Carl Froch’s epic rematch with George Groves began a golden era for British boxing, broke new boundaries in broadcasting, and emphatically ended a rivalry, writes Sky Sports Boxing’s Adam Smith.
May 31, 2014 – that raucous 80,000 at Wembley.
Did you know Carl Froch boxed in front of 80,000 – yes 80,000. Was that 80,000, Carl? Surely not 80,000. Do you think Floyd Mayweather remembers you telling him too?
Didn’t Carl also flatten and brutally knock out George Groves with a thunderous right hand in the eighth round? In front of 80,000 people.
I think we might have got that telegram Carl…
Yet there was of course so much more surrounding one of the biggest boxing, even sporting, events in modern British history.
You see prior to the great happening it was something almost everyone felt was mission impossible in 2014. Taking boxing to Wembley Stadium.
Yes Britain’s ‘Basking’ Jack Bloomfield boxed America’s Tommy Gibbons on August 9, 1924 – the first-ever fight at the old Wembley (Empire) Stadium – built in the wake of World War 1 – in front of 50,000 spectators. It was an experiment which was deemed a failure because the sparsely-filled ringside standing areas and distant seating made for an awful atmosphere. The promoter, one Major Arnold Wilson, even filed for bankruptcy after the fight.
There were two clashes at Wembley between Jack Petersen and Walter Neusel in February and then June 1935. Sixty thousand were at the rematch.
1963 saw British Champion Henry Cooper tackle the 18-0 brash American Cassius Clay. The infamous Henry’s ‘Hammer’ sensationally knocked Clay down at two minutes and 55 seconds of the fourth round. Yet it was soon all over for Cooper…
In the early Sky Sports days, we were at the old Wembley stadium for what became one of the most emotional British, patriotic events. You might remember those amazing scenes when Nigel Benn and Naseem Hamed led the celebrations after the nation’s favourite Frank Bruno had survived that torrid last-round attack from America’s ‘Atomic Bull’ Oliver McCall to finally lift the world heavyweight title at the fourth attempt. A crowd of around 30,000 braved the cold but momentous evening in September 1995.
The national stadium was of course redeveloped and the new Wembley was opened in 2007. During those years, boxing had the odd big night, but more and more of the action was beginning to take place in small sports and leisure centres. A huge change came around the London Olympics of 2012. We had the emergence of both Anthony Joshua and promoter Eddie Hearn; Sky Sports MD Barney Francis’s new strategy of bigger arena shows (with Carl Froch back on Sky) and a real buzz beginning again in the UK.
Still, Wembley was a complete pipe dream for a pugilistic return.
💥"I'm gonna hit this dude on the chin, I'm gonna put him to sleep." 💥@StGeorgeGroves discusses his two fights with @Carl_Froch, dealing with defeat & their fierce rivalry
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Then something strange happened. A new match was made and it sparked extraordinary interest and intrigue. This was such an engaging boxing tale, a narrative of two contrasting fighters and characters which just grew and grew. Polar opposites who at the beginning were frosty and within weeks were sworn enemies. The Froch and Groves storybook had opened.
November 23, 2013 was the date at the Phones4U (Manchester) Arena when Nottingham’s Carl ‘The Cobra’ Froch (31-2,22KO’s) defended his WBA and IBF super-middleweight titles against ‘Saint’ George Groves (19-0, 15KO’s) from Hammersmith, London.
There was icy tension at their first press conference in Manchester, and we felt that we should follow up with a cosy appearance on Halloween night on ‘Ringside’ where we could really fan the flames.
What happened provided incredible momentum towards a fight where Carl was a heavy favourite and many merely saw it as an easy mission.
George had other ideas, as he began these odd mental games to ruffle Froch’s feathers. The tension on our set was something Johnny Nelson and I just hadn’t seen or felt previously. Froch would not even look at Groves, staring at us while wind-up tactics, words, and icy moments of spooky silence filled the studio. George kept asking a stunned Carl if he was going to cry. Again and again. It was just brilliant, and when the cameras went off, a real deep hatred had begun.
