George Groves produced a superb performance to retain his WBA world super-middleweight title as an enthralling points win over Chris Eubank Jr took him into the World Boxing Super Series final.
The 29-year-old was patient throughout, preventing his rival from boxing up close by mixing good footwork with solid counter-punches.
A cut above Eubank Jr’s right eye in the third round hampered the 28-year-old, who enjoyed joy of his own in a riveting 12th round, where noise in the Manchester Arena reached a crescendo with both men looking vulnerable.
But Groves’ poise in parts was key and the 117-112 116-112 115-113 scores on the judges’ cards means he will meet either England’s Callum Smith or Jurgen Brahmer of Germany in the final.
Groves’ camp celebrated wildly on the announcement – their man had upset the bookmakers’ odds, despite coming into the bout as a world champion and having only ever lost when contesting world titles in the past.
He felt aggrieved he did not score a knockdown when Eubank Jr tumbled to the floor in the 10th and also revealed he thinks he dislocated his shoulder in the thrilling final round.
This was the fight organisers of the tournament craved when the first ever draw was made last year. The experience of Groves versus the potential – and well-known name – of Eubank Jr, who was bidding to follow his father Chris Eubank in holding a recognised title at super-middleweight.
Knockout wins in their quarter-finals ensured it happened, with Groves stating he would be “too big” for Eubank Jr and his rival drawing confidence from sparring sessions they shared in the past.
Fight stars such as Tyson Fury and Ricky Hatton sat ringside, as did celebrities like pop star Liam Payne, as Groves started with the swagger of a champion, throwing feints and solid jabs early on.
A pattern soon developed as Eubank Jr looked to box up close, and Groves, well aware what his opponent wanted, kept him at bay. Having offered little, Eubank Jr rushed his man in the second, finding only a high guard.
Moments later he was cut, with blood running from above his right eye. It only added to his conundrum as he tried to get close. This was something new for a fighter who had spent much of his recent career walking opponents down knowing they did not hold Groves’ threat.
There were hints of needle as both men punched after the referee’s instructions to break, and as the fight began to live up to its hype, Groves took charge, landing three crisp counter-punches in the seventh.
Eubank Jr’s left hook near the bell salvaged some respectability but Groves – who many pundits predicted could fade late on as a result of some gruelling past encounters – commanded the eighth, leaving Eubank almost at a standstill.
A crisp jab landed sweetly and a flurry followed later in the round, which ended with Groves smiling at his rival after three minutes of success.
Eubank – now sporting plenty of blood down his chest and right side – had to gamble, and after lunging forward in the 10th he touched down, prompting Groves to angrily cry for the knockdown.
It did not come but the roars inside the arena were deafening as Eubank threw all he had at his rival at the death, only to catch a stiff right hand himself.
Groves bobbed and weaved as if to play up to the crowd. But it had not been easy and his concentration and awareness of the threat posed was evident all night. Ultimately, the class that made him a world champion in the first place shone through.
Groves is due to contest the final against either Brahmer or Smith – who meet next week – in early June, but an injury to his left shoulder could cause an issue for the match-up.
He did not hold a post-fight news conference, instead going to Manchester Royal Infirmary and trainer Shane McGuigan conceded that the injury is “a massive concern” before the final.
Groves’ record now stands at 28 wins from 31 fights after inflicting this second defeat of Eubank Jr’s 28-fight career.
But again, there is every chance he will start an underdog with bookmakers if Smith wins through, as the unbeaten Liverpudlian has a burgeoning reputation.
The World Boxing Super Series has been hailed as a huge success by pundits and fans of the sport.
An all-British super-middleweight final with a world title and the tournament’s Muhammad Ali Trophy on the line would prove quite the finish.