‘Are You Serious?’ The Unlikely Ascent of GGG to PPVAl Bello/Getty Images
The “five years too late” crowd was half right. As a business venture, Floyd Mayweather Jr. vs. Manny Pacquiao arrived right on time this past May 2, the extended anticipation having built to 4.4 million pay-per-view purchases’ worth of fever pitch. But as an athletic competition, Mayweather-Pacquiao should have happened in 2010.
The best and biggest theoretical boxing match of the post-MayPac era is Gennady “GGG” Golovkin vs. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. If both win their fall fights, Canelo-GGG in 2016 would be massive. And from the financial and sporting perspectives, it would be right on time. It certainly wouldn’t be five years too late.
It would, however, be five years after it already happened.
Canelo was a 20-year-old rising star and Golovkin a name whispered in the darkest corners of #boxinghead freakdom when veteran boxing writer Doug Fischer got the call from Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, inviting him to watch a sparring session. Fischer had heard about “Abel’s Russian guy,”1 who had supposedly manhandled Alfredo Angulo and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in the gym. The invite came in May 2011. “Doug, do you want to come up and watch Golovkin spar?” he recalled Sanchez asking.
“Who’s he going to be sparring with?”
Sanchez answered, “You’ll love this: Canelo Alvarez.”
Alvarez was preparing for a June 18 bout with Ryan Rhodes, Golovkin for a June 17 fight against Kassim Ouma, and the plan called for them to spar six four-minute rounds. So for 24 minutes, Fischer and a handful of other lucky spectators got a free look at a fight that could be worth eight figures to both boxers a half-decade later.
“Toward the end of the second round, Golovkin nailed Alvarez with a short hook and it took his legs out from under him,” Fischer recalled. “He did the Bojangles for just a second there. Alvarez backed off. He got on his bicycle, he just worked a nice straight jab to try to keep Golovkin off him, the bell rang, and he didn’t go back to his corner. He kind of did some squat things and then he put one of his legs on the top rope and did a ballet stretch, and he looked pissed. He looked pissed that he got caught. Maybe he was pissed that there was a witness.”
Alvarez recovered admirably, Fischer said, and for four more rounds they waged a battle whose legend grows2 with each passing year. It was all but assured in 2011 that Canelo would be one of boxing’s next big things. But Golovkin? A fighter from Kazakhstan who spoke no English, who had never fought on American TV, and who had yet to face a world-class professional opponent and was already 29 years old?
A lot can change in five years.
This Saturday night, Golovkin is the star attraction in what will be a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden, his first fight on pay-per-view. Not insignificantly, it will be the first boxing PPV since the box office king of the past eight years, Floyd Mayweather, took part in his supposed final fight. Mayweather snagged that title as PPV nonpareil from Oscar De La Hoya, who succeeded Mike Tyson. Now, if Mayweather stays retired, there’s a vacant throne.
Golovkin’s rise bears no resemblance to that of Tyson (American, heavyweight champ at age 20), De La Hoya (American, Olympic gold medalist at age 19), or Mayweather (American, world champion at age 21). He is a highly illogical choice to become The Guy.
Unless you believe that the guy who was Mayweather’s 1A, Pacquiao, provides a template for building a different kind of boxing superstar.
The obvious difference is that Pacquiao was 19 when he won his first title and 22 when he dazzled in his U.S. debut. The reasons for Golovkin’s and Pacquiao’s popularity, however, seem almost identical. To use a tired boxing cliché, they let their fists do the talking. Then when it’s time for their mouths to do the talking, they charmingly butcher the English language, and when they’ve used up all the words they know, they counter the silence with adorable, dopey smiles. The Filipino fan base is substantially larger than the Kazakh fan base — there are barely enough Kazakh-born U.S. residents to fill MSG — but it’s not as though Filipino fighters were selling tickets in America before Pacquiao broke through. For the most part, Pacquiao crossed over into the mainstream because of how he fought. He was an elite pound-for-pound talent and a never-dull knockout artist. Golovkin, with 30 knockouts among his 33 wins and a first-tier P4P ranking, checks those same boxes. (He especially checks the knockout artist box; the fight game’s version of getting posterized is getting GGGIF’d.)
Could Golovkin have even contended for superstardom if Pacquiao hadn’t blazed that trail before him? Or are their dual ascensions purely coincidental? Either way, it’s surprising that Golovkin has come this far when you consider where he was at the outset of the decade.
Golovkin spent 2010 and 2011 in pugilistic purgatory, trying to free himself from a contract with German promotional outfit Universum Box, while his management team dreamed of bringing him to America while keeping him busy in locations ranging from Kazakhstan to Panama City. It was one of those fights in Panama that led to GGG linking up with his current promoter, Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions. In fact, it was the very same fight for which Golovkin was preparing when he sparred Canelo: the June 2011 meeting with Ouma. It proved to be the toughest bout of Golovkin’s pro career — which ironically helped cinch the deal with Loeffler.
“That was the first time I saw him fight live, and to be honest I was disappointed,” Loeffler recalled of Golovkin’s 10-round TKO win. “I had seen these previous knockouts on tape and heard all the stories, and then he fights Ouma and he just looked off. And the reason why is — a lot of people don’t realize this — he had a visa issue and they wouldn’t let him and Abel leave the U.S. until he got his visa extended. They spent all day at the airport and then they had to fly in on a red-eye and they didn’t get any sleep on the plane and then they had to change planes in Miami. So he finally showed up and drove directly from the airport to the weigh-in because of the delay. He weighed in and just was completely exhausted from that trip, and that showed with the fight.” Loeffler wasn’t the only American promoter looking to swoop in at the Ouma fight; Artie Pelullo and Gary Shaw were in Panama as well. “When they saw him fight, they were disappointed in his performance,” Loeffler continued. “I was the only one who knew the backstory, why he was so tired. It didn’t hurt that he had an off performance when there were other people there looking at him.”
