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Gym Notes classics: when Canelo and Gennady Golovkin sparred

A 20-year-old Canelo Alvarez held his own with the 28-year-old Olympic medalist Gennady Golovkin when the two unbeaten newly crowned titleholders sparred in Big Bear, Calif., in May 2011. Photo / Scott Kilbride
Fighters Network

Editor’s note: Before you skip my wonderfully written introduction to this old Gym Notes column (originally published on in May 2011) to read the details of the sparring session I witnessed between Canelo Alvarez and Gennady Golovkin please keep three things in mind:

  1. This was just ONE session of many that took place over a three-to-four week period, so other eye-witness accounts will obviously vary.
  2. I didn’t write it for the fanatical followers of both fighters to use as fodder for their endless, mindless, often rude and vulgar arguments in social media and comments sections. This column (originally titled “Gym Notes: Alvarez, Golovkin worth driving up a mountain to see”) merely recounted my first live “look” at an underground “boogeyman” of the Southern California gym scene and the first time I watched Canelo train and spar.
  3. The sparring session was NOT a big deal at the time the Gym Notes was published. Yeah, both fighters were unbeaten beltholders but Golovkin was still unknown (to an American audience) and Alvarez was still unproven. Nobody that bothered to comment under the original article said anything to the tune of “Wow! I can’t wait for these two to fight one day!”

So clear your minds of all the current media-hype momentum (and hardcore-fan baggage) that Canelo-Golovkin currently has.

This was written before Golovkin was “GGG.” This was before his September 2012 U.S. and HBO debut against Grzegorz Proksa, before the “Good Boy,” “Mexican Style,” and “Big Drama Show” catchphrases caught fire, before the sellouts at StubHub Center, The Forum, Madison Square Garden and O2 Arena in London, and long before Apple Watch and Jordan Brand knew who Golovkin was.

A boyish-looking, 20-year-old “pre-Canelo” Saul Alvarez is gloved up before a May 2011 sparring session with then-unknown Gennady Golovkin. Photo / Scott Kilbride

This was written when “Canelo” was still Saul Alvarez’s nickname. This was before his 21st birthday, before pay-per-view fights with future hall of famers Shane Mosley, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Miguel Cotto, and before stadium crowds between 30,000-50,000 in Texas firmly established Alvarez as not only Mexico’s No. 1 star, but the top boxing attraction in North America.

Now that Canelo and GGG have established worldwide brands and their Sept. 16 showdown is viewed as the biggest event in boxing, it’s time to look back six years in order to really put into perspective how far both men have come.

(Special thanks to RingTV’s intrepid videographer Daniel Morales for helping me recover old video and photos taken by Scott Kilbride the day of this particular gym visit. And extra special thanks to Max Kellerman for mentioning my name in reference to this blog while interviewing Oscar De La Hoya on the May 9 episode of ESPN’s First Take. That name drop prompted boxing fans on Twitter to ask me about the article and the session, which got me off of my lazy ass to re-post it just as Abel Sanchez’s invitation got my lazy ass to drive up that mountain six years ago.)


Gym Notes: Alvarez, Golovkin worth driving up a mountain to see

As much as I detest the long and winding drive up to Big Bear Lake, Calif., I knew I would eventually return to the mountain resort town sometime this year.

I’d been hearing too many stories about Gennady Golovkin, the undefeated WBA middleweight beltholder coached by Abel Sanchez at the veteran trainer’s gym in Big Bear, to stay away.

When Sanchez told me last month that rising Mexican star Saul Alvarez would not only arrive to train at The Summit (his high-altitude training center) in May but also spar with Golovkin, I knew my time to return had come.

Golovkin sparring with a cruiserweight at The Summit gym in Big Bear, Calif., in 2012. Photo / Scott Kilbride

By sitting in on a sparring session between the two, I’d find out whether there’s any truth to the outlandish gym rumors I’d heard about Golovkin, a 28-year-old native of Kazakhstan who has been given the nickname “Superman” by California trainers that have witnessed his ring prowess, and I’d see how talented and tough the 20-year-old 154-pound beltholder really is.

I realize that sparring is not the same thing as an actual fight. However, given what I’d heard and read about Golovkin (20-0, 17 knockouts), a 2003 world amateur champ and 2004 Olympic silver medalist who defeated the likes of Lucian Bute (by KO), Andre Dirrell and Andy Lee in the unpaid ranks, I figured he could tell me more about Alvarez (36-0-1, 26 KOs) than the kid’s fights with faded-old Carlos Baldomir and naturally smaller recent opponents such as Jose Cotto, Lovemore Ndou and Matthew Hatton.

I was able to stave off my usual altitude sickness during the drive up to the remote San Bernardino mountain town with thoughts of all the hype I’ve heard about Golovkin in recent months. It began with a text message from Sam Garcia late last June.

“Perro is getting lit up in sparring by this Russian dude!” read the text message from Garcia, an assistant trainer for junior lightweight prospect Eloy Perez, who frequently trains in Big Bear.

“Perro,” of course, is Alfredo Angulo, the rugged junior middleweight contender who was preparing for his HBO-televised fight against Joachim Alcine last July when he locked horns with Golovkin at Sanchez’s gym.

Garcia later gave me a more-detailed account of the sparring session. Lightweight contender Urbano Antillon, who is trained by Sanchez, supported Garcia’s story.

Golovkin, who California gym rats referred to as “Superman” or “The Russian” in 2010 and 2011, was cordial in person but all business in the ring. Photo / Scott Kilbride

A few months later I got a phone call from the producer of a Spanish-language sports show, who swore that he witnessed Golovkin “embarrass” Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. at the Wild Card Boxing Club during an open workout held for Spanish-language media a few weeks before the unbeaten middleweight pulled out of a scheduled Dec. 4 card.

A Wild Card regular who spotted me at the Alvarez-Hatton fight in Anaheim, Calif., this past March whispered that he heard Golovkin give undefeated super middleweight prospect Peter Quillin all he could handle at Roach’s famous boxing club.

The producer and the gym rat didn’t want to go on record for fear of being banned from Wild Card, which is understandable (I guess), but Garcia, who watched Golovkin and Angulo spar in Big Bear, has no problem sharing his observations with his fellow boxing fans.

“Alfredo Angulo is a very strong, very competitive, prideful guy who has a great team behind him, but Golovkin is on another level,” said Garcia, who says he watched three sparring sessions between the two over the course of one week. “His strength, his demeanor, his skill, everything he did in there was just too much for Angulo, which surprised the hell out of me.

“I’ve seen Angulo spar many times before and he’s always the one doing the hurting. He’s so damn tough I’ve never seen him take a step back, let alone get hurt. I was expecting him to test this Golovkin guy that I’d never seen before, but ‘Superman’ was in there taking and giving, and he hurt Angulo a couple times, especially to the body. Angulo had to get on his bike against Golovkin, which was just bizarre to see.”

I didn’t know what to expect to see when I finally arrived to The Summit (along with videographer Daniel Morales and photographer Scott Kilbride), but I was ready to see it.

The sparring session: Work, not war

Before the session (which took place on a Wednesday, May 25) began, Sanchez told me not to expect a blood-and-guts shootout. Angulo, a big, strong, mature pressure fighter, forced Golovkin’s heavy hand, so to speak.

Abel Sanchez observes a sparring session at his gym, The Summit, in Big Bear, Calif.

In general, Sanchez discourages gym wars, which is why he’s always operated out of private gyms away from an “audience” that might spur on unnecessary displays of machismo in the ring.

“Think of this gym like a school,” he said. “It’s not a public gym with pride and egos on the line. This is about learning. We’re here to work and prepare for our upcoming fights.”