Social media was taking off at the time and the clips just ran and ran. Everyone began talking about the bad blood between the pair, and there was a real anticipation when Froch and Groves locked horns for their first encounter. Most expected Froch to stop Groves – and early – but of course, amid a cacophony of noise, it was Groves who caused a sensational shock by decking Froch heavily in the very first round.
Things just became increasingly torrid for the double champion and a major upset looked on the cards. Yet Froch has always had an iron chin and will, and even on a really poor night, he rallied, driving Groves back in the ninth round and finding enough shots to prompt Howard Foster to halt the action.
It was of course seen as highly controversial, too early, Groves naturally bitterly complained; fans who were loving the intensity of the fight were left disgruntled. Then another twist – it really is just not very often in boxing when a fighter (Groves) gets booed into an arena and then cheered out – plus he lost!
There was a huge outcry in the hours and days which followed and poor Howard Foster – one of our finest officials – received horrendous, uncalled for abuse – and as it turned out helped make both fighters a massive amount of money from the second dance.
The rematch was a certainty. It just simply had to happen again. After a tense time with the governing bodies, purse splits and usual boxing politics to agree terms, we had a second fight – but which venue would be the chosen setting? It was suggested we went outdoors, but these two weren’t heavyweights and there is a big risk factor with any open air shows in the UK – in terms of ticket sales, operational issues and of course, the good old British weather.
We had a long look around Arsenal’s impressive Emirates Stadium – where we would have had early access during the week and far more television preparation time, but there suddenly became a call for Wembley. There were plenty of naysayers who thought that there was no way the national stadium would be filled and that it would be way too heavy a task to successfully mount the vast operation with the strict timing and curfews in place.
You see England had a final World Cup warm-up against Peru late into the Friday evening – so everyone would have had just 18 or 19 hours to turn our natural and national footballing stadium into a totally different boxing venue.
A canopy was essential because of the risk of rain in May. This was a major assignment and needed several dress rehearsals. I remember so many meetings to discuss that canopy build, never mind the screens, the lighting, the seating and everything else.
I just felt it was big enough – and we went for it. We sold Wembley out within 48 hours and the rest is history!
Promoter Eddie Hearn was prepared to take his biggest punt yet in the boxing world.
“I remember calling my Dad from the player’s tunnel and said we’ve got to do it at Wembley – and he said be careful – these rematches aren’t always as big as you think!
“Eubank-Watson 1 was controversial at Earls’ Court and he decided to put the rematch on at Spurs and it just didn’t sell well. He said you’d be mad to go to Wembley with 80,000 and only sell 30 or 40 thousand which would still be good, but you’d look like an idiot.
“I just felt it was big enough – and we went for it. We sold Wembley out within 48 hours and the rest is history!”
Sky Sports former Managing Director Barney Francis picks the story up.
“It was Barry who first rang me with the idea of Wembley. I remember saying he was mad, he’d never fill it and that the trade-off would be a negative impact on PPV buys. I remember saying that I understand the need for a big atmosphere, and that if I only cared about PPV buys then I’d insist on it being ‘staged in a telephone box’.”
“But then I started to get excited and by the end of the call, we agreed this could be a huge shot in the arm for British boxing and would take it to another level.”
Carl Froch believes: “The key was the crossover outside boxing. Once in a decade you get a Eubank-Benn, or if there had been Hatton-Witter or Khan-Brook. AJ-Fury of course would be.
“Eddie said we could take over a stadium, I thought no chance, but suddenly the press exploded and everyone was talking about it, the next-door neighbours, down at the Post Office. It was all because of the first fight, and the huge controversy. I was getting beat up for six rounds, Howard Foster stopped it and everyone went crazy!
“When Wembley was confirmed I was really nervous and also really excited. A mixed bag of emotions. I thought I have to win as it’s massive. I have just got to.”
