Gennadiy Golovkin tells us to forget about the first two fights with Canelo Alvarez. This third encounter is different, he insists, it’s a contest where they both start afresh, but it’s one where fairness must prevail, writes Brian Doogan
HIGH in the San Bernardino Mountains a couple of hours east of Los Angeles, surrounded by towering pine forest and with clear views of the shimmering, stately Big Bear Lake and the adjacent resort town, Gennadiy Golovkin exudes a sense of confidence bordering on serenity.
In no sporting environment other than boxing does defeat carry such potentially devastating consequence, nor can the meaning of defeat be so instant and far-reaching. Fighters, especially those who strive to be great, place their very legitimacy on the line when they step into the brilliantly illuminated arena of their dark trade, yet the overriding feeling coming away from an audience with Golovkin in this remote Californian retreat is of a man entirely at peace with his impending day of reckoning.
Neither hyperbole nor remarkable revelation feature prominently in conversation with the former world middleweight champion who tends to prosecute his arguments most emphatically with the gloves on. In 44 fights the only blemishes on his record – a draw in September 2017 and defeat by majority decision 12 months later – have been inflicted by the man he will face for the third time on September 17 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Canelo Alvarez, for the world super-middleweight title, but there is not a hint in Golovkin’s demeanour or daily routine to suggest that he is anything other than an embodiment of equanimity on the eve of The Trilogy, in keeping with the ambience at Big Bear of lakeside tranquility.
He rises before dawn and embarks with his team on an early morning run of three to four-and-a-half miles (extended to nine miles on Saturdays) along the mountain terrain 7,000 feet above sea level, which he supplements with stretches and other core exercises. Eggs, oatmeal, juice and water – he drinks large quantities of water over the course of a day – are breakfast staples and the kettle drum echo of his hands, covered by hangman black wraps, on the heavy bag punctuates the afternoon work in the gym in which rigorous strength and conditioning drills underline his conscientiousness. The behind-closed-doors sparring sessions – for so long, like the majority of his matches, a recital by a virtuoso – combine the rhythmic percussion of precise punching with a deliberate, erudite plan of attack. His compact, muscular body is taut and his face firmly lined, with an almost golden glow, conveying convincingly the vitality he will need in abundance against an opponent who is eight years younger, subtly skilled and physically formidable.
At 40, a lion with winter drawing near, Golovkin positively rejoices in the knowledge that he stands on the precipice of another “pinnacle fight”. While readily acknowledging the risk to both his wellbeing and reputation, he feels deeply reassured by the diligent intensity of his preparation. The knowledge that Canelo is coming off only the second loss of his 61-fight career has further inoculated Golovkin from the disease of complacency. As ever, he is motivated by a soldier’s duty as much as by the aura of greatness synonymous with his name or even the gravity of the challenge before him.
“Like any soldier, you must learn to love not only your profession but all of the responsibilities as well,” Golovkin explains with calm authority via an interpreter, as he makes ready for the afternoon labours. “Every soldier wants to be a general and right now I am a general, enjoying all of the perks associated with this. But a soldier has to earn his rank, which he does not just on the battlefield – or in my case in the boxing ring – but in how he performs his job every day.
“I’m in camp right now getting ready for this pinnacle fight of my career and I feel a lot of responsibility. It’s hard to describe what’s going through my mind but I’m happy to be undergoing all of this strenuous workload, happy that I’m able to train and keep to such a tough schedule, also with so much pressure. The pressure is not something I feel but I know it is there and actually I’m excited by that.
“Yes, I am 40 years old but I continue to be involved in a major boxing event like this, a pinnacle fight as I call it. This is the biggest fight available to me against the most important opponent in the middleweight or super-middleweight division. Who would not want this? That people all over the world want to watch this fight is motivating too, though it’s difficult to explain why it is important to me exactly. I don’t think it’s just the challenge with Canelo. I have certain commitments with DAZN and at some point they offered this fight against Canelo and I said, ‘Yes, of course, why not?’ So it’s not that it’s Canelo. The reason I train the way I do, with such dedication and serious focus every day, is so I can show on fight night the best Gennadiy Golovkin in the ring. I believe I will be able to live up to expectations.
