EVERYONE agrees the world’s best middleweight is Argentina’s Sergio Martinez, who puts that status on the line on September 15 when he meets WBC champ Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.
Flying under the radar is Kazakhstan’s Gennady Golovkin, who holds the WBA title and was scheduled to box WBO counterpart Dmitry Pirog of Russia on August 25. A back injury forced Pirog out, but the plan is still for Golovkin to appear on that HBO-televised bill.
Golovkin and his team are keen for him to become better-known. Thus it was that they invited the media to meet the 2003 World Amateur champion at a breakfast held in Wolfgang Puck’s restaurant in the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino, where that night Manny Pacquiao would be fighting Tim Bradley.
On arrival, I was invited to greet the boxer, who was shaking hands with other media members and signing photographs. Gennady was very friendly, but several questions revealed that he was not quite as proficient in English as had been suggested. At times I had the feeling he was giving an answer he had prepared in advance.
My opening gambit was, “You talk good English.” Gennady’s response was to smile and say apologetically, “Not so good. Thank you. I talk Kazakh, Russian and German. I live in Germany six years now.”
His Kazakhstan homeland was once part of the old Soviet Union, and many people there are ethnically Russian. What is Gennady: Russian or Kazakh? “Both,” he smiled before adding, “You know, my wife Natalya is Russian.”
Pronunciation of unfamiliar monikers can always be tricky, so I asked him to say his name.
“Gennady Golovkin,” came the response. “It’s Gennady Gennadyevitch Golovkin – my father is also Gennady. This is the way in Russian. You know, like Julio Cesar Chavez Junior is son of Julio Cesar Chavez.”
Standing up close to him, the most striking thing is how small and slim Golovkin looked. As platters of food were now appearing on the nearby tables, I ventured, “You are slim and small. Are you not eating breakfast?”
He laughed the laugh of all boxers with a weight limit in mind and said, “No – I have a fight in August.”
That was it for our one-on-one. Following breakfast the journalists gathered around Gennady for a more detailed questioning.
On hand were Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions and Abel Sanchez, who trains him up in the mountains of Big Bear, California (Sanchez also has Carson Jones, who recently met Kell Brook in Sheffield). Loeffler said he wanted Gennady to speak in English because that’s the way to improve, but often an enquiry elicited only a short response from the boxer and either Loeffler or Sanchez took over to provide more detail.
The process was frustrating – for Golovkin as much as the hacks – but some interesting material did emerge.
Was it a disappointment to be fighting Pirog and not Felix Sturm, who holds the WBA’s “Super” title at middleweight?
“Pirog is a champion of the world but I am champion of the world too,” said Golovkin. “Pirog. . . okay. He’s a champion. I like it, it’s a great fight.”
Loeffler added, “Gennady wants to fight the best, we’ve always said that. So we’re fighting Pirog. It’s on HBO and it’s in the US. We’re excited about it. It’s two of the top three middleweights in the world fighting each other.
“Gennady has been the mandatory for Sturm the last two years. The WBA let Sturm fight Sebastian Zbik instead, with the winner of that to meet the winner of Gennady against Makoto Fuchigami by September. We’re working on it.”
(On May 12, in Ukraine, Golovkin demolished Japan’s Fuchigami in three one-sided rounds to fulfil his part of the deal).
A suggestion that Gennady was small for the weight was something he could answer himself: “I hear this every time. ‘I am small, I am young, not strong’. Pirog, Sturm – I box them,” he asserted, meaning he held no fear of any middleweight.
“I box Russian style. I am 23 and 0 with 21 knockouts. I can do a good, great fight.”
Now Abel Sanchez chimed in. “When Gennady first came to me two years ago he was more of a stand-up boxer. He’s become more of a stalker. Why change a style? He’s not Mike Tyson.”
Back in June 2011 Gennady had his longest fight as a pro, when he was taken into round 10 before stopping Uganda’s Kassim Ouma. Sanchez told a story about that Panama City fight.
“I didn’t want to talk about it before. We’ve never talked about it. We were stuck at Miami airport from 7.30 in the morning until 10.30 at night because Gennady’s visa had expired. The fight was a good experience for him.”
Chipped in Golovkin, “Now I have a good team – Tom, Abel. . .” He was referring to the way he left Universum, his German promoters, to try his luck in the USA.
Next up was an enquiry about why he stayed amateur so long. Gennady can handle this one on his own.
“I am from Kazakhstan. In the amateurs I beat Andre Dirrell, stop Lucian Bute. I beat Matt Korobov, Andy Lee. After amateur career, get a job. Where to go? Tom called me. I am ready, say okay [to going pro].”
Explained Loeffler, “We had the same problem we had with the Klitschkos. The former Soviet system didn’t support professional boxing. The only choices were Universum in Germany or the US. We had some issues with Universum.”
Bear in mind that Kazakhstan is no hotbed of professional boxing. Vassily Jirov was for a long time the nation’s only pro world champion, joined now by Las Vegas-based Beibut Shumenov (WBA light-heavy king).
A question about what Kazakhstan means to Gennady yielded a surprisingly muted response.
“Kazakhstan is my home,” said Gennady, whose father, now 67, worked in the coal mines in the same city where Gennady grew up, Karaganda. “Boxing is work for me. Kazakhstan, I am proud, but not thinking about it when I fight.”
Another surprise came when Gennady was invited to name the boxers he liked growing up in amateur-boxing only Kazakhstan.
“Sugar Ray Robinson, Leonard, Muhammad Ali,” he stated enthusiastically. “And of course Mike Tyson. I like middleweights. I like warriors.”
Added Loeffler, “Gennady knows American fans like knockouts. He will never be in a boring fight. You’ll see a lot of offence from him – coming forward, very aggressive.”
What about Pacquiao? Said Golovkin, “He’s a good boxer, but a different technique – first round, last round, hard work every time.”
Abel was asked about training at Big Bear, and specifically if he made Gennady talk in English.
“We talk boxing,” replied the trainer. “He understands what I want. He’s becoming more of a Mexican fighter. He’s so smart, the positions he takes on his feet. He has good balance.
“We put him in with lots of heavyweights in the gym. He’s ready for Sergio Martinez but hasn’t really been in a fight where he’s had to unload. We’re looking forward to a fight where that happens.”
According to Loeffler, there are plenty of potential opponents for Golovkin.
“Chavez, Andy Lee, Peter Quillin. . . We want to clear up the WBA situation then unify the middleweight division. Gennady could even move down to 154 [lbs].”
Now, if Golovkin could reign at 160 and 154, he’d certainly make a name for himself.