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“Finally”: The Fight of GGG’s Life

Boxing observers are calling Saturday’s Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin vs. Canelo Alvarez middleweight title clash the fight of the year. For GGG, though, it’s the culmination of a lifetime struggling to reach a moment, a stage, and a matchup this big.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

People are screaming because a man is walking through a hotel lobby.

That’s all. Nothing else is happening. Well, nothing except for the DJ spinning remixes of songs featuring indistinguishable bass lines; and the mariachi band standing with their trumpets and violins and black suits, awaiting their turn; and the tourists, wearing everything from bikini covers to camo pants to tailored suits, all holding their phones aloft, cameras rolling. The bass echoes off the marble floors of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, the light off the starred ceiling. The man walking through the lobby is Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin. And all around him, people are losing their damn minds.

Golovkin is here because it’s the Tuesday afternoon of the biggest week of his life. On Saturday night, just down the street at T-Mobile Arena, he will fight Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, in what boxing observers are calling the fight of the year, a bout of substance to serve as the antidote to the empty hype that surrounded Floyd Mayweather’s fight against Conor McGregor last month. Now he’s just gotten to Vegas for the “Grand Arrivals,” a spectacle of sublime ridiculousness in which boxing makes an event out of two men doing nothing more than walking into a place that is near the place in which they will soon bludgeon each other for sport.

He looks excited. Golovkin wears a “GGG” hat, fat headphones around his ears, and the kind of smile you’d expect to see on someone who’s never thrown a punch in his life. This is part of Golovkin’s charm, an out-of-ring innocence that gives way to his in-ring violence, an affect that makes him seem like he’s approached his entire career as some happy accident, like he got lost on his way to the grocery store and somehow ended up as one of the most feared fighters in the world. This, though, was no accident. Golovkin has spent his entire life struggling to get to this moment, on this stage, for a fight this big.

In the ring, he is ruthless, dominant, technically precise and wildly aggressive all at once. At 5-foot-10 and 159 pounds, with a 70-inch reach, he stalks opponents around the ring, on the offensive from the opening bell. Since turning pro in 2006, he is 37–0 with 33 knockouts. Until his last fight, a decision victory over Daniel Jacobs, he’d knocked out 23 opponents in a row, a streak that spanned nearly a decade. Yet he’s found it nearly impossible to make a fight of this magnitude. He’s considered perhaps the most-ducked man in boxing. Even as he’s plowed through his competition, the sport’s biggest names have refused to fight him. He’s arrived at this point by building his stardom at a snail’s pace — knocking out overmatched fighter after overmatched fighter, converting fans almost one by one. He’s also gotten here by finally, at age 35, beginning to look like something less than invincible, showing vulnerabilities in the win over Jacobs.

Gennady Golovkin v Canelo Alvarez - News Conference
Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin, with Alvarez promoter Oscar De La Hoya in the background
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

For now he stands on the stage and stares at the cameras, fists raised and smile plastered on. A few fans chant his name, but plenty more try to drown that out with cheers for his opponent: “Cah-neh-lo! Cah-neh-lo!” This is, after all, Las Vegas, a city with a massive Mexican American population. And though Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, famously says the Kazakhstan native fights with an aggressive “Mexican style,” Alvarez is, well, actually Mexican.

Eventually the cameras stop flashing, and eventually the microphone-wielding TV reporters begin to recede, and Golovkin steps down from the stage and again through the crush of bodies, shaking hands and smiling until he disappears through an open back door.

The crowd thrums, even in his absence. A few shout, as if calling after him, “Triple GEEEEEEEEE!!!!” They came today to watch a man walk through a hotel lobby. On Saturday at 8 p.m. ET, they’ll watch that same man step into the ring before an audience that took years to embrace him, against the kind of opponent who long ducked him, all for a fight he believed would never come.

He doesn’t say much. Not to those in and around his camp, who’ve described him as quiet and reserved. Not in post-fight interviews, when he usually spouts a cliché or catchphrase before smiling wildly at the crowd, and not right now, talking on the phone a few days before his arrival in Vegas.

