It happened, this odd connection between Kazakhstan's Gennady Golovkin and Mexico, almost as if by accident.
After crushing yet another opponent—in his fifth bout in the United States after fighting in obscurity throughout Germany—Golovkin was asked by HBO's Max Kellerman to describe the right hand that felled his opponent and how he, despite also getting hit, stayed up while his opponent crumbled. "Max," he answered, a sinister smirk on his face, "this is my style, like Mexican style. This is fight. This is not game."
That was late July 2014 in Madison Square Garden. Less than three months later, Golovkin fought for the first time in Southern California in front of a largely Mexican crowd. "It was one of those moments that creates goosebumps," recalls Tom Loeffler, Golovkin's promoter.
As Golovkin walked to the ring, fans stood on their seats. "Triple G, Triple G," they chanted. It didn't matter that his opponent was Mexican. "Right there, you could see they embraced him," Loeffler says. "And I think it is because of his style in the ring but also his character outside [it]."
The love between Golovkin and the Mexican and Mexican American fanbase isn't new. That those fans would embrace a Kazakh boxer may seem unusual, but it's less so the more you know about how boxing influences Mexican culture and vice versa.
Mexico has a rich boxing tradition. The sport speaks to the culture's deeply rooted machismo. While a problematic concept that many would argue has had harmful social ramifications, this is where the style—Mexican style, which both Golovkin and Loeffler mentioned—comes from. It emphasizes offense over defense. Some might argue this fight style is much more reliant on continual pressure, body punches—especially the dreaded liver shot that paralyzes the body—and overall toughness. This is mostly how Golovkin fights.
Abel Sanchez, Golovkin's trainer, is the man who taught his pupil the Mexican style. That process began almost as soon as Golovkin walked into Sanchez's boxing gym in 2010.
Sanchez sat Golovkin down and played him a video of Julio Cesar Chavez—a Mexican national hero—fighting Edwin Rosario. They both watched Chavez dismantle his opponent—watched how, round-by-round, Chavez broke down the defending champion. And in doing so, Rosario felt the slow and painful agony of withering under Chavez's unrelenting attack.
"When I showed him that video, I asked him to give me three years without interruptions, without any kind of questions," Sanchez remembers telling Golovkin. "I promised him that in three years I would make him the best middleweight in the world, an undefeated world champion, and no one would want to fight him. And I was going to try to mold him like [Chavez]."
Chavez personifies Mexican style. He has Robin Hood appeal, a Mexican working man's ethos; even if he earned millions from fighting, he could still pass as a poor man who just happened to have money. That distinction is vital. It's the difference between a folk hero and a star.
Golovkin is a bit more the former. Even though he now has major sponsorships, he's considered someone who, quite literally, fought his way to the top without ever getting much of a break. Someone who came to the United States not knowing the language and who was forced to remake himself.
"Golovkin is [like], whether people like it or not, the son of that Mexican that came here, crossed the border, busted his ass off," says Salvador Carrillo, explaining Golovkin's appeal to the Mexican fanbase. "He is the epitome of hard work. That's why a lot of us…fell in love with the guy."
Besides hosting The Boxing Rundown podcast, the enterprising Carrillo also created and sells a T-shirt showing Golovkin's face imposed on an iconic Chalino Sanchez album cover. He made it prior to Golovkin's first fight in Southern California. The T-shirt displays folk singer Chalino—his face replaced with Golovkin's—loading his gun. Atop it, the phrase "Mexicans for Golovkin."
"I don’t sing, I bark," Chalino once joked in Spanish. And with that horrible voice, he sang of a way of life—violence and all—that helped audience members reminisce about their lives back in Mexico. He was a "valiente," a word for which there's no exact translation in English, meaning essentially a local tough who no one would mess with—unless one sought the same reputation.
Carrillo chose Chalino because he's a modern-day reference that some Mexican and Mexican Americans relate to. "Golovkin has that scary look to him," Carrillo explains. "It's that bad guy that you want to root for. It's your Pablo Escobar, your Chapo."
Carrillo sells another Golovkin T-shirt. It shows Golovkin with a neatly manicured mustache and wearing a button-up shirt that's an unmistakable part of the narco fashion Chalino helped inspire—the same one you can see on the Las Vegas strip. "Chapolovkin"—a reference to El Chapo Guzman—extends above Golovkin's head.
El Chapo, Chalino and Chavez each have a folk-hero identity. Golovkin, to a lesser extent, has tapped into something similar that Mexican fans recognize and appreciate.
That Golovkin's aggressive style makes him a favorite among Mexican fans isn't surprising. What's surprising is how he's maintained that fanbase even as, for the second time, he's about to face Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, a Mexican national and the country's best boxer, with the WBA and WBC world middleweight titles on the line Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Walk through the main entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel, the media headquarters for the fight, and the first thing you see is a boxing ring. "Canelo vs. Golovkin 2" is promoted on each of its four sides. There's a gold-colored statue of a sitting lion inside the ring. It appears life-size, maybe five feet tall. To the left of the entrance is a hotel gift shop with an entire front area dedicated to hats and T-shirts bearing each boxer's name.
Kevin Toledano, who flew in on Wednesday from Houston, buys a Golovkin hat. "I've liked Canelo before, and I still think he's a great boxer," he explains. "But I don't really cheer for him anymore because I feel like all the fame got to his head a little bit."
