Still going strong at 40, Gennadiy Golovkin’s career has been a great one, but could have been so much more, writes Elliot Worsell
THERE was a time maybe a decade ago now when if you said the name Gennadiy Golovkin out loud people would stop you saying it a second time or, heaven forbid, a third, fourth or fifth time, for fear of the name having the same impact as “Candyman” in the Eighties.
To say it once was deemed okay, and to say it twice a risk just about permissible, yet dare to say the name Gennadiy Golovkin any more than that and there was every possibility this man the entire middleweight division tried to avoid would show up at your door and choose you as his next opponent.
Or at least that was the theory. The threat. The fear.
In truth, such was his personality, there was never any danger of Golovkin actually surprising you like that, not with any evil intentions anyway. He was instead more likely to charm you with a smile, relax you with his laidback demeanour, and then, on fight night, if you should be unfortunate enough to find yourself sharing a ring with him, take you apart with all the conviction and precision of an expert surgeon, one body part, one weakness, one brain cell at a time.
Given the chance, he would get to you, of that there was little doubt. If he got you in the ring, which was never an easy task for Golovkin, he would get you where he wanted you, then just as quickly get you out of there.
As inevitable as it was routine, soon the best approach to fighting Golovkin turned out to be this: don’t fight him at all. Don’t entertain the idea, don’t mention his name, and certainly, whatever you do, don’t end up in a ring with him with three judges sitting ringside and only a referee between you.
An unwritten rule, one to which the majority of the middleweight division adhered, this was just the way of things for a time and Golovkin’s career, sadly, suffered as a result. Indeed, looking back now, it would be no exaggeration to say Golovkin was avoided like no other boxer in the modern era, the treatment, regrettably, leaving him with a record almost unbefitting of his talents.
Which is to say, when his career is over, it will be hard to find another boxer for whom the disparity between their talent and the quality of the names on their professional record is so large. Golovkin, rest assured, though he has achieved plenty, had the talent to have achieved even more, if only others had been as keen as him to take the requisite risks. Instead, they decided not to, and Golovkin therefore had to be grateful for whatever he could get, cursed by the fact he was both too powerful in a punching sense and not powerful enough in a business sense.
It was because of those two things Golovkin was for so long without any true fighting home and, furthermore, eyeing up the shortest list of opponents willing to face him. His career, the one he was given, would begin in Germany, but then eventually take him to places like Panama, and the Ukraine, and finally America, where he made his US debut in 2013. He would also have three fights in front of small, half-interested crowds in Monte Carlo, stopping the likes of Martin Murray, Adama Osumanu, and Nobuhiro Ishida, before fighting in the UK for the first time against Kell Brook in 2016.
Each of those fights broadened Golovkin’s horizons, and allowed him to see parts of the world he would otherwise never see, yet they were also the result of him needing to travel for work; that is, needing to either follow an opponent to their home territory, or, as was the case in Monte Carlo, become an exotic hors d’oeuvre for rich men in suits.
Make no mistake, around that time nobody – and I do mean nobody – wanted to fight Gennadiy Golovkin.
“I think a few guys avoided him and the guys who wanted to avoid him were in the end offered so much money they couldn’t resist it,” said Johnathon Banks, his current trainer, this week in Las Vegas. “They had to take it. They just upped the money.
“Even when he started going for multiple titles, these guys didn’t want to relinquish their titles to him. So then they (Golovkin’s promoter) said, ‘Okay, we’ll pay you double.’
“Most of the guys who fought him got the biggest payday of their career because that was the only way they would agree to fight him. They otherwise wouldn’t have gone in that direction. He was a very scary proposition back then.”
Not just scary, and not just risky, there was never any guarantee, so difficult was it to sell him back then, that fighting Golovkin would even make his victims the kind of career-high payday they would require for a potentially career-ending fight. And that, in short, was the problem.
