AN interview with Gennady Golovkin, the hardest-hitting boxer in the hurt business, with a knockout power that makes him, pound for pound, the most dangerous fighter in the world, is a surprisingly polite affair. The WBA Super world middleweight champion is such a ferocious puncher that he has stopped his last 18 opponents with devastating impact [Don conducted this interview with Golovkin before the Martin Murray fight earlier this year].
His 31-0 record features 28 knockouts and echoes the dizzying days of Mike Tyson at his slickest and most brutal. Golovkin, or “GGG” to give him his suitably punchy nickname, is a vicious ring sensation – and a softly-spoken geek outside the ropes.
His next opponent, Martin Murray, might be best advised to listen to the diplomatic interview technique of Golovkin instead of watching the “GGG” knockout showreels which US broadcasting powerhouse HBO churn out with relish while their middleweight monster prepares for war again. Golovkin and Murray meet in Monte Carlo on February 21, in a fight to be screened in the UK on Channel 5, and “GGG” makes it sound as if he is expecting one of his hardest nights in the ring.
A ring ogre of the past like Tyson would rage against his opponents – asking “how dare they challenge me with their primitive skills?” or stressing that he had been trying to “drive the bone of his nose back into his brain.” Golovkin is very different. Rather than insulting his British opponent, the 32-year-old from Kazakhstan pays apparently sincere tribute to Murray. “He’s a big guy. He’s a strong guy. He’s a smart guy,” Golovkin says with a percussive rhythm, almost as if he savours each endorsement of his rival as much as he enjoys setting up his victims with a relentlessly spiteful jab.
“Martin Murray is a great opponent for me,” Golovkin says. “He’s one of the best fighters in Europe. I remember his fight with Sergio Martinez in Argentina. That was a tough place to go but he did great [losing narrowly on points in April 2013 after Murray had dropped Martinez, who was then the WBC champion]. You saw he was good that night. And when he fought Felix Sturm in Germany it was very close [only for Murray to be devastated after a draw was announced by the judges].
“So this is a very hard fight for me. He is strong, very experienced, a hard puncher. It will be one of the toughest challenges of my career. But I have trained hard in Big Bear in California with [trainer] Abel Sanchez. I am ready for Murray and I look forward to flying to Monaco on February 15. It’s going to be a great fight.”
Golovkin, clearly, is aware of the perils of complacency. He seems to be admirably concentrated. It is also less chilling hearing Golovkin praise Murray with scrupulous good sense and impeccable manners than watching the clinically savage way he gave so much pain to another courageous British middleweight in Matthew Macklin. When they met in June 2013, “GGG” simply walked Macklin down, cutting him under the eye in the round two and backing him up with combinations. The end in the third was a masterclass in destructive finishing.
A sickening right uppercut wobbled Macklin’s head and exposed him to a left hook to the body. Macklin’s mouth opened wide in agony, as the air was sucked out of him by that ruinous body-punch, and he slumped to the canvas. He was still writhing around on his hands and knees after Golovkin had done his customary bowing to all four sides of the ring. It had been an extraordinary display of punching.
An unforgettable look of utter shock also crossed the face of Curtis Stevens, a big-talking bruiser from Brooklyn, after he first felt the power of Golovkin at Madison Square Garden in November 2013. A left hook dropped him in round two and Stevens’ expression was a distressing insight into what it must feel like to be hit by the “GGG” force.
Of course no one is invincible and Murray is right to accentuate his self-belief. On his Twitter account he sets some words against the grainy image of a brick wall. “Nothing Is Impossible – The Word Itself Says I’M POSSIBLE” is the message he will carry into his clash with Golovkin. And, instead of just being intimidated by the KO showreel, Murray will note that Golovkin can be tagged.
Stevens landed some decent shots and, while totally outgunned, the Australian Daniel Geale connected with a big right in the third round last July. But within a second of that punch landing, Geale was crumpled on the canvas after a much more violent right hand provided an immediate knockout response.
Murray will offer more combative resistance than Golovkin’s last opponent, the Mexican Marco Antonio Rubio, who was so timid that he did not even attempt to test the champion’s tendency to advance in straight lines early on in a fight when he is most susceptible to being hit. But one of Murray’s many problems in Monte Carlo is that he will also be fighting a man who has apparently never been dropped as either an amateur or professional. Golovkin has a remarkable amateur record of 345-5 and he laughs gently when asked to confirm the accuracy of these claims.
“It’s correct,” he says. “I had 350 fights and I was never knocked down.” Did he ever come close to being floored? “No,” Golovkin says firmly. “Never.”
The combination of a solid chin, brute force and excellent technique explains why Golovkin is now considered by many to be, at least currently, close to unbeatable.
“It’s down to training, speed, positioning, timing and natural power,” Golovkin says. “But it’s not just power. I am lucky I have been training with Abel Sanchez at Big Bear since June 2010. Abel is like a professor for me. Every step of the way, every new fight he helps me. I have now developed this way of boxing he calls ‘Mexican Style’.”
Golovkin believes that his well-schooled amateur pedigree has been bolted onto an exciting style of fighting rooted in a Mexican embrace of fierce trading. Unlike the Klitschko brothers, Golovkin fights more like a Mexican warrior than a European technician. Intriguingly, the two biggest punchers in world boxing today come from similar territory to the Klitschkos. But, instead of Ukraine, Golovkin is from Kazakhstan while Sergey Kovalev is Russian. I am intrigued by all the stories that surround old sparring sessions between Golovkin and Kovalev.
“It was about four years ago in Big Bear,” Golovkin says. “We sparred a lot.”
Is it true that he knocked down Kovalev, despite being much the lighter man? Golovkin, being more cautious in an interview than a fight, avoids answering directly. “It was just hard sparring, tough sparring, because he is a hard and tough guy. I don’t like talking about sparring so much because, really, it is just practice. But, it’s true that I had a lot of good positions against Kovalev, a lot of good moments.”
I also spoke to Kovalev recently and the Russian, still basking in the glow of his domination of Bernard Hopkins, claimed that he felt like the biggest star in world boxing. It’s a glittering status that “GGG” could apply even more readily to himself. “Yes, I agree,” Golovkin says simply. “It’s great.”
Floyd Mayweather remains the most powerful fighter in the world, in terms of his economic might and control over everything he does in the ring, but Golovkin has designs on such exalted company. “Mayweather is my dream fight. I would go down to 154lbs [light-middleweight] to make that happen.”
Mayweather is a law unto himself and it seems extremely unlikely that he would ever move up a weight class and risk his unbeaten record against such a venomous hitter. Golovkin knows as much and so he makes some alternate points. “I am ready for anyone. Of course I would be happy to fight Miguel Cotto or [Saul] ‘Canelo’ Alvarez. ‘Canelo’ is a very good fighter. But so is Cotto. I sparred a couple of years ago with ‘Canelo’ in Big Bear. It was very good sparring. So we would have a good fight.”
The middleweight from Karaganda is a hugely compelling fighter but, for some obscure reason, he remains one of the most protected interviewees in a trade that normally pulses with swaggering trash talk. Even when Golovkin does succumb to my year-long pursuit of an interview, his publicist lays down some safety measures to ensure that the fearsome fighter is not troubled by any loaded questions.
There are subtle reminders that Golovkin will not discuss the tragic death of his two brothers, Vadim and Sergey, who were both killed while serving in the Russian army. Vadim died first, in 1990, when Gennady was only eight years old, and the Russian army refused to give the family any details of his death. There was no further information when, four years later, Sergey’s death was also confirmed by a stark dispatch.
The shutters come up and, on an obvious human level, it is understandable that Golovkin should want to avoid opening old wounds. But more than 20 years have passed and it would help people understand Golovkin’s struggle and his achievements more clearly if he could share something deeper of himself.
I am also reminded that Golovkin will not answer any questions about the death last year of his father in Kazakhstan.
His mother remains in his home country, cared mostly for by Gennady’s twin brother Max, who is also a regular presence in his camp and often helps in the corner at fights. The closest we get to anywhere really personal is when Golovkin confirms that, just a few months ago, his wife and young son Vadim [named after his lost brother] left his previous home in Stuttgart to join him permanently in California.
Golovkin did return recently to Kazakhstan, visiting the capital Astana as part of a five-city tour which also saw him travel to Los Angeles, Mexico City, London and Monte Carlo. “I had a great time,” Golovkin enthuses. “It was my first time in London and, wow, it’s a beautiful city, with a beautiful atmosphere. I liked it very much. Monaco was good – and Astana was great. I went back for a press conference in November with 2,000 college students. I had a wonderful time and it made me understand that I am very lucky. I am living a special dream. I was there only one week but I got to see all my friends, my fans, my parents…well, my mum.”
It seems poignant that Golovkin should say “my parents” before the reality of his father’s death hits him again. And, in a way, it seems right not to press him here for, beneath that darkly concussive power in his fists, Golovkin does seem a sensitive soul. “It was just a great time in Astana,” he continues. “People in Kazakhstan see me fight on television, they see me on TV shows and walking around I was stopped a lot. It was a big difference. So many people knew me this time. That makes me very proud.”
Apart from being the most wildly popular athlete in Kazakhstan, “GGG” is on the brink of sporting stardom in America. The way in which he sold out the StubHub Center in Carson, California for his routine destruction of Rubio three months ago is another sign that Golovkin has moved to a new level in boxing. His English is still functional and he is averse to revealing much of his tangled past, and yet “GGG” explains quietly and effectively why he has become such an irresistible draw.
“I think it’s because people like to watch me fight. They know they will see a big show with a lot of drama, a lot of knockdowns. They will get action, and they know something will happen. They are just not sure when. But they know it will be exciting and dramatic. I like to fight in that way.”
I only manage to stun “GGG” with one off-the-wall question. He is confused when I relate a recent conversation I had with Chris Eubank Snr – who reiterated that his son, Chris Jnr, could beat Golovkin. There is a long silence before Golovkin says, “Sorry…I don’t understand.”
I explain that Eubank Snr was a former world super-middleweight champion in the 1990s – and that his son is an interesting contender in the same division. What does Golovkin make of Eubank Snr’s claim that his son is the most dangerous young man on the planet – and that “GGG’s” promoters would never allow them to fight?
Golovkin is too polite to laugh. He hesitates before his amiable American publicist, Bernie Bahrmasel steps in to confirm, tactfully, “I don’t believe Gennady is familiar with Chris Eubank Jnr…”
Martin Murray, however, is in an unenviable position. Gennady Golovkin is clearly familiar with all Murray’s admirable attributes and in the mood to record a 19th successive stoppage amongst the high-rollers of Monaco next month. “You know, right now, my focus is on Martin Murray,” Golovkin says. “He’s a very serious fighter so I must concentrate on him. But, sure, in the future I am ready for anyone. I want some really big fights. I want to do much, much more in boxing.”
Photo: Naoki Fukuda