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Gennady Golovkin’s Kingdom

Gennady Golovkin (Al Bello/Getty Images)
‘GGG’ reinforced the view that he was the best middleweight in the world when he fought Curtis Stevens at Madison Square Garden

TIMES SQUARE in New York City is often referred to as “the crossroads of the world.” On November 2, 2013, the crossroads moved nine blocks south to Madison Square Garden where Brooklyn and Kazakhstan converged for the middleweight title fight between Curtis Stevens and Gennady Golovkin.

Golovkin was born in Kakakhstan in 1982. He turned pro after winning a silver medal as a middleweight at the 2004 Athens Olympics and had a reported amateur record of 345 wins against 5 losses. Prior to facing Stevens, he was undefeated in 28 professional bouts with 25 knockouts and had never been knocked down as an amateur or pro. Sergio Martinez might have been the “lineal” middleweight champion at the time. But Gennady (the WBA belt-holder) had come to be regarded as the best 160-pound fighter in the world.

Golovkin introduced himself to the American public with a fifth-round knockout of Grzegorz Proksa on HBO in 2012. Explosive triumphs over Gabriel Rosado and Matthew Macklin followed. In the ring, he was like a threshing machine cutting through a wheatfield. Or a tank firing live ammunition. Choose your metaphor. He was a technically sound predator who had mastered the art of controlling the distance between himself and his opponent and methodically destroyed adversaries with hard precision punching and a pressure assault. Abel Sanchez (then Gennady’s trainer) likened his pupil’s relentless attack to that of Julio Cesar Chavez in his prime.

Cornerman Al Gavin once said, “If you’re making a list of all the attributes a fighter needs, start with a chin. If you don’t have a chin, forget about being a fighter.”

Golovkin’s chin seemed to have been carved out of granite. One could argue that he didn’t move his head enough and got hit more than he should have. But Freddie Roach, who knew greatness as Manny Pacquiao’s trainer, opined, “Golovkin is a great fighter. He’s strong. He has good fundamentals. He cuts the ring off well. I’ve watched his ring generalship. It’s f**king great. Ring generalship is a lost art, but Golovkin has it. Ninety-five per cent of the time, he’s in the right position. If you do that, you win fights. He’s heavy-handed. He’s a nice kid. I’m a big fan.”

Some fighters keep the “0” on their record by avoiding other top fighters. Golovkin hadn’t turned down a single opponent. The converse wasn’t true. More than a few top fighters were avoiding Gennady. HBO had a November 2 date for Golovkin and needed an opponent. Twenty-eight-year-old Curtis Stevens stepped into the void.

Stevens was born and raised in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn where he lived with his mother (a counselor at the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice) and younger sister. Often when he was young and did roadwork in the morning, his mother had ridden on her bike behind him. Over time, words and images chronicling the streets where Curtis ran were inked into his skin as tattoos:

              *    On his back – “Brownsville”

              *    On his neck – “Don of Dons”

              *    On his right biceps – “Showtime” (“That’s my street name,” Stevens explained)

              *    On his left forearm – The image of a heart and crucifix with the words “Pain Is Love” and “Tanya” (his mother’s name)

              *    On his right hand — “Brother”, “Hood”, and “D.B.D (“‘Death before dishonor.’ That’s the code I live by.”)

              *    On his left hand — “R.I.P Lo Bloccs” (“‘Lo Bloccs’ is what we called Anthony Reid. He was a friend of mine. He died on New Years       Day 2003. A cop shot him. Wrong place, wrong time.”)

“I know the streets,” Stevens acknowledged. “But I know the boundaries of life too. Don’t be out there selling drugs because, sooner or later, you’re gonna get locked up. Don’t get in a fight that will land you in trouble. With every option there’s a repercussion, so think before you make a move. My mother raised me to respect people.”

Stevens’ fistic education began at age five when an uncle took him to the Starrett City Gym in Brooklyn. He had his first amateur fight at age eight. The high point of his amateur career were twin 178-pound championships in 2002 at the United States Amateur Championships and National Golden Gloves. He turned pro in 2004 and came into the Golovkin fight with a 25-and-3 record. Most his bouts had been at light-heavyweight. He was undefeated with three first-round knockouts in four fights after going down to 160 pounds.