Golovkin defends his WBA belt against former 154-pound titleholder Kassim Ouma on June 17 in Panama City, Panama. Alvarez defends his WBC strap against Ryan Rhodes on June 18 in his native Guadalajara, Mexico.

On this day, they would spar six four-minute rounds (which is no walk in the park 6,000 feet/1,800 meters above sea level).

“We’re using ‘Canelo’ for his speed,” Sanchez said. “He’s using us for our size.”

That was fine by me. I was using both for a column.

Round one:  

Brash young Alvarez found Golovkin, rumored to be a “hunter-killer” in sparring, to be more elusive than advertised. Photo / Scott Kilbride

Alvarez began the session sticking and moving effectively. The young redhead was on his toes when he maneuvered around the casually advancing Golovkin, but he planted his feet every time he let his hands go, including his stiff jab. However, Golovkin picked off most of Alvarez’s shots with his gloves as he quickly cut the ring off, occasionally switching stances as he stepped forward. The 2004 Olympian slipped a beautiful left uppercut through Alvarez’s guard to score the first significant punch midway through the round. Alvarez loaded up with a retaliatory hook that missed and spun him halfway around. Golovkin didn’t jab much, but he landed it whenever he let it go. Alvarez began to look for ways to counter his antagonist in the final minute and scored with a sweet right cross followed by a hook that shook Golovkin down to his shoes. The Kazakh just smiled at him, though. Unfazed, Alvarez stood his ground in the final 30 seconds and took a few hard body shots.

Round two:

Golovkin stalked a little faster while displaying decent head movement and a nice straight, crisp jab. Alvarez definitely felt the pressure as he gave ground without allowing his back to touch the ropes. He used fluid upper-body movement to evade Golovkin’s short power shots, which prompted co-trainer Jose “Chepo” Reynoso to yell “Bien, bien, muy bien!” from the corner. Alvarez landed a picture-perfect head-to-body hook combination mid-round. Golovkin fired back but the kid leaned away from the punches. Alvarez tried to counter Golovkin but couldn’t get through the older fighter’s guard. Still, the young man’s accuracy backed Golovkin off for the first time during the session. Alvarez followed Golovkin during the final minute but walked into a hard left hook that appeared to rock him with 10 seconds remaining. Alvarez didn’t return to his corner after the bell but instead tried to shake out and stretch his right leg, which immediately stiffened on impact of Golovkin’s hook.

Rounds three and four:    

Golovkin’s jab dropped off over the second half of this sparring session with Alvarez, but when he fired it, he landed. Photo / Scott Kilbride

Alvarez abandoned his jab and his upper-body movement and took the fight to Golovkin with both hands. Golovkin welcomed the aggression, easily blocking Alvarez’s punches while landing most of his. Alvarez sucked it up and even walked forward while attempting to block as much heat as he could, but it was clear that he could not match Golovkin’s strength or power. Still, the budding young star got in an occasional power punch whenever he let his hands go in bunches. His hook-right combination found the mark but his technique was not as tight as it was at the start of the session and his face was turning beet red from Golovkin’s punches. The kid showed guts but he didn’t merit a single “bien” from Reynoso in the third round. He didn’t hear it until two and half minutes into the fourth round, when he let loose with a blazing five-punch combination. Golovkin dodged or parried most of the shots but Alvarez earned his respect for the round.

Round five:   

A tired-looking Alvarez resumed his jab and lateral movement to buy himself a breather. His jab was especially effective when he shot-gunned it. Golovkin neglected his jab and looked to counter Alvarez’s left stick with single power punches (the hook in particular). Alvarez did more moving along the ring perimeter (his back now grazing the ropes) than punching, but he got off hard shots when he did let his hands go.

Round six:

Alvarez caught his second wind in the final round, bouncing on his toes with quick one-two combinations.

