by Joseph Hirsch – There’s a story about Gene “the Fighting Marine” Tunney in a tattered old book about boxing called Shaw’s Champions. In the runup to his historic 1926 showdown with heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey, Tunney began his mental as well as physical preparation for the fight. He wanted to understand the psychological makeup of the man widely considered to be the fiercest on the planet. Why, Tunney asked himself, is the bully a bully? The answer he came up with (according to author Benny Green) was fairly simple and straightforward. The bully is a bully because he is afraid. What is the bully afraid of? Tunney asked himself. Me was the answer.
Gennady Golovkin (“GGG” to his fans) is no bully, and has always conducted himself as a gentleman and a great ambassador for the sport. But like the best (or worst) bullies in boxing from Tyson to Liston to Kovalev, GGG’s performance in the ring was always colored by the way his opponents perceived him in the runup to the fight. His reputation as a hard hitter with a granite jaw preceded him into the ring. He didn’t just exude toughness, but sometimes gave the impression of being an unbeatable cyborg.
But like all men who bear the mantle of invincibility, he started having nights where he looked human. Golovkin’s harshest detractors will tell you the cyborg started to short circuit in the Kell Brook fight, but the facts don’t bear this out. If being battered into submission and suffering a fractured orbital socket is how you “expose” Golovkin, then more boxers need to be grateful that they didn’t expose Triple G.
Danny “Magic Man” Jacobs was one of those convinced that some kind of blueprint was established in Golovkin’s fight against Brook. And there’s no question that Jacobs, after a rough start, acquitted himself quite well in a fairly heated contest with Triple G.
The knock on Golovkin after the Jacobs fight was that GGG looked like a monster beating mandatories and contenders, but looked mortal when pitted against a fellow elite fighter. He struggled in those moments where his most ardent supporters expected him to shine brightest.
The question has been asked many times and in many ways: Is Golovkin merely a consummate professional who consistently defended his title against all comers in a less than legendary era (a la Wladimir Klitschko)? Or is he the kind of fighter whose performances make you wonder if he’s destined for that exclusive corner in the Hall of Fame where the likes of Henry “Homicide Hank” or Manny Pacquiao have their own shelves?
Most were hoping a long overdue fight with the excellent, multi-division talent Saul “Canelo” Alvarez would answer the question. Canelo was already a bona fide celebrity when they met the first time. And although Alvarez lacked Golovkin’s amateur pedigree, he’d proven himself as a professional fighting against a murderer’s row of stellar opponents spanning several weight classes.
The consensus in fandom was that Canelo had been ducking GGG (or Canelo’s manager, Oscar De La Hoya was ducking on his behalf). When the two men shared a ring in Las Vegas in 2017, it seemed like the question that had been dogging Golovkin (and to lesser extent Canelo) was about to get answered.
I’ll spare you a lengthy summary, as you know how that one went. After a hard-fought mega-fight between near-prime middleweight titans, the two men embraced and shared the center of the ring to hear the verdict. Finally, it would all be settled. And then there came that lousy scorecard (turned in by a judge who shall remain nameless) overshadowing what should have been a great event. Most ringside observers and fans thought Golovkin prevailed.
Flash forward almost a year to the day in the same venue, to the rematch between the two still near-peak specimens with unfinished business and quite a bit to prove to themselves, their fans, and each other.
The second fight was a back and forth affair, with both men shipping punishment but also doing good work, though Golovkin was challenged as the effective aggressor in the center of the ring more than ever before. It was close, but the decision went to Canelo Alvarez.
Golovkin left the ring that night crestfallen enough to forgo the post-fight interview and his usual show of sportsmanship, wearing bruises and red marks on his face and carrying the stigma of his first professional loss.
The perception that Golovkin got raw deal in his first fight with Canelo was cancelled out by the second mega-fight, because Canelo beat him in his wheelhouse this time. Alvarez staked out the center of the ring and forced Golovkin to concede that he would not be winning “Mexican Style.” In some ways Golovkin’s inability to conquer his old superstar nemesis Canelo robbed him of the chance to be mentioned in the same breath as the absolute legends in his division.
After their rematch, Canelo’s star continued to ascend. He has since reached even higher heights, first at supermiddleweight and then climbing to light-heavy to claim a victory against a slightly faded but still incredibly heavy-handed Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev. His win over Danny Jacobs was far more emphatic than Golovkin’s, and his routing of Callum Smith was a far more credible supermiddleweight victory than his previous one over secondary placeholder Rocky Fielding.
Golovkin, meanwhile, treaded water before facing a less than stellar opponent in Steve Rolls. He then squared off against another elite middleweight in Sergey “the Technician” Derevyanchenko. It was another display of trench warfare, near life-and-death boxing between two proud warriors who neither gave nor received quarter. And just like in Golovkin’s other big fights, his ability to shine against a champion-caliber opponent was called into question. When the verdict was read that night in Madison Square Garden, former fan favorite GGG actually heard a smattering of boos.