Standing only 5ft 7ins tall, Stevens was a puncher with an aggressive attacking style. “I put on a show,” he said. “I knock people out. I demolish them. I’m fast. I have power. My hook is like a meteorite. You know how, if a giant meteorite hits the earth, we’d all be gone. Well, if I hit you with my hook, you’re gone. I can hit you one time, and the fight’s over. And I can finish. Once I hurt you, I’m gonna take you out.”

“Outside the ring, I’m a nice person,” Stevens continued. “In the ring, I’m a different man. In the ring, I’m someone you don’t want to mess with. I get angry; I get violent and crazy. In the ring, I’m the most dangerous person in the world.”

Golovkin had made his Madison Square Garden debut 10 months earlier with a seventh-round knockout of Gabriel Rosado. Golovkin-Stevens would be his second appearance at The Mecca of Boxing.

Outside the ring, Gennady has a gentle demeanor that masks how brutally he practices his trade. He’s laid-back and smiles a lot. On the street, he could pass for a computer geek. His first language is Russian, but he speaks fluent Kazakh and some German. In interviews with the American media, he often waits for a question to be translated into Russian before answering in English.

There was a modest amount of trash-talking in the week leading up to Golovkin-Stevens, most of it coming from Curtis who called Gennady “an overrated hype job” and promised to “knock him the f**k out.”

That earned a rejoinder from Golovkin, who observed, “Dangerous atmosphere, different style. I am sportsman. He has big mouth.”

“Gennady doesn’t get angry,” Abel Sanchez noted. “He gets focused.” Then Sanchez said of Stevens, “He’s going to get destroyed. He doesn’t belong in the ring with Triple-G. You’ve seen what Gennady has done so far. He can do that to anybody.”

That led Curtis to respond, “Abel is saying I’m gonna get knocked out in three rounds. Abel is saying I’m gonna get knocked out in six. Abel is stupid.”

Meanwhile, in a calmer moment, Stevens acknowledged “This is something that I dreamed about since I was eight years old and stepped in the ring for the first time. And to be here and to have it in my grasp, it’s amazing. I think about it every night. Some nights, there’s anxiety from thinking about it too much and I don’t get good. So in my mind, I’m saying, ‘You’ve just got to grab it. You’re either gonna give it up or go in there and take it right out of his hands.’ Come November 2nd, I’m gonna be great.”

“Golovkin is a fighter,” Curtis added. “He might not look like one outside the ring, but I know he’s good. People are saying he’s the best middleweight in the world. After I beat him, what does that make me?”

Gennady Golovkin vs Curtis Stevens (Al Bello/Getty Images)

*

Gennady Golovkin arrived at his dressing room on the second floor of The Theater at Madison Square Garden on fight night at 8.05pm. Max Golovkin (his brother) and two other team members were with him.

The room was small, roughly 12 feet squared with cream-colored cinderblock walls and a speckled-grey tile floor. A large blue-and-gold Kazakhstani flag hung from the wall above a rectangular plastic table. Seven folding metal chairs with black cushions and television cables taped to the floor made the space seem smaller than it was.

Gennady began doing stretching exercises. At 8.20, Abel Sanchez came in. The trainer had three fighters on the undercard including heavyweight Mike Perez who would be in HBO’s first televised fight of the evening. Sanchez would move back and forth between dressing rooms for much of the night.

Other members of Team Golovkin came and went. Gennady checked his cell phone for text messages. Music at a low decibel level sounded in the background; an eclectic mix ranging from a woman’s soft voice over a gentle rock beat to gangsta rap.

There was little conversation. Most of the time, Gennady was on his feet, pacing, stretching. At one point, he sat down and massaged his own fingers, hands, and wrists. At nine o’clock, he took a milk chocolate Hershey bar out of his gym bag and peeled off the wrapper.

“Is that for energy?” a state athletic commission inspector assigned to the dressing room asked.

“No. I’m hungry and it tastes good.”

All fighters are aware of the stakes involved when they fight – financially and in terms of their physical wellbeing. But they process it in different ways. At a time when many fighters’ nerves are gyrating on the edge, Golovkin seemed calm and emotionally self-sufficient, almost serene.

Referee Harvey Dock came in and gave Gennady his pre-fight instructions.

“The three-knockdown rule is waived . . . The Unified Rules of Boxing are in effect . . . If your mouthpiece comes out, keep fighting until I call a lull in the action. You have two mouthpieces, correct?”

“Three,” Sanchez answered.

Abel wrapped Gennady’s hands.

