NEW YORK -- It was the spring of 1994 in Karaganda, a large coal mining city in the Karagandy Province of Kazakhstan, and Gennady Golovkin was a kid enjoying life. He was 12 years old and a budding athlete, a gifted boxer who was already winning junior tournaments. His older brothers, Sergey and Vadim, had pushed him and his twin brother, Max, into the ring when he was eight, and he had taken to it quickly. He loved them for that. They joined the Russian army when Golovkin was nine. He thought of them whenever he laced up the gloves.
Four years earlier, in 1990, Vadim died, killed in action. There was no explanation from the government official who called the house, no details. The army there didn't work like that. He was just gone. Golovkin remembers his parents tears. He remembers the empty feeling in his stomach. He remembers a funeral without a body. Serving in the army was dangerous, Golovkin knew that. But he never expected this.
The second call, in '94, was worse. Sergey was gone, too. Back came the tears, back came the wails, back came the sinking, empty feeling, multiplied exponentially. Losing one brother was excruciating. But two? Once again, government officials offered no details. Like Vadim, Sergey was dead. And that was it. For months, the uncertainty of how Sergey and Vadim were killed haunted the household.
"It was very tough, very tough," Golovkin said. "My family, it really tore us up."
It was the kind of tragedy that can ruin a man, a family. No one would have blamed Golovkin if he went into a shell, if he quit the sport his brothers talked him into. He could have walked away, but he didn't. He pressed on. And he became perhaps the most feared middleweight in the world today.
In the winter of 2010, Abel Sanchez got a phone call at his gym in Big Bear, Calif. from Oleg Herman, a boxing manager. "I've got a fighter I want you to meet," Herman said. "His name is Gennady Golovkin. Are you around?" "Sure," Sanchez told him. Not that he had any idea who Golovkin was.
Golovkin and his team drove up to Big Bear that day, armed with footage of some of his fights. For several hours, Sanchez and Golovkin dissected to the tapes, commenting, critiquing, developing a rapport.
"I saw some things coaches can't teach," Sanchez said. "He has heavy hands. He moves guys when he touches them."
Indeed, Golovkin had been throwing big punches all his life. Growing up, Sergey and Vadim would walk the streets with Golovkin and pick men out of a crowd. Are you afraid of him, they would ask Gennady. When he said no, they told him to go get into a fight. Sometimes they wrestled, sometimes they boxed, sometimes they just threw punches.
"My brothers, they were doing that from when I was in kindergarten," Golovkin said. "Every day, different guys."
Golovkin loved boxing. He was a student of the sport. Whenever there was a big fight in the U.S., Golovkin would wake up early in the morning to watch it. He studied the technique of Sugar Ray Robinson -- "My favorite fighter [on tape]," Golovkin said -- and adopted some of the style of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler and Mike Tyson. His gym wasn't much, just a run of the mill fitness center with one ring to train in. But his coach kept him busy, often putting him into fights four or five days a week.
He developed real skills though, skills Sanchez could see right away. After 350 amateur fights, including a gold medal at the 2003 World Championships and a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics, Golovkin, Sanchez said, "was 90 percent complete." Sanchez was particularly impressed with an amateur fight Golovkin had with former super middleweight champion Lucian Bute, who Golovkin knocked out late in the fight despite, Sanchez said, "being way ahead of him."
When Golovkin left, Herman told Sanchez that Golovkin would be back to begin training with him in a couple of months.
Sanchez, of course, didn't believe him.
"I said 'yeah sure,'" Sanchez said. "Two months later I got a call asking if can I pick him up at the airport."
The relationship with Sanchez clicked right away. Sanchez -- whose most acclaimed pupil was Hall of Fame junior middleweight Terry Norris -- was easy going, which Golovkin gravitated toward. The serenity of Big Bear worked for Golovkin, too. His search for a trainer took him to Freddie Roach's Wild Card gym, where he was uncomfortable with the crowds.
"Big Bear is an extension of where he came from," Sanchez said. "That was a big advantage for me. He went to visit a lot of coaches. At Freddie's gym, he would have been there two months and got sick of it because of all the chaos. Freddie is a great coach, but if you are not happy where you are you close your mind to it."
On a dry erase board at the gym, Sanchez made a list of the greatest fighters in boxing history. Muhammad Ali. Sugar Ray Robinson. Manny Pacquiao. Floyd Mayweather. "Give me three years," Sanchez told Golovkin. "I'll get you to the top of that list." For Sanchez, it wasn't about improving Golovkin's technique. There were some balance issues, sure, but mostly it was adjusting his mindset. For most of his career Golovkin was a counterpuncher, one comfortable with waiting for an opponent to make a mistake.
"What I wanted him to do," Sanchez said, "was make his opponent make a mistake. With us, it wasn't about working, it was about talking. It was about communicating what I was looking for and what the American public is looking for. The public is looking for a certain kind of fight. I'm not doing this just to have a winner, we want to get to the top of the pound for pound list and be the best HBO fighter. To do that, you have to fight a certain way."
As he was growing up, Golovkin has been a willing student. He came to the U.S., Golovkin said, "to become bigger" and was willing to do whatever Sanchez said to get there. He worked. He became more aggressive. In 2011, Golovkin knocked out Kassim Ouma, one of the most durable fighters in the sport. In his next fight, Golovkin stopped veteran Lajuan Simon -- who had not been stopped in any of his three previous defeats -- in the first round. Last September, Golovkin, making his debut on HBO, dropped Grzegorz Proksa three times before the fight was stopped in the fifth round.
"He was this little diamond that just needed to be polished," Sanchez said. "And he will damage anyone put in front of him."
On Saturday, Golovkin (24-0) will defend his WBA middleweight title against Gabriel Rosado (21-5) in the Theatre at Madison Square Garden (9:45 p.m., HBO). Golovkin smiles when he talks about the fight. In fact, he smiles all the time. As menacing as he is in the ring, Golovkin is as gentle out of it. The short cropped hair and boyish face makes Golovkin, 30, look 10 years younger and the pleasant demeanor makes reporters wonder how he is able to flip that switch.
He does, of course, and Sanchez expects him to do it again. In many ways, Rosado is tailor made for Golovkin. He is an aggressive power puncher who won't shy away from a fight. In what Sanchez -- and HBO, for that matter -- expect to be a big and busy year for Golovkin, this will be a big chance to show the world what he has got.
"Rosado, I feel sorry for him," Sanchez said. "He is getting into the ring with the real thing."
Five Questions with Andre Ward, who will be a part of HBO's broadcast team on Saturday night
It blows my mind how so many athletes go through surgery and they say it was a success. You don't know if it was a success until you get back to work. Historically, throughout my career I have healed fast. We ideally wanted to have three fights this year. I still think we can have two.
As for me and Golovkin, look at my body of work. I'll fight anyone out there. But look at his body of work and look at mine. There is no comparison. I fought the last three years with no break. I've been in grind mode. Let him build up his resume, get a body of work first, then we can talk.
Predictions: SI's Chris Mannix, Rich O'Brien and Bryan Armen Graham Weigh in on Golovkin-Rosado
From the Mailbag: Three Questions from the Inbox
You're right, Tim. Somewhat lost in the buzz over Golovkin-Rosado has been the featherweight showdown between Garcia and Salido. But like Golovkin-Rosado, that should be an explosive fight. I've noticed some trepidation among Top Rank executives about this one. Salido already knocked Juan Manuel Lopez off the pedestal, knocking him out twice in just under a year. There is genuine concern he will do the same thing to Garcia, another prized prospect in Top Rank's stable. Salido is tough, physical and isn't afraid of anyone, and should be able to take many of Garcia's power shots. But I think Garcia is a better technical fighter than people give him credit for. I'm expecting him to win and take his career to the next level.
My guess is that he will, Bobby. I'm not sure what is taking him so long to make a decision, really. He makes millions to fight, says he loves training and is barely touched in the ring. He has told me often that he would love an opportunity to fight David Haye and Haye is practically begging for the fight. I don't know when he is going to make an announcement but I still expect him to be back in the ring at least one more time
I'm a big fan of Kovalev, Mike. On Saturday he has a really good test against Gabriel Campillo (9 p.m., NBC Sports Network). Campillo is a tremendous boxer who has been robbed repeatedly in title fights, first against Beibut Shumenov in 2010 and again against Tavoris Cloud last year. I've heard that Campillo has had a rocky training camp, but his style should give Kovalev some problems.
That said, I still think Kovalev finishes him early, which will set him up for a big fight later this year. Keep an eye on the Cloud-Bernard Hopkins fight in March. The winner could be a candidate to face Kovalev, particularly if Cloud comes out on top.