George Groves recalls: “Telling Eddie Hearn that the rematch will be huge and he was sceptical. I’m sure he was just being reserved because he was worried he’ll have to pay me more money! I told him Wembley sells out and I had had a site visit at Twickenham stadium which is down the road from where I live, so if not Wembley I’m bidding for Twickenham.
“It wasn’t long after this we all did a deal to fight at Wembley. Hearn made arrangements for capacity to reach 80,000 providing we sold 60,000 first with demand still there. Tickets were to go on sale at noon on the day of the first press conference. I didn’t know if it would sell the same as the first, and if the boxing fans would buy into the rematch.
“After the press conference, Hearn told me we had sold out, 60,000 gone. I’m sure he knew this was the case. Maybe before they even went on general sale but I didn’t, and I was so happy. This show was going to be a success. I remember a feeling of pride wash over me. Excitement at the thought of all those people there. Creating history.”
Wembley’s former Head of Music and New Events Jim Frayling adds: “I’d been trying to get boxing back to Wembley since we re-opened in 2007. We had massive pictures of the Bruno fight and Cooper vs Ali in our staff canteen. We fought hard to get the event and agreed a flexible deal that suited all parties.
“There hadn’t been a major London stadium fight for a while – easy to forget now – so there was big risk on all sides. The scheduling was an issue. There was an England game on the Friday night, which management didn’t want to move earlier as they had a pre-tournament schedule fixed in their minds. Just as importantly, the One Direction tour was arriving on Sunday. Overnight turnarounds are only normal in arenas, not stadiums.
“Working with Sky and Matchroom, we just kept going round all our suppliers and stakeholders (e.g. Transport for London) asking them to find the one thing that would prevent us staging the event. In the end, nobody could find one.
“There were so many things that could go wrong and the big risk was with parts of the build that overlapped with each other, especially the broadcast overlay on a PPV event. We staged a rehearsal in April after the FA Cup semi-finals to test our processes and it went better than expected but we couldn’t test everything.”
Sky Director Sara Chenery told me: ‘We invested money in that full overnight rehearsal to know as best we could if the key elements could co-ordinate in the time frame we had.”
“So the stadium was literally turned around from hosting the England-Peru match on the Friday night to doors opening to the public at 5:30pm on Saturday. ITV had to de-rig, before an access road was installed to allow the ring and 7,500 seats onto the pitch. Normally we would have a rig day, or in the US they plan for many more. We only had hours. There were literally mass numbers thrown at the operation, but the key was the astonishing teamwork.”
I went to the game and then overlooked some of the incredibly fast, effective, pitch transition before leaving at 2am to get home, have four hours sleep and then celebrate my youngest Tilly’s third birthday breakfast. She turns nine today – it is a date that will naturally always be celebrated in the Smith household!
Meanwhile back at Wembley, new cabling for 20 of the 23 cameras brought unforeseen issues on fight day while seating and pyrotechnics were far from simple. An astounding 500 people were working on rigging and production.
This was a major collaboration between Sky and Matchroom with Telegenic also providing 54 technical crew, a T21 truck, edit vehicle, technical trailer and the international feeds, including commentary for TV in Argentina and BBC Radio 5. CTV looked after HBO. Over 80 countries took the action around the world. Broadcast RF provided wireless cameras. HSL ran the lighting. Wireless audio installation came from VME.
It was surely the most complex situation Sky and Matchroom boxing had ever tackled.
Frank Smith, current CEO, former Head of Boxing Operations for Matchroom told me: “I remember walking out just before the main event walk on to a packed out 80,000 Wembley Stadium. After 16 weeks of intense planning to see what was created is a memory I will never forget. Being so closely involved you don’t always realise the scale of what’s been created.”
Sara continues: “It was just amazing how Sky rose to the challenge and applied our usual ‘how can we make this happen’ attitude when most said it couldn’t be done.”
The build-up had of course been electric and the anticipation was at fever pitch. This time Froch had employed a psychologist to block out the increased Groves noise, and leading communication coach Hugo Simpson helped control those awkward confrontations. Carl vowed to send George “back to the hole he crawled out of, after antagonising me for so long”.
We had the Groves’ Rubik’s Cube conquered in about a minute, Carl’s brother Lee causing mayhem, Tom Cruise excited on the red carpet, Emily Blunt picking her West London compatriot George. Helicopter arrivals for ‘The Gloves Are Off’ – where we can all have a push and a pull – the rammed Wembley Arena weigh in – as their animosity heightened, and the public were gripped by the increased mind games and the simple question – would it be Froch or Groves?
It was magical – the whole shebang.
What of George’s entrance on the night…
“Throughout the entire build-up I wanted to create a new type of boxing event,” George told me.
“Try to cement the sport in the mainstream. Bring back some entertainment value that had been missing since Naz or Eubank. Huge personalities who put on a show.
“An open-top bus felt special. It was big enough to match the occasion. I knew Carl wasn’t interested in these attractions and was just focused on his fighting. I wanted to make a spectacle.
“Downton Abbey’s Jim Carter brilliantly audio read ‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ ahead of my main event. Kasabian’s Underdog began ringing through the stadium. Underdog was what I was. I didn’t want anyone to forget it after the fight. I climb out of the bus and onto a huge stage waiting for The Prodigy’s ‘Spitfire’. Spitfire is the track I always use to ringwalk. I zone in, ready to go to war.”
Meanwhile most of the production team led by Producer Declan Johnson were seeing things rather differently…
“My real memory,” Sara tells me – “George on that open-top bus – Groves not budging – even though it only cleared the underneath of Wembley with about six inches to spare! He was so hyped we had our Assistant Producer James Leith with cameraman Scott Drummond lying down on the floor of the top deck to stop Groves leaving too early. I seem to remember cries of ‘He’s going Sars – I can’t stop him.'”
Froch’s entrance was altogether more business-like. As he walked purposely to ‘We Will Rock You’ by Queen and ‘Shoot to Thrill’ by AC/DC.
I had the pleasure of taking in the atmosphere. With my Head of Boxing hat on, and Nick Halling on comms, I could actually sample it all. Breathe in the Spring night air. I remember a feeling of immense pride for my incredible inner boxing team.
Jim Frayling decided to watch from high: “The event itself was brilliant. The undercard was strong, with James DeGale fighting and a chap called Anthony Joshua, who was relatively unknown at that point.
“As we got nearer the main event, the atmosphere built and built. We’d managed to get to around 80k tickets sold and were limited by the transport capacity in the end, but Wembley only needs about half that to sound okay.
“The ring walks were electric. George Groves insisted on doing his own thing, with a London bus and his own entertainment with dancers. Carl Froch more straightforward but the place was buzzing anyway. You know it’s a good event when your own stewards struggle to turn away from the action to watch the crowd.
“We’d been worried about the crowd migrating too much and blocking exits, especially as we couldn’t put as many seats on the pitch as we normally would with a longer build time. But the majority of people behaved well and stayed where they should and those that didn’t did move when asked by our safety team.”
Barney Francis was at ringside with Sky’s CEO Jeremy Darroch.
“Jeremy was very keen to come to his first boxing event,” Barney recalls. “And with the build-up and marketing by Sky Sports, it was clear this was going to be a huge event. He was very excited, and not disappointed.
“I went into Carl’s dressing room beforehand. I just remember him being very calm and rubbing Vaseline into his heels. It struck me as incredible that he had the mindset to worry about protecting his feet when he was soon going to get punched in the head. Back at ringside, a who’s who of sport all around us, and I remember Phil Taylor being sat behind me in the second row. He commentated on the whole fight. Fair to say he was a better player than commentator!”