From there, Loeffler went into overdrive on getting Golovkin in front of American fans, but it would require another year of patience and a game plan light on cash and heavy on concessions. They met with HBO and Showtime and insisted that Golovkin would fight any available opponent for short money and didn’t have to be in the main event. But according to Loeffler, Golovkin was still a “hard sell” with most of the executives. Some of them simply couldn’t see how an unknown, 30-year-old fighter who barely spoke English could become marketable.
With tempered expectations, HBO gave Golovkin a shot. “Boxing’s best-kept secret” finally began to get out on September 1, 2012, when GGG knocked Grzegorz Proksa down three times in five rounds and scored his 11th consecutive knockout win. Then he bloodied Gabe Rosado in his Madison Square Garden Theater debut. He nearly Ned Stark’d poor Nobuhiro Ishida. He deflated Matthew Macklin with a body shot. He GGGIF’d a wide-eyed Curtis Stevens. He knocked down Osumanu Adama three times in seven rounds. He moved to the big room at the Garden and drained the game winner against Daniel Geale with a hand in his face. With the knockout streak up to 16 and with most observers sold on his fighting ability, next came the fight that turned the corner on his star power. It was dubbed “Mexican Style,” a brilliant play on one of Golovkin’s unintentional catch phrases, a perfect fit for a fight against Mexico’s Marco Antonio Rubio in Southern California. Golovkin-Rubio became the first fight to sell out the StubHub Center. And GGG had the fans in the largely Mexican American crowd cheering him as if he were the Mexican fighter. The last non-Mexican boxer to gain this level of admiration from this particular fan base? Manny Pacquiao.
Where Golovkin doesn’t want to be compared to Pacquiao is in the aesthetic qualities of the Filipino southpaw’s last fight. On Saturday night, GGG will try to extend his knockout streak to 21 against similarly KO-minded and possibly overmatched David Lemieux. The dashing Canadian is an intriguing opponent for Golovkin’s first foray into the PPV market, neither guaranteed to sell nor guaranteed to flop. One thing that may help is a public seeking an antidote to the tactical nature of MayPac. Fight fans voted against Mayweather in September when he fought Andre Berto and drew PPV numbers reported (without confirmation) to be as low as 400,000. They might vote against Mayweather again by voting for Golovkin and for the near-guarantee of a concussive conclusion.
A conversation during HBO’s Face Off With Max Kellerman underscored that sales tactic. “Abel, fight’s ending in a knockout, isn’t it?” host Kellerman asked Sanchez. “That’s why there’s 15,000 tickets sold in a week,” Golovkin’s trainer told him. “Because the fans know that’s what’s going to happen.”
Lemieux is not necessarily Golovkin’s best opponent yet; that distinction probably goes to Martin Murray. But Lemieux is undoubtedly GGG’s most dangerous opponent to date. With 31 knockouts among his 34 victories (against two defeats), Lemieux is like a high-variance fantasy lineup in this fight against Golovkin: Most of the time, his results will stink, but the long-shot alternative is that his results will be spectacular.
How this PPV sells, however, is less likely a referendum on the matchup than on the popularity of Golovkin. He sells out live arenas. His fights keep drawing better and better TV ratings. He’s the star of an Apple Watch commercial. He’s Ronda Rousey’s favorite boxer. Has he crossed over?
Not fully, not yet. But Madison Square Garden executive VP of sports properties Joel Fisher believes he’s on his way, and he likens Golovkin not to Pacquiao but to another former PPV king.
“I sort of compare him to Tyson,” Fisher said. “Tyson got in the ring and he was a killer. But he was like that outside of the ring also. Golovkin is not. And that’s what I think his allure is. He’s just a really likable guy. He’s not cocky. He’s confident. It’s the anomaly of what you see of him as a person and how he handles himself and how respectful he is and how nice he is, and then he gets into the ring and he’s got this style and this power that you’ve almost never seen before.”
One month after Golovkin-Lemieux, Canelo Alvarez will face Miguel Cotto as a slight favorite to capture the middleweight championship that Cotto won from Sergio Martinez at the Garden last year. “If Cotto wins, I don’t think you could make a better and bigger fight than Golovkin-Cotto at Madison Square Garden,” Fisher said. The catch is that most in the industry believe Cotto will forget how to sign his own name if a contract to fight GGG is drawn up.
Alvarez, on the other hand, seems willing. He took on the best fighter in the world, Mayweather, at age 23, earlier than logic dictated he should. He was advised against facing slick, low-reward opponents Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, but he made both fights happen. If he becomes the lineal middleweight champ, Canelo figures to be the one who finally gives Golovkin his shot.
He wasn’t afraid to spar with “Abel’s Russian guy” in 2011, and the hope is that he won’t be afraid to fight him in 2016.
“If they both win [this fall] and look good, Canelo-Golovkin is a monster PPV,” Doug Fischer said. “And if Golovkin kicks ass in that, then maybe he becomes a PPV institution.”
Whichever fighter wins would establish himself as Mayweather’s successor. We’re still a few steps away, but the guy from Kazakhstan in his early thirties who still hasn’t faced a name-brand opponent is dangerously close to pulling it off.
Eric Raskin is the editor-in-chief of All In and is a former managing editor of The Ring. He cohosts the HBO Boxing Podcast and the subscription-based podcast Ring Theory. He is the author of the 2014 oral history The Moneymaker Effect: The Inside Story of the Tournament That Forever Changed Poker.