It was not, as is more usual, a case of simply avoiding a fighter because you feared they had your number and could therefore expose your limitations and perhaps, if unbeaten, ruin all you had so far managed to build. Instead, with Golovkin, you feared his power and ability to both stalk and suffocate would damage you irrevocably. You feared he wouldn’t just knock you out in a competitive sense, but that he would knock you out of your stride in a greater sense – in a life sense. You wondered if you would ever be the same again. You wondered if you would ever want, or be able to, fight again.
So, for all this, you had to ask, “How much?” Then, after that, you invariably asked for more.
“I wasn’t going to run away from anybody,” Matthew Macklin told not long after he fought Golovkin in 2013. “It came down to pride. I’d rather have fought someone else, but if the fight was offered, I was going to take it. I’m not going to shy away.
“Buddy (James McGirt, trainer) wanted me to box Golovkin like he might have done, but I argued that I needed to fight him more like Ricky Hatton fought Kostya Tszyu. I needed to be there on his chest and smother him.
“Remember, Buddy is very knowledgeable on boxing but he’s a purist. He was a great stylist. The only chance I had with Golovkin was to go to war with him. But you’ve got to do that from the first bell. You can’t think of doing that in round three when you’re already battered, bloodied and bruised.”
By the time the ring-card girl holding the card for round three had sashayed around the four corners of the ring and dipped beneath the top rope, Macklin was all of those things. Then, in the next round, the third, he was crippled by a left hook to the ribs and the fight was over.
“There are a lot of things you can’t see with Golovkin,” he said. “His judging of distance, his timing, his balance, his patience. He’s so well-schooled and technically sound that his balance is spot on. He’s never overstretched. His feet are never too close together or too wide apart. He’s always in a position to punch and he’s very relaxed, which means he conserves energy.
“Obviously he hits very hard, but he’s also very accurate and knows what shots to throw at the right time. He finds all the right places with his shots.”
Macklin was mercifully spared having his senses scrambled by a head shot – “he never caught me clean with one, thank God” – but his ribs were the real victims that night.
“His shots were accurate and you knew you couldn’t afford to take a massive shot clean,” Macklin said. “The best shot he got me with broke my ribs. That was the most painful body shot I’ve ever taken by far.
“I was waiting for the left hook to the head, because he’d thrown it a few times after the uppercut, and he went downstairs while my elbows were high. It was a good move by him. I appreciate the way he set me up for it. It broke two rib bones. It paralysed me. If I could have got up, I would have, but I couldn’t move.
“What got me was how much pressure he was able to exert with just his presence alone,” he added. “His footwork stood out. He could cut the ring off so well and so quickly. He’d put a whole load of pressure on you without doing much.
“Also, you’re aware that he’s a big puncher so you’re burning more nervous energy and your movements are more urgent. You don’t glide effortlessly when you’re in with Golovkin. It’s tiring when you’re wary and anxious of someone’s power.
“Even though there was nothing heavy in the first round, I was still cut, I was still on the back foot and I was still working much harder than I wanted to. I then looked at him and he looked like he hadn’t got out of first gear.”
Another man I once spoke with about Golovkin was American Curtis “Showtime” Stevens, who, back when he was active at middleweight, was no respecter of reputations. That, in terms of an attitude, helped him a little when it came time to clash with Golovkin in 2013, but denying the Kazakh his respect was, of course, only half the battle.
“It wasn’t a decision to show him no respect, that’s just the way I am,” Stevens said. “That’s my personality. He had to earn my respect. You can’t go in there respecting him or wanting to be his friend.”
Unlike most, Stevens made the choice to engage and trash-talk Golovkin at the pair’s pre-fight press conference and his approach, on the whole, was quite different than the rest. Yet, still, that wasn’t going to stop Golovkin dropping the man from Brownsville in the second round.
“He knocks people out with one punch, so I’m not going to say he doesn’t have one-punch power, but it didn’t feel that way with me,” said Stevens. “He has heavy hands, like a thumping power.
“When I got put down in the second round, he hit me with one hook and I rolled back up and my right hand was down so he came with another one. He caught me by surprise. I thought, Oh, this mother****er got me. I wasn’t badly hurt, though.