The crowd is fickle, and the fight took place in Derevyanchenko’s adopted stomping grounds of New York, but it was still a somewhat sad affair for those of us who loved and remembered the Golovkin of old. Like all Triple G fans (and yes, I still am one) I remember those heady early days when Golovkin had that Edwin Valero-esque buzz around him (“this kid in Germany is wrecking everybody!”). I savored the highlights when he was storming through the ranks, the way Golovkin could follow through on a punch even while getting clocked. Or how he could land a shot on top of an opponent’s head and actually manage to score a knockdown where almost any other man would have gotten his hand in a plaster cast.
Make no mistake. Golovkin’s consistent performances, his long unbroken streak of knockouts against good rather than great boxers, puts him in the company of the greatest in history. “You can only beat the man in front of you” as the saying goes, and like Joe Louis (an all-time great famed for dispatching a “bum a month” for a while), Golovkin provided the fans with stellar performances against credible opposition. Even when the boxer in the other corner was good and not great, Golovkin was stopping and dropping guys who were usually durable distance fighters.
Triple G’s name will continue to come up in barrooms and boxing forums for decades to come, but he’s likely to be mentioned after the likes of Carlos Monzon, Bernard Hopkins, or Marvelous Marvin Hagler. And this is despite having better final Compubox stats in some categories than many other all-time greats. Boxrec.com keeps good records, but fights happen in the flesh, not on paper. The legend of Golovkin is shadowed by the questions that have dogged him.
There is still the nagging suspicion that there may be at least one chapter left in the Golovkin Saga, that any fistic obituaries written on his behalf may be premature. Golovkin is thirty-eight and more than likely past his prime. But the fan in me struggles with the boxing scribe in me, and all but screams for Golovkin to have one more chance, a last crack at the cream of the crop in the division he once ruled like a king.
The third Canelo fight makes legacy sense for Golovkin and financial sense for promoters, but Canelo has made it clear that he doesn’t need Golovkin as a foil anymore, and his horizons have widened well beyond middleweight. It doesn’t behoove Golovkin to spend the twilight of his career trying to chase down a man who has the resources to run circles around him (in the courtroom and probably in the boxing ring, too). The most obvious fight for Golovkin now, the best chance for a “last hurrah,” may perhaps lie with Jermall “Hit Man” Charlo. Charlo’s an undefeated heavy-handed boxer-puncher who finally had his breakthrough performance against former Golovkin foe, Sergey Derevyanchenko.
Is Golovkin up to it? He looked good in his last outing against the fringy Kamil Szeremeta, punishing his opponent with wince-worthy shots that dropped the outgunned Pole several times before discretion got the better part of valor and the night mercifully ended for Szeremeta.
Despite the underwhelming caliber of his last opponent, I find myself thinking that Golovkin may not only have a chance to beat a younger, fresher middleweight star in his prime, but to do it in convincing fashion. And the key may lie with Golovkin’s trainer, former heavyweight Jonathon Banks.
The partnership between Golovkin and former mentor Abel Sanchez was a fruitful one, and an integral part of the Triple G myth. It came complete with the hard-to-believe tale related by Abel that Golovkin showed up at a stateside airport with not much more than a gumshield in hand and dreams of taking over the world.
The dream came true, and the myth was made good. But like most myths, there was an element of betrayal involved, and perhaps some greed. The exact details of that fallout are known only by Abel and Golovkin.
Jonathon Banks and Golovkin initially didn’t have much visible chemistry but they are starting to gel. Golovkin is usually a seek and destroy fighter willing to take shots squarely on the chin to give in return, but he has started showing more defensive wrinkles in his approach. In his last fight he mixed feints better, and actually elicited more “oohs” and “ah’s” for the shots he slipped rather than the bombs he landed.
It was easy to look good, his chorus of critics sing, because the quality of opposition wasn’t so great.
Which is to miss the point entirely. In the past, when Golovkin tasted his opponent’s power and judged it insufficient, he was happy to walk through fire and eat shots on the chin (or on that cinderblock-square head). Against Szeremeta he was dancing away from shots that he didn’t have to avoid. It didn’t even look like a conscious effort, but as if it had become habit, maybe even second nature to him.
This more balanced approach between the defensive skills and the offensive arsenal is exactly the kind of thing one would hope to see a fighter adopt at this stage in his career. Golovkin, a storied amateur and a proven world champion at middleweight, hasn’t quite reinvented himself in the same way Manny Pacquiao did after teaming up with Freddy Roach. But there was enough that was new and surprising in his last fight to make me think Triple G may have one last big drama show in him.
Then again, that could just be the fan in me talking.