On the first day of training camp, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin is jogging up Bear Mountain, the site of his hideaway two hours from Los Angeles. The sun is rising, and the silence is almost meditative. A boxer’s therapy.
He runs at a steady pace, his arms hugged tightly against his body. Soon a gray pickup truck passes, momentarily breaking the silence, but it doesn’t so much as slow down. Outside of the ring, the experts’ pick for best pound-for-pound boxer in the world and one of the most feared punchers of his era is almost unrecognizable.
On Saturday, Golovkin will take on global superstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez in Las Vegas. Already, in July, his fear of the unknown has set in.
Will I be ready?
He stops on a long straight road. His trainer, Abel Sanchez, puts down a series of cones. Golovkin sprints to the first cone, slows and then sprints again. But what trails behind him can’t be outrun—his 350-plus amateur fights, his family tragedy, his treks across three continents seeking acceptance and recognition, and his 37 professional fights.
He takes his last sprint and pauses, hands on knees. He knows that a boxer’s life will always be defined by moments in the ring—how he fought and who he fought, each bout revealing something new, 60 days before the most important fight of his life.
The Theater at Madison Square Garden is buzzing. Golovkin is taking on Rosado, a self-described street brawler who once said, “I’m from Philadelphia, so I’m the real-life Rocky Balboa.”
Golovkin, though, isn’t 100 percent. On the flight from Los Angeles, his temperature spiked, and within hours his throat swelled so much he couldn’t eat. Sanchez notified the New York State Athletic Commission and said that if Golovkin couldn’t recover in the next 24 hours, the fight was off. A disappointed Golovkin sulked back to his hotel room. He fell into a lucid dream.
He was in the hospital on a gurney, unable to leave. “I want to fight!” he begged over and over. Soon a doctor stood over him and placed his hand on the fighter’s shoulders and throat. A knock at the door jolted Golovkin from his sleep. Sanchez, who had come by to wake him up for breakfast, remembers Golovkin opened the door with a big smile on his face. “Coach, I’m ready,” he said.
That night, Golovkin walked through punches, stalked Rosado into corners and then unleashed violence across Rosado’s face, ripping open a gash so bloody Rosado’s trainer tossed a white towel onto the canvas and turned to the boxer’s father: “I gotta stop it. Your son’s gonna die, man!“
While other fighters might pick you apart for points, Golovkin sets out to annihilate you. At 37-0, with 33 knockouts, his 89.2 clip is the highest knockout percentage in the history of the middleweight division.
With his victory secured, Golovkin stood sheepishly and referred to Rosado as a “good boy.” Perhaps that’s the scariest thing about Golovkin: the unbridled and indiscriminate rage that reveals itself during bouts, and then disappears.
Long before Golovkin was born, his grandfather, Sergey Pak, an ethnic Korean living in Russia, was forcefully moved, along with 100,000 other ethnic Koreans, to Kazakhstan—a country with winters so brutal the Greek historian Herodotus called it the “end of the earth.” Golovkin’s mother was born in Karaganda, a city of coal mines in central Kazakhstan, often jokingly referred to by Russians as “the middle of nowhere.” She married Golovkin’s father, and together they moved to Maikuduk, a neighborhood in Karaganda with the highest crime rate in the city. It was there, in the most dangerous neighborhood, in the middle of nowhere, at the end of the earth, where Golovkin grew up.
“I had a very difficult life,” he says.
The first time he picked up gloves was at a local boys club when he was 10 years old. To test his toughness, Golovkin’s new coach pitted him against a larger boy. Immediately, Golovkin felt a “spark.”
“After the spark, you can’t stand back. You want to beat him,” he says. “Then [my coach] put another and another, and every time I win.”
Outside the gym, the world was in disarray. The Soviet Union had collapsed, and Kazakhstan, a former Soviet state, was dealing with skyrocketing unemployment, while ethnic resentment between Russians and native Kazakhs had turned violent. Death was everywhere. Golovkin’s brothers, Vadim (1990) and Sergey (1994), were killed while with the Russian army. There was no official funeral for either man.
Closure would have to come in the ring, the only place where it didn’t seem to matter who you were or where you came from. In Golovkin’s first official amateur bout, however, he was taught a hard lesson about boxing’s false meritocracy. He fought an “older boy,” he says, and lost by decision.
“It was unfair,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t understand boxing.”
