The Square Jungle: On the Saul Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin snafu
Ours is the ADD, TMZ, 3G, TLDR era, when the almighty feedback loop – digital terror on perpetual 24/7 warp drive – too often atomizes contemplation and renders the present, almost instantaneously, into a dimly-remembered past. Although “Canelogate” has already receded into that strange millennial vortex, its effects still have echoing consequences and may yet have future ones as well. What the collateral damage from Saul Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin II reveals is this: PEDs are more than just a danger to participants and a threat to the spirit of aboveboard competition. They are also a devastating scourge to the fight industry itself as a whole.
At the center of the fallout, of course, is Alvarez himself. Innocence in boxing – that bright, guilty world of sports – is a relative concept but Alvarez took further steps in trying to distance himself from the stain of PEDs when he submitted hair samples to the Nevada State Athletic Commission for testing. The samples came back negative for traces of clenbuterol. In fact, the sparkling results may be less an exoneration of Alvarez than an indictment of the iffy process itself. After all, Alvarez failed two drug tests in February. Then, a few weeks later, on March 29, he submitted a hair sample to a Utah lab, which found no traces of clenbuterol at all. This, despite the fact that Alvarez had unquestionably produced positive A and B samples, under VADA protocols, for a banned substance less than two months earlier.
Not even NSAC head Bob Bennett, who took time off of deep-sixing four-rounders to act authoritative, sounded convinced of these findings, and the PR blitz Golden Boy Promotions produced lacked the smug certitude of most fight racket communique. “We initiated the test to be as comprehensive as possible but knowing it’s very difficult, according to the experts,” Bennett told Dan Rafael of ESPN. “It’s a difficult process to be able to confirm whether there is clenbuterol in the hair follicles but I talked to (Sports Medicine Research and Testing Laboratory President and laboratory director) Dr. (Michael) Eichner and he said they’d run the test even though it is even more difficult to run on light-colored hair. But we sent them the samples and the tests came back negative.” “Forensic Files” fanatics can make their own judgments about the seemingly paradoxical outcome of this analysis but Alvarez doubled-down on his defense when he enrolled in a year-round testing program run by VADA. For now, Alvarez has a reputation that has been dented but not, perhaps, disintegrated.
The biggest casualty of Canelogate, though, is Golovkin. If missing out on the biggest payday of his career was not enough, Golovkin has also lost the momentum he had gathered by fighting regularly for several years. Because pay-per-views of this magnitude still operate on the protracted build-up process of the pre-Internet era (few seem to have learned from Floyd Mayweather Jr., who proved, in his showdowns against Manny Pacquiao and Conor McGregor, that blockbuster events no longer need a promotional groundwork of three or four months), Golovkin has lapsed into the idleness far too common among American professionals.
With his rematch against Alvarez scotched, Golovkin was forced to make an emergency title defense on May 5 against the woefully undeserving and underprepared Vanes Martirosyan, to avoid an extended layoff. (Another interesting sidebar here concerns the fact that semi-retired Don King scored Martirosyan his biggest fight and not Premier Boxing Champions mastermind Al Haymon.) This, naturally, led to the inevitable backlash from the low-information commentariat, some of whom even went so far as to claim Golovkin was ducking eight-round fighters. But dicey hot takes may be the least of his problems. At 36 years old, Golovkin is risking more than just a paycheck by amending his financial demands and giving Golden Boy Promotions a pretext to sidestep him. With a slew of mandatory defenses looming, “GGG” is also facing the possibility of tough fights under unfavorable circumstances – reduced purses and reduced prestige to go along with the fact that Golovkin has slowed considerably.
(Another victim of Canelogate is HBO, which continues to struggle in an ever-changing media landscape, lost a remunerative event that had marquee branding value. Fortunately for HBO, Golovkin-Martirosyan drew solid ratings, thereby ameliorating some of the criticism it received for broadcasting a barbarous mismatch. But having Martiroysan smeared on its airwaves did little to combat the notion that HBO has slipped into an irreversible slide.)
