Gennady Golovkin may not, on first glance, be the least likely candidate for scariest man in the world honors, but he's certainly in the bottom 10th percentile. With his protruding ears, lean physique and ever-present, ever-enigmatic smile, Golovkin looks every bit the extra from Borat, more Muppet than murderer.
It's the eyes, however, and not the smile or the ears or the pidgin English, that truly tell the tale, that truly show just how terrifying the Kazakh middleweight can be. Not Golovkin's eyes, mind you. Nicknamed the "God of War," his nearly vacant stare never changes during the course of a boxing match. No, in this case it was opponent Curtis Stevens' bulging, unbelieving eyes after being knocked silly in their fight last November that tell you all you need to know about Golovkin.
Stevens, musclebound and fierce, looks like a prototypical modern boxer. If life were a video game, Stevens would be Mike Tyson, or at the very least the Sandman. Golovkin, if he made the cut at all, would be just another Don Flamenco, a skinny goofball used in the game's opening bout to put players through their paces. Aesthetically, Golovkin, built with ropey muscles that will never land him a gig as a calendar model, had no business beating Stevens.
And yet there his foe, bulging biceps, was—on the mat. Incredulous. Impressed. And, perhaps, just a little bit scared.
It's a phenomenon that rival promoter Gary Shaw has seen before.
"The same thing used to happen with the old Mike Tyson," Shaw told The Courier Mail. It's a comparison you'll see over and over again in the press, encouraged by Golovkin's trainer, Abel Sanchez.
Stylistically, temperamentally and aesthetically, Tyson and Golovkin couldn't be more different. But Sanchez believes the comparison goes beyond the surface; they create the same feeling in fans and opponents.
"He has the Mike Tyson effect where you don't want to go to the refrigerator because the other guy is going to get knocked out," Sanchez told Bleacher Report. "He's not as reckless let's just say as Mike Tyson was, but he definitely hits hard with both hands, and we have modified his style to be an aggressive fighter and to come forward and make it a fight."
Golovkin? He barely even seemed to shift gears. Combining the stoic calm of an old-school Soviet era amateur with the testosterone-driven stalking style of a prime Julio Cesar Chavez, Golovkin is a fearsome creature when he finds his rhythm. And, unlike many aggressive and attacking fighters who use that style to cover up a lack of punching power, Golovkin can bang.
It's this raw power that has legs shaking and visions of dollar signs dancing throughout the boxing world. Twenty-nine times he's stepped into the boxing ring as a professional. Twenty-six times his opponents have failed to answer the final bell. It's a strange kind of power, all languid fluidity and measured control. There are no lunging power shots in Golovkin's game. He simply throws punches, and other men fall down.
"He doesn't have that thumping power," Stevens told The Ring after the fight. "He has that wear-you-down power."
Of course, Golovkin has no explanation for this otherworldly power. When reached via translator the week before his showdown Saturday with fellow middleweight standout Danny Geale on HBO, I could practically hear the shrug of his shoulders through the phone line as I asked about his punching prowess. I was not the first and surely won't be the last to come seeking the Holy Grail of boxing truth.
"I have this power because I'm training very hard," Golovkin told Bleacher Report. "Every day. I'm so thankful to my trainers who make me feel so powerful."
It's a non-answer and he knows it. But, in fairness, there is no easy answer. All boxers train hard. All hope to end fights. Most likely the genesis of his unusual ability is unknown—even to Golovkin. His grin, however, he finds easy to trace. That comes from his family, which he says makes it easy for him—despite the routine reticence of most Eastern Europeans—to flash a smile.
"I'm a very open and a very happy person," Golovkin said, clearly understanding my questions but using a translator for clarity. "I'd like to thank for that my parents...I'm a very happy person because I'm doing what I love most in my life. Boxing makes me happy."
When he's not training, Golovkin lives with his wife Alina and son Vadim in Stuttgart, Germany. His early home, however, is a decidedly less tranquil and idyllic place. One of four sons born to a Russian coal miner and a Korean lab assistant, he arrived into young adulthood at the crux of his nation's history. Not only a religious minority in a country dominated by Muslims, Golovkin was also ethnically Russian at a time his country was pulling free from the red embrace of the motherland.
"When I was a boy it was still Soviet Union," Golovkin said. "It's two different countries—what was back then and what is now...Life was very hard for everyone there when the Soviet Union collapsed. My family included. You didn't know what to expect. But things have gotten better and better in Kazakhstan. As an independent country life has gotten better and better."
With all this in the backdrop, fighting became a salvation for Gennady and his twin brother, Max. A string of street fights marked their early life, according to Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix, fights often egged on by older brothers:
Growing up, Sergey and Vadim would walk the streets with Golovkin and pick men out of a crowd. Are you afraid of him, they would ask Gennady. When he said no, they told him to go get into a fight. Sometimes they wrestled, sometimes they boxed, sometimes they just threw punches.
"My brothers, they were doing that from when I was in kindergarten," Golovkin said. "Every day, different guys."
You can see why boxing, introduced early and a full-on obsession by 10, could grab a hold of Golovkin and never let go. Ray Leonard, Tyson and old tapes of "Sugar" Ray Robinson would flicker across the screen at night as Golovkin dreamed of the fistic arts. It was obvious, quite early he says, that this was, perhaps, not just a mere pastime but a future.
More than 350 amateur fights later, including a silver medal-winning performance at the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, and Golovkin was ready to throw his hat in the professional ring just like his idols, a rarity for Kazakh boxers who normally disappear from the amateur scene never to be seen again.
|Gennady Golovkin By the Numbers|
|Average Rounds per Fight:||4.27|
He started in Germany, home of a thriving boxing scene headlined by imports like the Klitschko brothers and homegrown products like middleweight Felix Sturm. But though success came early in cities like Berlin and Hamburg, Golovkin soon found himself at an impasse. A coherent promotional strategy never materialized. His promoter at the time, Universum, refused to make a match with Sturm, the logical stepping stone for a fighter bound to eventually graduate from the smaller European scene and, not coincidentally, a client of the same promoter.
"I tried in Germany," he said simply. "I reached a certain level but I wasn't happy. I felt like I was losing time. So I came to America."
Golovkin joined K2 Promotions, jumping promoters and continents, and decamping to America with Sanchez in Big Bear, California.
"I've had the pleasure of working with a lot of great fighters, but this one is by far the best one that I've ever worked with at any period of time in their careers," Sanchez told Yahoo's Kevin Iole. "...All the international experience has made him such a serene fighter, such a composed fighter. The one thing that he does have is he possesses lethal power in each hand, so to me, he's probably the best I've ever worked with."
Here, despite a growing reputation for ferocity and an ever-increasing, HBO-fueled stardom, little has changed. Yes, people stop him in restaurants and on the street for pictures, something he accepts with a smile but says he doesn't court.
"I feel good about the attention," Golovkin admitted. "But I'm not advertising myself. It's not something that excites me."
But despite this rising profile, the reigning stars still want no part of Golovkin. Andre Ward, Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. and Miguel Cotto have allegedly all declined shots, in Alvarez's case perhaps a response that might stem from a sparring shellacking Golovkin once put on him upon first arriving in the States.
"It’s easier to make fights for Wladimir Klitschko than it is for Golovkin. Unlike heavyweight contenders, middleweights have other options...if they want to go for a world title," K2 managing director Tom Loeffler told The Ring's Doug Fischer. "...Golovkin’s got a major title and dates on HBO, which offers good money, but there’s still nothing but excuses from potential opponents."
What remains unspoken is that these other options, men like Peter Quillin or Miguel Cotto, are significantly less scary than Golovkin. Fear motivates many decisions in boxing, but apparently none of Golovkin's. He has the casual ability to ignore it, seen only in children and undefeated fighters.
I imagine what it must be like to step into the ring with "GGG," this 160-pound meat cleaver. The rapid heartbeat, the crippling self-doubt. It's all unthinkable for Golovkin, who told me he's never, even in the moment, thought any boxer standing across from him was perhaps the better man.
"Never," Golovkin said emphatically, breaking into English for a moment. "I've never had a feeling like that."
It's this extreme confidence that makes him so dangerous. His confidence is beguiling and more than a little intimidating. He walks through opponents' punches in what can only be described as a dismissive manner. If he gives off an air of invincibility, it's only because he's never been given a reason to doubt.
But, at 32, Golovkin's 10-second count has already begun. In his absolute physical prime, these are the defining fights of a boxer's career. Golovkin, rather than stamping his pass to Canastota for the Boxing Hall of Fame, is stuck biding his time, a predicament that seems to upset me much more than it does him. I mention Manny Pacquiao as a possible template for his career, should things go well, but he rejected the comparison.
"I'm so happy for Manny Pacquiao. He's had such a great career. But there is no name I want to be like," Golovkin said. "Each boxer has his own life. There is no boxer I look at and say 'I want to have a life like him.'"
Since he couldn't scare up a fighter with a big name, Geale is a good fallback choice. A hard worker who throws punches in absurd volume, Geale will make things exciting—if he can survive. The two met in a 2001 amateur contest, one neither has particularly vivid memories of. Golovkin won the decision, however, and Geale knows the current version is much more dangerous than the one he met more than a decade ago.
"To be honest, Gennady is the type of guy, he’s got a powerful punch and everyone knows about his skills to back that up," Geale told the press during a conference call. "You can’t be one-dimensional in any way because he will find a hole. To me, that is good because I have to improve and I have to step up and fight at my best. Normally when I do fight great fighters, I step up and fight better as well. In this case I am going to make that happen."
Promoters are also stepping things up economically, graduating Golovkin from the Theatre at Madison Square Garden to the grand old lady proper. It's a tough challenge. Unlike other foreign fighters of his caliber, there is not a ready crowd of expatriates primed and willing to support him the way Mexican fans embrace Alvarez and Puerto Ricans come out in droves for Cotto. Right now, Golovkin is left to carry any promotion on the strength of his name alone.
HBO executives, searching for stars after the Golden Boy defection last year, believe Golovkin has the potential to be a real ratings draw. HBO Sports president Ken Hershman told Bleacher Report the fight with Stevens was the third most-watched bout of 2013. Even better, it was a 30 percent increase over Golovkin's previous bout with Matthew Macklin earlier in the year. That, seemingly, is a sign of a rising star—one they believe may eventually shine bright enough to be a pay-per-view attraction as well.
"He has all the makings of a big, big star," Hershman told the New York Daily News. "Inevitably, fighters of his talent, if he continues to perform like he has been, will evolve probably to PPV. So we’re continuing to build that franchise."
If the bout is a success, both athletically and at the box office, Golovkin will be one step closer to where he wants to be—taking control of his own destiny and his own career, becoming the A-side main eventer who will get whatever fight he desires.
"I'm not worried that I haven't had fights with all these big fighters yet," Golovkin said, sly to the end. "Maybe they should be worried they haven't had a fight with me yet?"