“Muy bien!” Reynoso yelled after Alvarez landed a right uppercut-right cross combination off the ropes. Golovkin grinned again and attacked Alvarez’s body as the kid tried to spin away. They both loaded up with single power punches during the final minute of the round. It was good stuff and definitely worth the trip. I wasn’t the only observer who appreciated the session.

“That was great,” said Antillon, who is slated to challenge WBA lightweight beltholder Brandon Rios in a can’t-miss barnburner on July 9. “Two undefeated champions going at it. You don’t see this often.”

Impressions: Sometimes the hype is real   

The 24-minute sparring session reinforced some critical observations I (and many others) have regarding Alvarez’s style and technique, but I think I gained some insight into his ring temperament.

Canelo works a small heavy bag after his sparring session with Golovkin. Photo / Scott Kilbride

Alvarez is a versatile boxer who can stick and move or stalk and punch effectively. He’s comfortable in the ring (and under pressure), but if he’s hurt or feels that he’s being overwhelmed during a fight, I have the feeling he might just go for broke instead of trying to survive.

That’s probably not the safe or smart thing to do in the face of adversity, but it’s the kind of attitude that makes an attraction even more popular with his fans.

I don’t know if Rhodes will be the guy to do it, but somebody’s going to clip the kid good (better than Cotto did or Golovkin did in the second round of the sparring I witnessed). Alvarez keeps his gloves up most of the time but his hand placement allows for a sharp shooter to pierce the center with well-timed jabs and uppercuts or to come over and around the top with hooks.

Here’s a peak at some of the observations I jotted down in my notebook while watching Alvarez spar:

“Canelo doesn’t try to avoid confrontation.”

(Written during the second round.)

“He fights in spurts. He can be outworked by a busy fighter with a constant jab. He’s got a good chin but it’s not indestructible.”

(Written after the third round.)

So the kid isn’t perfect. I was still impressed with what I saw from him because I realize that he was in with a real beast.

Let’s give him credit for daring to test himself.

“It was good for him to come here,” said Sanchez. “At home he was the big dog. There was nowhere to go up. He was probably getting complacent in his training. Here, he has to be on his Ps and Qs because there’s a bigger dog.”

That’s what the young man wanted.

“Rhodes is talented and I know he’s going to be very strong because he’s coming down from middleweight,” Alvarez said through Sanchez during a video interview following his sparring session with Golovkin. “So if I can spar with a smart, powerful middleweight champion like Golovkin, in my mind, I’m not going to have any problem with Rhodes’ ability or size.”

My first look at Golovkin was a treat. I think he’s the real deal. He won’t be able to fight in the U.S. or on American TV until he resolves his contractual dispute with Germany-based Universum, which probably won’t happen until after November (when he says his contract expires), but ‘Superman’ is going to be worth watching whenever ESPN, Showtime or HBO discovers him. Mark my words.

Golovkin is a very strong and durable athlete with all-around skill and excellent technique, which includes defensive prowess. He has good footwork. Pivots well. Makes use of feints. He’s brutal but crafty. If he can take a punch, he’s going to be very hard to beat.

A few more notes on Golovkin: 

From my notebook (during the sparring session): “His right hand is like a laser beam. It reminds me of Kostya Tszyu’s right. The way he holds his hands also reminds me of Tszyu. Come to think of it, Golovkin kind of looks of like Tszyu. He’s got the same muscle tone, Central Asian facial features and oil-black hair (sans the pigtail).”

Golovkin, who is learning English, said he had more than 300 amateur bouts.

His boxing heroes are Sugar Ray Robinson and Sugar Ray Leonard.

I met Sanchez in Big Bear back in 1999, when he was training Frans Botha to fight Shannon Briggs that summer. He’s one of my favorite trainers and he happened to train one of my all-time favorite fighters, Terry Norris.

I often tell Sanchez that “Terrible Terry” was my main guy in the early 1990s and one of the reasons I became a hardcore fan.

He told me that Golovkin would be my new favorite in about a year.

We’ll see.