The Square Jungle: On Gennady Golovkin-Kell Brook
Remembering Bobby Chacon, who died on Wednesday, also means remembering an era when, for the most part, fighters were eager to take on their fiercest peers, often because there was a correlation between big fights and big paydays (not necessarily the case anymore) and, often, because a marquee matchup could spark a career in which success was dependent on tangible factors: excitement, ratings, ticket sales and closed-circuit receipts.
Over the last few years, however, boxing has seen its (ostensible) headliners deke and duck more often than a drunk hipster – Narragansett or Pabst Blue Ribbon? – in a game of dodgeball. But even during the Premium Cable Era, you could find fighters like Chacon willing to forget about a possible loss. In fact, you only have to go back to the early aughts for hellions tearing up the boxing landscape: Take Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez as a starting point. In the span of a little over two years, Felix Trinidad fought Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, David Reid, Fernando Vargas and Bernard Hopkins. Overreaching led Shane Mosley to demand immediate rematches against style nightmares Vernon Forrest and Winky Wright – who both repeated against him. Even a star like De La Hoya, whose crossover appeal meant entering the risk pool was largely unnecessary, faced potential drowning against Whitaker, Ike Quartey, Trinidad and Mosley. Against Bernard Hopkins, a physically overmatched De La Hoya reached his physical limits as well as the limits of his sporting imagination.
Unusual among Al Haymon clients, Paul “The Punisher” Williams sought out the most feared welterweight of his era,, Antonio Margarito, and declared himself open for business from 147 to 160 pounds. After being outmaneuvered by cagey Carlos Quintana in February 2008, Williams showed the kind of moxie lacking today: In their immediate rematch, Williams atomized Quintana in less than a round. Even Floyd Mayweather Jr., to some, a byword for caution, fought Jose Luis Castillo again when their first fight in April of 2002, resulted in a controversial decision. Back then, even Mayweather wanted to set the record straight. Today, however, empty resumes in boxing are as common as selfies.
Unified middleweight kingpin Gennady Golovkin, who faces talented IBF welterweight titleholder Kell Brook tomorrow at the O2 Arena in London, has created a parallel universe of fighters unwilling to face him, except in, presumably, gory nightmares. Boxers, high-profile independent contractors long before the sharing economy could even be imagined, operate with a minimum of safety nets: unions, pensions, insurance. And that lack of a rainy-day fund is now such a boogeyman that fighters go around as if waiting for some sort of biblical flood to deluge them. Consequently, Golovkin is set to face Brook in a mismatch that has left him in a no-win situation all around.
As it is, standout middleweights are few and far between. And those who have managed to establish themselves as legitimate contenders in an age when a single notable win gets you ranked on fetishist pound-for-pound lists – here WBA “regular” beltholder Danny Jacobs and WBO titlist Billy Joe Saunders qualify – have been transparent in their reluctance to tangle with Golovkin. According to Chris Mannix, formerly of Sports Illustrated and now with The Vertical, Saunders was looking for Brinks Robbery cash to face GGG: reportedly $4 million. Saunders is more eager to insult ESPN’s Dan Rafael on Twitter than he is in solidifying his credentials as a prizefighter.
Similarly, Jacobs can be found applying false chest hair with trembling fingers between tweets. Meanwhile, he is still under the contractual thumb of Al Haymon and is scheduled to face Sensory Deprivation specialist Sergio Mora in a Sept. 9 rematch.
Then there is the strange case of erratic Chris Eubank Jr., who somehow managed to toboggan himself out of a marquee fight he could not stop yapping about. Eubank Jr. has a style best described as obnoxious – both in and out of the ring – a genetic marker handed down by his father, Chris Eubank Senior, who, in the 1990s, had no problem classifying most boxers as “mugs.” This contemptuous attitude to his peers did nothing to prevent him from suffering the same occupational hazards he felt so sure he was above: late-career beatings, a loss of stature, penury and mercurial behavior in post-retirement. Ultimately, Eubank could not see eye to eye with his promoter, Eddie Hearn of Matchroom Boxing, who pulled the rug out from under him with David Copperfield-like flair. Enter Brook, 30, to roll the dice.
Are there middleweight candidates out there who could have filled the bill tomorrow night? Although Al Haymon is short on of expendable middleweights for his Premier Boxing Champions outsourcing program (designed to counterbalance 24/7 expenditures and, perhaps, to undermine a pending anti-trust suit), Maciej Sulecki is coming off of a fairly high-profile win over previously undefeated Hugo Centeno Jr. on NBC. Similarly, Avtandil Khurtsidze, the destructive human spark plug, hammered Antoine Douglas into oblivion, a bloodthirsty performance whose replays merit a “Viewer Discretion Advised” label. In Argentina, Jorge Sebastian Heiland, long No.1 contender in the WKRP, is still waiting around for someone to text him an offer for a title shot.
