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Unfulfilled Potential: How Gennady Golovkin was screwed by the system

A legacy stunted by political machinations
Publish Date: 01/01/2019
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis
Gennady Golovkin celebrating his victory over Gabriel Rosado.

There stood Ring Announcer Joe Martinez, microphone in one hand, score totals adorning the other. As he paced his way through the judges’ tallies the fighters listened intently. A brief pause sharpened the senses of fighter and fan alike before two well-known words rang out and reverberated through the arena… “And new!”

A hand was jolted skyward and a sea of jump-suited men swarmed the vir triumphalis instantaneously, raining physical and verbal congratulatory gestures down like parade confetti. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez not only became the first man to conquer boxing’s most consistent distributor of blunt force trauma in Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin, he secured the history-rich crown that is the Middleweight Championship of the World. The caveat was, he appeared to many a usurper.

As HBO’s longtime color commentator Jim Lampley would persuasively put it on his show The Fight Game: The judges appointed Alvarez the victor; the public at large made Golovkin the winner.

“Because while boxing insiders remain imprisoned within the arcane world of governing bodies and title belts and state commissions and official judges and all the technicalities over which they preside,” Lampley stated, “the general public has made a different and far simpler decision. By an overwhelming majority, fans and general media have decided Gennady Golovkin won both fights. They don’t need to confuse themselves with Compubox numbers and round by round scoring and technical analysis. Via the metric of social media, and among themselves on the street, they have spoken loudly again. They like the way Triple G competes. They love the passion his face projects. They are enthralled with his heart.

“When Muhammad Ali was judged the loser in his first fight with Joe Frazier, and lost his unbeaten record as a result, many in my generation were crestfallen. But then we learned something, as Ali’s aura only grew bigger, and Frazier had to deal with the reality that the numbers on the scorecard did nothing to diminish the love the audience felt for their hero.

“Now Triple G is something of a latter-day Ali, a global superstar seen as having been twice martyred by the hidebound and impenetrable processes of a sport that can’t get out of its own way. Canelo’s victory, however satisfying at first, will ultimately do little to increase the size or passion of his audience, built in from the start as the result of his favorable cultural perch, as the face of Mexican boxing. But the two decisions which have frustrated Gennady Golovkin have dramatically multiplied the size of Triple G nation, which is now a global cult. You don’t have to win to be the winner. That’s boxing. That’s life.”

“GGG’s” ascension to Sweet Science Sainthood may have been consummated with the stroke of three pens (well, five pens), but it was his journey for justice that positioned him as such long before his biggest bout was a good-doing-business-with-you handshake.

Anyone familiar with Golovkin’s backstory and why his team eventually reached out to American trainers understands that career issues were manifest early. The case that his fighting in a German gold mine amounted to him getting the shaft is the place to start.

After signing with Hamburg-based Universum Box-Promotion right out of the amateurs, the Rammstein-listening youngster racked up a string of impressive knockouts. Golovkin quickly set his sights on stablemates Felix Sturm and Sebastian Zbik, two of the three best Deutsch middleweights competing at the time—Sebastian Sylvester being the other. According to one alphabet organization, the former Olympic silver medalist was nipping on their heels in the ratings by 2008 and both Sturm and Zbik were ranked in the top-10 by The Ring by 2009, with Sturm holding that honor since 2003. The fights never materialized and Golovkin elaborated why in a Q&A with

“The reason for this decision [terminating his contract] is that I’ve always been placed behind Felix Sturm and Sebastian Zbik by Universum. Our demands to fight against Felix Sturm or Sebastian Zbik have been always rejected on absurd grounds. Universum had no real plan or concept for me, they did not even try to bring my career forward. They would rather try to prevent me from winning a title as long as Sturm and Zbik are champions. Further more [Sic], bouts against well-known and interesting opponents were held out in prospect, but nothing happened. This situation was not acceptable. It was time to move forward.”

Added to equation was Sturm had secured a television deal and was given a special status by the WBA to help him avoid Golovkin. The money train that was Sturm wasn’t meant to be derailed by a Kazakhstani implant few knew.

Once Triple-G connected with former Terry Norris trainer Abel Sanchez, the litigation for his contract break with Universum meant that he could not compete in Germany or stateside, so he traveled frequently for bouts between 2010 and 2012 before settling comfortably into his new training home in the San Bernardino Mountains. Late in 2012, with Golovkin already on the plus side of 30 and seemingly catching his first break, an HBO date with the highly-rated and skilled Dmitry Pirog was setup but then fell through because of a back injury to Pirog (a condition he never fully recovered from). A backup plan that resulted in a demolition job of southpaw Grzegorz Proksa garnered him national attention and moved him into the world’s #2 spot. Only Daniel Geale and Champion Sergio Martinez appeared ahead of Golovkin, with the aforementioned Felix Sturm placing right behind him.

Knowing full-well Sturm was out of the picture because of their past and that Geale was removed due to the forfeiture of his alphabet trinket, setting him on course to pursue other organizational dreams, there was little chance an elder statesman like Martinez was going to give a bomb-throwing technician an opportunity unless a big payday was attached to it. At the time that didn’t exist, so Golovkin could only pair with those brave enough to sign on the dotted line. This led to notable fights with Matthew “Mack The Knife” Macklin and New York’s hard-hitting Curtis Stevens, each of whom he dismantled, each of whom helped put him squarely into the #1 contender position.

In any sanely-run sport that is free of the innumerable “arcane shackles” that exist in boxing, separating yourself from the hordes of other contenders would denote a shot at the man residing on the peak, a trip to the summit to meet the Champion of the World. #1 versus #2, what is a more appealing concept in athletic competition? What better and more fair way for clarity?

Unfortunately, fair isn’t a word liberally tossed around fistiana and it sure as hell isn’t one attached by the public at large. The nefarious movers and shakers and their underlings can make navigation harder than a trek up Mont Blanc. So Golovkin was told, in a roundabout way, to wait his turn.

Miguel Cotto’s upset over Sergio Martinez in mid-2014 delayed the hike further. Nobody expected the naturally undersized and post-prime belt-holder to try and weather the brewing Kazakh storm. The aging Puerto Rican was at a point of calculated risk management, and even though Team Golovkin was building one of the bigger brands in boxing, planting seeds from coast to coast, a much larger paycheck loomed in North America’s established superstar, Canelo Alvarez.

Alphabet organizations, promoters, and even Cotto continued to stave off the marauding middleweight with tribute and compliments—an “interim” trinket, obligatory defenses, the sacrifice of David Lemieux, etc.—but to most contemporary observers it looked like a far more complex game of Original Donkey Kong. The difference, of course, is that video games are largely won in a matter of hours or days, depending on the genre and scope, and hitting reset is an option. In boxing, the ultimate prize can elude a man forever.

Golovkin looked to be on the verge of being added to the list of those that never got a shot once Saul Alvarez wrestled the Middleweight Title from Miguel Cotto in November of 2015. Alvarez & Company decided that a title defense against the chinny but game Amir Khan was worth their time. Then, attempting to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes, claimed that Alvarez was not physically a 160-pounder, dropped his belt after being ordered to negotiate with K2 Promotions, and then moved back down to 154 for a fight with Britain’s scrappy but overmatched Liam Smith.

Alvarez subsequently moved back up, not to 160, but to a career-high of 164.5 against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., which all but contradicted his pre-Smith claim. The thorough shellacking Chavez Jr. received garnered little praise, but it finally set the tone for a future showdown with Golovkin. Both men eventually came face-to-face and the deal was sealed for Mexican Independence Day, 2017.

The buildup for what was seen as the biggest middleweight fight in a long time was respectful and the marketing went smoothly. Anticipation among devotees was high, opinions were divided, and Alvarez vs. Golovkin saturated boxing headlines months prior to the event.

For those on both sides of the isle this fight seemed to represent a chance to show that their man’s achievements were not to be reduced to smoke and mirrors. Alvarez was not merely a product of the hype machine and Golovkin was the avoided killer. More importantly, the cat and mouse games were finally over.

What transpired satisfied the Alvarez camp. The ginger-haired boxer was able to out-body punch the body puncher. He showed grit, guile, and a big game calmness that was lacking early on for Golovkin. Questions remained about Alvarez’ stamina, however, as his work was confined to spurts.

Golovkin, on the other hand, was able to redeem parts of his reputation by being the aggressor and dictating space with his jab, but clean power punches were surprisingly few in number and he didn’t cut off the ring with his usual fervor. It all seemed good enough to warrant a clear enough decision for the 35-year-old, or so it was thought by an overwhelming majority of educated observers.

Hopes were dashed when Adalaide Byrd turned in a woefully lopsided 118-110 card in Alvarez’s favor, a score more unfathomable than Stanley Christodoulou’s 118-109 for Saul Alvarez versus Austin Trout. Oscar De La Hoya, Abel Sanchez, Tom Loeffler, and everyone else condemned her actions, with Oscar calling it a “shocker” and Loeffler and Golovkin labeling it bad for the sport.

With little legal recourse to be taken for judging “incompetence” (which is oddly common in Alvarez fights), the rematch was set for May of the following year. The proceedings were halted by two failed drug tests and then a six-month suspension on Alvarez’ part. Eventually it was remade, though the atmosphere thereafter was saturated with mud-slinging. Neither man would appear with the other until nearly the day of.

By fight time, longtime followers of Karaganda’s knockout artist were hoping for a Marvin Hagler-type performance. The fantastic switch-hitting middleweight was yanked around in his initial bid for championship status, as well, having to settle for a draw against Italy’s “neo-caveman” Vito Antuofermo. He made clear who “the man” was in his second attempt against Alan Minter, crushing the Brit in three.

A repeat of Hagler-Minter wasn’t in the cards for the aspiring challenger, but this fan saw a deeper tie than a shifty stalemate in a title fight to the former middleweight king. Hagler is often viewed as someone who was put on hold for too long—the embodiment of the eluded. If he is the standard by which 160-pounders are graded, Golovkin felt like the modern rendition.

In Marvin’s case, he stamped his place as first in line in 1977 after stopping Mike Colbert in twelve. It took him almost two years to get the fight with Antuofermo and a few months shy of three to finally obtain his ultimate goal. Gennady, by comparison, had to hold his ticket for over four (making him and Gene Fullmer the only middleweights to ever hold the #1 rating for four consecutive years while a champion reigned atop) and then one more for the next opportunity. The sharpest difference between the two is that Hagler was 25/26 years-old during that stint, while Golovkin was 35/36. One can only imagine subtracting Hagler’s pre-Tony Sibson championship work if he was delayed as long.

For starker contrast, 1977 was, as far as I can tell, the earliest account of Hagler’s name being etched among his division’s elite at all, whereas Golovkin had done so by 2011. This tacks a further two years onto GGG’s arduous journey. Of course Hagler didn’t have as many obstacles to overcome, so it’s hard to say what a potential roadmap to Title Town would have looked like if you swap contexts. That’s a hypothetical situation I don’t want to explore. Tragic tales are constantly being woven into the fabric of this age-old but unkempt sport, and Hagler’s story is well-circulated. Golovkin’s needs to be told now. Because while it has been made clear that this part-Russian architect of bodily ruination has traveled through international waters, only to be hindered by the dense political fog that hovers over it, the ramifications for these altered courses of navigation have not.

Envision an ideal, or near-ideal scenario, where Golovkin wasn’t wading through the murky, ethics-deprived swamp. A state where sanctioning bodies did not exist and therefore could not delay the blood, sweat, and cerebral toll paid to contest for what has been rightfully earned. No postponements via payout; no nonsensical “regular”, “interim”, or “recess” titles; no multiple world champion claimants; no ratings manipulated by elbow-rubbing; no prefight dinners to sway judges’ opinions; no bribes to secure favorable refereeing—none of it. Golovkin is given an impartial shake and granted his living on his merits. What then?