The rematch itself was completely compelling but lacked the raw drama of the first fight. This can often happen second time around when the same boxers have a healthier respect for each other. It was more of a chess match and it was close, until of course that vicious right hand landed and Froch’s team were in ecstasy. We all felt for Groves. The sport can be so brutal, so full of fine margins, and there he was knocked out and exposed to the world.
Wayne Rooney and some of the England players were there and the story goes that when Carl won, a hot dog and a few drinks were launched upwards from the Nike Box they were in. Some of us finished the night with Wayne – who is a massive boxing fan, Ross Barkley and others amid a great party at the top of the Hilton hotel.
Jim Frayling concludes: ‘While everyone celebrated at the Hilton, we had the next day with 1D’s crew to prepare for. Their promoter had apparently asked my boss to sack me if we mucked up the first date on their world tour by scheduling the boxing the night before, so I was grateful when the Wembley production crew got everything sorted and the Sky and Matchroom teams were off site in a timely manner.
“Having had one event that was such a success, everyone at Wembley had the boxing bug. Until I managed to get the Joshua-Klitschko fight just before I left as my last sporting hire, all my colleagues up to and including the Wembley board regularly asked when we were getting boxing back.”
What this did of course was take our sport onwards and upwards.
Carl of course looks back so very fondly.
“It was the catalyst for PPV, it completely transcended the sport. It totally reignited the love from the fans. It was a big awakening for boxing and it took our sport to the next level.
“The story needed Groves to beat me up in Manchester. Then like holes in Swiss cheese, they somehow line up. You had the young guy, the old veteran with no real regard for the challenge. That fight, that ending, his great performance – it was a combination of so many things and it all aligned. I have to say though it was Eddie’s ambition.”
Eddie’s quotes of course roll off the tongue as he concluded: “It was one of the biggest nights in British Boxing history and a night that really changed the sport forever. It was the turning point for British boxing.
“Going into the first Groves fight there was momentum, we were back on Sky Sports Box Office and I almost felt popular! That changed quickly when people felt Howard Foster jumped in too early in the first fight. What it did do was set up a historic night for British boxing.
“The week after the first Froch-Groves fight I realised how big this was. We started to look at potential venues – Emirates, Nottingham Forest. Then we went to Wembley, I walked out of the tunnel and said this is where we’ve got to do it.”
Carl of course went out on the high. There was talk of ‘The Cobra’ defending against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, the time when commentating on Golovkin-Brook that he got up and eyed up GGG, and I always felt he missed out on the Calzaghe challenge, although I constantly tell him he’s better off that one never happened.
But he retired and joined our team of analysts.
George fought back in the ring and has also become a straight-shooting pundit outside.
Their rivalry was bitter, genuine and looked set for life. I remember when Carl and I were in Vegas for a Carl Frampton fight and George was in the media room. I said to Carl to go and sort it out, make up – but he felt George wouldn’t want to. Yet Froch was first on his feet applauding Groves when he finally lifted that world crown in Sheffield.
“I have so much respect for George,” Carl told me. “If I had lost I couldn’t have retired. I would have had to try and come back. Look what George did. I admire him hugely. He persevered and he stuck with it to become world champion.”
What of their newfound friendship as they stand side by side now for many big fights? What finally happened?
“It changed because of Sky Sports. It was a talent meeting hosted by Ed Robinson,” Carl explained.
“George walked in and I thought I’d finally go over. I congratulated him on his new baby and we got talking. It was good. Believe it or not – well you know me very well Adam, I am actually a nice guy! George and I are now on really good terms – I’d like to get him into a bit of poker. Sport is sport and I am so pleased that there will be a good future for both of us.”
You see like great rivalries before them Froch and Groves are entwined in history together. Carl won both fights, but there is no doubt George made the story, controlled the narrative and sold the show.
So let’s leave the last word to the Saint this time.
“It took a good few years before I could look back at Wembley with some pride,” said George. “For the magnitude of the event. For getting that far, at my age and experience, and even though I was soundly beaten I played a major part in shaping a new style of boxing here in the UK.”
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