Curtis Stevens knows exactly what he's getting into on Saturday night when he challenges Gennady Golovkin for the WBA Middleweight Championship at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. He's watched all the film and heard all the hype, but he refuses to be intimidated by his opponent's near mythical reputation.
In fact, he isn't even sure where the reality starts and the myth ends. In his view, much of Golovkin's intimidation factor can be chalked up to the hype he's received since bursting onto the scene just over a year ago.
"I believe it's the critics and the people in the boxing world who push that intimidation on the fighters. Right now, he's the most feared middleweight in the world, the highest knockout ratio, those are all things they say before the fight even starts," Stevens told Bleacher Report.
"So a man who isn't mentally strong, or a man who is coming in for a payday or whatever, that gets in their mind and messes them up."
When preparing for this type of fight, it's important for a fighter not to get lost in the moment. For Stevens, this will be his first world championship challenge as a professional, and he'll be fighting in front of a hometown crowd at Madison Square Garden.
Of course, he'll also be facing a man generally regarded as the baddest man in the sport. So how did he prepare, both physically and mentally, for all these challenges?
"Physically I just have to train my hardest. Leave it all in the gym and put it all in the gym," he said.
That's been a hallmark of his recommitment to the sport of boxing since taking two years off after suffering a stunning loss to Jesse Brinkley in 2010. He returned as a middleweight in 2012 and has won three of his last four fights by first-round knockout.
Stevens has always been known as a fighter with exceptional physical tools. He was a decorated amateur champion before turning pro, and he was considered to be an upper-tier prospect with great punching power when he made the leap to the pro game in 2004.
But as a pro, he seemed to struggle with putting it all together.
The physical tools followed him into the professional ranks, but a piece seemed to be missing from his game. Boxing is in many ways as much a mental endeavor as a physical one, and if you don't have one, you often don't have the other.
That's something Stevens found out for himself.
"I'm just focused. I was off two years watching everybody fight, watching all my people I grew up with in the amateurs become world champions. I just had to get my mind more focused and my mind right."
This newly rediscovered focus and his complete lack of fear are benefits that he feels will aid him in the ring. They have taught him that the best thing he can do is to remain true to himself.
"I'm not scared of him and I just gotta be myself. You have to take this fight like it's a regular fight. You have to go in there and just be regular. This is just like any other fight with a title at hand."
"I know I'm stronger than him. I have to be myself. Bell rings and I just walk out to the center of the ring and do what I do best, and that's just fight."
Golovkin has received a stunning amount of hype and perhaps more than any fighter in recent memory. A lot of that reputation has been earned with his physical and explosive style in the ring. But the 31-year-old Kazakh has also benefited from a boxing culture that constantly searches for the next star.
Some critics still point out that Golovkin's actual accomplishments inside the ring have been outpaced by the hype he's received outside of it, and that many of his biggest wins have come against smaller fighters and fringe contenders.
You can count Stevens amongst those who want to look deeper into the champ's in-ring record before declaring him unstoppable.
"He's a great fighter. I'm taking nothing away from him. All that most feared middleweight in the world stuff, and that he's strong, if he was this damn strong he'd have knocked [Gabriel] Rosado out cold. Rosado's corner stopped the fight because there was too much blood," Stevens said.
Golovkin stopped but wasn't able to knock down Rosado earlier this year in the same ring he'll face Stevens on Saturday night. The fight was largely one-sided and was correctly stopped in the seventh round, with the challenger's face becoming a crimson mask from a nasty cut.
Another junior middleweight who stepped up to face Golovkin for his title—former 154-pound champion Kassim Ouma—was also able to stand up to him for most of 10 brutal rounds.
"If he was that strong, he'd have knocked Kassim Ouma out. And these are all 154-pounders. Not to mention once again. So if you let 154-pounders stand up with you, how are strong are you really," Stevens said.
It's worth noting that Ouma was stopped on his feet, but he gave Golovkin a ton of trouble and fought him on near-even terms before finally withering to his assault in the final three rounds.
Stevens isn't worried about being shortchanged by fans and media that seemingly expect him to become just another blip on the radar of a fighter on the rise toward superstardom. He feels that Golovkin's strengths have been highly publicized, but his weaknesses haven't.
And he has a theory as to why.
"When the boxing world wants someone to be their next star they wouldn't put them details [weaknesses] out or try to expose them details. They always say the good about the person."
"Until after he's been upset, then that's when they'll start to say, when Golovkin fought this guy I seen this there. I seen that there. Before no, after yes, you'll see a whole lot of criticism."
If Stevens finds a way to knock off Golovkin on Saturday night, he'll certainly be correct in his prediction. There will be no shortage of fans and media willing to point out the many obvious flaws that nobody seemed willing to talk about before the fight.
Golovkin, for all his strengths, has had difficulty securing meaningful fights against true middleweight contenders. In his defense, that's not all, or perhaps even mostly, his fault. Big-name fighters haven't been lining up to face him, and he's beaten everyone placed in front of him.
Much has been written and said about his massive punching power, but Stevens is no slouch in that department. It's reasonable to say that both guys will be entering the ring against the most powerful opponent of their careers, and we don't yet have a definitive answer on how well GGG will handle a big puncher.
That's where the drama comes in. Whenever you have two guys with this type of power who are not shy about using it, you have the potential for high drama and fireworks.
Just don't blink.
Any punch can end the night, but for his part, Stevens is confident that his hand will be raised when the final bell rings—however long that takes.
"I'm winning. I don't give a damn how the fight goes. It can go 12 [rounds] or it can go one. I'm walking around with the belt on my waist. I know that much."
The bout will be televised live on HBO Saturday beginning at 10:00 p.m. ET.
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand by the author.
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