Presuming a principled and unified sport is much like imagining peace between Israel and Palestine. The idea comes as a pipe dream to most (not I). But without rewriting the history of pugilism altogether, Golovkin’s fistic trot through Deutschland warranted a contest with Felix Sturm and Sebastian Zbik. He beats either one of them between 2008-2011 and a win over Sturm during that frame would have put him at #1, or very close to it. A trampling of both undoubtedly does.

Given that, 2009 might be the earliest plausible year to square off with either boxer because Sturm had an obligation to redeem his dead heat with Randy Griffin in 2008 and then engaged in a big domestic showdown with Sebastian Sylvester later that year. In Zbik’s case, he was just breaking onto the world scene. This makes possible the idea that Golovkin’s ascent up the ladder brings a crack at a post-Hopkins Pavlik or his Argentinian conqueror. Though the former option might be less tenable, the greater point is that Central Asia’s barefaced body-snatcher would earn his stripes much quicker if hands were forced and no one was allowed to swerve him.

No matter if Golovkin breaks Pavlik down in 2009 or makes Martinez succumb in 2010 or even 2011, the lens by which we view his career is dramatically altered. If we assume he entered 2010 as the Middleweight Champion and matched his real pace, he may well be rolling into 2019 with 22 successful title defenses. Potential championship runs starting later in 2010 or 2011 would put his mark between 16-20—each record-breaking totals (there is a distinction between Bernard Hopkins’ total and Carlos Monzon’s, the latter of which I honor). Even if Golovkin’s pace is slowed to the now normal two fights a year, his new mark ranges from 12-17.

A provision comes in the form of top contenders getting their chance on a yearly basis. After all, I am speaking ideally. Not only is this a plus in the sense that it’s equitable, it’s also a boost for legacies, wallets, and clarity. Factoring that in only seems to add credence to where Golovkin might be. He already overcame a slew of former top names in Daniel Geale, Matthew Macklin, David Lemieux, and Daniel Jacobs, and besides those already penciled in earlier, he missed the boat on Andy Lee, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Peter Quillin, Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam, Billy Joe Saunders, and a few others, mostly of European stock.

(If I was to take this further and eliminate the 154-pound weight class altogether, as I believe should be done, the division would have been significantly deeper, with Paul Williams, Erislandy Lara, Austin Trout, Demetrius Andrade, and both Charlos participating alongside the others)

Acknowledging that upsets are always possible in this theatre of the unexpected, there is, nevertheless, no one among them who would have been favored over Gennady. That goes for Saul Alvarez, also, if he commits to the division in 2014-2015.

Even if we revert the context to boxing’s current state and reasonably picture a title match between Martinez and Golovkin in autumn/winter of 2013 to the autumn/winter of 2014, we get a potential championship tally of about 7-12.

The summary of these imaginable results, especially the former, would have put GGG in rarified air. His ticket to the International Boxing Hall of Fame would have been punched years ago and few would have blinked an eye if you had him within the proximity of middleweight immortals. The greatest fighter born on Kazakhstan soil would be his label to own.

Instead, Golovkin has to languish titleless under the baking sun of post-prime retrojection with his legacy made barebones by a system that can chew up and spit out the hardiest of men. Hordes of loud and incessant voices now attribute his peak to the 34+-year-old version whose biological modules and levers had gradually given way to the wear of nearly 400 regulated matches and untold hours of training—all of which may drape over him like a snow-soaked coat in a Karaganda winter for the rest of his days.

Unlike so many half-baked boxers whose wills dampen as the digits on their paychecks expand, Triple-G would have proven the dedicated craftsman and worn his rank with pride. He would have represented the old-school reverence for single division dominance and given us excitement to boot.

Gennady Golovkin was worth more than the sport offered him and it failed. We as fans deserve better and it likewise disappoints. Until we demand, with potential pitchfork in hand, that acts are cleaned up and large-scale reformation is implemented, you can expect Golovkin’s name to be buried among the ever-growing list of victims that this con game creates.

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