“I like boxing,” he says, as if this were ever in question. “I like old-school. I like boxing fight. Real boxing fight.”

Boxing at O2 Arena
Gennady Golovkin celebrates his victory over Kell Brook in 2016
Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

He started fighting regularly in the U.S. in 2012 and has lived in California full time since 2014, but the Kazakh still struggles at times with his grasp of English. Rather than letting it hinder him, though, he has turned his penchant for simple syntax into a quiver of catchphrases, spoken in interviews and then passed around online, stitched into T-shirts and baseball hats that brand him as an aw-shucks warrior.

After knocking out Curtis Stevens: “I respect box.”

After knocking out Daniel Geale: “This is show. This is big drama show.”

After knocking out several others who never had a chance: “He’s a good boy.”

Now, though, Golovkin speaks enough English to be a little reflective in a foreign language. He sees this fight, in which he’s a -145 favorite, as the pinnacle of his career. “For so long,” he says, “I wanted a big fight. I know my class. I know my style. I work hard every day. I want this fight. Big fight. Big name.” He’s set to make a rumored $10 million or more, regardless of the result. His WBA, WBC, IBO, and IBF middleweight title belts are all on the line. Fans around the world will spend $80 to watch on pay-per-view. It’s the kind of fight that makes the sport’s superstars. The hype, though, pales in comparison to the quality expected in the ring, two evenly matched masters of their craft whose styles — Golovkin a judicious-but-straightforward brawler, Alvarez a devastating counterpuncher — have the potential to make the bout a classic. “It’s really hard to remember when we’ve witnessed this type of matchup,” Golden Boy Promotions CEO Oscar De La Hoya said in a press conference. “It’s been years.”

Alvarez already has much of what Golovkin wants. He has the massive fan base, built mostly on Mexicans and Mexican Americans passionate about seeing one of their countrymen at the top of the sport. He has the marquee experience, having lost to Floyd Mayweather in a majority decision in 2013. Golovkin is trying to claim a platform and paycheck to match his ability. The alignment of ambition and talent is what makes this fight so tantalizing. Golovkin wants to claim some of Alvarez’s fame and fortune. Most observers believe he has the talent to do it. He’s long been good enough. But in this sport, ability is but one piece of the puzzle. Fame is credibility. Fans are currency. Golovkin is still building both.

He insists, though, that for this fight, the experience in the ring is every bit as valuable to him as the payout and legacy-building opportunity that come with it. “This fight,” he says, “is not a show. This is a real boxing fight. This is two brute fighters. Two warriors. I like this. I like it not only because of business. I like it because I like a test.” For years, he believed he’d never get a test quite like it.

Standing in the press room, a whir of activity buried far from the lobby and deep in the MGM Grand, Golovkin’s promoter, Tom Loeffler, pauses for a moment to remember his days of desperation in 2012, making call after call in search of someone to give Golovkin a fight. “I’m pitching HBO,” Loeffler remembers. “I’m saying, ‘This guy will fight anyone. He doesn’t need a lot of money. And he’ll knock everyone out.’” The response was predictable. “Yeah,” he remembers a network representative saying. “But what are we gonna do with a guy from Kazakhstan?”

Golovkin was born in Karaganda, an industrial city near the center of the former Soviet republic that touches Russia to the north, China and Mongolia to the east, and Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to the south. He was born in 1982, nine years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, and came of age in a blue-collar, often-violent, deeply impoverished city. “It was a terrible time,” Golovkin says. “The economy was broken. It was a completely different world.”

It was the world where he learned to fight, taking on older kids around the neighborhood. “I had to,” he says. “I may be a small guy, but I [had] to fight. There were so many tough guys. Football players, boxers. Everybody comes up to you and asks you questions, and they want to fight. If you have nice shoes. If you have a nice ball. They say, ‘I like that. I want that.’ You give it to them or you fight.”

