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The Challenges of Making a Fight for Gennady Golovkin, Boxing's Boogeyman

Jonathan Snowden@JESnowdenCombat Sports Senior WriterApril 21, 2016

El kazajo Gennady Golovkin propina un zurdazo al canadiense David Lemieux en el octavo asalto de su compate por el cetro de los medianos, el sábado 17 de octubre de 2015, en Nueva York (AP Foto/Rich Schultz)
Rich Schultz/Associated Press

In the last four years, Tom Loeffler, the California-based promoter for HBO's rising boxing star Gennady Golovkin (34-0, 31 KO), has been in desperate need of an international phone plan. He's spent hundreds of minutes, hundreds of hours by his reckoning, attempting to score the man he considers the best middleweight in the world fights with the biggest names in the division.

Germany's Felix Sturm turned them down flat. Argentina's Sergio Martinez, the lineal champion as Golovkin rose to fame, refused to step into the ring with him. So, too, did Martinez's conqueror, Puerto Rican hero Miguel Cotto.

This list, Loeffler says, goes on and on.

"We reached out to Peter Quillin. There was no interest at that time," Loeffler told Bleacher Report. "We tried to make a deal with Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. through (Top Rank promoter) Bob Arum. He offered Chavez Jr. an enormous amount of money to fight Gennady, along with a guarantee if he lost. It was $7 million and a guaranteed $5 million if he lost for his next fight. Chavez turned down the fight."  

As the cream of the middleweight crop danced carefully around him, Golovkin did the only thing he could do—demolish everyone in his sights. Fighter after fighter—from the overwhelmed Nobuhiro Ishida to the game Daniel Gealefell victim to an implacable foe who walloped them in the ring, only to gently praise them after the hurting was all over.

On Saturday, the unheralded, but mandatory, challenger Dominic Wade will join that list. Despite Wade's complete obscurity, the Forum outside of Los Angeles has a chance to sell out for the first time in 46 years.

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Golovkin's commercial success in America was entirely unprecedented. Promoting him at all was a calculated risk. Loeffler's job has been to minimize the inevitable speed bumps—and he's created a template that many foreign fighters will follow in the years to come.

There was no proven track record for a fighter from the old Soviet Union finding much success here. It led Golovkin and Loeffler to make HBO a simple promise: "any time, anywhere." In time, the network, like fans wowed by his increasingly brutal knockouts, came to love the Kazakh star.  

"It's the style of the fighter. It's the charisma of the man," HBO boxing chief Peter Nelson said. "There's a gentleness about him when he's outside of the ring and a ferocity inside the ring.

"It's more than ferocity. It's the elegance with which it's displayed. He's creating a style, a fingerprint, that is all his own. We believe in this fighter's talent. He is willing to fight anyone you'll put in front of him. He just wants a chance."

When the chance comes, Golovkin has prepared his whole life to make the most of it. Once an Olympic silver medalist with equal parts offense and defense, he has morphed his style with the help of trainer Abel Sanchez. Now, Golovkin, who was a careful fighter early in his career, stands right in front of his opponents, willing to trade shots with any man living. 

"Six years of training with Abel Sanchez, he worked with me on 'Mexican Style,' which changed how I fight," Golovkin told Bleacher Report. "I'm very thankful to my fans and want to provide a big drama show to them. It is very important to me that they are entertained at my fights."

The result has been 21 consecutive knockouts and a global fanbase that makes a point to watch his every fight. Golovkin hasn't notched a single victory over a household name in boxing, but that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of the sport's top ratings draws and a pitchman for both Apple and Nike's Jordan Brand.

Gennady Golovkin @GGGBoxing

In case you missed it, I signed with this guy yesterday @Jumpman23 👊🏼👊🏼👊🏼 https://t.co/9lSOw5JZU7 https://t.co/0ZG1uaxb51

Without the benefit of a large immigrant population from his native Kazakhstan, he's also become one of the leading ticket sellers on two coasts, packing Madison Square Garden last year for his fight with David Lemieux and becoming one of California's most consistent combat sports attractions.

"Boxing fans love his style and they love to see knockouts," Joel Fisher, executive vice president of Marquee Events and Operations, The Madison Square Garden Company told Bleacher Report. "You can't blink when he's in the ring. But aside from that, Gennady is just friendly, always has a smile on his face and is a great representative for the sport of boxing

"It doesn't matter where you're from; if you're a great fighter, people will want to see you fight. Gennady is one of the most exciting fighters in the sport, and we'll continue to work with Tom to schedule him in our venues. He has become one of the biggest stars in the sport and has built a great fanbase. He sold out MSG against David Lemieux, and the Wade fight is pacing to sell out the Forum as well."

Golovkin sold out Madison Square Garden last year.
Golovkin sold out Madison Square Garden last year.Craig Ruttle/Associated Press

Golovkin's success is undeniable. At this point, a fight against him would likely be the biggest possible bout for any star in boxing. But as boxing historian Patrick Connor points out, that doesn't mean it's a fight that works well for prospective opponents, particularly those who can earn big purses without him.

