Undefeated cruiserweight Ryan Coyne takes a deep breath after 12 intense minutes of sparring with undefeated middleweight contender Gennady Golovkin (background), who is being attended to by veteran trainer Abel Sanchez.
I’ve written this before, but it bears repeating: It takes a very special fighter to get me to drive to Big Bear Lake, Calif.
Undefeated middleweight contender Gennady Golovkin is one such fighter.
Tom Loeffler, the managing director of K2 Promotions, which recently signed the 30-year-old Kazakhstani, invited a select group of boxing media (which amounted to MaxBoxing.com’s Steve Kim, RingTV’s videographer Daniel Morales, and Yours Truly) to watch Golovkin spar on Wednesday.
The word “spar” was the key part of Loeffler’s invite. Golovkin is a friendly guy, who works very hard in the gym and is doing his best to learn English, but if THE RING’s No. 8-rated middleweight wasn’t sparring on this day I would not have made the 100-mile trek and the winding drive up nearly 7,000 feet to the mountain resort town.
When I entered The Summit gym, run by Golovkin’s trainer Abel Sanchez, junior middleweight standout Zauerbek Baysangurov was in the ring duking it out with a game sparring partner.
Baysangurov (27-1, 20 knockouts), a rugged and aggressive WBO 154-pound beltholder from Chechnya, went brisk rounds with Sammy Gonzalez, an 8-0-1 middleweight from Chino, Calif., and Samuel Rogers, an 11-0 junior middleweight from the Virgin Islands.
I figured they were warming up to spar with Golovkin. I was wrong.
Golovkin (23-0, 20 KOs), who will fight European middleweight champ Grzegorz Proksa on Sept. 1 in his U.S. (and HBO) debut, would be sparring with Ryan Coyne and David Imoesiri.
Both Coyne and Imoesiri are southpaws, as is Proksa (28-1, 20 KOs), THE RING’s No. 10-rated middleweight, but that’s not why they were selected. The main reason they have been sparring with Golovkin is because they are BIG and able to take the punishment the WBA’s “regular” 160-pound beltholder dishes out – at least for a few rounds.
“He’s a f__king beast,” said Coyne, a 20-0 cruiserweight prospect who has recently dropped down to light heavyweight. “He’s been running guys out of here. Nobody under 175 pounds will spar with him.
“I’ve sparred with heavyweights who can punch, including Mariusz Wach and Mike Perez, nobody has hit me as hard as Golovkin. His power is out of this world.”
Golovkin’s punching prowess was on display – along with his underrated ring generalship – during his first four rounds of sparring with Imoesiri, a 6-foot-2 amateur heavyweight who was recently part of the L.A. Matadors semi-pro boxing squad.
From the beginning of the first round, Golovkin gradually cut the ring off on Imoesiri, feinting and jabbing his way inside where he “tapped” the nimble 24 year old’s body with left hooks. (When I say “tapped” I mean that he didn’t appear to put much effort into the shots, however, the punches made a loud smacking noise when they landed – and Imoesiri noticeably winced in pain.)
Golovkin stunned Imoesiri into the ropes with a lead right midway through the round, prompting the amateur standout fire back a four-punch combination with impressive hand speed. However, Golovkin blocked the shots and pushed the bigger man back into the ropes.
The ring had become a very small space for Imoesiri within the span of four minutes (the length of all of Golovkin’s sparring rounds).
“See what I’m talking about?” said Julian Jackson, who I sat next to during Golovkin’s rounds with Imoesiri. Prior to the session, the former junior middleweight and middleweight titleholder compared Golovkin to a prime Julio Cesar Chavez.
“When I first saw him I thought he was the spitting image of Chavez, and it turns out that he fights like him too,” said Jackson, who brought Rogers, his nephew, up the mountain to soak up the professional environment Sanchez has created and, admittedly, to see what all the fuss over Golovkin was about.
“I liked his work ethic before I even knew it was him,” Jackson continued. “Oh man, he trains like an animal! But once he got into the ring, I saw things that reminded me of Chavez. He’s strong and aggressive, but he’s also very accurate with every punch. And I like the body work. That reminds me of Julio.”
When I first saw Golovkin spar last May he reminded me of a 160-pound version of Kostya Tszyu. He flashed a sharp jab and a laser-straight right hand much like the former junior welterweight champ.
However, that was more than a year ago. Since then, Golovkin has stopped Kasim Ouma (TKO 10), Lujan Simon (KO 1) and Makoto Fuchigami (TKO 3) and he’s had three full camps with Sanchez, who has been adding technical aspects of the Mexican and American boxing styles to his star fighter’s rock solid Eastern European foundation.
Watching Golovkin slip and parry punches while marching in range to land pin-point liver shots did indeed conjure images of a prime Chavez in my head. (I still say Golovkin looks more like Tszyu than JC Superstar, but I wasn’t going to argue with an all-time great puncher like Jackson, who happens to be a wonderful human being.)
In the second round, Imoesiri attempted to meet Golovkin head on. He tried to swarm Golovkin with fast flurries but couldn’t land clean shots or deter the smaller man. Golovkin walked through the punches Imoesiri did land – mainly the jab. By the end of the round Imoesiri returned to his stick-and-move strategy.
In rounds three and four, Golovkin kept Imoesiri’s back to the ropes and tormented the young man with an assortment of compact crosses and hooks to the body and head. The final minute of the fourth round was particularly brutal, but Imoesiri says he’s becoming accustomed to the punishment.