There was more moving about. The stretching became more vigorous. Golovkin lay down on a towel and contorted his body into positions that most people would find troubling. Then he rose, took a jar of Vaseline, and greased down his own face.

Sanchez gloved Gennady up. Max massaged his brothers legs, back, and shoulders.

Golovkin’s eyes hardened. A transformation had begun. The gentle smile was gone. Now he was stomping around the room, growling, flexing his muscles. Most athletes, not just fighters, need meanness in them to be great. The meanness was there.

Round one of Mike Perez vs. Magomed Abdusalamov came into view on a small television monitor. Sanchez had opted to remain with Golovkin. Ben Lira was the head man in Perez’s corner.

Gennady hit the pads with Abel for 30 seconds. Each punch was thrown with technical precision and thudding power. Then he paced and stretched some more before hitting the pads for another thirty seconds. Finally, he slapped himself on the temple with closed gloves. Left, right, left, right. More than a tap.

Sanchez applied more Vaseline to Gennady’s face.

Perez vs. Abdusalamov dragged on.

“What round is it?” Abel asked. 

“Six.”

Twenty minutes lay ahead before Golovkin would leave for the ring. He paced, shadow-boxed, and paced some more before sitting on a chair in a corner of the room where he bowed his head in concentration.

“It was for focus,” he later explained. “This is a serious business. I understand my situation. It was for concentration in the fight. To concentrate on speed, power, and distance. To concentrate on what I must do to win for myself and my family.”

Perez-Abdusalamov ended with Perez winning a unanimous decision. No one knew it at the time. But hours later, Abdusalamov would be in a coma in critical condition after emergency surgery to relieve bleeding and swelling in his brain. He would survive but never be whole again.

*

A casual observer who saw Golovkin and Stevens at the opening bell and knew nothing about either man might have thought that Gennady was a sacrificial lamb. Curtis was shorter but more visably muscled with a particularly menacing aura about him. He could beat a lot of middleweights, but Golovkin wasn’t one of them.

Stevens had the proper mindset but he was competing against a different class of fighter. Or as former heavyweight belt-holder Lamon Brewster observed after disposing of hopelessly overmatched 309-pound Joe Lenhardt, “It’s like when you look at a lion and he’s about to eat you. It’s not about what you’re thinking. It’s what the lion is thinking.”

Golovkin began by working off of, and controlling the fight with, his jab. Stevens cranked up left hooks from time to time but couldn’t connect solidly. With thirty seconds left in round two, Gennady fired a short compact textbook left hook that landed flush on Curtis’s jaw and deposited him on the canvas.

Stevens struggled to his feet, dazed, and survived till the bell. Thereafter, he tried valiantly to work his way back into the fight. There was no quit in him. Late in round four, he flurried off the ropes and landed some good shots. Midway through round five, he scored with a solid hook and right hand up top followed by a hook to the body. But Golovkin took the punches well and was soon stalking his man again.

It was the kind of fight that keeps fans on the edge of their seats. Both fighters were throwing bombs and both fighters were dangerous. It seemed as though – BOOM – at any moment, something might happen. But most of the “booms” were coming from Golovkin.

Gennady showed once again that was a complete fighter. His footwork was such that there were times when he seemed to be gliding around the ring. He was always looking to attack and do damage. He was relentless but not reckless and cut off the ring well. His jab, straight right, hook to the head and body, and uppercut were all in working order.

Stevens started round six aggressively. Then Gennady unloaded on him. Boxing demands courage of fighters, and Curtis showed it. But from that point on, Golovkin-Stevens was a one-sided display of brutal artistry.

A minute and 15 seconds into round eight, Golovkin landed two thudding hooks to the body that hurt Stevens. Curtis backed into the ropes, and Gennady battered him around the ring with sledgehammer blows to the head and body. Stevens refused to submit, but his cause was helpless.

At the end of the round, referee Harvey Dock followed Curtis to his corner and told trainer Andre Rozier, “That’s it.”

“Okay,” Rozier responded.

An hour later, Golovkin was in his dressing room. He was pleased with the outcome of the fight and satisfied his perfomance. He had showed and dressed and was packing his gym bag when the door opened and a short stocky man wearing a navy-blue hoodie and dark glasses to obscure the bruises around his eyes walked in.

Curtis Stevens extended his hand and spoke his next words with sincerity and respect: “Champ; you’re a great fighter. Congratulations.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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