Outside the store, in front of the ring, another man, Geovany Ortiz, wears the green jersey of the Mexican national soccer team. He's a fan of Canelo but understands why there are so many of Mexican heritage who are not. "We know he's a good Mexican boxer," Ortiz says in Spanish, "but when he has to brawl, he doesn't. And the people lose patience."
Next to Ortiz is Belen Rosales Hernandez. While Ortiz explains that Canelo must be more offensive-minded for this fight or he'll lose those who still support him, she smiles as if eager to say something. She flew in from Mexico City to watch the fight. "I back Canelo," she says in Spanish. "I know he will win. He'll knock him out just like he's promised. Vamos Mexico!"
If you ever see Canelo in person, you can feel there's something different about him. He walks with a strut born from knowing he can have most anything—not in a Las Vegas "here for the weekend so I'll have a fill of every pleasure" kind of way but in something more real.
If for most of his career Golovkin fought in anonymity, Canelo has done the opposite. Anointed as the star of boxing since his teenage years, he enjoyed the benefits of that label. And if Golovkin's continual frustrations with boxing's politics left him pondering an early retirement, Canelo saw limitless possibilities within the same sport. "I feel that I was born for this," he said as a 20-year-old.
If Golovkin models his style after Chavez's aggressiveness, Canelo more closely emulates Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s defensive focus. A natural counterpuncher, Canelo has said the Mexican style does not exist, or, at least, that it's much more varied than Golovkin and Sanchez claim.
There's far more to it than just engaging in an all-out brawl, Canelo argues. His trainer, Chepo Reynoso, has gone even further, saying the brawl-thirsty Golovkin has diminished the style to unintelligent violence. "Golovkin is just a donkey who only knows how to move forward," he said in Spanish. The harsh words point to the growing disrespect between the two sides. The boxers' once-respectful, even friendly, relationship has devolved into a deep dislike—if not an outright hate, then just a notch below.
Canelo's critics argue, with good reason, that he has been protected. Even now, as he's about to face Golovkin for the second time in a year on Saturday in Las Vegas, he's benefited from every advantage. Against Golovkin, the 28-year-old Canelo and his team waited for years to make the fight. That delay seemingly allowed Golovkin, now 36, to further feel the effects of aging.
When the fight finally happened, Canelo—the challenger but the main attraction—received a bigger purse split and a favorable rematch clause and even used a hand-wrapping technique that Golovkin's side claimed was illegal. The Nevada State Athletic Commission declared it was within the rules.
As their first fight ended in a controversial draw, some, again, saw Canelo as benefiting from unfair advantages. And then, with their rematch set for this past May 5, Canelo twice tested positive for trace amounts of a banned substance. Canelo held a press conference during which he claimed his innocence, saying the results came from eating tainted Mexican meat.
"It's not Mexican meat," a suddenly outspoken and frustrated Golovkin later responded. "This is Canelo. This is his team. This is his promotion. Canelo is cheating."
Canelo and his people hear not just what Golovkin and his side have said, but they also see the surprising amount of support for Golovkin from fans of Mexican heritage. They may dismiss it as something that's minimal, but they're aware of it.
Canelo's promoter, Oscar De La Hoya—who throughout his boxing career faced questions about his Mexican authenticity—was recently asked on a media conference call about the Mexican style and the fans Golovkin has attracted. "Well, it's obviously all a gimmick," he responded. "It's a gimmick to win fans over…[Canelo's] a Mexican national, and the Mexican nationals love him. So all this gimmick stuff about Mexicans for Golovkin…that's all it is. It's a gimmick."
Mexican style is marketing. But it's one thing to present that strategy and quite another for it to work. It's not as simple as claiming, especially in Las Vegas, the marks have been had. There's something about Golovkin that connects with an aspect of Mexican culture that's granted him a certain amount of acceptance. And because of it, Golovkin's pockets have fattened a bit more by appealing to boxing's most influential fans.
Canelo remains extremely popular, but even his supporters know he's a polarizing figure. He's perceived as being the opposite of Golovkin. A nemesis, even. Some of their differences, like their fighting styles, are on the surface. But there's also something deeper.
"You know, everybody that's been around Canelo, it's a certain arrogance that he brings," says Carrillo, who is a fan of both boxers. "I don't think he means it…he's very careful with what he does. He's not that charming guy that Chavez was ... It almost feels like he doesn't show us his emotion. He's very dry. Your average Mexican doesn't necessarily embrace that; you want to see the fighter, you want to hear the fighter. You don't want to hear the PR response."
Like his style of fighting, Canelo is intelligent and calculating. But there's also a perception that he represents the establishment that most of us, Mexicans and Mexican Americans especially, can never even dream of being a part of. Unlike Golovkin, Canelo—and this is not to say he hasn't worked hard—has seemingly enjoyed every benefit of the doubt.
Canelo is an undeniable star. In his high-end designer clothes and equally expensive colognes, he's kept company with the likes of Carlos Slim, Bill Clinton and a handful of Mexico's greatest pop stars. Such a man's face could never be placed on a figure like Chalino. It wouldn't work.
It would be even more unbelievable than a boxer from Kazakhstan claiming to have Mexican blood.
Roberto Jose Andrade Franco is a freelance writer from the El Paso-Juarez borderland. He currently lives in the Dallas area, where he attends SMU and is writing a dissertation on how boxing influences Mexican and Mexican American identity. Follow him on Twitter @R_AndradeFranco.