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Gennady Golovkin's friend and former sparring partner is now a roadblock to staying unbeaten

For a while, Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez sparred, trained and hung out together. Now GGG has to beat his friend to maintain his perfect record.

For six years now, Gennady Golovkin has dreamt of the day he’d knock out his friend.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair to say, but this is: All those years ago, Golovkin, originally from Kazakhstan, was just another European import to the United States, another hardened guy with an even harder right hook. He’d spent a short stint in Germany before moving to Big Bear, Calif. with hopes of becoming boxing’s next big thing.

But shortly after Golovkin arrived stateside, another fighter joined him in Big Bear for a few training camps. This other man, much like his European counterpart, was a middleweight and a fast-rising star in his own right. This other man had a mane of lush cinnamon hair. This other man, it turns out, was Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.

“I know him,” Golovkin said earlier this month during a media stop in New York, “and he knows me.”

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You’d hope so, at least after the two spent a few training camps together. They would spar together, lift weights together, eat and run and take breaks together. Over time, all those hours alongside one another translated into friendship, extending beyond the confines of any boxing ring and into nights out together in California.

“He got me into Mexican music,” Golovkin admitted, a toothy grin escaping him. “Just a little bit.”

Eventually Alvarez left, departed back on his own separate path with his own separate goals. Golovkin, for his part, has stayed in Big Bear ever since, keeping the quiet California mountain town as his home base.

And while their paths diverged, they ultimately traced a similar arc. Alvarez, already established as a Mexican hero of sorts by the time he arrived to Big Bear, continued his upward trajectory, going so far as to earn a fight against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in September 2013. He lost that fight (the only loss of his career) but never his drive, and since then, it’s been all about reaching that peak again.

Only this time, he’ll be meeting Golovkin there instead of Mayweather. The man nicknamed GGG is undefeated professionally (37-0), having rattled off a string of 12 knockouts in his last 14 fights since moving to America for good.

His most recent opponent, Daniel Jacobs, was the first ever to take him through a full 12 rounds, and even then Golovkin won by unanimous decision. He is widely considered the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world, as his four championship belts will attest. But if he wants another two, he’ll have to knock off the man he first met all those years ago.

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“This is like a new history for us,” Golovkin said. “This is the biggest fight of my life.”

But even saying that might not be giving this fight its proper credence. The next time these former sparring partners get into the ring together, it won’t be in front of an empty gym tucked away in the California countryside; it’ll be at the center of T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Sept. 16 in front of some 18,000 frenzied fans, all of them gathered to see what is being billed as the best fight in boxing today. Maybe one of the best fights in boxing ever.

That magnitude isn’t lost on Golovkin.

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His entire life has been building to this crescendo, building until his talent and his platform could finally coalesce and produce a moment like this: Gennady Golovkin, he of the rural mountain town in the Kazakhstani mountains, unappreciated as an amateur and undervalued as a professional, practically forced to come stateside in search of not stardom but survival, finally the lead ticket on a lead card, finally at the forefront of his sport.

“I’ve always wanted to fight with champions, but I didn’t always have the chance,” Golovkin said. “I remember my situation with Sergio Martínez, Miguel Cotto, with Canelo (Alvarez), with a lot of champions—nobody wanted to fight.”

That couldn’t be farther from the truth today. Now, instead of anxiously awaiting other names of that stature, Golovkin is one of them, if not tops among them. Fighters dream of facing him instead of the other way around, dream of making the sort of meteoric rise Golovkin has since leaving Europe all those years ago.

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But for now, all of them will have to wait. For now, Alvarez is his focus, his singular goal, the only thing he dares think about. He knows this win will not come easy—“He’s big time, a national hero, a Superman,” Golovkin says of his friend-turned-rival—and that for the first time in his storied career, he may not raise his gloves in celebration after the last bell rings.

Maybe this fight, if he wins, will be the cherry on top of Golovkin’s career, his sweet send off back to Big Bear and his anxiously awaiting family. Or maybe he loses, reveals his fault lines. Maybe he cracks, for the first time ever, on the stage he’s worked his whole life to reach.

Whatever may be, only two things are certain. The first is that Golovkin’s path goes through Alvarez, his one-time partner in all things sparring and salsa. The second? That to get where he wants to end up—to cement himself as one of boxing’s all-time elites—Golovkin will have to finish off the friend he first met six years ago.