Tyson Fury vs Dillian Whyte will go down on Saturday night in front of a record 94,000 crowd – but what is it like to fight in front of a packed Wembley? Nobody knows better than George Groves.
Groves of course locked horns with Carl Froch in their much-hyped rematch in front of 80,000 in May 2014. It was one of THE great promotions of recent years with an epic build-up and a cracking fight, which Froch won by KO.
He remembers vividly the epic experience that show provided, and he recounted it when talking to Steve Bunce for the 5 Live Boxing podcast on BBC Sounds. First he talked about the feeling of walking out into that huge arena with that baying crowd.
Ring walk at a packed Wembley
“It’s something that you can’t describe, can’t really prepare for, it’s just a sea of people. It will be dark, it’s 10 o’clock, everyone’s got their iPhones out. You see a stream of lights.
“You’re thinking: ‘Everyone, put your phones back in your pocket and watch it in real time, enjoy it, don’t worry about the Instagram. Then you’re revelling in it, you wanna be enjoying it, you want to put on a show, you want to put on a performance. You want people to walk out with your name in their mouth, only that.
“That’s a wonderful feeling that gets the blood pumping but you’ve got to save it for the fight. You don’t want to get spent too soon.”
So enough about the moment you hit that arena in the minutes before the bout, what about the preceding 24 hours? Again it is something George remembers vividly.
The 24 hours before the fight
“We had the weigh-in at Wembley obviously the day before and I stayed the night before at the hotel there that Friday night ahead of the Saturday. They had football the night before so the ring wasn’t set up. So they worked through the night to set up the lighting rigging and seats, and then they’ve got to get stuff out to protect the pitch and the chairs and everything.
“We went out and had a look at the ring which you usually do for any big fight just to get a little feel of it, make sure the canvas is right, the right size that’s been in the contract and stuff like that. So I actually got to walk into the stadium on the day to have a brief look around. But it doesn’t give you any chance to feel any sort of atmosphere, you’re just in the middle of a football pitch.
“Back in the hotel later on, I was watching people arrive at the stadium who were obviously there to see the fight but maybe get to their seats to watch the undercard. Just seeing swarms of people. That was the first time when you could really compute what the numbers mean. Up until that point it’s just numbers – ‘60,000 sold in the first two hours, we’ve released another 20,000’.
“I’ve boxed at York Hall in front of 1100 people and every few minutes I was like ‘that’s another York Hall, that’s another York Hall’.”
Into the Batcave
Now it’s time to actually may the short trip to the stadium – and it only adds to the experience.
Groves explained: “Then you’re in the car, they’ve got some Batman-type stuff where you’re in the car park for the hotel like -3, they drive you into the stadium – you don’t see daylight, All of a sudden you’re in the stadium underneath, in the Batcave, and they want you into the changing room.
“The changing rooms are pretty sweet at Wembley, you’ve got the home dressing room and the away dressing room. They’re both just as good as each other but there is that little status thing of who wants the home dressing room.”
Some fighters like to get an experience of the arena on fight night before their ring walk, but not Groves. He wanted it to remain special.
“I stayed in the changing room. Some fighters will come out and watch a bit of the boxing – I couldn’t think of anything worse. By the time I’ve done my nerve stretches with the physios, had my hands wrapped, filled in my UKAD anti-doping certificate and this that and the other, it was almost like a minute-by-minute slick operation.
“You learn how your body works by the time you get to that stage – 25 fights in and fighting for a world title. Maybe I didn’t want to get too excited or nervous at that stage. Also I didn’t want to dull that first feeling of the curtain opening and ‘this is it’ – this is what you’ve achieved.
“I’d had the fight at Manchester Arena and then had the process of building this Wembley Stadium fight, and then putting your body through the mill to get there. I’m gonna enjoy this to be something special.”
Those final seconds before the first bell
Now you are in the ring, and there are seconds until the bout starts. The canvas is clearing and soon it will be just you and your opponent. How does that feel?
“It’s everything,” said Groves.
“You take your top off and it’s open air. So there’s that slight crispness of cold – different air temperature that’s peculiar. You’re now trying to zone in on the guy in front of you. You just want to tunnel in on the chap in front of you.”
And so it begins. And it will begin again on Saturday night. Get the popcorn ready.