THE one knock against Gennady Golovkin during a brilliant run of 20 consecutive middleweight titles defences was that defining fights and big-name opponents eluded him. He got one in the end, of course, when engaging in two classics with Mexican superstar Saul ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, but it was a long time coming and one could argue, through no fault of his own, the Kazakh’s best years were wasted on mediocre opposition.

That said, if comparing the opponents during this run to Steve Rolls, Golovkin’s foe this Saturday (June 8) at Madison Square Garden, New York, they stack up rather favourably. Compared to Steve Rolls, they were household names, career-defining fights. Compared to Steve Rolls, they all made sense.

Steve Rolls, an unheralded 35-year-old from Canada, will be Golovkin’s first opponent since the former middleweight champion saw his undefeated record soiled by a loss to Alvarez last September, and the fight will be the first of a money-spinning deal between Golovkin and streaming service with DAZN.

Clearly feeling he needs to be eased back into contention following nine months out, Golovkin has chosen an opponent to suit his needs and, like Canelo, who did something similar with Britain’s Rocky Fielding, has elected a showcase fight rather than a testing one to commence a new network partnership. It’s his right to do so and few would begrudge him wanting to look good.

Golovkin is a knockout artist but Canelo took him the distance

Golovkin, after all, has registered just one stoppage win in two years, having gone the distance twice with Alvarez and once with Danny Jacobs, and could probably do with reminding those who grew accustomed to seeing him flatten a whole host of middleweights of the power he still possesses. That’s not to say Rolls is a fall guy, but, on paper at least, it’s clear he shares more in common with the men Golovkin folded before the final bell than the ones he was unable to.

In picking Rolls, ‘GGG’ has gone for an undefeated record over proven pedigree and is looking to add to his highlight reel rather than his legacy. The danger of this approach, if there is one, lies in the unknown, as well as the fact Golovkin might overlook Rolls and still be dreaming of a flame-haired Mexican. In fact, Golovkin himself conceded this was the risk when, during a news conference in Los Angeles, he was asked about Rolls’ ability and said: “I don’t know right now. It’s not funny. This is dangerous for me.”

A native of Toronto, Rolls first got the boxing bug in 2001, when in the eleventh grade he would slap-box with friends in the John McGregor school cafeteria. By 2002, he was competing in his first amateur tournament and eight years later he had twice made the Canadian national boxing team (in 2009 and 2010) and amassed a very respectable 83-14 record. He then turned pro in 2011, fighting primarily in Canada, and inflated his stats with wins against the kind of opponents most prospects use to build records.

This approach went on and on, however, and even now, some eight years later, the most recognisable name on the Rolls record is probably KeAndrae Leatherwood, the decent Alabama journeyman Rolls beat in December. That’s a major worry when stepping up to fight arguably the best middleweight in recent years.

“I’m a guy who doesn’t give up. I’m coming to fight,” Rolls, 19-0 (10), said. “I’m a dangerous situation for any fighter in the world who overlooks me.

Gennady Golovkin
Golovkin will need to look good against Rolls Joe Camporeale/USA TODAY Sports/Action Images

“After my last fight, I was saying, ‘I love doing this, but I’ve got to make a living. When am I going to break out? When am I going to get that breakout fight that’s going to get my name out there?’”

“I really feel I’m one of the best middleweights in the world. I just haven’t had my time to shine.”

When the hopes of an opponent winning are predicated on the favourite overlooking them it usually suggests a mismatch is about to unfold. Moreover, Rolls’ story, an inspiring, rags to riches one, adds credence to the idea that this is not only an opportunity of a lifetime for him but also a fight that probably shouldn’t be happening.

Whereas Golovkin, 38-1-1 (34), was seemingly programmed if not born to fight, and has done more of it than most, Rolls has to work as a personal trainer, going from gym to gym and even making house calls, to make ends meet. This reflects well on his dedication and determination, no question, but it also serves to highlight the disparity between a man like Rolls, someone unable to do this boxing thing full time, and someone like Golovkin, one of the premier stars in the sport.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Rolls said of the moment he got the call. “It was an unbelievable feeling. I mean, this is a life-changing thing. It was a great feeling. It’s what I’ve worked my whole career for.

“It is surreal. For a long time I was thinking, ‘Man, I feel like I’m one of the best-kept secrets in the middleweight division and I can’t keep fighting the guys that I’ve been fighting. How do I get my name bigger?’”

Perhaps, rather than a fall guy, Rolls is someone whose progress has been stunted because of the threat he offers potential opponents. Perhaps, rather than protected, he has been avoided. Perhaps, rather than focusing on the opponents on his 19-fight record, we should instead respect the fact he has sparred the likes of Adonis Stevenson, David Lemieux, Billy Joe Saunders, Glen Johnson, Andy Lee and Lucian Bute. Whatever his failings, if Rolls can survive in that sort of exalted company, he must have something about him.

He will be encouraged, too, if he compares his relative freshness to 37-year-old Golovkin’s history of violence and if he interprets Golovkin’s loss to Alvarez, as well as one or two flat performances prior to that, as being indicative of a monster losing his ability to scare. Certainly, if Rolls looks hard enough, there is confidence to be gained. He will see what he wants to see, as they all do.

Unlikely, though, that confidence, work ethic and a dream will be enough to help Rolls produce what would undoubtedly be the upset of 2019. No, to do that he will need to be someone else, someone with a different set of skills, someone boosted by a level of experience he currently lacks. He will have needed to test his mettle against better opposition and distanced himself from the ignorance of the undefeated prospect. Then and only then might Rolls stand a chance of doing to Golovkin what nobody else, Canelo aside, has managed.

Ultimately, with a point to prove, a defeat to forget and a highlight reel knockout in the offing, Golovkin should be good and motivated enough to get this one finished by the halfway mark. And so straightforward will he find it, there’s every chance he will be thinking of Canelo, his former flame, every step of the way.  

On the undercard, go-getting Uzbek prospect Israil Madrimov, 2-0 (2), fights durable Mexican Norberto Gonzalez, 23-12 (13), in a scheduled 10-rounder. Madrimov, a decorated amateur, has had only two fights as a pro but both were set for 10 rounds and he has already signalled his intention to challenge for a junior-middleweight world title. Also on the card, Ali Akhmedov, a Kazakh now based in Las Vegas, puts his 14-0 (10) pro record on the line against Louisiana’s Marcus McDaniel, undefeated at 15-0 (2), and Charles Conwell, 9-0 (7), fights Courtney Pennington, 12-3-3 (5), for the USBA super-welterweight title.