For years Gennady Golovkin was considered too good to get a big fight. Like Marvin Hagler before him, the crowd-pleasing Kazakh known as Triple G tore through the middleweight division with an unsettling blend of patience, technique and bone-crunching power in both hands, knocking out 23 straight opponents over one blistering eight-year stretch, unifying three of the four major belts and matching Bernard Hopkins’ division record with 20 successive title defenses.
Golovkin, feared, avoided and marginalized during his decade-long ascent from YouTube curiosity to bona fide 160lb bogeyman, found himself on the raw end of the risk-versus-reward calculus that governs boxing’s matchmaking process. Denied opportunities by the brand-name stars and their promoters, he instead took as many as four fights a year against all comers to stay in the public eye on the promise that if he kept knocking them over they couldn’t ignore him for ever.
He was 35, a first-ballot Hall of Fame career in hand and nearing the edge of his prime when that golden ticket finally came in 2017: a long-awaited megafight with Mexican superstar Canelo Álvarez that placed Golovkin at the top of a pay- per view card in Las Vegas for the first time. It was the biggest match that could be made in the sport and, when it went off that September, managed to exceed the years of breathless anticipation and hype that preceded it. That is, until the ringside judges handed down a widely derived split draw that prompted deafening boos from the capacity crowd of 22,358 at the T-Mobile Arena and ripped away from Golovkin what ought to have been the defining moment of his career. Their more narrowly contested rematch one year later, another highly entertaining scrap merely flecked by controversy on the night rather than defined by it, ended in a majority-decision loss for Golovkin, his first defeat in 40 professional outings (which the Guardian scored a draw ).
That Golovkin was left with nothing to show for two fights he arguably won over boxing’s biggest star puts a fine point on the cruelty of this trade. The profile of Álvarez, who soon will eclipse Chavez as Mexico’s greatest fighter, has soared in the three and a half years since, while Golovkin has operated sparingly in the relative shadows while angling for a third bite at the cherry.
All of which brings us to Saturday, one day after Golovkin’s 40th birthday, when he will put his IBF middleweight belt on the line at the Saitama Super Arena just north of Tokyo in a unification bout against Ryōta Murata, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist from Japan who holds the WBA’s version of the title. That a third Canelo-GGG fight has been tentatively slated for September – should Golovkin get through Murata and Álvarez see off Dmitry Bivol as expected next month in Las Vegas – is one of boxing’s worst kept secrets. Funny thing is, Golovkin could not be less interested in talking about it.
Speaking with the Guardian before flying to Japan and entering quarantine, having just finished his morning six-mile run and a quick breakfast, Golovkin was briefly in high spirits about his return to the ring after 17 months away – a career-long layoff he was careful to emphasize was down to one coronavirus delay after another and not his fault.
But as it turns out, there’s plenty that Golovkin doesn’t want to talk about, least of all the loaded implications of his milestone birthday. “First of all, 40 years old is not a verdict,” he says curtly through a translator. “It’s best characterized by my lifestyle, what allows me to get out of bed every day and train. I feel comfortable, I feel great right now. Nothing has so far stopped me from continuing that.”
He adds: “Of course there are two sides of the story. It depends on what we are talking about in particular. If we’re talking about experience, experience allows me to do certain things easier. I will continue fighting as long as I feel good and can train hard to fight at the level I have come to expect of myself.”
Conversationally, all things related to Golovkin’s age and what still motivates him after everything he’s accomplished are dead ends, but nothing sours the mood quite like the mention of Canelo, even if a third fight remains one of boxing’s biggest commercial matchups. It’s no secret that Golovkin inked a six-fight contract with the streamer DAZN worth up to $100m on the promise of completing the trilogy with his bitter Guadalajaran rival. And while it has yet to materialize more than three years after he signed it, all signs point to the fight happening this year on the Mexican Independence Day weekend that has become one of Álvarez’s biennial home dates on the Vegas Strip along with Cinco de Mayo.
“There’s still time,” he says. “We need to get to it. To be honest, there are many things that should happen before we can discuss it with any certainty.”
But, to be clear, is a third fight with Canelo what he wants?
“I don’t want to sound rude,” Golovkin says, straining to respond with his once-easy smile. “I’m focused on the current fight right now with Murata. I have too much respect for Murata and his body of work from him. All my focus is on the fight in Japan and winning his title from him. With your permission, let’s talk about the fight which is on the table right now.”
Murata, who became a national hero after London 2012, has been just as inactive as Golovkin in the coronavirus era. It’s been more than two years since the 36-year-old from Tokyo climbed through the ropes for a successful defense of the WBA’s secondary middleweight title against Canada’s Steven Butler by fifth-round TKO in Yokohama. A few months later, he was installed as the sanctioning body’s primary champion when Álvarez vacated his titles to move up in weight.
“His strengths are best illustrated by his titles,” Golovkin says. “He’s an Olympic champion, he’s the current super champion for the WBA. That says a lot about him. That says that he’s a solid fighter and not too easy to fight with. He came to my training camp in Big Bear many years ago and we sparred a little. He was a serious fighter and worked very hard in everything he did in camp, inside and outside the ring. We got along very well.”
While Murata is the 4-1 underdog, there are questions about Golovkin’s form. He has fought three times since the Canelo rematch. The first, a showcase in the big room at Madison Square Garden opposite the unheralded Steve Rolls, saw him absorb an unusual volume of punishment before closing the show with a fourth-round knockout. The second was a heart-stopping tangle with Sergiy Derevyanchenko in the same space, where Golovkin was bloodied and bruised like seldom before and perhaps fortunately to win back the IBF title in a unanimous decision. The third, a seventh-round stoppage of the unknown Kamil Szeremeta in a stay-busy fight back in December 2020, is immaterial as far as a rangefinder for Canelo is concerned.
Golovkin traded in his familiar mountainous training environments of Big Bear, California, for a warm-weather training camp in Hollywood, Florida, where he says it’s easier to find capable sparring partners. The fight will mark his fourth of him with Johnathon Banks in his corner after a nasty divorce with longtime trainer Abel Sanchez and his of him first in Japan since his amateur days, when he captured gold as a welterweight at the 2001 East Asian Games in Osaka . He has been hailed as the biggest foreign name to climb into a Japanese prize ring since Mike Tyson’s fateful meeting with Buster Douglas in 1990 – perhaps no better reason to avoid looking ahead.
“My focus is on him and winning his title,” he says. “That is why I am in Japan. I look forward to fighting in a packed arena. I have missed that energy.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism