NEW YORK -- Who cares about America? That's the question many European fighters are asking themselves these days. Sure, as proud, chest puffing U-S-of-A-ers we believe that an achievement in sports isn't one unless we, at some point, get to see it firsthand. Arvydas Sabonis was an eight-time European Player of the Year but didn't pop on the radar for many in the U.S. until he joined the Trail Blazers in 1995, while Lennox Lewis didn't gain widespread U.S. respect until he moved his career stateside.
We live in the land of the free, the home of the brave and rubber stampers of the athletic. Never mind that in boxing, when Europeans fight in the U.S. they might as well toss out suitcases of cash on the plane ride over. Heavyweight titleholders Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko draw well at Madison Square Garden and the Staples Center but nowhere close to the 30,000-plus they can attract into soccer stadiums in Germany and Switzerland. Felix Sturm has been making a good living defending his middleweight title in Germany the last few years. Joe Calzaghe made a fortune fighting in Wales before concluding his career with coast-to-coast clubbings of American legends Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones.
Sure, dollars from HBO and Showtime offset some of the losses. But for many overseas fighters, making the trip simply isn't worth it.
Gennady Golovkin is one of a dwindling number who believe it is worth it. Over the last six years the Kazakh native Golovkin has had his passport stamped all over Europe, collecting wins and titles in Germany, Kazakhstan and the Ukraine. But three years ago, Golovkin moved to the United States. He set up camp in Big Bear, Calif., hired respected trainer Abel Sanchez and began to learn English. He continues to fight abroad but his p.r. team flooded American media outlets with press releases, trying to drum up U.S. interest.
"I like America," Golovkin (23-0) said. "I always wanted to fight here. I want to make a name for myself here."
He will get his first chance on Saturday, when he defends his WBA middleweight title against Grzegorz Proksa (28-1) at Turning Stone Resort Casino in Verona, N.Y. (9:45 p.m. ET, HBO).
Golovkin's team believes he will be easy for America to love. Golovkin's moppy hair and boy band-ish looks belie his crushing power; 20 of his 23 wins have ended in knockouts and no fighter has gone the distance with him since 2008. He is a former world champion (2003) and Olympic silver medalist ('04), who beat up Andre Dirrell and Andy Lee in the amateur ranks, while knocking out Lucian Bute.
"You know I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of great fighters," said Sanchez, whose stable has included Hall of Fame junior middleweight Terry Norris, "but this one is by far the best that I've ever worked with at any period of time in their careers. I think the 350 amateur fights and all the international experience has made him such a serene fighter, such a composed fighter and the one thing that he does have, he possesses lethal power on each end, so to me, he's probably the best I've ever worked with."
Golovkin understands the opportunity Saturday night presents. Win impressively, and Golovkin becomes a player for the top names at 154 and 160 pounds, where Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Miguel Cotto, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Sergio Martinez can offer high profile, big money fights. There could also be a title unification fight with WBO titleholder Dmitry Pirog, Golovkin's original opponent who was forced to withdraw with a back injury
"If Gennady is successful on [Saturday], which we're all confident that he will be, then we're pretty much open," said Golovkin's promoter Tom Loeffler. "We have made it clear that he would fight [anyone] in the middleweight division. Naturally, it would be interesting to make the original fight with Pirog, Also, two weeks later there is the fight with Martinez and Chavez. Really, any of those fighters would be great for Gennady and he's made it clear that he wants to fight the best in the middleweight division and we think fighting Proksa in the debut on HBO is a great step in that direction."
Intelligent, affable, good looking, Golovkin has the potential to do well in the U.S. The slipping dollar and dwindling interest in boxing hasn't made America as appealing as it used to be, but there is a vacuum for a power punching headliner capable of captivating an audience. After Saturday, Golovkin may prove to be one capable of filling it.