Canelo vs. Golovkin: Great expectations
Part one of a two-part series.
Sports have international appeal. Fans want to see the best athletes in the world compete against one another regardless of where they come from.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have thrilled tennis fans around the globe. Rory McIlroy has a huge following in golf. NBA stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kristaps Porzingis, Manu Gianobili and Pau Gasol are favorites in the American arenas where they ply their trade.
The most anticipated boxing match fought in the United States in 2017 was contested between fighters from Kazakhstan and Mexico.
Gennady Golovkin was born in Kazakhstan in 1982. After compiling a reported 345-5 amateur record and winning a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics, he turned pro and won his first 37 professional bouts, scoring 33 knockouts in the process and claiming the WBC, WBA, and IBF 160-pound titles. He moved to California three years ago.
Golovkin’s opponents are unpleasantly surprised by his power when he hits them. The one important component that his resume lacks is a victory over an elite boxer in his prime.
Saul “Canelo” Alvarez began boxing professionally in 2005 at age 15 and compiled a record of 49-1-1 (34 knockouts) en route to becoming one of boxing’s biggest stars.
The “Canelo” moniker is a marketing tool.
“A lot of family members and friends, they call me ‘Saul,’” Alvarez said during an August 8 media conference call. “Sometimes they call me ‘guero’. Sometimes they’ll slip and they’ll say ‘Canelo.’ It doesn’t matter to me. I accept it. That’s become natural for me. But mainly, close friends and family refer to me as ‘Saul.’”
Golden Boy President Eric Gomez and Director of Publicity Ramiro Gonzalez went to Guadalajara to meet with Alvarez before signing him to a promotional contract seven years ago.
“The first thing that struck me was how quiet and reserved and mature he was for his age,” Gomez recalls. “Then we started working with him. And Canelo has never disappointed us. He’s very responsible. He always takes care of business. In a drinking culture, he doesn’t drink. He’s a true professional.”
“He’s very respectful,” Gonzalez adds. “A little guarded with the media and in public. He is a private person and is quiet with people he doesn’t know. He’s stubborn, persistent, a hard worker and a perfectionist.”
Alvarez has been in the spotlight since he was an adolescent. The weight of great expectations has been on his shoulders for a long time. Now 27, he has defeated some of boxing’s biggest names, most notably Shane Mosley and Miguel Cotto. But they were naturally smaller men and past their prime when he beat them. Victories over Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout also stand out on his resume.
Canelo takes questions from the media in English but answers in Spanish. He has a two-year lease on a house in San Diego, where he lives for much of the year, and spends the rest of his time in his hometown of Guadalajara. He was a star before his boxing skills warranted it but kept working to get better.
He’s much more than a fighter with red hair.
“My job, and I’m very fortunate, is to box,” Alvarez said last year. “I train hard and I give the best of me. I’m not trying to tap into my market. It’s just something very fortunate that I’ve been able to have in my career. I don’t like to talk trash just to sell fights. I train hard and do my talking in the ring. I want people to respect me and to follow my fights, not because of what I say but what I do.”
The one significant blemish on Canelo’s record is a September 14, 2013, loss by decision to Floyd Mayweather. At age 23, he wasn’t ready for Mayweather. And the bout was fought at a 152-pound catchweight that wasn’t right for him.
But Alvarez didn’t just lose to Mayweather. He lost quietly. He looked confused (because he was) and didn’t fight with the intensity that was expected of him.
“I was very young,” Canelo says of that outing. “I don’t take it as a defeat. I take it as an experience.”
On November 21, 2015, Alvarez decisioned Miguel Cotto at a 155-pound catchweight to claim the RING and WBC middleweight titles. He defended the championship successfully against Amir Khan and Liam Smith at a similar weight limit before fighting a non-title bout against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. at a contract limit of 164.5 pounds.
Meanwhile, Golovkin was collecting belts while fighting at 160 pounds, and it was getting harder to justify Canelo’s claim to the middleweight crown.
An athlete should be praised for wanting to give his optimum performance every time out. No fighter should be forced to fight above or below his own best weight class. No one criticized Usain Bolt for not choosing to further prove his dominance on the track by running 400 meters at the Olympics.
But Canelo was holding on to the WBC middlweight title while refusing to fight Golovkin (the mandatory WBC challenger) at 160 pounds. Eventually, the WBC forced the issue and Canelo vacated his throne.