"Financially it doesn't make sense to risk a probable serious ass-kicking without a huge payday attached," Connor said. "Why potentially end the gravy train for a fighter like Canelo who can make millions fighting anyone? Would a Golovkin fight bring significantly more money in? More than likely it would. But would it be enough for rival promoters to risk their fighter losing badly or being knocked out?"

Working with those rival promoters, it turns out, is Loeffler's forte. It's had to be. In the past few years he's worked with 10 of the biggest promotional entities in the sport, all in service of landing a fight, any fight, for the most fearsome fighter in boxing.

"It's clearly not a political issue on our side," Loeffler said. "We've made many concessions for fights, just to get the fight. Even when Gennady has been considered the more marketable fighter, we've made concessions. 

"The size of the ring, the type of gloves, drug testing, even the location of the fight—these have never been sticking points for us. None of those things would be a roadblock for Gennady. Sometimes a fighter will insist on the fight happening in a certain city or a certain arena. The great thing about working with Gennady is that he doesn't care." 

While Loeffler is happy to suggest that boxers are purposely choosing to avoid Golovkin, scared of his powerful combination of punching prowess and technical acumen, the fighter himself is willing to give his fellow boxers the benefit of the doubt.

"I don't think it's the fighters," he said. "They want to fight. Sometimes it's the promoter or manager who doesn't want the fight." 

He's not, however, letting them completely off the hook.

"If my promoter told me a fighter was too dangerous," Golovkin said. "I'd ask him, 'Are you serious?'"

Golovkin is often compared to Pacquiao.
Golovkin is often compared to Pacquiao.Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The clock, as it does for all professional athletes, is very much ticking. While Golovkin reminds many of Manny Pacquiao, with his sweet smile doing much to close tremendous cultural gaps, there is one distinction. Pacquiao burst onto the American scene at the tender age of 22.

Golovkin, who didn't appear on American television until he was 30, is already 34. Although the shelf life for top boxers has expanded somewhat in the last generation, it's an age traditionally associated with declining athletic performance. He doesn't have time for a Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao lengthy negotiation between each bout.

The time, if it's coming, is now. 

The broader boxing community, luckily, seems cognizant of this. The World Boxing Council recently made Golovkin the mandatory challenger for champion Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, who fights Amir Khan May 7 in a bout he's expected to win. It's a political move that is part of Loeffler's strategy to force his rivals' hands.

"Our solution is to unify all the titles in the middleweight division," he said. "That way no other fighter can claim to be champion, and any names that come through would have to fight Gennady if they want any credibility. We're trying to cut off any avenues for another fighter to claim he's the best. The more doors we can close, the more options we'll open up.

"It's my job as a promoter to try to look forward and try to make moves for future fights. It's Gennady's job to focus on the fight at hand. These are the types of fights that are very dangerous. If Wade catches Gennady on an off-night, suddenly he's at the head of the middleweight table. These are the kind of fights Gennady and Abel have to prepare for. If for some reason he has a bad night and Wade is able to win, everything we've built up over the last four years will be for naught."

While Wade will be foremost in Golovkin's mind, the rest of the boxing world will focus on Canelo. Alvarez and Golovkin are the two men most often named on any short list of boxing's next big things. They are, despite some bickering, roughly the same size. Both are middleweight champions. 

Tale of the Tape: Golovkin vs. Canelo
FighterGolovkinCanelo
Height5'10.5"5'9"
Reach70"70.5"
Age3425
Record34-0 (31 KO)46-1-1 (32 KO)
Rounds Fought154326
BoxRec.com

A fight between the two is a no-brainer—which in boxing doesn't always guarantee something is going to happen. Cotto and Martinez bouts also made sense for Golovkin at the time. Neither, of course, came to fruition. That makes cynics, who are numerous in boxing, skeptical the two men will ever step into the ring.

"Potential opponents seem to think, with his (Golovkin's) busier schedule, he'll get knocked off sooner or later on a bad night," Connor said. "They're waiting for him to show some sign of weakness or to get old overnight. And it could happen. But his legs and chin have remained solid, and power is that last thing to go." 

With that in mind, it could be years before another top star dares to try Golovkin. By then, fans could be left with the same kind of sweet regret that accompanied Mayweather and Pacquiao's less-than-super superfight. 

In 20 years, rather than discussing Golovkin's mighty reign, talk could instead turn to wistful what-might-have-beens. If that's true, Loeffler says, it won't be due to issues on his end. He's even agreed to have Golovkin travel to Texas, where Canelo has drawn huge crowds, to meet his opponent on his home turf.

"Even though we haven't been able to attract the 'quote, unquote' bigger names, the better question would be asking those fighters why they haven't agreed to fight Gennady," Loeffler said. "He's now one of the most popular fighters, not only in America, but worldwide.

"A unification bout would be the biggest fight in all of boxing. If Canelo chooses not to fight Gennady, it certainly wouldn't be because of financial reasons. He would have to then answer his fans as to why he chose not to fight Gennady."

Golovkin, in the end, can only control his part of the process. He's been content in letting Loeffler and HBO serve as stewards of his career. His job is the portion of the show that occurs inside the ring. There, he says, he's becoming a better boxer. 

"I feel great," he said. "Every day at training camp we work hard and I listen to my coach. I'm ready for any other champions and look forward to the future and to write my story."

Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.

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