Still, he kept coming back. Many years later boxing would need him, but for now he needed boxing. He fought nearly every weekend by his count, losing only eight times as an amateur. At the Athens Olympics in 2004, he upset American Andre Dirrell and made it to the gold-medal match.
Wearing black shorts and a red top, Golovkin was frustrated by Russian Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov’s clinching style. But Golovkin seemed to be controlling the fight. The amateur boxing scoring system is based on points for clean punches, and it can, at times, be convoluted and subjective. When the final bell rang, Golovkin had lost 28-18. When his headgear was off, he shook his head furiously and looked at the floor.
The loss ate at him. He stopped boxing for a year and questioned the role of the Kazakhstan Boxing Federation in his defeat.
“He was very disappointed in his country,” Sanchez says. “They didn’t have his back.”
Years later, Golovkin still seethed. In a press conference in 2016, he said he believed the bout had been fixed. An unnamed official told him only one gold medal would be awarded to the Kazakhstan team.
“I said, ‘OK, no problem,'” he recalls.
The official then responded: “Not for you—for the junior middleweight.”
“I said, ‘What?'”
Time was slipping away. He was 27 years old and fighting in a converted ice hockey rink, in a sleepy town in Germany, against a third- or fourth-rate boxer. “I was too good for Germany,” he says.
The bells sounds. The fighters charge in from their corners. Anthony Greenidge, a former combat medic in the army, surprises Golovkin, hurling jabs and then a hard right. Golovkin takes a shot to the chest and steps back.
Two years after the Olympics, a friend Golovkin met while in Athens had suggested he move to Germany, where boxing was thriving and live on cable TV every week. Two major promotional companies were vying for market space. At 24, Golovkin signed with Universum, which also promoted heavyweight titleholders Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.
His first professional fight was at a multipurpose center in Dusseldorf against career tomato can Gabor Balogh. In Kazakhstan, there’s an old saying: “If your name is unknown, set the field on fire.” Golovkin was determined to do just that, but he was still uncomfortable with his power. He bludgeoned the Hungarian with a straight right to the face in the first round, leaving him curled up on his side, kicking his feet into the air.
Instead of celebrating, Golovkin sprinted over to check on the fighter and helped him up.
By the time he fought Greenidge, he was the No. 1 contender in Germany but wasn’t granted a title shot. He absorbed Greenidge’s early blows and then landed a barrage of punches to his body and the side of his face.
“He’s not extremely fast,” Greenidge says. “But I’ve never been hit as hard as he hit me. I felt like someone was laying a brick on my head.”
In the fifth round, Golovkin struck him with a body shot so fierce Greenidge simply took a knee, turned his back and walked to his corner. The fight was over. There was little more than polite applause. Golovkin raised his hand, expressionless.
What he wanted was so far away.
Golovkin’s career path changed through a serendipitous friendship. At the time, though, when he met brothers Oleg and Max Hermann, they didn’t seem like more than acquaintances. “I didn’t realize for the first five months that he was a boxer,” Max says. When Golovkin revealed his profession, he told them how frustrated he was. “He needed someone to develop him.”
Max was a lawyer by trade, Oleg a businessman. They were only casual fans of the sport and knew nothing of the business of boxing. Nevertheless, they offered to manage Golovkin and then came up with a plan: They’d travel to California together, call the top trainers and find him a new gym. It seemed simple enough.
Once in Los Angeles, their first stop was Wild Card Boxing, where Manny Pacquiao trains, followed by a visit to another gym in Oxnard. Then they headed to Big Bear.
“It was a Friday,” Sanchez says. “They wanted to meet me. I didn’t know who he was.”
What Golovkin and his managers didn’t know was that Sanchez had been out of boxing for nearly a decade. After leading his first three fighters to world titles in the 1980s, the pipeline of Southern California talent dried up and he became disillusioned. In 1998, he returned to his construction business and built a two-story home in Big Bear with a converted gym in the garage in the hopes that his mentor, Emanuel Steward, and heavyweight champion, Lennox Lewis, would use it for training camp. That never happened.
When Golovkin arrived, Sanchez was in a gym that looked like something from a bygone era. There was seldom-used equipment scattered about, and magazine cutouts of former champions from the ’70s and ’80s hung from the wall.
Golovkin, however, saw what he needed. “I very much enjoyed Abel when I first met him,” he says. “It was a private gym for private time.”
The pair agreed to work together, and after a few weeks, while Golovkin was hitting the bags, Sanchez walked to his whiteboard and wrote a list of his top 12 boxers in history. Muhammad Ali was No. 1. He left No. 2 blank. He called over Golovkin and said: “Let me do my job. I promise in three years you’ll be No. 2.”
