By Steve Kim
WBA middleweight champ Gennady Golovkin faces Curtis Stevens on Saturday night at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in New York. It will mark Golovkin's fourth appearance on HBO in the last 14 months, making him the most active fighter on the network during that stretch. And it's very simple why he has been showcased that much: He's almost certainly the most important fighter HBO has.
In a business climate that has seen its rivals at Showtime acquire the services of Floyd Mayweather, Adrien Broner and Saul "Canelo" Alvarez, HBO needs ring stars to rebuild its brand, which has taken a hit over the last few years. While the Neilsen ratings indicate HBO is still the biggest stage on which a fighter can perform, the perception in the industry is Showtime (with its near-exclusive association with Golden Boy Promotions) is quickly changing that paradigm.
This year has not been a particularly good one for HBO. First, the network ended its partnership with Golden Boy. And as for its marquee fighters: Andre Ward has been seen on HBO but not actually inside the ring, and his prickly personality hasn't earned him many new fans. WBC middleweight champ Sergio Martinez is a proud but fading fighter who's in the twilight of his career. Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.'s undisciplined ways have caused his marketability to decline. And Manny Pacquiao -- who returns against Brandon Rios on Nov. 23 in Macau -- was last seen face-down on the canvas after getting knocked out cold by Juan Manuel Marquez.
So HBO has clearly made a priority of Golovkin, who has a professional mark of 27-0 with 24 knockouts. Not only has the network given him valuable slots on its airwaves with increasing license fees, but it also erected a billboard in New York's Times Square that bears his likeness. The network created an online compilation of Golovkin's greatest hits, then produced this feature on him. And this 2 Days segment on Golovkin, which detailed his struggles with the flu prior to his bout against Gabriel Rosado, garnered a record rating for the series. There's no doubt about it: HBO is all in with Golovkin.
And there's a lot to like about the amiable 31-year-old from Kazakhstan, who brings an awe-shucks demeanor to the ring along with a set of unusually heavy hands that has his opponents accusing him of wearing irregular gloves. He's as soft-spoken as he is hard-hitting and as humble as he is powerful. And it's every bit his gentlemanly demeanor outside the ring that has gained him a following as his dominance inside it.
Golovkin has quickly become a fighter with a cult following, with stoppage victories over Rosado, Nobuhiro Ishida and most recently Matthew Macklin. He hasn't exactly faced Marvin Hagler, Harry Greb and Carlos Monzon, but with consistent exposure to the masses he is building a constituency. In lieu of taking on one of the marquee names in the sport, such as Martinez, he has built his case through sheer activity.
And that has paid off with increasing audiences on HBO. His first appearance on the network in September of 2012 against Grzegorz Proksa drew 685,000 live viewers. His January outing versus Rosado had 813,000 and the Macklin telecast drew 1.1 million. The goal coming into the year was to have Golovkin fight five times. It turns out that he will make four appearances in 2013 (which by today's standards is downright Henry Armstrong-esque), but K2 Promotions has accomplished its goal of pushing the Golovkin brand. That doesn't necessarily make him a star -- yet -- but this much is clear: Golovkin certainly isn't an unknown entity to stateside boxing fans. He's a valuable commodity with an upside. Can he become a superstar?
Conventional wisdom says a foreign fighter who struggles with the English language will always have an uphill battle in that regard. But the same could have been said of Pacquiao a decade ago -- and that's when he was competing as a featherweight. Like the Pac Man, Golovkin has a fan-friendly style that transcends other barriers and hurdles.
Golovkin is in the thick of his physical prime. After a career beset by promotional difficulty in Germany, he's in position to leave a permanent mark on the sport. The only problem is that like the tango, it takes two to make a fight. Martinez, could be headed toward a fight with Miguel Cotto. Showtime's Mayweather -- despite what some may speculate -- is nothing more than a pipe dream for Golovkin, given that network alliances will prevent that fight from ever being seriously discussed. The other two middleweights with major world title belts don't seem like realistic possibilities for the time being: Darren Barker has a date with Felix Sturm in Germany looming, and Peter Quillin is ensconced at Showtime as a Golden Boy client.
However, Golovkin and his handlers have made it clear that for the right price and opportunity, they are willing to either drop to junior middleweight (154 pounds) or move up to super middleweight (168). A move up would make more sense, given that the likes of Ward and Carl Froch have working relationships with HBO. But it's clear Golovkin will take on all comers. And HBO has made it clear that he will be on its airwaves.
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Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)