Finally there are the promotional machinations jumpstarted in response to a seemingly exploitable development. Golden Boy has long been the worldwide leader in circulating press releases about deals leading nowhere, such as partnerships with Film Network TV and World Poker Fund Holdings. And who can forget De La Hoya TV? (Not me. When a DLH TV rep approached me about being a talking head for one its shows, I told him to check with his boss. Naturally nothing ever came of this glorious opportunity. That, at least, was much smoother than being hired by THE RING Magazine on a Wednesday evening at 11 p.m. EST and being fired on Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. PST.) The latest De La Hoya boondoggle appears to be a mixed martial arts venture whose first mind-boggling marquee match-up might feature long-retired Chuck Liddell and semi-retired Tito Ortiz in an Octagon throwback that conjures up grainy memories of the Seniors Tours of 25-to-30 years ago, when Roberto Duran, Larry Holmes and George Foreman practically took over “Tuesday Night Fights” on the USA Network. It should be noted that Liddell and Ortiz first fought in 2004, pre-iPhone, pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter and during an era when De La Hoya himself was still swapping punches for pay.
If there is any truth to De La Hoya stonewalling Alvarez-Golovkin II, it probably has more to do with the fact that Golden Boy Promotions manages to avoid Chapter 11 bankruptcy, more or less, because of Alvarez than it does with any dispute over a purse split. With a few dates scattered across the desultory HBO schedule and a not-for-profit time-buy deal with ESPN, that only occasionally airs a competitive bout (and that largely due to the laws of probability), Golden Boy is struggling to find outlets for its talent. In addition, Golden Boy has seen several of its fighters suffer headline losses recently, including Jorge Linares and Joseph Diaz Jr. And while De La Hoya can be lauded for allowing his charges to perform on extramural cards, the fact is Golden Boy has few options for its stable. Add to this the losses incurred from an ill-advised lawsuit against Al Haymon and the crumbling PBC – in which Golden Boy came out looking like sad-sack schemers – and Golden Boy Promotions appears to be a firm on shaky ground. And Alvarez, the reigning pay-per-view king, can work as a bulwark against the proverbial wolf at the door.
Of course, you need a Rosetta stone to parse the unusual line of dissembling, in which De La Hoya, often with a grin, excels. Is there a chance that De La Hoya is simply working that highly successful promotional gimmick of gibbering non-stop, like a Bellevue inpatient, to one media outlet after another? Possibly. Is his public smearing of GGG Promotions/360 Promotions founder Tom Loeffler and Golovkin just a way of applying pressure on his recalcitrant co-negotiators? Maybe. But only in boxing can the repeated threat of canceling – that is, introducing the variable of uncertainty into an equation – an event pass as publicity. Imagine a carny barker on the midway announcing, “Step right up, folks, and maybe, possibly, see Chandu the Magician perform – if only we can get him to accept our contractual terms!” Most surprising of all, perhaps, is the fact that De La Hoya has apparently made these harebrained statements without being decked out in a combination Full Cleveland/novelty tie get-up. Among his gems in an interview with RingTV.com: “It’s clear to us that Golovkin doesn’t want to fight Canelo. It’s clear to us that after all the demands that they made, after Canelo having to do the hair follicle test, having to enroll in VADA, having to be tested by the Nevada State Athletic Commission randomly even before he was enrolled in VADA, it’s clear that GGG is afraid.”
As De La Hoya unleashes his military-grade gobbledygook to select media outlets, it becomes likelier and likelier that his verbal carpet bombings have an endgame peculiar to his own specific needs. After all, one less Alvarez fight over the course of a year means a much tighter profit margin for Golden Boy. An easy KO over someone other than Golovkin, however, would guarantee a no-fuss profit and the possibility that Alvarez could squeeze in another mismatch in December. As the biggest box-office attraction in North America, Alvarez probably has the clout to pry open even the seemingly crackproof HBO money vault. Nor does facing knock-over competition veer completely from the Canelo blueprint. After outpointing Miguel Cotto for the middleweight title in November 2015, Alvarez embarked on a comic trilogy against Liam Smith, Amir Khan and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. In other words, the idea that Gary O’Sullivan and David Lemieux could comprise the year-end calendar for Canelo is not as farfetched as it seems.
Ultimately what Canelogate offers us is a lesson in boxing quiddity or, as usual, the labyrinth but never the thread.
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 News magazine, Remezcla, Boxing Digest magazine, Maxboxing, Boxing World magazine, and Esquina Boxeo. He is also a contributor to HBO Boxing and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization. His stories “A Darkness Made to Order” and “A Ghost Orbiting Forever” both won first place awards from the BWAA.