Golovkin turned red and shook his head.
The truth was Sanchez, who is now 62, had no idea how good Golovkin could be. At 28, without the natural charisma of a Roy Jones Jr. or even Floyd Mayweather Jr., Sanchez needed to build an attractive fighter for American audiences. He needed to turn Golovkin into a knockout machine.
To improve his footwork, Sanchez put on a video of “cutting” in a rodeo. Essentially, a rider and horse anticipate a single calf’s moves to block it from the herd, pushing it to the sides of the ring. Next he popped in a DVD of legendary Mexican boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. to teach the art of controlled aggression. Then they hit the bags.
“I’d sit in the back and observe them together,” says Urbano Antillon, a former training partner and professional boxer. “They both love boxing so much. I think Gennady revived Abel. They kind of need each other.”
Their first fight together was in Panama City against the painfully overmatched Milton Nunez. In the opening moments, Golovkin threw out everything he’d been taught. “He got a little wild on me,” Sanchez says. Nunez, though, was never going to last against such an onslaught. Golovkin now had direction and purpose. Within a minute, Nunez was knocked down and the fight was over.
What does a boxer fight for? Country, family, a better life. Golovkin hadn’t had a bout in Kazakhstan since he turned pro. He still had complicated feelings about the Olympics, and as an ethnic Russian, some in the country had complicated feelings about him.
On Kazakhstan Independence Day, he fought Colombian Nilson Julio Tapia at the National Tennis Centre in Astana. He won with a third-round knockout, but there was little fanfare. He was a citizen, yes, but he was not a true Kazakh.
It’s almost dreamlike: It’s the third round, and Ishida, a boxer of modest quality, is retreating with his hands guarding his face. Golovkin throws a left hook. Ishida absorbs it. Then, just for a moment, Ishida drops his hands.
The next punch from Golovkin is like something from a boxing manual. It is so pristine, so exquisite, that when it catches Ishida flush on the left side of the face, he falls straight backward through the ropes. His body hangs over the edge of the ring, and his head gently comes to rest on the scorer’s table. Like a child taking a nap.
In 2011, the summer after Golovkin arrived in Big Bear, Canelo Alvarez, then just a 20-year-old up-and-coming fighter from Mexico, spent a training camp in Sanchez’s gym. He lived upstairs, a few doors down from Golovkin.
Both are naturally quiet. The few times they interacted came during sparring sessions. Antillon, who was there, says you couldn’t tell much from the sessions, but there was mutual respect. “They didn’t try to take each other’s heads off.”
Two years later, Alvarez, backed by former boxing superstar Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, was part of the highest pay-per-view draw of the year against Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas. Even in defeat, Alvarez’s popularity soared. Well-known fighters—Amir Khan, Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Miguel Cotto—lined up to challenge him. He had the recognition and acceptance Golovkin craved.
Without a built-in audience, Golovkin took on far lesser-known Stevens, a brawler from Brooklyn. In a bit of low-cost fight promotion, Stevens posted a picture on social media of a coffin etched with “RIP GGG.”
It was a miscalculation of the highest order. With Golovkin’s brothers’ deaths still a raw wound, this was akin to a declaration of war. For eight rounds, Golovkin would beat Stevens to near-desperation and then back off.
When the ninth round came, Stevens’ corner ended the fight. Golovkin jumped in Sanchez’s arms and shook his hands in Stevens’ direction. “I’ve never seen Gennady vocal like that,” Sanchez says. “He wanted to punish him.”
Shortly after, Golovkin returned home. He was invited to speak at the 20th-anniversary conference for the Assembly of People of Kazakhstan, a group that represents the country’s various ethnicities. Golovkin stood at the podium in front of President Nursultan Nazarbayev, his voice cracking: “My father is Russian. My mother is Korean. And I am a Kazakh.”
It was a seminal moment, for him and for the country. Whatever resentment he held on to from the Olympics had been forgiven. At last, he was now seen as a native son.
“Now when people think about Kazakhstan, they think of GGG. They don’t think about Borat,” says Yevgeny Hecht, a sports journalist there, referring to the demeaning Kazakh character played by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
“GGG helped unite people in Kazakhstan.”
With his country behind him, the road toward recognition and ultimately Alvarez was opening up. After Golovkin beat Osumanu Adama in early 2014, in what Sanchez calls “the turning point,” a fight against Irishman Andy Lee was scheduled in April.
Two months before the bout, Golovkin returned to Kazakhstan to visit his parents. His father, a hardened man who had worked for nearly 40 years in the coal mines, had never seen one of his son’s fights. Even when Golovkin fought in Kazakhstan, his father was working.
One afternoon, while Golovkin was back home, his parents were walking outside their home in Karaganda when a truck drove by and dropped off a propane container. Golovkin’s father turned to pick it up. As he did, a blood vessel ruptured in his lung. He died shortly after.
The funeral was held in a local orthodox cathedral in Karaganda with 500 people in attendance. Golovkin was there with Sanchez by his side. For the next 40 days, as is the tradition in his culture, Golovkin and what was left of his family mourned.
The bout against Lee was canceled. Sometimes, the hardest fights are the ones you don’t take.
At 34 years old, Golovkin was the holder of four of the five major belts in his division. But without a major win, who was he?
Chris Eubank Jr., a top British challenger, missed a deadline to fight Golovkin. Billy Joe Saunders, who owns the lone middleweight belt Golovkin is missing, turned down $1.5 million for a fight. But it was Alvarez who Golovkin wanted all along.
In May of last year, when it looked like the negotiations were close to being finalized, Alvarez beat Khan in Las Vegas and then called Golovkin, who was in attendance, into the ring. “If he wants,” Alvarez declared into the microphone in Spanish, referring to Golovkin, “I will put the gloves on right now.”
He then added, “Like we say in Mexico, we don’t fuck around.”
But negotiations stalled. “No one wants to fight me,” Golovkin says.
Brook, who normally fights in the lighter welterweight division, took the fight on short notice and valiantly exchanged punches. But Golovkin’s frustrations boiled over. He battered Brook until the fight was stopped in the fifth round, his 23rd straight knockout.
“Only five rounds?” Golovkin later scoffed. “Brook is nothing.”
Where was he going? Running to nowhere? His next fight was another boxer not well-known to the casual fan, just another notch on his belt. But boxing aficionados saw a legitimate challenger in Jacobs. He was bigger than Golovkin, skilled and fearless.
In the fourth round, Jacobs was knocked down, but he quickly got up and stared Golovkin in the eyes. What Golovkin saw in that moment was a man whose life was as challenging as his—a man who recognized the face of death. Six years earlier, Jacobs was diagnosed with a severe form of bone cancer that left him partially paralyzed and contemplating his last days. He learned to meditate and control his mind.
With each punch Golovkin threw, Jacobs fired back. Seven rounds became eight; then nine. At one point Jacobs snapped Golovkin’s neck with a quick jab. Golovkin retreated and simply nodded, acknowledging that they were locked in a world beyond belts and prize money.
For the first time in Golovkin’s professional career, a fight went the full 12 rounds, ending his knockout streak. Legendary trainer Freddie Roach said Golovkin had lost a step. Mayweather believed Jacobs had won. In the center of the ring, the referee raised Golovkin’s hand, awarding him the victory by unanimous decision.
Two months later, in the aftermath of Alvarez’s victory over Chavez Jr., Golovkin entered the ring and shook hands with his old sparring partner, and a formal announcement of their September fight was made. The kid from the middle of nowhere, at the end of the earth, finally got his man.
After all that, HBO announcer Max Kellerman asked Golovkin what he wanted to say to Alvarez.
“Good luck,” he said.
Alvarez responded, “Luck is for the mediocre, my friend.”
The questions about Golovkin’s age have been incessant. Did Jacobs expose his weaknesses? Has boxing already passed him by? Sanchez is more diplomatic. “This fight will answer those questions,” he says. “He’ll be nervous.”
As the months count down to days, and then hours, Golovkin is still running. He’s never stopped. Maybe he doesn’t know how to stop. When he’s asked what he’ll do when there are no more “big fights” to chase, he thinks for a moment, running his hands together. “I want a life without boxing,” he says. “Maybe.”
He knows a boxer’s legacy is revealed by each fight, his life an appendage to glory in the ring.
“Every punch tells a story,” he says. And every fight its own book.
Flinder Boyd is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag. A former writer at FoxSports.com, his work has appeared in Rolling Stone, Newsweek, BBC Online and more, as well as multiple editions of The Best American Sports Writing. Before becoming a journalist, he played 10 seasons of professional basketball across Europe. He now lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter: @flinderboyd.
GGG: Inside the Come-up – Bleacher Report