“Canelo wanted to fight Golovkin at 160 pounds a long time ago,” Eric Gomez said, one day before the bout finally took place. “But Oscar, Chepo, and Eddy [promoter Oscar De La Hoya and Canelo’s trainers, Chepo and Eddy Reynoso] felt it was too soon. It was the same thing before Canelo fought Mayweather. Back then, Canelo wanted the fight. Oscar, Chepo, and Eddy didn’t. They felt it was too soon and at the wrong weight, but they bowed to Canelo’s wishes. This time, Canelo listened when they told him a year ago that it was too soon for Golovkin, that he should wait until he grew to where his best weight was 160. They told him, ‘Look what happened in the Mayweather fight. Now listen to us.’”
This spring, Team Alvarez decided their man was ready. Canelo-Golovkin would be contested on September 16 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas at the middleweight limit of 160 pounds. The purse split heavily favored Alvarez. Golovkin would be obligated to fight an immediate rematch on pre-arranged terms if he won. Gennady would also be required to enter the ring first because, in De La Hoya’s words, “Canelo is the lineal champion and the star of the show.”
The bout was announced on May 6, moments after Canelo scored a whitewash decision over Chavez Jr. Golovkin walked to the ring for the first of many pre-fight promotional encounters, and Alvarez told him, “I’ve never feared anyone. When I was born, fear was gone. I never got my share of fear.”
“Good luck,” Golovkin said.
“Luck is for mediocre people,” Canelo countered.
Later, Alvarez would complain, “After this fight, they’ll say there’s another guy I’m avoiding.”
Tickets were priced from $300 to $5,000 and soon sold out.
“We’re ready for this fight,” Alvarez proclaimed during an August 8 media conference call. “We asked for it. This is what we wanted. Anything can happen in boxing at any time, more so when both fighters have punching power. We both have the power to win by knockout. Whatever it takes to win the fight, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to give all of me.”
“He respects me, and I respect him,” Golovkin acknowledged. “This is boxing. Every day is difficult and dangerous.”
“It’s going to be a chess match at the beginning,” Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer, posited. “Then, once you get past that point where they see what each other is doing, they’re going to go at each other. I think both guys are going to hurt each other and may go down. It’s going to be difficult for us, and we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
“That’s a fight I’ll actually buy tickets for and go to myself,” UFC President Dana White said.
Technically, Golovkin’s WBC, WBA, and IBF belts were on the line, as were Alvarez’s RING and “lineal” titles. But Canelo remained angry that the WBC had pressured him to fight Golovkin before he was ready to do so.
When asked about the world sanctioning bodies during the New York leg of the kickoff press tour, Eric Gomez diplomatically told the media, “We absolutely intend on fighting for the WBA and IBF. We haven’t decided on the WBC.”
Canelo quickly disagreed, saying, “No, I’m not fighting for the WBC.”
In response, WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman later decreed, “It is a matter for the boxer. Golovkin will defend his title. We will sanction the fight and the winner will be the champion of the WBC. If anyone wants to resign or not accept the title, that decision is beyond our organization. The rules are clear. A boxer can vacate. And if that’s the case, then the title will remain vacant.”
There was a resounding buzz in the media center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas during fight week.
A sport can’t thrive if it relies exclusively on big events to satisfy its fans. A handful of big fights won’t remedy boxing’s problems.
Still, Canelo-Golovkin was special. Hardened scribes who’ve seen it all were genuinely looking forward to the fight. Expectations ran high. This was more than a big event. It was a big fight, important in terms of boxing history and likely to be both competitive and entertaining.
Every champion wants to be part of a fight for the ages. Elite athletes thrive on the biggest stage possible. Within that milieu, both fighters exuded quiet confidence like the calm in the eye of a hurricane.
Golovkin had never been involved in a fight of this magnitude before, but this was what he wanted. Big fight, big stage, big money, big historical importance.
“Gennady has been a little frustrated the last couple years that he hasn’t had that marquee name step up and want to fight him,” Abel Sanchez noted. “But he’s happy that it’s finally here. He has a sparkle in his eye.”
“I am excited, waiting for fight,” Golovkin said just prior to the final pre-fight press conference. “It’s like you’re going to meet with your new girlfriend. Is huge history fight.”
