Aftermath: On Kovalev-Chilemba and Golovkin-Brook
Perhaps the most interesting glimpse into the psyche of unified light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev is this: Kovalev once asked his trainer whether he punched hard enough to pursue a career as a professional fighter. That he posed this question at the dawn of his career is telling. Is it not possible this question hints at a fissure in the armor of boxing’s resident bully? In wondering if he has power enough to succeed – despite power hardly being a necessary or sufficient condition of success in the ring – Kovalev might well be revealing what fighting anxieties plague him in his most private moments.
There is also his statement that unified middleweight beltholder Gennady Golovkin, who has sparred with Kovalev, is the harder puncher of the two. It is possible Kovalev was only being polite when giving his answer; he may have been telling the truth. But it is difficult to imagine Martin Murray, who lasted 11 rounds with Golovkin, sticking around after a dozen or so clean cracks from Kovalev. Do Kovalev’s words about Golovkin also hint to a buried insecurity? He has power aplenty; he is well-versed in its disastrous potential and so perhaps it is the possibility that he too might suffer the spark that troubles him. This is not to suggest that Kovalev will crack under duress, that what makes him so menacing will evaporate when he must scramble for answers power cannot provide. But what plays out when that moment comes could be fascinating.
Kovalev was hardly the gleeful butcher in hammering out a 12-round decision over Isaac Chilemba on Monday, a fact that speaks, however surprisingly, to the caliber of opponent Chilemba proved to be. Yes, mostly lost in the declarations of Kovalev’s impending defeat to Andre Ward, in the sleuthing for weaknesses (the latter of which this column is perhaps guilty) is the honest concession that Chilemba is a sound light heavyweight. To the dismay of HBO, which was surely hoping for something more swiftly and violently spectacular to help it sell a pay-per-view between a relatively unknown Russian and an American Olympic gold medalist who need bring only a dull golf pencil to an autograph signing.
Chilemba provided not a showcase but a real fight. Real fights are better advertising than squash jobs. This idea may be lost on HBO, which has turned down quality fights to televise middling fare like the sputtering development of Felix Verdejo, who will pay Andre Ward seven figures to make a cat’s cradle of Alexander Brand in August, and signed both Kovalev and Ward to long-term contracts with an eye only to their eventual meeting. It was not lost on those watching Kovalev work his way through Chilemba.
Whatever challenges Kovalev faced on Monday, those 12 rounds should serve him well in five months. Chilemba is not an approximation of Ward, mind you: While his ability to disrupt Kovalev with well-timed jabs is something Ward is guaranteed to do, Chilemba fought Kovalev at range and paid the inevitable price for it. Ward is far more likely to glue himself to Kovalev’s chest and use dirty tactics to set up his cleaner (and dirtier) ones. Chilemba had some success fighting Kovalev’s fight. Ward will neither make that stylistic concession nor wed himself to but one approach.
The real value of the facing Chilemba is that he reminded Kovalev that, against your best opponents (which Chilemba might be but Ward absolutely is), there will be difficult and doubtful moments. To watch Kovalev between rounds was to see a fighter, on more than one occasion, betray that he was not quite comfortable with what was unfolding in the ring. Did Chilemba’s uncanny recovery from a seventh round knockdown, his refusal to be broken by Kovalev’s power (a refusal he made several times), have something to do with Kovalev’s expression? Was whatever triggered his comments about his own power gnawing at him? A better opponent could tell us and a better opponent is coming.
During the rounds in which fights are won and lost, however, Kovalev found the means to victory. The winner of Kovalev-Ward became no clearer on Monday night.
That same doubt is sorely lacking from Gennady Golovkin’s next fight. Golovkin will face IBF welterweight titlist Kell Brook on Sept. 10 at the O2 Arena in London. After years of hyperbole, it is best that K2 Promotions, and particularly trainer Abel Sanchez, retire all rhetoric regarding Golovkin that begins with “The most,” be it “avoided,” “feared,” “ducked,” “dangerous” or “destructive.” The mythology of Golovkin reached its fever pitch two years ago and with little to sustain it, rebranding “GGG” as something more realistic – indeed more achievable – is probably for the best. There is a widening gap between that mythology and what Golovkin has done to justify it. Hypothetical victories are only that.
Is Kell Brook really the only fighter brave enough to step into the ring with Golovkin? Of course not, though Brook’s willingness to jump two divisions and meet a fighter who ragdolls middleweights is certainly rare. Brook is free to make a number of high-profile fights at welterweight and he sells tickets, which is to say Brook has a real future, provided Golovkin does not significantly truncate it. Make no mistake, this is a big fight for Brook. For Golovkin, it is not so much a big fight as it is the next one.
If there are big fights Golovkin wants, he might display the same Brook-like bravery when the dust settles after Kovalev-Ward. In the meantime, he could rid boxing of WBA junior middleweight titleholder Erislandy Lara and his tedious apologists. While Golovkin-Lara is not an event, a win over the Cuban would mean more than a dozen wins over Willie Monroe Jr. and Dominic Wade and endear Golovkin to near everyone for a day or two. Are there obstacles to making a fight with one of Al Haymon’s more premier boxing champions? Sure. And if Lara balks, the shame that follows will serve him right.
That Golovkin is not the opponent-starved monster his brain trust would encourage you to believe – indeed supporters of the fighters he targets can be trusted to produce a ready-made list of alternative opponents when pressured – does not mean Brook was his first choice. Chris Eubank Jr. expressed his willingness to slay Goliath. According to Eubank’s promoter, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing, however, Chris Eubank Sr. issued demands that ostensibly negotiated his son out of the fight. WBO middleweight titlist Billy Joe Saunders was approached about a Golovkin fight a number of times and has had plenty to say about how he would expose the Kazakh. All he wants in return is $4 million – which is to say all he wants is to keep Golovkin anywhere but opposite him in a ring. Golovkin is the mandatory challenger for Daniel Jacobs’ WBA “regular” middleweight trinket. Jacobs called out Golovkin when it appeared the Eubank fight was imminent yet, as soon as that fight fell through, Jacobs backpedaled into a rematch with Sergio Mora.
And then there is Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, who chose first to fight his own welterweight Amir Khan and then to relinquish his WBC middleweight title rather than face Golovkin. So until Alvarez supposedly grows into a division he spends all but a few days a year (and every fighting Saturday) well above, Golovkin has to look elsewhere. Alvarez’s fans may mock Golovkin for fighting a welterweight but it’s not like he passed on Alvarez to do so. If you cannot see the difference there, it is only because you choose not to.
Even a move to super middleweight would hardly promise better: Many of its highest-profile fighters have already been beaten by fighters Golovkin could have fought, had greatness – not middleweight supremacy – been his modus operandi.
Defending Golovkin does not change the reality of whom he faces next, however, certainly not when the opening bell rings. And those who loathe the idea of him putting his hands on a welterweight are unlikely to turn a sympathetic, patient or credulous ear to those defenses. Make whatever defense of Golovkin you like; it is hard to deny that his career is losing its intrigue. At 34, he is wasting his considerable talent on names few recognize and fewer will remember. That impressive consecutive knockout streak is not the only pattern in his ledger.
You can follow Jimmy Tobin on Twitter @jet79.