“Some people are sceptical because of my age. I realise this and that is their right but they will not be stepping into the ring. I’m the one who will be in the ring with Canelo, so I’m taking all of the precautions and I’m working on a lot of details to a lot of questions to be able to protect myself and to come out of this fight with no trauma. Not just with no trauma, though this is important, but with a winning performance. All of this preparation will be conducive to a great fight. This I really believe and this is why I have worked so hard throughout this camp.”
If age and its inexorable eroding properties is indeed one of the great imponderables of their third fight, it is not the only one for Golovkin and Canelo. The Mexican, who suffered his first defeat at the masterful hands of Floyd Mayweather Jr nine years ago and prior to his prodigious development into an irrepressible pillager of weight divisions from welterweight to light-heavyweight, was controlled from distance and blunted and subdued beyond recognition by unheralded light-heavyweight titleholder Dmitry Bivol of Russia four months ago at T-Mobile Arena. His quick return to 168 represents something of a homecoming to his natural domain and Golovkin does not subscribe to the theory that Canelo’s confidence, as well as his ego, may have been indelibly bruised by Bivol.
Nor does the Kazakh, who is reminded of home by the mountains, the pine trees, the food, the reassuring presence of his close-knit team and the simplicity of life during training camp in Big Bear, consider his first two fights with Canelo to be significantly revealing of the battle ahead.
“I look at this very much as a fresh fight, a new fight, very different from our first two fights,” he insists. “We have new people in our team [Golovkin has been trained for the first time by Johnathon Banks, an understudy of Emanuel Steward who worked previously with Wladimir Klitschko] and it’s a different weight class [Golovkin is stepping up from middleweight for the first time]. Those two fights won’t matter much for this third bout.
“At 168 pounds, I believe I will be strong and ready for 12 hard rounds. As for Canelo, he will take the fight very seriously. His attitude will change from what it was in his preparation for the fight against Bivol. He is a very experienced boxer with a very high boxing IQ and he is also a very able athlete. When we fought before I said there are few boxers of his calibre who can perform on that level. But the fight with Bivol demonstrated also that it is possible to outbox Canelo and win. You don’t need a knockout. It is possible by decision. This is going to be an intriguing boxing bout, I believe. We will both try various approaches and ultimately we will see who will come out on top.”
Only once in the conversation does Golovkin indulge in psychological warfare and, tellingly, this relates to Canelo’s failed test for the banned substance, clenbuterol, in the build-up to their rematch in 2018, which the Mexican blamed on eating contaminated meat while he dined with former US President Bill Clinton at Sonora Grill after watching baseball in his hometown of Guadalajara.
“I feel like an ambassador of fair play and I know a lot of people are looking up to me hoping that fairness will prevail,” he declares. “I’m looking at this fight from that standpoint, that fair play and honesty should come back to our sport of boxing.”
History, too, is on his mind. “That we are about to engage in a trilogy fight is something very special for boxing fans,” he acknowledges. “I know about Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano and, of course, about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Trilogies often elevate the greatness of the fighters who participate in them whether they win or lose. I admire many of these legendary fighters and the fantastic fights and rivalries in which they engaged and I feel honoured that I am about to do the same.”
For GGG and Canelo, The Trilogy will cement a rivalry more rancorous than the Kazakh is prepared to admit. His has been a glorious career but he is aware of the danger of defeat now, however unfairly, to become defining. Boxing is cruel and unforgiving but Golovkin bears his hopes and fears with grace. A stoic in the face of the storm.
“I want to stay true to myself,” he says. “I love boxing and in return I hope boxing will love me.”