Gennady Golovkin’s gambit
WBA/WBC middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin is an anomaly. In an era in which boxers jump weight classes more often than rope, Golovkin has stayed in and dominated the middleweight division like few before him. Many champions have media campaigns launched on their behalfs to push their brand but “GGG” grew his following slowly by intuition more than marketing. Unusually for a respected champion, Golovkin’s entire career and legacy are going to be measured by the performance he delivers against lineal middleweight champion Saul “Canelo” Alvarez tonight (HBO Pay-Per-View, 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT). It is a heavy mental burden, under which a decade-long journey up the pound-for-pound ladder will be defined by 12 rounds.
Both men are talking knockout after acrimonious, pre-fight purse negotiations, followed by even more heated verbal pronouncements by the fighters and their camps. Still, given their expertise and experience (to include their first meeting, in which neither was noticeably hurt), the possibility of a stoppage loss for either boxer seems exaggerated. This means the fight comes down to which fighter prepared better and employs his game plan to maximum effect.
An extra little bit of motivation for Golovkin is, with a victory, he will break Bernard Hopkins’ record for most middleweight title defenses, at 21. Trainer Abel Sanchez noted a synchronicity to Hopkins’ record-breaking defense, “Gennady has trained and is prepared to do the same thing to Canelo (Hopkins stopped Oscar De La Hoya with a body shot in his 20th title defense). We have freshened it up and even gave it a name, ‘The Ginger Snap.’ Personally I think it would be poetic justice to break the record using the same type of punch that Bernard used on Oscar to unify the middleweight titles.”
Of all the characters in this Shakespearean drama, Sanchez has been the most erudite, “Saturday’s fight will define Gennady and Canelo. We are going to see if Canelo is coming to fight or coming to run, to survive, in hopes of receiving another gift from the judges. Gennady is ready to take the wind out of Canelo’s sails with that punch to the liver. Gennady doesn’t just fight Mexican-style; he fights like a Philadelphia fighter of old. Don’t be surprised if Gennady ends things using a punch that is a throwback to those days – a classic liver shot – to puncture the Canelo myth once and for all.”
Never a shrinking violet, Saul Alvarez is amped for a fight he sees as key to restoring his honorable name, “I’m delighted to once again participate in one of the most important boxing events in history. This second fight is for the benefit and pleasure of all fans who desire to see the best fight the best. This time, Golovkin won’t have any excuses, regarding the judges, because I’m coming to knock him out.” Golovkin said he welcomes an Alvarez who takes more chances, “It feels right that the rematch returns to the scene of the crime. This time there will be no drama with a decision. I won the first fight and left the ring as world champion wearing all the belts. And I am going to win the second fight.”
It might be a good change of pace to hear from two boxers who shared the ring with Golovkin and Alvarez. Sporting News’ Chris Walker caught up with Martin Murray (who suffered an 11th round TKO to Golovkin) and Liam Smith (who lost via ninth round KO to Alvarez) to get their perspectives on whom emerges victorious. Murray picked Golovkin, reasoning, “It’s his movement. He never stops coming forward. The hardest thing to do with Golovkin is keep him off. He’s relentless and there’s not a lot you can do from keeping him moving onto you. He’d take these little steps, then, all of a sudden, he was right in front of you again and, when he’s doing that for most of the fight, then it becomes so hard.”
Somewhat surprisingly Liam Smith thinks Golovkin has a slight edge as well, “His variety is hard to live with. You have to be prepared for attacks from all angles because he throws every shot in the book and he throws them all with spite too. His jab is good, uppercut is good; he tries to make you miss and come back with counters. I knew (Canelo) had a lot of variety before I fought him because he was someone I had watched as a fan before it became a possibility he could become an opponent and it’s that variety that’s his biggest strength. I think he’ll just fall short in the rematch because, for how good he is, I think Golovkin can step it up that little bit further.”
Since the outcome of this fights rest on a fine line, it is not surprising that every detail was disputed and negotiated, choice of referee included. Veteran East Coast referee Benjy Esteves Jr. was eventually agreed upon by unanimous consent. The Nevada State Athletic Commission originally tabbed Kenny Bayless (who refereed the first fight) but he ruled himself out for personal reasons. Second choice Tony Weeks was bypassed after the Golovkin camp, notably Abel Sanchez, asked Weeks be eliminated, given a previous dispute over pre-fight instructions. A good third choice was out of the question in Robert Byrd, since his wife Adalaide Byrd handed in an absurd 118-110 scorecard in favor of Alvarez over Golovkin in the first fight.
The Vegas oddsmakers take every detail into account as well and the current odds favor Golovkin slightly at -155, while bettors can find value with Alvarez at +125. A considerable shift from the opening line, in early June, that favored Golovkin -190 or nearly two-to-one. For savvy bettors a draw is again a great payout with 20-1 odds. The current line is identical to what was found at betting shops for the pair’s initial encounter. The odds continue to tighten, as money pours in on Alvarez, which has a lot to do with the wave of Mexican fans making their way to Las Vegas for the big event. So the current odds may reflect national pride more than sporting value.
Alvarez’s pride was dented by the two failed drug tests (positive for the steroid clenbuterol), which may have precipitated his refusal to embark on a media tour. That is what Golovkin believes, “People are not stupid. He would have been faced with some uncomfortable questions and he probably doesn’t have enough courage to face the truth, to face those unpleasant questions.” Alvarez seemed unfazed, when he sat down with media members. “I’m very bothered and I’m angry at their accusations but I will utilize it in my favor. The first fight gave me the guidelines to know what to do in the second fight, to know what to do differently. I learned that I can knock him out. I learned that I can hurt him.”
Golovkin always enters the ring with an even temperament but the cool Kazakh seems genuinely disdainful of Alvarez this time out. Perhaps, at age 36, Golovkin needs that extra push? “Saul Alvarez has disrespected the sport, public and supporters. I am ready for him. He will need to fight in the second fight because he lost so much respect from the fans. I had a good experience in the first fight but I’ve a different mentality for the second fight. I believe this fight will be much better. Much bigger, more action, more drama. I’m ready. I’m excited. I want to put on a big dramatic show.”
I believe Golovkin edged the first fight but, in the interim, Golovkin turned 36, while Saul Alvarez entered his physical prime at 28. This may be offset by Canelo looking less bulky and more mobile and small intangibles such as these separate the winner. Golovkin’s learning curve from the last fight is the difference. He presses early, forcing Alvarez on the back foot. Alvarez could be more open for Golovkin’s precision shots if he moves less, as some anticipate, and not boxing for one year may translate to timing issues for Alvarez. Otherwise I see a replay of the first fight, with Alvarez edging some rounds and Golovkin closing strong. The first three rounds make the difference again, this time going to Golovkin, earning him a tight, unanimous “Big Drama Show” decision.