Carl Froch and George Groves counted their bruises and considered a rematch after one of the most brutal and compelling all-British fights in recent years ended in controversy in Manchester on Saturday night.
The puffed-up faces of both men bore testament to the war they had just waged, with Froch climbing up from a shock first-round knockdown to stop Groves on his feet in round nine and retain his WBA and IBF super-middleweight titles.
Referee Howard Foster’s intervention – with Groves ahead on all three of the judges’ cards – brought howls of protest from the challenger’s camp and led to inevitable talk about the pair doing it all again next year.
Promoter Eddie Hearn appeared to pave the way for a second meeting, admitting: “Fights are made through the demand of the broadcaster and the fans and I can’t see demand for any fight other than a rematch.”
Groves had entered the fight unbeaten but still performed way above expectations, taking the fight to Froch just as he said he would during an acrimonious pre-fight build-up, and dumping him on the canvas in the opening moments from a right hand.
It was only the second time Froch had hit the deck in his career and it drew gasps from the resolutely pro-Froch capacity crowd. As he sluggishly regained his feet and tried to clear his head it seemed for a moment that a major upset was on the cards. Groves continued to take the fight to Froch, peppering him with stiff left jabs and getting the better of an uproarious sixth round, before showing signs of flagging, which eventually brought about Foster’s intervention in the ninth.
Froch was getting the better of a series of exchanges and, when a pair of right hands left Groves sagging and seemingly helpless, Foster jumped in having deemed – as is his right – that a standing count was not necessary. His decision sparked uproar, with both corners briefly squaring up in the ring.
The same supporters who had roared Froch to the ring turned on the champion, who was hardly to blame, and afforded Groves, whom they had roundly booed, a hero’s reception.
Foster was smuggled from the ring by six security guards while Groves insisted: “It was an unjust stoppage. His shots weren’t landing cleanly and I was nowhere near as hurt as he was in some of the rounds. I’d love a rematch and I’d take it tomorrow.
“I proved I’m a world-class fighter and I should have the belts. I’m going to go and cry and let it all out, then I’m going to get back in the gym and train to become world champion.”
Froch, who shrugged off the initial fears of Hearn that he may have broken his jaw in the opening exchanges, called the fans’ reaction “devastating” but backed Foster’s call, insisting Groves could have been hurt had the action continued.
“Groves is a tough, tough fighter but I was beginning to break him down and I had free hits on him,” said Froch.
“What do you want to see – a kid knocked unconscious and carried out on a stretcher?
“I’m devastated that I got booed, but it goes back to the Roman days of gladiators where the crowd want to see brutality and someone finished off. In my opinion the referee stepped in to save George Groves’ career.”
Groves, whose best previous win was arguably a tight squeeze against his old amateur rival James Degale two years ago, could certainly seek comfort in some kind of moral victory on a night in which he made his world-class credentials clear.
After ramming home that first-round right and building on his good start in a strong second, he continued to hold the centre of the ring and frustrate Froch, who was warned by Foster for hitting on the break.
There was a sense that Froch was gradually gaining the upper hand but, while the stoppage seemed an all-too-sudden way to end a thrilling contest, the controversy risked clouding another truly warrior-like performance by the champion.
Having initially accepted rematch calls at ringside, Froch said in his post-fight press conference he would need more time to think, but added that at the age of 36 he still had “maybe two” more big fights in him.
Froch said: “I’m in a position where I don’t have to give anyone a rematch. I’ve fought everybody and I’ll speak to my trainer and promoter and if a fight’s there and people want to see it I’ll do it. I don’t need to have my hand forced. I am going to go away now and spend Christmas with my family and forget about boxing. In the new year I will come back and decide what to do moving forward.”