It’s just about the most embarrassing thing that can happen when you have a phone interview with one of boxing’s biggest stars.
The call gets made. The interview begins.
And then the decrepit replacement phone you use (because you were dumb enough to jump into a swimming pool over the summer with your previous phone tucked into your pocket) doesn’t allow you to hear anything the fighter says.
“Hello Kelsey,” an ever-polite Gennady Golovkin said to me all three times the interview began. He remained just as polite after two stop-and-starts, the frantic finding of an alternate phone solution and the third-time’s-a-charm connection.
But Golovkin didn’t just seem polite. He seemed genuine about it. That’s a rarity in today’s world.
More applicable to what happens once the bell rings, when Golovkin hits somebody, they almost always fall down. That’s also a rarity. Golovkin has won 27 of this 30 fights by knockout, including the last 17. He not only knows how to punch with concussive force, but where and when to do so.
Golovkin is a knockout machine. But the 32-year-old from Kazakhstan doesn’t really know what to say if you ask him about it.
“It’s hard work every day in my gym,” said Golovkin. “It’s hard work. A long time ago, hard work every day.”
Golovkin’s work is paying off. He’s become one of HBO’s signature fighters, and appears to be on the verge of becoming one of boxing’s elite superstars. But what sets him apart from his competition? And how did his rise seem to come along so very fast quickly?
“It’s been a lot of work,” said K2 Promotions’ Tom Loeffler. “I call it a perfect storm in terms of the efforts on our side, the training on Abel Sanchez’s side and Gennady’s fighting style in the ring.”
Loeffler said Golovkin’s style has helped him both inside the ring against opponents and outside the ring with fight fans as well. Golovkin is an offensive force who is fun to watch fight.
“One unique quality Gennady has is his ability to cut off the ring and adapt to any style put in front of him,” said Loeffler.
Golovkin is an aggressive stalker with incredible power in both hands. He walks his opponents down as if they were his prey and disposes of them in due measure. Loeffler said it’s been difficult to get top-tier middleweights in the ring with Golovkin, despite his fighter holding the WBA and IBO middleweight title belts.
HBO Sports’ Vice President of Programming, Peter Nelson, put it most succinctly: “It’s not to say that any middleweight fighter is scared of a fight with Gennady Golovkin. It just seems like they don’t want to be there when it happens.”
Golovkin has come a long way in just two short years, but Loeffler believes it could have happened even faster had certain fighters been more willing to engage him than suggested by Nelson.
“Unfortunately, none of the big names were willing to get in the ring with him. It’d have been much easier had Sergio Martinez—when at that time he was considered the No. 1 middleweight—if he would have taken a fight with him. Or a different name like Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or Peter Quillin. We made a number of attempts at trying to get Quillin in the ring. I think it would have gone quicker had he gotten a bigger name to fight him. We’ve had to do it the hard way as far as keeping him active.”
Despite the difficulty in finding opponents, Golovkin has stayed active enough to fight his way into being one of the top budding stars in the sport. He fought four times in 2013 and his bout Saturday against Marco Antonio Rubio will be his third of 2014. Golovkin was scheduled to fight in April as well but the bout was cancelled due to the passing of his father.
“That’s the other unique quality about Golovkin. He wants to stay busy, unlike many champions who fight once or twice a year, Golovkin’s schedule is always for four fights a year. That’s also what made his rise possible in such a short period of time and without having a real A-side name on his record.”
HBO sure seems to like him. Nelson, said the growing mandate among fans to see him fight started because of his mysterious background.
“He’s always existed as a kind of myth,” said Nelson. “You take a look at a guy who had close to 400 amateur fights and lost almost none of them. And he wasn’t just winning the fights, but he was knocking out amateur fighters like Lucian Bute with head gear on. You take that kind of mystique and apply it to a professional career where he goes on these long knockout streaks…and everyone had heard a story or two about Gennady Golovkin…this is a kid who really earned his way.”
Nelson referenced rumored gym wars with Chavez, Alvarez and Sergey Kovalev as well as YouTube clips of Golovkin obliterating European fighters as key aspects of Golovkin’s mosaic of intrigue.
“So much of it starts with the press honestly. The mandate to see Gennady arose from the curiosity about his mystique and a desire to give the man an opportunity to see if he’s real. Everyone can relate to that. Everyone has had a moment in their life where all they wanted was an opportunity, and all they were asking for was someone to give it to them. And they knew that if they got it, they would make the most of it. Everyone can respect a man for whom it takes him nearly being 30 years old just to get the opportunity he’s wanted. That’s a relatable experience in any language and any culture.”
After some early-career promotional struggles in Germany with his previous promoter, Universum, Golovkin found his way to Loeffler and K2. Loeffler said his team’s commitment to Golovkin was making him into a global star, something they believed would necessitate bringing their fighter to the United States in order to achieve.
“Fighting in the U.S. is very important for me,” said Golovkin. “It’s my dream. For my fans, for my family and for my team of course. This is my life.”
But the knock on Golovkin has less to do with his age or even what he displays inside the ring when the bell rings and more with his lack of elite dance partners, willing or otherwise.
Boxing writer Bart Barry of 15Rounds.com told me he’s not buying the idea that Golovkin could become one of the best middleweights ever, something bandied about frequently via social media.
“I would say it is almost a mathematical impossibility for Golovkin to become an all-time great at middleweight,” said Barry. “Marvelous Marvin Hagler was not even a year older than Golovkin is right now when Hagler retired as an all-time great…Before we even consider using a word like ‘great,’ we have to look at fights a man has won against other greats. A prime Bernard Hopkins could have beaten Golovkin’s last three opponents in a handicap match with all three in the ring at the same time.”
Barry also believes at least some of the mystique around Golovkin has to do with his complexion.
“He’s an offensive force, and he’s fighting in a remarkably poor era. Just as importantly, white Americans – who compose the majority in our country, and the vast majority of boxing writers – identify with him in a way they do not identify with Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao or Bernard Hopkins. He may not speak English well, but in appearance and demeanor he otherwise reminds us of ourselves, and boxing has always been more honest about ethnic identification than America at large.”
Regardless, Loeffler said he expects Golovkin to become the premier fighter in the sport. In other words, Loeffler believes Golovkin will take over the mantle from Floyd Mayweather within the next couple of years, whether the latter takes a fight against him or not.
“I think that’s his destiny. I think he has that rare combination of not only being the best fighter but also being perceived as the most exciting fighter. Not since Mike Tyson have you seen that. I think Golovkin, after next year, will rise to tops of pound-for-pound lists. He’s even willing to go outside of the division for big fights.”
Loeffler said fans enjoy Golovkin’s ability to end fights with his fists as much as any other quality he might possess, something increasingly important in the age of bogus boxing judges and controversial decisions.
“There’s never a controversial ending to Golovkin’s fights,” said Loeffler.
Moreover, Loeffler said he expects Golovkin to finally get his chance against top-tier boxing stars next year. He said HBO’s financial commitment to Golovkin was substantial enough now that it would help GGG secure bouts against the likes of Chavez, Cotto and/or Canelo Alvarez. Moreover, Loeffler mentioned possible showdowns against Carl Froch and Andre Ward at 168.
HBO Sports’ Senior Vice President of Operations and Pay-per-view, Mark Taffet, indicated that Golovkin might just be the right man for the right moment in time.
“Inside the ring, he has tremendous knockout power,” said Taffet. “It’s the attribute by which he’s identified most. And it’s an incredibly fan-friendly attribute.”
Perhaps equally fan-friendly is that Golovkin and his team seem whole-heartedly engaged in putting him into the ring with anyone between 154 and 168 pounds. Loeffler said as much, and Golovkin himself brought up Cotto, Chavez and Alvarez by name as 2015 targets without even being asked about it. That’s a quality that a PPV guru like Taffet can really get behind.
“He’s willing to fight anybody,” said Taffet. “Not only is he a great middleweight champion, but he can fight anywhere from 154 to 168 pounds. He’s said numerous times he’s willing to fight anyone in those weight classes. Fans love that.”
Taffet called Golovkin part of the foundation of HBO’s boxing programming “for years to come,” and said Golovkin seemed poised to become one of boxing’s biggest stars. He said a proposed bout against Chavez earlier this year fell through on the Chavez side and would have been Golovkin’s first appearance on HBO PPV.
Still, Golovkin’s future appears bright.
“He’s fighting often and regularly on the HBO service,” said Taffet. “So he’s on boxing’s No. 1 television platform to the largest and broadest audience possible at the most important developmental stage of his career. His style appeals to fans in the same way Manny Pacquiao’s style appealed to fans early on through his fights with Marco Antonio Barrera, Juan Manuel Marquez and Erik Morales. Gennady has that same universal appear in the ring.”
Heck, even one of Golovkin’s biggest critics believes the fighter is on his way to becoming a big deal.
“I believe he already is among boxing’s biggest stars,” said Barry. “HBO has thrown the weight of its diminished credibility behind him, and with the dearth of talent in prizefighting today, and the disproportionate exuberance that adheres to his every accomplishment, there’s no reason to believe he will not ascend to an outsized stardom–at least until he encounters Andre Ward.”