Times Square in New York City is often referred to as “the crossroads of the world.” On November 2nd, the crossroads moved nine blocks south to Madison Square Garden where Brooklyn and Kazakhstan converged for the middleweight title fight between Curtis Stevens and Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin.
Golovkin was born in Kazakhstan in 1982. He won a World Amateur Boxing Championship in 2003 and a silver medal at the Athens Olympics a year later. The most reliable accounting of his amateur record is 345 wins against 5 losses. He has never been knocked down as an amateur or professional and is undefeated in 28 pro fights with 25 knockouts. He currently holds the WBA and IBO titles.
Outside the ring, Golovkin smiles a lot and has a gentle demeanor. On the street, he could pass for a computer geek. His first language is Russian, but he speaks fluent Kazakh and some German. In interviews with the American media, he sometimes waits for a question to be translated into Russian but answers in English.
Too many fighters want to live like rock stars when they reach the top. Golovkin’s life is focused on boxing, not partying or other distractions. His wife and four-year-old son live in Germany.
“I see them between my fights,” Gennady says. “I am lonely sometimes without them because I train in California. But my work is here. I like California. California is perfect for me and, I hope, some day for my family. Life for me is good now. I am happy.”
Golovkin doesn’t look like a world-class fighter, but he fights like one. His trainer, Abel Sanchez (who Gennady calls “coach”) likens his pupil’s relentless attack to that of Julio Cesar Chavez in his prime.
“Gennady is a joy to work with,” Sanchez says. “His mentality is about improving every day. My biggest problem is, I can’t get complacent. I have to make sure that I don’t become a fan.”
Golovkin in the ring is like a threshing machine cutting through a wheat field. Or a tank that’s firing live ammunition. Choose your metaphor. He’s exciting to watch, methodically destroys opponents, and has the highest knockout percentage of any current belt holder in boxing.
“I can throw ten punches very fast,” Gennady says, mimicking shoe shining. “Br-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r . . . But why throw ten punches when you can knock a man out with two?”
Some fighters keep the “0” on their record by avoiding other top fighters. To date, Golovkin hasn’t turned down a single opponent. He has always been willing to fight the best available opposition. But other fighters with belts and fighters who are in line to fight one of the other middleweight belt holders have distanced themselves from Gennady.
Also, Golovkin is under the promotional umbrella of K2 promotions. And while K2 managing director Tom Loeffler has worked hard to advance Gennady’s career, one can make the argument that Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko could and should be more supportive. Indeed, in the “About Us” section on the K2 website, Golovkin is listed after Johnathon Banks and Ola Afolabi.
Golovkin introduced himself to the American public with a fifth-round knockout of Grzegorz Proksa on HBO in September 2012. Knockouts of Gabriel Rosado and Matthew Macklin followed. The network then slated a November 2nd date for Gennady and needed an opponent. Curtis Stevens stepped into the void.
Stevens, age 28, has lived his entire life in Brooklyn. He turned pro in 2004 and came into the fight against Golovkin with a 25-and-3 record. Most his bouts were at light-heavyweight. He was undefeated with three first-round knockouts in four fights after going down to 160 pounds.
There was a modest amount of trashtalk prior to Golovkin-Stevens; most of it from Curtis, who called Golovkin “an overrated hype job” and promised to “knock him the f--- out.”
That earned a rejoinder from Gennady, who observed, “Dangerous atmosphere, different style. I am sportsman. He has big mouth.”
“Gennady doesn’t get angry,” Abel Sanchez noted. “He gets focused.” Then Sanchez said of Stevens, “He’s going to get destroyed. He doesn’t belong in the ring with Triple-G. You’ve seen what Gennady has done so far. He can do that to anybody.”
That led Curtis to respond, “Abel saying I’m gonna get knocked out in three rounds. Abel saying I’m gonna get knocked out in six. Abel is stupid.”
Meanwhile, in a calmer moment, Stevens told writer Tom Gerbasi, “This is something that I dreamed about since I was eight years old and stepped in the ring for the first time. And to be here and to have it in my grasp, it’s amazing. I think about it every night. Some nights, there’s anxiety from thinking about it too much and I don’t get good. So in my mind, I’m saying, ‘You’ve just got to grab it. You’re either gonna give it up or go in there and take it right out of his hands.’ Come November 2nd, I’m gonna be great.”
Golovkin was a heavy favorite. Stevens is a puncher. But Gennady, who was coming into the fight riding a wave of fourteen consecutive knockouts, is a bigger puncher. Also, Golovkin had proven himself to be the more technically-proficient fighter of the two. And while no one has ever questioned Curtis’s courage, his chin was suspect.
