Carl Froch and George Groves became embroiled in a heated row before Wembley rematch
"I was a little bit edgy, thinking what's he going to do, what's he going to try."
By Richard Damerell
Last Updated: 31/05/20 8:22pm
Carl Froch's rematch with George Groves had been preceded by "hatred" and "paranoia", but a fresh row about the referee had flared up, just days before the opening bell at Wembley.
Venomous abuse had greeted Froch's controversial victory over Groves in the first fight, with the Manchester crowd expressing their dismay at referee Howard Foster's decision to signal a stoppage after nine rounds of a fiercely contested fight that far exceeded expectations in November 2013.
The super-middleweights would meet again at the national stadium following an appeal to the IBF and fraught negotiations, but a fierce dispute about the officials had disrupted preparations for one of the most momentous nights in British boxing history.
"Don't forget I'm paranoid at this point. I'm thinking everyone is out to get me," admitted Groves as he recalled the tense build-up to his second battle with Froch.
Media reports had even suggested that Foster liked a comment on Facebook relating to the round of Froch's first victory, fuelling the distrust in the Groves camp, and that all-important selection of the referee and the judges proved to be a combustible issue.
"It was the hardest fight I've ever put together because of the hatred between them and their egos," recalled Froch's promoter Eddie Hearn.
The Matchroom Boxing boss had presided over "brutal" negotiations with counterpart Kalle Sauerland, revealing how Groves had been insistent that no homegrown officials should oversee the WBA and IBF world title fight.
It will be one of the biggest nights in British boxing ever, but the bad news is that we can't have a British referee!'
"We had to go back to the British Boxing Board of Control and say: 'We have got a mega-fight at Wembley in front of 80,000 people, it will be one of the biggest nights in British boxing ever, but the bad news is that we can't have a British referee!'
They said: 'You have got two British fighters and you don't want a British referee?'
Groves stood firm.
"Robert Smith of the British Boxing Board of Control was livid about it. He still doesn't talk to my solicitor properly since."
Sauerland had sympathy for Foster, who had stepped in swiftly with Groves backed to the ropes, but felt the furore about the decision had ensured his fellow officials would be under intense scrutiny.
"Howard Foster is also a great referee. In my eyes, he made the wrong decision in that moment, but he was under a world of pressure. Ninety per cent of people thought he was wrong, the other 10 per cent were from Nottingham.
"There was such hype over the decision from the first fight. Like a jury, you don't want them to know too much about the case. That would have been impossible for a British referee."
Jack Reiss, the referee praised for giving Tyson Fury the required time to recover from a final-round knockdown by Deontay Wilder, had been earmarked for the role as the man in the middle.
But the American was ruled out by Hearn, who was eager to avoid another contentious stoppage, and was concerned that Reiss had allowed Bermane Stiverne's fight-ending assault against Chris Arreola to last too long in their WBC heavyweight title fight earlier that month.
Lindsey Tucker, IBF Championships Chairman, had told Sky Sports: "Well we initially wanted Jack Reiss, but we've got an objection, so we've had to change.
"We naturally feel that Reiss is qualified to do the fight, but a big fight like this, if somebody objects we kind of take it seriously. Even though we don't agree with this, we kind of take it seriously."
Groves insisted that "every fighter worth his salt" will reserve the right to question the appointment of a referee and New Yorker Charlie Fitch was put forward as a possible replacement.
But with only four days remaining before the fight, the official had still not been confirmed.
Tucker acknowledged that another objection had been lodged, which this time came from Groves, and a third referee was now being considered.
"Yeah I don't think he had done too many world title fights," was the reasoning from Groves. "This is like the biggest fight in British boxing history!"
💥"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— Sky Sports Boxing (@SkySportsBoxing) May 27, 2020
📺 Watch in full 👉 https://t.co/Op4CePsiyv
🎧 Listen to the Podcast 👉 https://t.co/0iIoJig30W pic.twitter.com/oDBRbZmNKt
Groves had famously toyed with a Rubik's Cube during the opening press conference, then incited an angry shove from Froch on the Wembley turf. Had he succeeded in riling Froch once again?
"I didn't really get involved, to be honest," said Froch. "I let (trainer) Rob (McCracken) talk to Eddie, and they just dealt with it. The referee is the least of my problems going into a fight.
"I make the f****** fight happen, I make the result, I don't need a judge or a ref, that's how I look at it.
"I was a little bit edgy, thinking what's he going to do, what's he going to try. I had my guard up a bit, but I was speaking to Chris Marshall a lot, a psychologist with the England squad, and I was in a good place. Mentally, I was so focused. I wasn't going to allow him to try and get inside my head and cause any negative thoughts."
This late complaint from Groves was overruled, with Fitch receiving his prestigious role, and he would be barely required for eight rounds, until Froch emphatically ended the rivalry with a huge right hand.
"I've probably never connected so clean on somebody's jaw, and I thought, 'he'll do well to get up from that.'
"When I went over to the neutral corner, I looked over, and the fight was being waved off. Fitch knew the fight was over."
Froch entered retirement following the most grandiose triumph of his career, while at the fourth attempt, Groves became a world champion with a stoppage win over Fedor Chudinov, three years later.
Hearn, who promoted that fight in Sheffield, added: "George was really difficult to deal with because he fought his corner so hard and stood up for what he believed in. You have to respect him for that.
"It's only the last couple of years that we've started to get along."
Groves bowed out of boxing last year.
He still retained the same motto, long after his two fights with Froch.
"Paranoia is key and don't take anything for granted. You don't get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate."