By Geoffrey Gray
NEW YORK -- After training for months in solitude up in California's Big Bear Mountains for his fight at Madison Square Garden this weekend, Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight boxing champion, arrived to a sour welcome. For his last fight in New York, Golovkin had gone to Yankee Stadium as part of his promotional tour, and during the game the Yankee's in-house camera crew had agreed to film him in the audience and splash his face on the Jumbotron along with other athletes and celebrities at the ballpark. But even though his opponent, Daniel Geale, is more dangerous this year, and the Garden will feature him in its main arena -- a rare occasion for boxers these days -- the in-house producers at Yankee Stadium turned Golovkin down.
"They told us he just didn't get that great a response," one of Golovkin's handlers says. "They told us it just wasn't worth it."
While it's not the fault of the Yankees production team that a fighter like Gennady Golovkin has yet to resonate in the New York market -- after all, he hails from Karaganda, the coal mining region of Kazakhstan -- it's noteworthy that one of boxing's most exciting champions can get himself a date at the Garden and not a few seconds on a ballpark Jumbotron. It's a stretch to call Golovkin the most popular boxer among fans these days, but it's undeniable that watching him in the ring is never boring. As a pro fighter, Golovkin has a knockout percentage of 89.66, the highest of any active champion in the sport. He's an all-pressure boa constrictor in the ring, smothering then swallowing his opponents with his lithe frame, natural power and accurate punching. He's compact, efficient, busy and technically complete, having some 350 amateur fights and winning a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics. Golovkin is such a hard hitter and has so much talent that he suffers from the unique boxing problem of being so good that other boxers are wary of fighting him. Historically, it's a dangerous position for a fighter to be in. Without getting the experience of fighting the best, Golovkin runs the risk of never growing into the fighter he could be.
"It's a problem because we really don't know how good this kid is," Abel Sanchez, Golovkin's trainer, told me earlier in the week, taking an evening stroll with Golovkin in Bryant Park. The 32-year-old fell in stride in a track suit, the hood of his sweatshirt over his head. He has a boyish smile, gentlemanly demeanor, and ripped body; pat Golovkin on the back and feel lats so big they puff out his frame like loaves of bread.
"I couldn't keep anyone in camp," Sanchez went on about Golovkin's dilemma. The sparring partners that Sanchez claims he hired at Golovkin's middleweight limit refuse to deal with his power. In turn, Sanchez has sparring partners at higher weight levels. It's easier for them to absorb Golovkin's power.
"All we have in camp is cruiser weights," Sanchez says.
The park itself is crowded, and trailed by a bodyguard and his old friends that travel with him to keep him company, Golovkin goes unnoticed. It's a sweltering summer night, the lawn of the park filled with tourists. Golovkin and Sanchez and the others sit down at a cafe table.
Golovkin orders a hot tea, the boxer's drink of choice. The week before a fight, boxers are consumed with preventing themselves from getting sick. After three months or so for training for a 36-minute fight, bouts that routinely happen only twice a year, a sudden bout of the flu or a head cold could lead to a laggard performance. The consequences of getting sick on the day of a fight are myriad and devastating: A loss of confidence, a lack of mental focus, a painful beating, and an ultimate knockout punch that could ruin a career and lead to serious injury. That's why fighters like Golovkin like to keep the hood of their sweatsuits over their heads and drink hot tea on a boggy summer night.
Golovkin is better off that he didn't have to schlep to Yankee Stadium to get on the Jumbotron. Promoters always want fighters to engage with the public in the days before the fight to hype it and sell tickets.
"I don't like it," Golovkin says about shaking hands with throngs of people before a fight. He's gotten sick before in New York. Too many people in the city. Too many germs.
"Once these guys, they are drunk and they see me and they come over and grab me and hold me and say we love you," Golovkin recalls. "The next morning, I wake up sick. It's not good."
Golovkin has come a long way. He was raised in Karaganda, the coal-producing Kazakh city where his father worked in the mines. It's a dangerous place, Golovkin recalled, and his family struggled.
"If I want new shoes, my parents say, 'Go out and get new shoes,'" he recalled.
Karaganda is also a legendary city for a distinct breed of macho man, as many of the world's foremost Greco-Roman wrestlers are born and trained for international competitions there. Like many of his athletic friends, Golovkin trained as a wrestler, but preferred the pace and potential upside of becoming a pro fighter. As a young boy his older brothers, Sergey and Vadim, pushed him to get into fights. As Golovkin told the story, his older brothers would walk him into the streets of Karaganda and challenge his fears. Are you afraid of that guy? Are you afraid of this one? No, Golovkin would say, and they would force him to prove it by fighting them or wrestling them to the ground.
The honor of his older brothers motivates him. When he was younger, Sergey and Vadim joined the Russian Army and never came home. Both had been killed, though at different times, government officials told the family. No details. No reports. No bodies. Perhaps it was the death of his older brothers that inspired Golovkin to display so much fury in the ring.
After he turned pro, Golovkin interviewed the sport's best trainers. He considered linking up with Freddie Roach in Los Angeles, but Golovkin didn't like the crowds in Roach's gym and the constant attention from reporters and fans. He clicked with Abel Sanchez, a soft spoken and lesser-known trainer in Big Bear.
Golovkin and his team had been scheduled to return to New York for a fight against Andy Lee this spring. But in February, Golovkins father, also named Gennady, died of a sudden heart attack. Golovkin lives in Germany now, but returned to Kazakhstan to begin a customary 40-day mourning period for his deceased father. Golovkin was so devastated over Gennady Sr.'s death that it was unclear to many of his handlers if he would fight again. For weeks, they struggled to reach him.
"I feel different," Golovkin says now about losing his dad. And that's all he says. His eyes well up with tears and he retreats into himself.
"He really doesn't like to talk about it," Tom Loeffler, his manager, explains.
Meanwhile, Loeffler, Golovkin and HBO have a fight to promote. Bigger names had been in the cards. Golovkin's opponent on Saturday night had once been Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., but after trying to convince Chavez to accept the fight (and for an alleged $7 million purse) Chavez refused. Another major talent in Golovkin's weight class is Andre Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist, though Ward has been fighting with his own promoter and has been out of the ring since last fall. Another option for Golovkin could be Miguel Cotto, who recently beat former middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, though Cotto could probably earn more by fighting Canelo Alvarez at a lower and more natural weight. So until Golovkin stands in with a world champion that has power and experience, his team doesn't quite know who he is as a fighter.
"We really don't know what's going to happen when he really gets hit on the chin," Sanchez says.
Golovkin's opponent at the Garden on Saturday night has experience. Daniel Geale comes to New York all the way from Tasmania, off the coast of Australia. A well-schooled amateur and slick defender, Geale has been able to squeeze out wins in big fights, including a split decision against middleweight champ Felix Sturm in Germany two years ago. But Geale lacks the power Golovkin does (Geale has a 53 percent knockout rate, in 32 pro fights) so it will be hard for him to earn Golovkin's respect. To date, it's the biggest bout for each fighter, and a sentimental one for Geale too. While Golovkin lost his father earlier this year, Geale's mother has been fighting a serious battle with cancer back in Australia.
"This one is for you Mum," Geale told reporters this week, dedicating the fight with Golovkin to her. "I've got it easy compared to what she's going to be going through."
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Geoffrey Gray is a best-selling author and reporter based in New York. A contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has covered boxing, bullfighting, tennis, female arm wrestling, camel racing and high-end perfume.