“The dude can hit, I’m still getting used to it,” said Imoesiri, who like Coyne, is delightfully bright and articulate. “It’s crazy. I sparred with [undefeated WBA heavyweight beltholder] Alexander Povetkin and he never hurt me like this guy.
“I must have done 50 rounds while in camp with Povetkin and it was three and half weeks before he hit me with something that made me hold on. With Golovkin I was ready to get out of the ring 45 seconds into our first round of sparring. He hit me with two lefts to the body in the identical spot and had me doubled over. I got through it but it’s hard to defend against 6-inch punches with that much pop. He backs me into a corner with just a jab.
“And it seems like he does it effortlessly.”
After Imoesiri, Coyne went three rounds with Golovkin. It was clear from the start that the 30-year-old college grad from St. Louis respected the smaller man. Coyne boxed smart by keeping Golovkin at bay with a snapping power-jab and then moving out of range whenever Golovkin slipped by it.
“I’m learning a lot by being in the ring with him,” said Coyne, who observed that Golovkin’s power is due to his punching technique and positioning as much as it his physical strength and natural ability.
“He’s not a big middleweight, but he dictates range very well and he puts you at the end of his shots, so you always get the full impact. He’s so poised and professional, picking every shot; I have no choice but to learn. I can’t compete with him just by being bigger and more athletic.”
Coyne constantly moved his head and feet, often doubling his jab to the body and head – wisely mixing his punches up to avoid being timed and countered by Golovkin. Only at the right moment would the former University of Missouri football player plant his feet and drop a quick two-punch combination.
He landed a few of those, including a good uppercut-cross off the ropes during their second round, but by their third round he found himself cornered. Golovkin isn’t untouchable but he’s sure as hell tough and persistent.
Golovkin doubled his hook to the head and body of Coyne, who fired back in spots and finally spun off the ropes in the final minute of the round, looking weary but also a touch relieved that the session was almost over.
The close of Golovkin’s seventh round ended 28 minutes (remember, they were going 4-minute rounds, folks) of quality sparring. I asked him how he felt before he left the ring.
“Of course, I feel good,” he said, smiling warmly as he always does when he’s not punching someone. “(It’s) good work. I’m relaxed, I’m having fun.”
It didn’t look fun for Imoesiri and Coyne.
“That’s why I have to put him in with big guys,” said Sanchez. “He’s too relaxed when he spars with middleweights or junior middleweights. They can’t hurt him. It’s so easy he doesn’t bother to defend himself. He gets silly.
“We have a saying in my gym: ‘There’s no free shots.’ I don’t want my fighters letting opponents hit them. So sparring with the bigger guys makes him work his defense – to a degree.”
Sanchez, who has worked with at least 10 former titleholders over the past 30 years, says Golovkin is the best fighter he’s ever trained. That’s quite a statement considering the fact that Sanchez trained former junior middleweight champ and recent hall-of-fame inductee Terry Norris.
I got the feeling my old HouseofBoxing and MaxBoxing cohort believes Sanchez by the look on his face after the sparring session.
Kim sat on a stool in front of the ring with a look of disbelief.
“He literally wore this big guy down,” said Kim, who isn’t easily impressed. “I don’t think either guy could have gone one more round with him.”
The last time Kim and I witnessed a middleweight systematically dismantle competent big men with this much efficiency we were watching Bernard Hopkins spar in Las Vegas – 12 years ago.
By no means am I comparing Golovkin to Hopkins. They are different fighters and Golovkin has a long, long road to travel in order to come even close to emulating The Executioner’s all-time great accomplishments.
However, his handlers hope the HBO-televised fight on Sept. 1 is a major step in that journey.
Getting the coveted HBO date wasn’t easy, Loeffler believes the American premium cable network will gladly follow Golovkin’s rise going forward. Unlike the Klitschko brothers and other K2-promoted fighters, such as Ola Afolabi and Baysangurov, who usually fight in Europe, Golovkin will be marketed to an American audience.
“American fans will like his style,” said Loeffler. “I think he’s the biggest puncher in the middleweight division.
“We’re not overlooking Proksa by any means. He’s an unorthodox southpaw and a big puncher himself. But with Golovkin’s amateur background – he was a 2004 Olympic silver medalist and a two-time world amateur champion – I think he can adjust to any style.
“The middleweight division is deep and he’s willing to fight all the top titleholders and contenders. We began the year pushing for [WBA “super” titleholder Felix] Sturm. Gennady has been Sturm’s mandatory for two years. Sturm held off the WBA by taking the [IBF beltholder Daniel] Geale unification bout. Gennady would have been happy to fight [undefeated contender Hassan N’Dam] N’Jikam, but N’Jikam gave up his WBA interim title so he wouldn’t have to fight him.
“So we went after [WBO titleholder Dmitry] Pirog, who needed an opponent after Geale withdrew from the Sept. 1 date to fight Sturm, but he pulled out with an injury. Vanes Martiorsyan was briefly mentioned as a replacement before Proksa stepped in and we never had a problem with facing any of them.
“We’ve made clear to the U.S. cable networks – HBO, Showtime and Epix – that Gennady will fight anyone. We agreed to every term to make this fight happen because the U.S. exposure is more important than any other term.”
So what can American fight fans expect when they tune in on Sept. 1?
Coyne guarantees they will witness the special fighter I’ve twice driven up a mountain to watch spar.
“I can’t wait to see him fight Proksa,” Coyne said. “I think he’s going to destroy that guy. I’m really excited about Golovkin.”
If Golovkin delivers against Proksa, Coyne won’t be the only one.
Photos / Daniel Morales and Doug Fischer (taken with his crappy little Motorola Karma)
Email Fischer at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @dougiefischer