BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. – Guys stripped to the waist dressed in fatigues, boxing trunks and sweats dash in and out of the Big Bear complex with bomb-defusing intensity.
It resembles a boot camp for U.S. Navy SEALs or some other commando training hub. Everybody wears a look of shark-like hunger.
Welcome to The Summit.
It’s all hands on deck with trainer Abel Sanchez and his small army of prizefighters from Kazakhstan to Japan. At the center of the facility is the big dog, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin (33-0, 30 KOs). The WBC “super” and IBO middleweight champion doesn’t talk much, but all eyes are were on him on Monday, directly or indirectly.
Golovkin prepares daily for his middleweight unification showdown with Canada’s head-banging David Lemieux (34-2, 31 KOs), the IBF titlist. They’ll meet – or, more to the point, collide – on Oct. 17, at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
But “Triple G” has company in this training complex … a lot of company.
The first fighter we run into is Konstantin Ponomarev (28-0, 13 KOs), who recently defeated Canada’s Mikael Zewski (26-1, 20 KOs) to win the vacant NABA welterweight title. Ponomarev hails from Miass, Russia, and since training at The Summit has discovered he can punch with more authority than previously believed. He’s happy to see visitors from the lower altitudes, but he revels in the atmosphere of the mountain training camp.
“I don’t think he knows how good he can be,” says Sanchez as Ponomarev talks to another reporter. “He can punch a little bit, but is not looking for the knockout.”
As we speak to Sanchez, a red-haired fighter heads toward the exit. It’s England’s George Groves (21-2, 16 KOs), the super middleweight from London. He’s got a date with WBC “super” champ Badou Jack (19-1-1, 12 KOs) on Saturday in Las Vegas. He shakes all of our hands before turning to run out of the gym like a cat that smells milk. His trainer chases after him with a smile.
As soon as Groves leaves, Cuban light heavyweight Sullivan Barrera (16-0, 11 KOs) walks in with a sleepy look at 1 p.m. Much earlier, he and every other fighter in camp went out for their team run. Barrera must have returned to bed, but now it’s his time to train. On a white chalkboard a schedule is posted with times for each current resident of the camp written by felt marker.
“Everybody knows what to do. They’re adults and professionals,” says Sanchez. “We’re not running a babysitter service.”
Sanchez has the innate or developed ability to multi-task with remarkable mental ability. While speaking he seems to have eyes in the back of his head and somehow spots someone behind him hitting the heavy bag in a listless manner. A few words from Sanchez will change that.
Inside the boxing ring two lower-weight fighters are about to spar.
Young Russian super lightweight Ruslan Madiev (5-0, 3 KOs) jumps inside the ropes to trade punches with highly ranked countryman Denis Shafikov (36-1-1, 19 KOs), a southpaw who fought for the IBF lightweight title in 2014. Madiev has only one loss in his pro career, but it’s been tough for him to get a meaningful bout.
“This is such a hard sport. Nobody wants to see a guy with a loss,” Sanchez says. “But you’re a better fighter when you have a loss. You learn from it.”
Shafikov has an aggressive style, but he holds back against the less-experienced Madiev, a talented 22-year-old brought over from Kazakhstan by Golovkin. The two exchange freely with Shafikov allowing Madiev to get off some combinations. It’s clear Madiev is fast. Shafikov spars like the seasoned professional he is. He knows when to crack and when to hold back. He’s not out for blood, but more on a teaching mission.
Maskiev will be fighting next week at the Quiet Cannon in Montebello, Calif. His mentor, “Triple G,” will be there.
After the sparring a few more fighters drop down from their upstairs perch. Ghana’s Freddie Lawson (24-0, 20 KOs) walks into the ring area and scans the room. The hard-hitting welterweight spots a few of his fellow warriors and shakes their hands.
Another contingent soon arrives, including large heavyweight Rashid “Ambush” Akzhigtov (2-0, 1 KO), who resembles the actor Armie Hammer in the recent “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” film. He was “discovered” by Roy Jones Jr., who saw him while the former four-division world champ was in Russia.
Then Murat Gassiev (22-0, 16 KOs), the brick-busting Russian cruiserweight, walks in, ready to begin his regular session. He’s had only three fights in the U.S. I was present at his American debut at the Quiet Cannon. He’s 6’3” and doesn’t weight more than 200 pounds, but at 21 he has time to grow into the heavyweight division. He already packs a heavyweight punch. Since arriving, Gassiev has developed a reputation as a fighter to avoid in sparring.
Soon after Gassiev begins getting into his fight gear, Golovkin walks into the ring area, like a ghost. That he has arrived so quietly caught me by surprise. He doesn’t talk much, but he is conspicuous by his presence and that makes everyone around him razor-focused. He puts on his equipment as if he’s preparing to go to war. There’s no wasted motion or idle chatter. He greets everyone in a friendly but restrained manner and continues to ready himself for the task at hand.
“He never questions anything I tell him,” Sanchez says of Golovkin. “It’s always `Yes, Coach,’ and he does everything I ask.”
Sanchez explains he loves hungry fighters and those inside his gym, from all parts of the world, are among the hungriest.
Japanese super featherweight Rikki Naito (13-0, 5 KOs) walks into the gym and bows to each and every person. Naito was brought so that he might draw from some of the Big Bear aura for which the camp is becoming famous.
Golovkin and Gassiev are busy pounding heavy bags in opposite parts of the room. The sound of their punches resonates like cannon fire. That sound, I realize, must be intimidating to those unfamiliar with boxing. The two men never look at each other, but they can hear what the other is doing. It’s raw and primeval power. And it’s worth the price of admission.
After Golovkin and Gassiev complete their impressive displays, some heavyweights enter. It’s massive Charles Martin (21-0-1, 19 KOs) and a couple of sparring partners. But the media doesn’t have time to watch them work; it’s getting late so we gather our stuff and head down the mountain. It’s always dangerous making that trip in the dark. Big Bear and its boxing boot camp, meanwhile, is still pulsating behind closed doors in the woods.
It’s no place for the weak.