Sport is meant to provide us with competition, but more importantly it is meant to provide us with emotion. To make us feel things. And of all the things we can feel while watching sport, nothing surges through the nervous system quite like shock.
It is utterly thrilling to see the form book being ripped up in front of your eyes, and no more so than in boxing. The punch from nowhere that knocks over the champion is like nothing else. It makes the pulse race and the heart beat fast. And it lives with you, as I can testify to having been at the Manchester Arena in November 2013 as George Groves squared up to Carl Froch and delivered a display brimming with shock and awe.
It was a wild night and for Groves an ultimately devastating one given the 25-year-old was denied a first world title via a controversial ninth-round stoppage. But amid the pain there was honour given how hard he pushed the WBA and IBF super-middleweight champion. Froch had been rattled, and most memorably of all he was floored via a howitzer of a right hand in the very first round.
It cracked the side of his jaw after Groves had set his opponent up with a counterattacking left, and as Froch hit the canvas like a collapsing skyscraper the 20,000-strong crowd rose to their feet in disbelief. There were gasps as well as screams, a tangible surge in anticipation and excitement, and, honestly, I would have let rip too were I not there in a professional capacity, reporting for the Guardian a few rows from ringside. For this was not supposed to happen – Froch, in his 11th consecutive world-title fight, was meant to dominate against a capable fighter but someone who was not in his class. But now he was down, early and emphatically, and for only the second time in his career. It was a shock.
We should have perhaps seen this coming given Groves had outlined in the final pre-fight press conference how he was going to start fast and push Froch back. But few believed he could execute. Yet that is what transpired, and while Froch survived his knockdown via a standing eight count he could not establish control and into the following rounds the pattern remained the same – the challenger stalking and controlling; the champion on the back foot and struggling.
There was no doubt about it – that early punch had set the tone, for the fight and the night as a whole, and increasingly the shock of a Froch knockdown looked set to be followed by the shock of Froch defeat. But the 36-year-old dug deep and come the eighth round was starting to dominate. Come the ninth he had his opponent wobbling, yet nobody could have predicted what would occur one minute and 32 seconds into the round – the referee, Howard Foster, wrapping his arms around Groves and waving away the fight.
A different kind of shock now gripped the arena as howls of outrage echoed from the stands. For while Groves was undeniably in trouble having been pinned against the ropes and subjected to a barrage of shots, he could have survived. Only adding to the sense of injustice, he was leading on the judges’ scorecards when the bout was stopped – 78-73, 76-75, 76-75.
There followed bedlam in the ring as both camps came close to blows but the dust soon settled and the following May came the rematch – in front of 80,000 people at Wembley and with Froch winning again, this time without dispute. It was also his final fight, allowing one of Britain’s greatest super-middleweights to end on a high.
Groves, meanwhile, retired in January 2019 having ultimately become a world champion via victory over Russia’s Fedor Chudinov in May 2017. It was his greatest night but for those of us who where there, the sense lingers that his high point should have come in Manchester four years earlier. He went from cocky up-start to worthy warrior having more than played his part in a brilliant contest. It had drama, controversy and that most electric and memorable of things – shock.