 19th-century essayist, literary critic, painter and philosopher, knew exactly what influences market forces. The acclaimed man of letters wrote, nearly 200 years ago, “When a thing ceases to be a subject of controversy, it ceases to be a subject of interest.”
Hazlitt got that right. His words came to mind when it was announced there was going to be a return world super-middleweight title fight between Carl Froch and George Groves.
The controversial ending to their first encounter six months ago caused the biggest row I’ve experienced in the 50 years I’ve been covering boxing. It can be compared to the arguments that went on for years when Joe Bugner was judged to have outpointed Henry Cooper, 43 years ago.
Such is the unprecedented nationwide interest in Froch–Groves II that an extra 20,000 tickets were released on top of the initial 60,000, which were snapped up by voracious fans in less than an hour. When the pair clash for the WBA and IBF belts at Wembley Stadium on Saturday they will break every British boxing box-office and attendance record. The live gate will bring in more than £6 million, and another £20 million is expected to be generated by the pay-per-view audience on Sky.
So what has made this the biggest fight yet staged in Britain? Howard Foster is the man who can claim most of the responsibility. Foster – a quietly spoken, well-mannered, 52-year-old Yorkshireman – was the referee in charge when Nottingham’s Froch and Londoner Groves had their first punch-up in Manchester in November. Groves was ahead on points when they left their stools for the ninth round. Froch, the defending champion, who had to haul himself off the canvas in the opening three minutes, caught Groves with several hard blows to the head.
Though obviously hurt, Groves didn’t appear to be in distress when Foster unexpectedly grabbed him round the waist and stopped the fight, ensuring Froch retained his crown.
Foster is an extremely experienced official and, knowing him as I do, I think he made an honest split-second decision out of compassion. He firmly believed, rightly or wrongly, that Groves could have suffered serious injury if he had taken further punishment.
But his shock intervention caused uproar. The public, along with the majority of pundits, were incensed. They were convinced the stoppage was premature, and Groves had been robbed of a victory. Groves was so angry at what he perceived to be a gross injustice that, together with his lawyer, he flew to New Jersey to plead his case in front of the IBF’s championship committee.
It is rare for any governing body to side with fighters when there is a dispute with a referee.
But the IBF not only came down heavily in Groves’s favour but they also found Foster guilty of “inappropriate conduct” and ordered Froch to give Groves an immediate rematch.
Several other ingredients have helped to set pulses racing. The fighters have never hidden the fact that they dislike each other immensely; you can’t beat a genuine grudge fight to whet the appetite and ensure a bestseller.
Froch and Groves are also interesting characters, far removed from the Hollywood archetype of the boxer. Froch studied sports science at Loughborough University, while Groves harbours ambitions in the world of TV. A few years ago the 26-year-old had ambitions to be a stand-up comedian. He is also involved in co-writing a sitcom with a boxing theme. But when it came to stepping onto a stage he couldn’t go through with it. “I’m afraid I bottled it. The thought of going out in front of an audience and maybe getting booed off the stage terrified me.”
Yet he is unperturbed about going out in front of 80,000 roaring boxing fans. “I’m completely emotionless in that kind of situation. When it comes to boxing I have tunnel vision and nothing distracts me. In that ring I will only be aware of Froch and the referee.”
Groves’s wife Sophie is a primary school teacher, and he laughingly admits he could never do what she does. “For me standing in front of a classroom of ten-year-olds is far more stressful than having a fight.”
Froch, 37, who regards his challenger as disrespectful and “childish and naive”, has admitted he underestimated Groves last year – a mistake he promises he won’t be making again.
They say marriage is better the second time around. It isn’t always true in boxing, but to me Froch–Groves is a rematch made in heaven.