Legendary cornerman Al Gavin once opined, “If you’re making a list of all the attributes a fighter needs, start with a chin. If you don’t have a chin, forget about being a fighter.”
Golovkin’s chin is the stuff of legends.
Still, Stevens was coming to win. And during fight week, he projected a calm confidence.
“Golovkin a fighter,” Curtis acknowledged of his opponent. “He might not look like one outside the ring, but I know he’s good. With his knockout ratio and my knockout ratio, the way it’s supposed to go is, it won’t go twelve rounds. But I’m ready to go twelve if I have to. And he’s not used to fighting someone who hits as hard as me. All he’s fought is blown-up junior-middleweights. Now he’s fighting a bigger man who’s coming down in weight. People are saying he’s the best middleweight in the world. After I beat him, what does that make me?”
Golovkin arrived at his dressing room on the second floor of The Theater at Madison Square Garden on fight night at 8:05 PM. His brother (Max Golovkin) and two other team members were with him.
The room was small, roughly twelve feet squared with cream-colored cinderblock walls and a speckled-gray tile floor. A large blue-and-gold Kazakhstani flag hung from the wall above a rectangular plastic table. Seven folding metal chairs with black cushions and television cables taped to the floor made the space seem smaller than it was.
Gennady began doing stretching exercises. At 8:20, Abel Sanchez entered. The trainer had three fighters on the undercard, including heavyweight Mike Perez, who would be in HBO’s first televised fight of the evening. Sanchez would move back and forth between dressing rooms for much of the night.
Other members of Team Golovkin came and went. Gennady checked his cell phone for text messages. Music at a low decibel level sounded in the background; an eclectic mix ranging from a woman’s soft voice over a gentle rock beat to gangsta rap.
There was little conversation. Almost always, Gennady was on his feet, pacing, stretching. At one point, he sat down and massaged his own fingers, hands, and wrists. At nine o’clock, he took a milk chocolate Hershey bar out of his gym bag and peeled off the wrapper.
“Is that for energy?” a state athletic commission inspector asked.
“No. I’m hungry, and it tastes good.”
All fighters are aware of the stakes involved when they fight; financially and in terms of their physical wellbeing. But in the hours before a fight, they process it in different ways. At a time when many fighters’ nerves are gyrating on the edge, Golovkin seemed calm and emotionally self-sufficient, almost serene.
Referee Harvey Dock came in and gave the fighter his pre-fight instructions.
“The three-knockdown rule is waived . . . The Unified Rules of Boxing are in effect . . . If your mouthpiece comes out, keep fighting until I call a lull in the action. You have two mouthpieces, correct?”
“Three,” Sanchez answered.
Abel wrapped Gennady’s hands.
There was more moving and stretching. But the stretching was becoming more vigorous. Golovkin lay down on a towel and contorted his body into positions that most people would find troubling. Then he rose, took a jar of Vaseline, and greased down his own face.
Sanchez gloved Gennady up. Max massaged his brother’s legs, back, and shoulders.
Golovkin’s eyes hardened. A transformation had begun. The gentle smile was gone. Now he was stomping around the room, growling, flexing his muscles.
Round one of Mike Perez vs. Magomed Abdusalamov came into view on a small television monitor. Sanchez had opted to remain with Golovkin. Ben Lira was the head man in Perez’s corner.
Gennady hit the pads with Abel for thirty seconds. Each punch was thrown with technical precision and thudding power. Then he paced and stretched some more before hitting the pads for another thirty seconds. Finally, he slapped himself on the temple with closed gloves. Left, right, left, right. More than a tap.
He was ready.
Sanchez applied more Vaseline to Golovkin’s face.
Perez vs. Abdusalamov dragged on.
“What round is it?” Abel asked
Twenty minutes lay ahead before Gennady would leave for the ring. He paced, shadow-boxed, and paced some more.
Sanchez gave him a sip of water.
Perez-Abdusalamov ended with Perez winning a unanimous decision. No one knew it at the time, but hours later, Abdusalamov would be in a coma in critical condition after emergency surgery to relieve bleeding and swelling in his brain.
Golovkin sat on a chair in a corner of the dressing room and bowed his head in concentration.
“It was for focus,” Gennady explained later. “This is a serious business. I understand my situation. It was for concentration in the fight. To concentrate on speed, power, and distance. To concentrate on what I must do to win for myself and my family.”