“With Golovkin, I was just thinking too much. I wanted to land the perfect shot. And, by overthinking and looking to land the perfect shot, I took too many shots.
“I wanted to show him no respect in general and to just overwhelm him. That was my game plan. But I noticed in the first couple of rounds he wasn’t really stepping forward. I’d throw a shot and he’d kind of lean back. I wasn’t catching him the way I wanted and now I really wanted to try and knock his ass out. But I was looking for one shot rather than putting them together.”
Respect for Golovkin would come gradually for Stevens. It began to seep from him, perhaps unknowingly, when he was decked in the second round and then, by the time he was pulled out of the fight on his stool after eight rounds, it started to pour from him. “He is very relaxed and calm,” said Curtis. “He cuts off the ring very well. He’s also very, very poised.”
Ireland’s Andy Lee could have told Curtis Stevens that 10 years earlier had the two known each other and been willing to trade tips. For it was back then, in 2003, Lee fought Golovkin at the 2003 World Amateur Championships in Bangkok and sampled before anyone else a little of what the explosive Kazakh could produce on a world stage.
“I had never fought anybody with that type of style,” said Lee, who was 19 at the time. “He was an aggressive counter-puncher. He’d pressure me with feints and, when I thought he was going to punch, I’d try to counter him and then he’d slip and counter me.
“He was very intelligent and very intense. It’s a strange combination. He had great footwork and a variety of punches for an amateur. It wouldn’t all be straight punches and tippy-tappy stuff. He was well-schooled and could throw every shot.
“He was also a strong puncher at that stage and was knocking a lot of people out. He knocked out Lucian Bute. He seemed to have it all really: footwork and aggression. I was pretty disappointed with the loss until I sat back and saw him beat everybody else and win gold. I realised then I had lost to the best.”
As always, these kinds of comments mean more when they are said by tough fighters. They possess greater heft, too, when issued by those who shared the ring with countless champions yet remain haunted by their experience with the man known as “Triple G”.
One such fighter is Sergei Rozvadovskij, a former go-to sparring partner for many top talents in Europe, including Mikkel Kessler, Arthur Abraham and Juergen Braehmer, who sparred Golovkin back at the start of his pro career and still remembers every shot to this day.
“He was easily the hardest puncher I have ever faced,” said Rozvadovskij. “Even during my many years kickboxing, I have never been hit so hard by a leg or head kick. He punches harder than kickboxers can kick.” Recalling one particular spars, he said, “There were only two sparring partners – me and a guy from Ukraine – who were able to stand up to Golovkin for six rounds. Everybody else was either knocked out or quit early and were sent home.
“They had to bring in light-heavyweights for him just to make sure he got some rounds. But, by the second or third round, they would also go home because he had broken their orbital bone or had smashed their ribs.
“Normally when I take a punch, I don’t think much of it. With Golovkin, though, it was completely different. He makes you think about every punch you receive. It stings you. It hurts badly. I don’t know how he does it, but it’s horrible. If I ever got the call to go spar him again, I’d think about it for a few seconds and then probably say ‘no’.”
Unfortunately, this was a stance adopted by many fighters who heard the name Gennadiy Golovkin, the majority of whom, unlike Rozvadovskij, were in his weight division, considered direct competition, and required in order to help Golovkin, 42-1-1 (37), create the legacy his talents deserved. Instead of that, however, they would leave Golovkin to go DIY on his career, fighting so-so contenders all around the world before, at the first sign of weakness, the bigger names among them started to gather round and weigh up the possibility of at last fighting him.
Then, when one finally did in the form of Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez, Gennadiy Golovkin was left in no doubt as to his position in boxing’s pecking order. To the tune of a contentious split draw, he would realise, once and for all, that he was destined to appeal to opponents only in old age (relatively speaking) and only when slower and that he would appeal to the establishment only in the role of sidekick to the more marketable Canelo, who would rematch him and then, three years later, agree to a trilogy fight, but on his terms and his terms only.