Gennady Golovkin, a Throwback Fighter, Is Primed for Challenge Alvarez Will Bring
- Following years of build up, GGG will finally fight Canelo Alvarez, and boxing’s biggest puncher is ready to dominate.
BIG BEAR, Calif. – There’s a fight on the 50-inch television inside The Summit Gym on a random afternoon in August. It’s two prospects flailing away at each other while Gennady “GGG” Golovkin knocks out hundreds of sit-ups and steals glances at the flat screen. One prospect lands a right hand and his opponent falls. What’s interesting is what happens next.
Golovkin is boxing’s biggest puncher. He owns 33 knockouts in 37 pro fights and once stopped 23-straight opponents—a KO streak that lasted almost nine years. He knows as well as anybody that there are few things in sport—in life, really—more electrifying or definitive than a knockout punch. But he doesn’t so much as nod his head when he spies one on TV. “It’s different,” he explains later. “Not special.”
The special KOs are the kind Golovkin delivers with his fists. He’s reminiscent of a middleweight Mike Tyson, only more consistent and drama free. He refers to his next opponent, Canelo Alvarez, as a “nice boy,” even as he predicts another stoppage on Saturday when they meet at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. Should that happen, Golovkin will have defended his world title 19-straight times, or one defense shy of Bernard Hopkins’s division record.
Here’s what’s strange about Golovkin, though. He’s feared throughout boxing, so much so that he had a T-shirt made that reads, I’ll fight Gennady, just not next. He’s undefeated. He doesn’t dance away from opponents, doesn’t duck anybody, hasn’t been in trouble and comes across as exceedingly polite. What he’s not is famous or known to casual sports fans inside the U.S. That’s what can change in his bout with Alvarez. If Golovkin can win in the barbaric style he is known for, he’ll become as celebrated here as he already is in his home country of Kazakhstan and throughout Europe.
“This is the turning point, because this fight will cement everything we’ve done in the past,” says Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer, the man who built The Summit with his own hands at 7,000 feet above sea level and planned to retire until Golovkin walked in one random afternoon in April 2010.
“This fight validates everything,” Sanchez continues. “This fight tells me that I was right, that no one has dominated a division like Gennady has. He has the highest KO rate in middleweight history.”
Speaking of, Golovkin can sense the exact moment when he has broken his opponent. Sometimes, he can read their body language, slumped shoulders that say no mas. Other times, he sees the fear flash in their eyes. They glance at their corner. They want to be home, in bed, with an ice pack on their face.
It’s not as fun to deliver that kind of punishment as it is to watch Golovkin knock foes out. That doesn’t mean Golovkin lacks a mean streak. He didn’t like all the vitriol that Curtis Stevens spewed before their bout in 2013, so he admits he “lured” Stevens into more rounds than he needed to finish him. Golovkin ended the lopsided affair in the eighth, but not before treating Stevens’s midsection like those slabs of ribs in the Rocky movies. “I broke his mentality,” Golovkin says. “If you want street fight, let’s go. If you want boxing, I show you. But people think I am, like, gangster. No. Ring is different world. Very dangerous.”
There’s a duality to Golovkin that’s rare but not that rare in boxing. He compliments opponents, tells reporters their gift is to tell stories to the masses and generally comes across more like a Euro Ned Flanders than Iron Mike. And yet, because of Golovkin’s power, because it seems like there’s thunder in his fists, even the simplest things contain an extra dash of menace.
Take his warm-up on this day in August, when Golovkin hops onto an elliptical machine and begins what’s usually an old-man workout. His face stares straight ahead and he’s not smiling and his biceps flex, revealing veins. His expression says I will crush you. I snap a picture but put my phone away immediately, on reflex. Don’t poke the bear, I tell myself.
Golovkin is a throwback fighter, the kind who inspires fear and doesn’t have to say so. He reminds Sanchez of the great welterweights from the 1980s, men like Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns. It’s an interesting comparison, because those men all fought each other, and because they took both risks and losses, boxing greatly benefitted from one of the best eras in the sport’s history. Golovkin’s bout with Alvarez has been billed the same way. Action has been promised, along with more than a little blood.
Their fight took years to come together. Golovkin says he first figured he would tango with Alvarez back in 2011, when they sparred against each other in Big Bear. At that point, Alvarez competed at super welterweight, a division below Golovkin, but both were exciting fighters who seemed to view taking a step backward as a sign of dishonor. That Golovkin prefers to attack and Alvarez prefers to counter-punch only adds to the stylistic intrigue of their upcoming bout. Golovkin says he enjoyed the friendly sparring session. But he’s angry at Alvarez and Golden Boy Promotions now, mostly over years of contentious negotiations. “The last two years was very hard,” he says. “Every fight, he yells, OK, you’re next. I’ll call you tomorrow. He talked too much. And Golden Boy talked too much. The past two to three years I lost interest in this fight. Because it is too much.”
He’s asked what that wait felt like. “Not difficult,” he says. “This is life. And he is not boss, you know. His promotion is scared of me. Afraid of me. He’s not ready for real deal.”
What changed is that while Golovkin beat Danny Jacobs at Madison Square Garden in March, he didn’t knock Jacobs out. That’s how common his knockouts are—when he doesn’t get one, it’s news. The streak ended there, and it’s also the reason Golovkin believes the Alvarez fight was finally made. False hope, he says.
Golovkin was raised in a coal-mining town in the mountains of central Kazakhstan. His father was a miner; his mother, a technician at a chemical lab. He won a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. Everything since then has built to this moment, to boxing’s biggest bout since Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao finally stepped into a ring in 2015. That fight failed to match the hype. This fight, Canelo-GGG, promises to exceed all expectations.
I ask Golovkin if this is the most important since Mayweather took on Oscar De La Hoya a decade ago. No, he says. De La Hoya lost six fights, he says. Alvarez has only stumbled once, against Mayweather. “Oscar lost all his biggest fights,” Golovkin says. “This is different. More bigger.”
The winner could rightly stake his claim as the best pound-for-pound fighter in boxing, up there with Andre Ward, Vasyl Lomachenko, or Terence Crawford. A competitive bout should lead to a rematch, and a rematch could lead to a trilogy, the kind that would define a career like Golovkin’s, placing him among the greats. “New blood,” he says, “is coming.”