A casual observer who saw Golovkin and Stevens at the opening bell and knew nothing about either man might have thought that Gennady was a sacrificial lamb. Curtis was shorter but more visibly muscled with a menacing glare and heavily tattooed torso and arms. Stevens can beat a lot of middleweights, but Golovkin isn’t one of them.
Gennady began by working off of, and controlling the fight with, his jab. Curtis cranked up left hooks from time to time but couldn’t connect solidly. With thirty seconds left in round two, Golovkin fired a short compact textbook left hook that landed flush on Stevens’s jaw and deposited him on the canvas.
Curtis struggled to his feet, dazed, and survived till the bell. Thereafter, he tried valiantly to work his way back into the fight. There was no quit in him. Late in round four, he flurried off the ropes and landed some good shots. Midway through round five, he scored with a solid hook and right hand up top followed by a hook to the body. But Gennady took the punches well and was soon stalking his man again.
It was the kind of fight that keeps fans on the edge of their seats. Both fighters were throwing bombs and both fighters were dangerous. It seemed as though – BOOM – at any moment, something might happen. But most of the “booms” were coming from Golovkin.
Gennady showed once again that he’s a complete fighter. His footwork is such that he all but glides around the ring. He’s always looking to attack and do damage. He’s relentless but not reckless and cuts off the ring well. His jab, straight right, hook to the head and body, and uppercut are all potent. Every punch in his arsenal has the potential to debilitate an opponent.
Stevens started round six aggressively. Then Gennady unloaded on him. Boxing demands courage of fighters, and Curtis showed it. But from that point on, Golovkin-Stevens was a one-sided display of brutal artistry.
“Compassion,” Jimmy Cannon wrote decades ago, “is a defect in a fighter.”
A minute and fifteen seconds into round eight, Golovkin landed two thudding hooks to the body that hurt Stevens. Curtis backed into the ropes, and Gennady battered him around the ring with sledgehammer blows to the head and body. Stevens refused to submit, but his cause was helpless.
At the end of the round, referee Harvey Dock followed Curtis to his corner and told trainer Andre Rozier, “That’s it.”
“Okay,” Rozier responded.
The final “punch-stats” showed Golovkin outlanding Stevens by a 293-to-97 margin. And a lot of those 293 blows were particularly damaging.
So . . . How good is Golovkin?
The more people get to know him, the more they like him as a person and as a fighter. Most athletes, not just fighters, need some meanness in them to be great. Despite Gennady’s gracious persona, the assumption is that there’s some meanness there.
Golovkin has yet to fight an elite opponent. One can also make the argument that he doesn’t move his head enough and gets hit more than he should. And as Sugar Ray Leonard noted years ago, “There’s a way to beat everybody.” Invincible warriors only exist in movies and novels.
That said; Gennady is a special fighter. One hopes that, in the not-too-distant future, he’ll be in the ring with an inquisitor who has the ability to test him in a megafight commensurate with his talents.
Golovkin’s best weight is 160 pounds.
“Right now,” he says, “I am a middleweight. But this is boxing. For money, I would go to super-middleweight to fight Andre Ward. For money, I would fight Mayweather at 154 pounds.”
But would Ward or Mayweather fight him?
Mayweather? No way.
Ward? We’ll find out.
That, of course, leaves the lineal middleweight champion of the world, Sergio Martinez.
There are numerous similarities between Martinez and Golovkin. Both are dedicated professionals and superb fighters who honor boxing with their presence. They’re gracious men who treat people with dignity and respect. Even their personal mannerisms are similar. The ready smile; the nod of the head when in agreement with something that someone else has said. One can imagine that, under different circumstances, they’d be friends.
Martinez is on the downside of his career. In recent years, his body has betrayed him. Sergio has earned the right to be called “middleweight champion of the world.” But right now, Golovkin is the world’s best middleweight and it’s unlikely that Martinez will fight him.
Meanwhile, Golovkin is a reminder of the nobility of boxing at its best as contrasted with the duplicity and pettiness of so many of the people who connive and preen around fighters. That nobility was on display in the ring at Madison Square Garden on November 2nd. And it was evident again in Gennady’s dressing room an hour after the fight when the door opened and a short stocky man wearing a navy-blue hoodie and dark glasses to obscure the bruises around his eyes walked in.
Curtis Stevens extended his hand to Gennady Golovkin and spoke his next words with sincerity and respect: “Champ, you’re a great fighter. Congratulations.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book (Straight Writes and Jabs: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing) has just been published by the University of Arkansas Press.