Froch and Groves On the Psychological Warpath

frochgrovesIIIntriguing, ridiculous, fascinating and cringe worthy in equal measure.  Kind of like Ricky Gervais’ The Office when it first hit our screens; difficult to watch but impossible to turn away.  The Office was, of course, an attempt to portray fictional characters and their relationships in a seemingly real environment.  Froch Groves II: The Gloves are Off was the exact opposite.

Carl Froch and George Groves are real.  So too is the antagonism between the two men.  Froch doesn’t like Groves and the feeling appears mutual.  Sitting them on chairs backwards, like some devil-may-care 90s boy band, in a darkened room with Johnny Nelson stirring the pot in the shadows is the unreal part.  Groves is definitely more at home in these surroundings but perhaps only in comparison to how far from his comfort zone Froch finds himself on such occasions.  Regardless, it all made for strangely compelling viewing.

George Groves is the boxing equivalent of the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis.  This particular Cordyceps fungus attacks and enters a host (an ant for example) in order to manipulate its behaviour and manoeuvre it into the optimum environment for the fungus to thrive.  Groves only metaphorically gets under Froch’s skin, but the rest of the analogy with said fungus is quite literal.

In the build up to the first meeting between the two super middleweights, Groves and his camp had managed to position Froch in the worst frame of mind imaginable for a fighter.  On the one hand he was complacent, lulled there by memories of putting Groves down in sparring not so long ago and the fact that, while he himself had been mixing it with the likes of Ward, Kessler and Bute, the less experienced Groves had been operating at domestic or commonwealth level.  This led to a misguided belief that, as the challenger had yet to step into the ring with anyone world class, he didn’t deserve to try.

In addition, Froch had hate in his heart, fuelled by a perceived lack of respect for his achievements from the young cocky London upstart.  Complacency and personal animosity: modules one and two of the boxing college course, How Not to Prepare for a Fight 101.

For the first three quarters of last November’s encounter, Groves took full advantage of Froch’s state of mind.  He had him down in the first and in trouble, or close enough to smell it, for the rest of the fight.  The champion’s warrior spirit needs no introduction, however, and in the ninth he turned the contest on its head and, with a little help from Howard Foster, stopped the fight.  My thoughts on all of that are here, but needless to say the circumstances were controversial enough to guarantee a rematch.

So here we are again and here they go again, emerging from the bloody trenches of their mind games to wade deep into the jungle of psychological warfare.  Only this time, with the addition of segments such as The Gloves are Off and the Facebook Q&A, it is even more intense.

The Team Groves tactics are spelt out loud and clear when trainer Paddy Fitzpatrick says: “All the physical attributes a man has are laid to waste until the mind activates and tells the body what to do.  If you can mess with a man and get inside his head and cause that to malfunction, you’ll cause everything to malfunction.”  Groves has already proved himself adept at getting inside his opponent’s head so it is more of the same from him thus far.

For his part, Froch is fighting hard to do things differently.  In an effort to remain calm in the face of provocation and ensure there are none of the malfunctions Paddy Fitz speaks of, he has enlisted the expertise of sports psychologist, Chris Marshall.  Doctor Marshall must have been the most interested spectator of all on Saturday night as his most famous patient sat opposite his foe with only a ludicrously small coffee table and, if necessary, Johnny Nelson to keep them apart.

What Marshall made of it all, I don’t know.  What is clear to see is that Froch is always close to the edge when he is forced to interact with Groves.  The body language, whether sat tensed in his chair or sipping on a glass of water like it is a 55 year old single malt, betrays that every natural instinct in his being is screaming at him to stand up and batter George Groves and worry about the consequences later.  It is a constant battle to keep calm and, to his credit, he is doing so a hell of a lot better than he did seven months ago.

The dynamic between Froch and Groves has always had a touch of the stern and respected teacher versus the bright but mouthy pupil about it.  The initial brazen cheek of the youngster caught the authority figure off-guard last semester and, goaded on by the rest of the class, little Georgie wound Mr Froch up to a point where his frustration boiled over in every class.  But a different Froch has come back after the mid-term break.  Now more at peace with himself, he is determined not to be riled, and by ignoring Groves’ bait, he is gradually neutralising the negative effect the cheeky cocky rascal act had on him first time around.

Time will tell whether he can hold it together for the rest of the media work this week.  And then of course the first bell will ring in front of 80,000 plus in Wembley Stadium.  Froch reckoned his heart was ticking over at around 40 beats a minute in the Sky Sports studios.  Safe to say it will be substantially faster come fight night.  How fast may go some way to determining the outcome.

The word psychology literally means, the study of the soul.  With all due respect to Dr Chris Marshall, we don’t need a degree to know that Carl Froch has a pure warrior’s soul. Perhaps Marshall’s remit is to help his man harness the energy of that soul in a more controlled and efficient way.  Will that be enough to beat a younger, faster, technically better boxer in his own back yard?  We only have to wait a few more days to find out.

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