True, none of these middleweights have a prayer against Golovkin. And none of them have the moneymaking potential of a fight against Brook. As an event – one that will pack London’s O2 Arena and shift pay-per-units in Britain – Golovkin-Brook makes the kind of economic sense all too common in boxing these days. Once again, a U.S.-based fighter is looking overseas for a cash jolt, just as Saul “Canelo” Alvarez chose Amir Khan for ancillary revenue (to go along with a size advantage and a Waterford Crystal jaw at which to aim), so, too, Golovkin has chosen Brook to fatten a bank account HBO seems unable to feed for the remainder of 2016. Across the Atlantic, nationalism – as proven by recent political events – is a phenomenon that bleeds over into sporting events and Brook will have as many fans, come fight night, as Manchester United.
In the past, K2 Promotions has had to overpay fighters just to get them into the ring with GGG (most notably David Lemieux, whose financial minimums forced a risky pay-per-view outing last year that ultimately undercut the Golovkin as superstar narrative arc), leaving Golovkin with modest purse differentials over his opponents. This fact brings up a point both Saul Alvarez and Oscar De La Hoya have hinted at in their sidestepping gambits: Golovkin has been so oversold that his profile cannot possibly produce the kind of jackpot an opponent expects for facing a “superstar.” A legitimate box-office attraction in the U.S. and a solid, if unspectacular, HBO draw (largely because HBO ratings for boxing have flatlined this year), Golovkin still cannot generate the necessary numbers to make a remunerative two-way split with a co-star viable.
So Golovkin risks the backlash and gloves up against a man two divisions below him. Naturally, the “styles make fights” advocates have joined forces with the “size does not matter” apostles over the last few weeks, in hopes of making Golovkin-Brook sound as potentially violent as a Shaw Brothers production. Using the historical barometer of Sugar Ray Robinson defeating Jake LaMotta for the middleweight title in 1951, as Yahoo! Sports’ Kevin Iole did, is one of the sillier false equivalencies out there. Robinson not only had more than two dozen bouts at middleweight before challenging LaMotta (a man he had already beaten on four previous occasions) but he had already won and defended a splinter version of the middleweight title three times. In addition to repeatedly proving himself superior to LaMotta, Robinson was also the best prizefighter ever to step into the ring.
Although Brook passes the LCD/LED eye test (remember when Amir Khan was the same size as Saul Alvarez at press conferences?) so important to the peanut gallery, he will, indeed, be undersized against GGG. The fact that Brook weighed 176 pounds a few weeks ago caught many, who have never been to a gym or spoken to a professional trainer, by surprise. As long as “Special K” did not leave a good part of himself in a sweatbox during training camp, then boiling down to welterweight was an advantage he had over his peers in the same division. Needless to say, against Golovkin, he will no longer have that edge. (It should be noted that, as IBF champion, Brook was prohibited from gaining more than 10 pounds from the initial weigh-in to a second weigh-in on the morning of a title fight.)
Nor does Brook have a world-class resume to inspire confidence in an upset. By the time he answers the opening bell against Golovkin at the O2 Arena, he will have been a pro for over 12 years. Not only has Brook not been hit by a hard-punching, world-class middleweight, he has not been hit by a hard-punching world-class welterweight. In nearly 40 fights, Brook has faced an assortment of odds-and-ends in the ring, with his only notable win coming against Shawn Porter, whose tenacity and determination almost make you want to disregard a style as elemental as a pictograph. Add a few stylish stoppages of some tough second-raters (most notably Rafal Jackiewicz and Jo Jo Dan) and you have all the ingredients for making a contemporary star: gaudy numbers and limited accomplishments – certainly not enough to claim that Brook is on par with Golovkin as far as achievements go.
In fact, this will likely be the biggest story concerning bridgework in the U.K. since Martin Amis first started undergoing maxillofacials – to the sadistic glee of British tabloids – more than 20 years ago. Consider it some sort of moral victory if Brook can finish with all of his teeth intact after going an as-yet-undetermined number of rounds with Golovkin. And if, some chance, Brook should exceed limited expectations, then give him credit for having talent enough to meet his ambitions straight-on. No matter what the outcome, however, Brook will always have the distinction, for one night at least, of separating himself from his peers by dreaming big. Because for most contemporary prizefighters, boxing is little more than a rigged game whose smoky backrooms have shifted to glittery boardrooms in New York City and Las Vegas. As a sport, boxing now suggests a W.C. Fields skit about cardsharps in “My Little Chickadee.” “Is poker a game of chance?” Fields is asked. “Not the way I play it,” he replies.
Carlos Acevedo is the editor of The Cruelest Sport and a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His work has appeared in Boxing Digest Magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World Magazine and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to Remezcla and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization.