Knockout King Gennady Golovkin on the Brink of Worldwide Boxing Stardom

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterFebruary 19, 2015

El kazajo Gennady Golovkin, a la derecha, golpea al mexicano Marco Antonio Rubio con un derechazo para ganar en el segundo asalto del combate por la corona del peso mediano, el 18 de octubre de 2014 en Carson, California, EEUU. (AP Foto/Alex Gallardo)
Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

There is a boogie man in boxing's middleweight division, a ferocious specter, a knockout machine with legitimate power and the amateur pedigree to put it to its best use. In a boxing landscape that's increasingly segmented, his personal magnetism and fearsome countenance in the ring are resonating on multiple continents, putting the "world" back in world champion.

Best of all, he's doing it all with a broad, goofy smile planted on his face, a refreshing antidote to the paralyzing trash-talkers who do more harm with their mouths than they do with their fists.

His name is Gennady Golovkin. And if you haven't heard his name yet, don't worry—you will. He's an artist of the most primitive kind, his canvas the ring, painting in pain with an economy of movement and spare angles that belie a complex mastery of his craft. 

"He's creating a style, a fingerprint, that is all his own," Peter Nelson, vice president of programming for HBO Sports, told Bleacher Report. "You could watch at six seconds of any Gennady Golovkin fight, and if you blurred the face you'd still know the fighter. You don't have to be cognizant of what is happening at a technical level. But the gestalt of that, when you see it, you know it. That's the case with many great fighters."

On Saturday Golovkin fights British star Martin Murray for the WBA championship in Monte Carlo. He'll be searching for his 32nd win as a professional and his 19th consecutive knockout. He's a meat cleaver, a calculating yet free-swinging action fighter, a promoter's dream.

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With Manny Pacquiao presumably in his last act and Floyd Mayweather solidly ensconced in the opposition's camp, Golovkin has been the beneficiary of much of HBO's vaunted promotional power. Combined with his unquestionable ring prowess and you have the makings of something pretty special.

It's Tom Loefler's job to harness that power and make sure Golovkin becomes a star around the globe. That's what he pledged to the 2004 Olympic silver medalist when he signed him from rival Universum in 2012. Barely three years later and he's well on his way to bringing that dream to life.

The managing director of K2 Promotions, Loefler has helped guide the careers of heavyweight kingpins Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. But Golovkin has provided a different challenge and an opportunity to flex his creative powers. 

The Klitschko brothers built their names in Germany, then made a stab at worldwide stardom. Trapped behind incumbent Felix Sturm there, that wasn't an option for Golovkin. His lack of fluent German made him undercard filler, talent notwithstanding. Instead, Loefler had a different path in mind for Kazakhstan's first pugilist export.

"I made a promise to him that we'd take him to America and build him up" Loefler said. "Then bring him back to Europe to build his global brand."

Consider the first part of the mission a success. Golovkin joined fellow middleweight Miguel Cotto as the only contemporary fighter promoters felt comfortable booking the hallowed and very expensive Madison Square Garden for. Across the country in California, K2 was forced to bring in additional bleachers to accommodate a record crowd in Los Angeles' StubHub Center for Golovkin's fight with Marco Rubio last year.

By the Numbers: Golovkin's Top 3 on HBO
Matthew Macklin6/29/20131.1 million
Curtis Stevens11/2/20131.41 million
Marco Rubio10/18/20141.3 million
Source: HBO

For a Russian-speaking fighter to make these kinds of inroads in America is nearly unprecedented in boxing history. There's something special about Golovkin that bridges huge gaps, divides in language, culture and custom that are normally impassable. He inspires good will, even in boxing fans usually skeptical of anyone and everyone.

You can sense his good intentions, chuckle at his malapropisms as he mangles English in the most beautiful fashion, creating gems like "big drama show" out of thin air. Golovkin isn't building a following. He's creating a cult. And everyone is buying in, even the notoriously partisan Mexican fans.

"I would say 70 percent of the Mexican fans were chanting for Gennady when we were fighting Rubio. And he's Mexican," Loefler said. "I don't think I've ever seen that before. That really proved to me his appeal across demographic groups. The fans have picked up on his personality and his aggressive style of fighting.

"They like the way he speaks, and they know it's very genuine. It's become a trademark. People are waiting to see what he's going to say after his fights. Those sayings are not rehearsed. English is his fourth language, and he doesn't speak it perfectly. When he called Gabriel Rosado a good boy, some people thought it was a little less than complimentary. But it wasn't an insult. Translated back into Russian it meant 'he's a good person who tried.' The same thing with 'drama show.'" 

With America buying in and Mexico swooning, with more than 100 reporters showing up for a media luncheon to promote the Murray fight, Loefler is turning up the heat in Europe. The 900-seat Salle des Etoiles in Monaco seems like a strange place to launch phase two of the Golovkin plan. But it has two very important attributes that make it ideal.

The royal couple at a previous Golovkin fight
The royal couple at a previous Golovkin fightLionel Cironneau/Associated Press

First is the unparalleled elegance, befitting the fighter's status as a master artist. Prince Albert and Princess Charlene will be in the front row, joining many other members of the European elite in black tie, a fancy audience for the most base of shows.   

More importantly is the prime spot the locale offers for European television. Monaco will bring Golovkin to boxing fans in his home continent on prime time and on prime television networks, including Channel 5 in Britain and Sat 1 in Germany.

Instead of limiting the audience to those diehards willing to stay up into the middle of the night, Loefler can give European fans a taste of his champion at a more convenient time. That difference means everything.

"That's why it's important for Gennady to go back and forth," he said. "To be on in prime time in Germany, England, Russia and Kazakhstan as well. That's the key to building a global star." 

Back home, HBO is Golovkin's exclusive broadcast partner, a relationship that has worked well for both parties. Loefler fully credits the network for making Golovkin a viable property. And the network, in turn, makes clear the fighter is a pleasure to work with.

"Our job is to help curate the best competition available for our subscribers at the highest levels at which we can find it," HBO's Nelson said. "Collectively as a team, they've always been phenomenal partners for us in trying to go out there and find the most difficult opponents out there. He wants to be great."

Greatness is more than talent. Talent takes a certain level of prodigy. But greatness is about willfully engaging in situations of adversity and wanting to show no matter how dire that situation, you can overcome it. 

Greatness is giving your doubters something to be certain about. It's about moments of hardships and moments of reckoning. Men who want to be legends excel in those moments. Golovkin wants to dance close to the flame and court danger. He just hasn't found the right partners to take him to the brink.

Golovkin Fast Facts
Record:31-0 (28 KO)
Reach:70 inches
Weight:160 pounds

"In our first meeting with HBO they gave us a list of 20 names and asked who he'd fight and who he wouldn't fight," Loefler said. "I said 'he'll fight anyone on that list.' And that just really took them aback. Usually a promoter or fighter will try to avoid certain fighters or styles. But Gennady can adapt to any fighter or style with his ability to cut off the ring and punch with power once he does."

While that sounds like typical promoter bombast, Golovkin has been as good as his word from his very first fight on HBO in 2012 against Gregor Proksa. Lost in the excitement over his win was the fact Proksa was a late replacement for Dmitry Pirog.

One was a right-handed power puncher. The other a southpaw who liked to bicycle around the ring. It made no difference to Golovkin.

"It was pretty much the opposite of what Gennady was preparing for. And you saw what he did," Loefler said. "He demolished him in five rounds. This was a boxer who liked to move around. To track him down and stop him in five rounds was a really impressive feat. I think HBO really appreciated that. He really rose to the occasion."

What made HBO take note, however, also resonated deeply with potential foes. Golovkin claims to be ready, at any time, for all comers. Unfortunately the sport's best haven't exactly been knocking down his door.

Every big name in the division, from Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. to Miguel Cotto to Peter Quillin, has found other pressing engagements when the time has come to face Golovkin. Even Andre Ward, the kingpin at super middleweight, has failed to accept a Golovkin bout.

"I'm not worried that I haven't had fights with all these big fighters yet," Golovkin told Bleacher Report. "Maybe they should be worried they haven't had a fight with me yet?"

Despite big money and prime spots on HBO, despite a chance to prove themselves in front of the world, no one of note has answered the call. It's a situation bordering on shameful.

"If you really believe in yourself, it should be of paramount importance that you go out and face the best in the world. Yet so many people shy away from it," Nelson said. "Finding more and more difficult competition for him is our goal. It's his goal. He wants to fight the best. And those are the kind of fighters we crave to have on the network."

The challenge, he says, is how Golovkin and the fans respond to the Murrays of the world, competent professionals who are nevertheless huge underdogs on fight night.

"Whenever there is a fight of a higher level that we pursue, but that doesn't get made, you always worry at that moment, whether the new fight will be taken as seriously," Nelson conceded. "Will the fighter be able to find the same level of motivation? Will the work ethic remain? Those are questions we can't answer for the fighter. The fighter has to have that within."

On the surface, at least, Golovkin seems as energized as ever. In the final press conference for the fight he called Murray "a great fighter. He looks strong here today. He is the biggest test of my career."

Credit: Will Hart/HBO

Nelson, while admitting HBO has been stymied in its quest to find Golovkin truly elite competition on a regular basis, hasn't given up hope.

"We've seen an enormous shift away from fighters caring about undefeated records as an end in and of itself. Risk has been taken on," he said. "And there has been a rallying cry among fans to see the highest level of competition. They don't want the stars anointed and protected. They want to see them challenged."

As Golovkin's star continues to rise, big fights will come. His mere presence, in fact, will make it a big fight by default. And, thanks to Loefler, boxing fans all over the planet will be watching.

"He's doing fantastic as a worldwide brand, he said. "That's really our mission—to build him into a global star. And to bring back the traditional definition of the world champion. You're champion of the entire world and you fight worldwide. Not just in one country or one state. We've really focused on that."

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report. He's the author of Total MMA, The MMA Encyclopedia and Shooters: The Toughest Men in Professional Wrestling.