He had a twin brother, Max, and two older brothers, Sergey and Vadim, both of whom were killed while serving in the army — Vadim in 1990, Sergey in 1994. Golovkin says very little about his older brothers’ deaths. He told the Evening Standard, “It was very tough, very tough. My family, it really tore us up.” In boxing, which he started just before adolescence, he and his twin found purpose and joy. They trained in a local gym through their pubescent and teen years, becoming two of the best fighters in the city, then the country. In 2004, Max made way for Gennady, the older brother by 15 minutes, to claim a spot on Kazakhstan’s Olympic team. He won silver in Athens, then moved to Germany, a hub for fighters from the former Soviet Union, and turned pro. Frustrated with his promoters’ inability to get him fights with high-quality opponents, he moved his base to the United States. Here, closer to the center of the boxing universe, he could find the kind of promotional power to get him higher-quality fights. He signed with Loeffler and K2 Promotions, and in 2010 he began to work with Sanchez, a respected trainer based in Big Bear Lake, California, who had previously trained Boxing Hall of Famer Terry Norris. Sanchez saw in Golovkin the kind of work ethic he knew made champions. “You almost had to pull him back,” Sanchez says. “Like he was going to hurt himself or someone else if he kept training as hard as he was training.” In his gym, Sanchez wrote Golovkin’s name on a chalkboard, alongside Manny Pacquiao and Muhammad Ali. “You could be right there,” Sanchez remembers telling him. “I knew immediately,” he says, “that he could be one of the all-time greats.”

Boxing fandom is often built around personalities and tribal loyalties. American fighters draw major support from their home cities. Fighters from abroad — Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Irish — appeal to fan bases built in part around ethnic identity. The TV rep who asked Loeffler, “What are we gonna do with a guy from Kazakhstan?” had a point. Few fighters from former Soviet countries — the Klitschko brothers among the exceptions — have made major inroads with American audiences. Golovkin, though, built a fan base piece by piece, fight by fight. He became a favorite of die-hards long before casual fans even knew his name. “My fans are real boxing fans,” he says. “Not just nationality fans. Like Canelo — he’s from Mexico. Some people say, ‘I like Canelo because I’m from Mexico, too.’ But people who really love boxing, old-school, true champion — those are my fans.” Those fans have latched onto his boyish personality and his silly catchphrases, along with his aggressive fighting style and his world-beating mentality — the sense that he’ll fight anyone, anywhere, anytime.

He fights with immense power and constant forward momentum, unrelenting in his pressure and his body shots. The goofy smile fades; the happy eyes harden. “Outside, I’m a regular guy,” he says. He has a wife, Alina, and two children — a son and an infant daughter, born during the build-up to this fight. He missed the birth. He was training. “I don’t like to talk about my family,” he told reporters before throwing out the first pitch at a Dodgers game. “Let’s talk about boxing.”

Miami Marlins v Los Angeles Dodgers
Golovkin throws out the first pitch at a Dodgers game in 2015
Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images

Inside the ring, he says, “I’m different. I’m Triple-G.” He pushes opponents around the ring until they’re cornered and cowering, wearing them down until the inevitable knockout punch. At times he leaves himself exposed and he takes heavy punches, but he carries one of the toughest chins in the sport. He has never been knocked down or knocked out — not as a professional or, according to Golovkin, as an amateur, not in nearly 400 total fights. “Everyone knows that Golovkin can punch, but I was surprised by his variety,” said British boxer Martin Murray, whom Golovkin knocked out in 2015. “He opened me up like no one had ever done before, and it takes someone very special to do that. … I just didn’t know where a lot of the shots were coming from, and I didn’t even see the first shot that put me down.”

For years, Golovkin’s dominance has seemed to hurt him, discouraging bigger names from risking a loss. Golovkin would call out more famous fighters — Alvarez, more than any other — in post-fight interviews, desperate for a shot at the sport’s marquee. Still, the fights he wanted never seemed to come together. After Alvarez knocked out Amir Khan in 2016, he was due to fight Golovkin, who because of the titles he held was the WBC’s mandatory challenger. Rather than take the challenge, Alvarez vacated his title, buying more time. “He was really upset,” Loeffler says of Golovkin. “We couldn’t get any big names in the ring. … People were just running in the other direction.”

Sanchez thinks Golovkin’s malaise showed up in his fights. “Some of these fights are like sparring sessions for him,” Sanchez says. He remembers a 2015 bout against Willie Monroe Jr., when Golovkin took one of the biggest punches of his career. “You can see — he kind of put his head out there for Monroe to hit him. He actually let someone hit him just so it could be a fight where there’s a little bit of a question, something to get the fans excited.”

Golovkin fights Daniel Jacobs in March Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

In March, Golovkin weathered the toughest challenge of his career, winning a unanimous decision over Jacobs. Only then — after the knockout streak ended and Golovkin looked human — did Loeffler start getting more serious interest from bigger-name fighters. “I wouldn’t say Gennady was literally pulling punches, but it’s almost like that’s the only way he could get this fight,” says Loeffler. “Now it made my job easier, but it’s really a contradiction. The worse you look, the bigger fights you get.”

Negotiations with Alvarez’s camp at Golden Boy Promotions sped up. In the spring, Loeffler secured a deal for this fight, but when he told Golovkin, the fighter didn’t believe him. The papers were signed, Loeffler said. The deal was done. Still, Golovkin doubted it was true. He’d spent too many years waiting for fights that never materialized, too much energy chasing opportunities that would never come. But it was true.

The two camps hatched a promotional plan. Alvarez was set to fight Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in Las Vegas in May. They would fly Golovkin to Vegas, where he would wait in the bowels of the arena during the fight. Then, assuming Alvarez won, he would walk out into the ring so that together they could announce their September bout. “Gennady didn’t want to do it,” Loeffler says. “He still didn’t believe us.”

Finally, though, he agreed. And only then, only when Golovkin was standing in the ring next to the man who would give him the fight that could catapult him among the greats, did Golovkin finally believe his shot had really arrived.

Now Golovkin’s image is plastered all over Vegas, his body coiled and rigid, his gloves up, his scowl fixed. This is a fight that has brought him new purpose, new energy. He has, he admits, been a bit listless over the last three years. “I lost hope,” Golovkin says. “I was emotional. I was really sad about it. I lost interest.” Now, though, the malaise has lifted. The energy has returned. “I feel like a small guy again,” he says. “I’m very happy. I like boxing again. I have more purpose.”

Back in the MGM Grand, Golovkin walks onstage Wednesday at the David Copperfield Theater for the final pre-fight press conference. He wears a black hoodie and a black “GGG” hat, his ears poking out to the sides, and he sits calmly, Sanchez and Loeffler to his right, Alvarez to his left. He stares out into the crowd while Golden Boy Promotions CEO De La Hoya takes the mic. “This is to see who is the best middleweight in the division is,” says De La Hoya, “but [also] to see who the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet is.”

Gennady Golovkin v Canelo Alvarez - News Conference Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

A parade of promoters and trainers and network executives take the stage spouting platitudes — thanking everyone who put the fight together, promising something special come Saturday night. After nearly an hour, Loeffler introduces Golovkin, and he steps to the podium. He looks small, almost engulfed by the sweatshirt and the hat that boasts his nickname, nothing like the instrument of destruction that emerges in trunks and gloves. The smile is fluid — at times shy, at others beaming — and the words are short and clear. “I am very happy,” he says. He speaks briefly about his anticipation of the fight, about his respect for Alvarez’s team, about his gratitude for HBO. And then, just before he leaves the podium to take his seat, then to leave the stage to finish his final days of preparations, he continues to speak about what this fight means. Buried in his remarks is the one word that sums up the moment at which he’s arrived and the years of work and despair it took to get here.

“Finally.”

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.

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