Canelo responded in kind, saying, “I know it’s going to be a tough fight, and that’s what I’m ready for. I want to make it clear that I’m better than him. I’m writing my history now.”
It promised to be a career-defining fight for each man and the biggest challenge that either had ever faced. Both men are big punchers. Each has a granite chin. Golovkin likes to force his opponent to the ropes. Canelo likes to counter off them. Each fighter knew that more than a few liver shots would be aimed in his direction.
No stone was left unturned in searching for clues as to the outcome. Six years ago, Alvarez and Golovkin sparred with each other at Gennady’s training camp in Big Bear, California. Asked about that session, Golovkin responded, “I knew him, big prospect from Golden Boy. I just remember a couple of rounds. I help him and he help me, just boxing, not true fight, sparring, not like very hard sparring. I remember he’s a little bit young. His speed is good. His power for 154 is OK, not for 160. Different power, different time. That’s a long time ago. This is different story right now, different weight, different age. Right now, last couple of fights, he has power. He has more experience. He’s bigger, stronger. He’s better.”
“I was able to pick up some things,” Canelo said. “But you can’t really compare a sparring session to a fight. And we’re different fighters now.”
Alvarez had better-schooled opponents on his ring ledger than Golovkin did, although, as earlier noted, many of them were smaller men past their prime. Also, his hands are faster than Golovkin’s. The assumption was that Canelo would counterpunch against Gennady and pick his spots.
Alvarez’s partisans also pointed to Golovkin’s most recent outing when he struggled against Danny Jacobs as a source of hope. The counterargument to that was, even in their prime, all great fighters have struggled against certain opponents. And Canelo’s style is very different from Jacobs’.
Golovkin is now 35. Alvarez is 27. “Gennady’s age will catch up to him some day,” Abel Sanchez conceded. “But it won’t be in this fight.”
Still, one wondered whether, against Alvarez, Golovkin might tire enough to make him vulnerable.
“GGG is not a boxer,” Bernard Hopkins, an equity participant in Golden Boy, stated. “He has some boxing skills, but he’s essentially a stalker. He’s going to be who he’s been until it doesn’t work for him. So he’ll go after Canelo. Canelo can frustrate GGG. What I see happening is Canelo outboxing him over 12 rounds. Once Golovkin shoots his load and realizes he has to go to Plan A, B, C, and D, we’ll see if he knows his ABCs.”
“We respect Golovkin’s power,” Eddy Reynoso said. “We know what his power is, and we have to be wary of that. But I truly believe Canelo is a more complete fighter, a more intelligent fighter.”
Canelo is certainly a stronger, more complete fighter now than he was when he fought Mayweather. But Golovkin presented a completely different set of challenges.
Golovkin comes forward, attacking, attacking. He prefers non-stop engagement to more measured forms of combat. He’ll trade punches all night if his opponent is willing. In theory, that leaves him vulnerable to counterpunches. But his opponents to date have found it difficult to put that theory into practice.
“I don’t think we’ll have to lure Canelo into a firefight,” Abel Sanchez hypothesized. “I think that’s in his nature as a fighter. But Canelo doesn’t have Gennady’s power. You can teach punching technique. You can’t teach power. Gennady has power. Gennady will hit Canelo harder than Canelo has ever been hit.”
“Canelo says he dreams about a knockout victory every night,” a reporter told Golovkin just before the final pre-fight press conference.
“Yes,” Gennady responded. “But he is dreaming.”
Then Golovkin added what everyone knew: “Is not an easy fight for him. Is not an easy fight for me.”
Which fighter would dictate the pace of the fight and impose his fight plan on the other? There was no way to know. Golovkin had opened as a 3-2 betting favorite. By fight day, the odds had dropped to 7-5.
“My heart is with Canelo one hundred percent,” Eric Gomez said. “And I think he’ll win. But these are two great fighters, and this is boxing. Canelo can lose, and he can lose badly. Or he can win and look great.”
“If you put a gun to my head,” Larry Merchant offered, “I’d pick Golovkin. But if you put a gun to some other part of my body, I’d pick Canelo. That’s how close it is.”
“I am supporting Gennady because he is my friend,” Sergey Kovalev noted. “But any prediction is no good.”
For Golovkin, winning would be validation. For Canelo, winning would make him a legend.
Part Two of this report will be posted on RingTV.com tomorrow.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at [email protected] His next book – “There Will Always Be Boxing” – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism.