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Unresolved Issues: The story of Canelo vs. GGG

Saul "Canelo" Alvarez and Gennadiy Golovkin go head to to head at Thursday's final press conference (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)
It has spanned five years and always been tarnished by controversy, but now Saúl "Canelo" Álvarez and Gennadiy "Triple G" Golovkin are ready to settle their rivalry once and for all, writes Elliot Worsell

TYPICALLY, the third fight of any trilogy tends to be the least interesting of the three on paper and is driven more by financial motivation than anything else. At best, it’s a rubber match, a decider, the opportunity to establish once and for all the pecking order of two fighters who have previously split two fights. Yet, at its worst, it can be a cash grab, or a shoehorned novelty which relies on nostalgia, familiarity, and a love of an already recognised franchise to convince you it makes sense.

In the case of Saúl “Canelo” Álvarez and Gennadiy “Triple G” Golovkin, the third fight of their trilogy rests, at this point, somewhere in the middle. Which is to say, it is not a fight the world has necessarily been calling for, at least not in 2022, yet it is also not a fight that is so far past its use-by-date that it comes across as cynical, or desperate, or meaningless.

Instead, what we have with Álvarez and Golovkin this Saturday (September 17) in Las Vegas is a fight between two fighters inextricably linked whose entire rivalry is predicated on things either unspoken or undecided. They have been here before, twice, and tried to get to the bottom of what it is that festers between them, but, alas, both times the fights ended up leaving more questions than answers.

The first encounter, of course, which happened back in September 2017, was as controversial as they come, ending in a split draw. That was a fight most believed Golovkin, the aggressor throughout, had done enough to win, yet the fear going into it, and a fear substantiated in the eyes of the majority, is that Álvarez, the Mexican star, would be the one to receive any benefit of the doubt should the fight go to the scorecards. And so it proved, too, with one ringside judge, Dave Moretti, giving the fight to Golovkin by a score of 115-113, a second judge, Don Trella voting for a 114-114 draw, and a third judge, Adalaide Byrd, finding infamy with a frankly ludicrous score of 118-110 in favour of Álvarez.

So bad was Byrd’s scorecard that night, the first fight between Álvarez and Golovkin didn’t just join the already-too-long list of fights sullied by a bad decision, it also, regrettably, came under intense scrutiny, with many questioning how Byrd had arrived at her decision, and many others, including Golovkin, left feeling cheated, angered, and bitter towards both Álvarez and the establishment.

A rematch was therefore inevitable, with Byrd’s ineptitude helping to secure and, in many ways, promote it. She wouldn’t be in attendance at fight number two, much less involved in a working capacity, but her work had by then been done and now, second time around, Álvarez and Golovkin would meet with renewed spite and feeling between them.

This time, too, the fight would be closer, inarguably. Álvarez, having learnt his lesson first time around, was neither intimidated nor as overwhelmed as he appeared in fight one, and appeared all the bolder for having gone and survived 12 rounds in Golovkin’s company. Meanwhile, Golovkin, perhaps caught between replicating his performance in fight one and thinking he had to try even harder in the rematch to get what he deserved, wasn’t quite as relentless as he had been 12 months previous.

A close fight, the rematch ultimately went the way of Álvarez, who claimed a majority decision at its conclusion, and this time few, even the ones who thought Golovkin had edged it, were going to kick up a fuss. The scores were close enough, after all, with all three judges scoring it no wider than a two-point margin (115-113, 115-113 and 114-114). It was, as far as scoring in boxing goes, as good as you could hope for.

And yet, even with Álvarez’s hand raised, and Adalaide Byrd nowhere in sight, the tension and unspoken feeling between Álvarez and Golovkin continued, unabated. It carried on presumably because, one, Golovkin and his supporters didn’t feel as though the Kazakh had got his reward for all he had produced throughout the 24 rounds he had shared with Álvarez and, moreover, they resented the fact Álvarez, this man the establishment had tried so hard to elevate to superstar status, would now go on to enjoy the kind of career Golovkin, having being robbed first time around, would likely never experience.

Of all their bugbears, however, the thing that perhaps riled Golovkin and his supporters most around that time was that Álvarez, in 2018, had failed a performance-enhancing drug test for clenbuterol and served a mere six-month ban as a result. It was a test that had come back positive in March of that year and then, by September, he was again sharing a ring with Golovkin in Las Vegas, a reality as ridiculous as it sounds.

Nobody pressured Golovkin to take the fight, of course. That was not it. But certainly, in being aware of Álvarez’s “difficulties” that year, it would have been only natural for Golovkin to come away from that fight, and that loss, feeling somewhat hard done by, and maybe, who knows, even finding himself stuck with that sour taste going forward. His issue, if indeed he had one, would have had less to do with Álvarez possibly being “dirty” for their 2018 rematch – besides, in agreeing to it, he knew exactly was he was signing up for – and more to do with the unfairness of 2018 being a year now remembered as both Álvarez’s best and worst; a year in which his reputation was somehow both ruined (in March) and then bolstered (by September).

That, I suppose, is boxing in a nutshell, for better or worse. If nothing else, too, the controversy that followed Álvarez that calendar year would keep him forever connected to Golovkin, ensuring a third fight between them, whether it happened immediately or years down the line, would probably still sell.

GGG vs Canelo
Golovkin and Alvarez go to war

It was perhaps, looking back, inevitable it would happen, though nobody knew when. Clearly, if in the Canelo business, it made more sense to separate him from Golovkin, at least in the short term, and bank obscene paydays fighting men who were either more beatable than Golovkin or, unlike Golovkin, didn’t remind Álvarez of his history, both the good and bad.

Sensible enough to see this himself, in the years that followed Álvarez fulfilled his destiny by becoming the sport’s premier star, doing so with wins against the likes of Danny Jacobs at middleweight, Sergey Kovalev at light-heavyweight, as well as during the time of the pandemic beating Callum Smith, Billy-Joe Saunders and Caleb Plant, all at super-middleweight. An exciting shape-shifter, Álvarez, such was his power (both in physical terms and marketing terms), was able to pick and choose who he fought, where he fought, and for how much, and was extended the kind of privileges only those at the very top have the good fortune to experience.  

Elsewhere, Golovkin – Álvarez’s great rival and, to some, his equal – had no choice but to keep going, beating lesser opponents to considerably less noise. Since losing to Álvarez, in fact, Golovkin has boxed just four times, with the standout wins arguably those against Sergiy Derevyanchenko (in 2019) and, last time out, Ryota Murata (in April of this year). Still at middleweight, the division at which he has spent his entire career, Golovkin has never seemed in any real danger of losing post-Álvarez but has, all the same, never looked like the same dominant and destructive force, either.

That, admittedly, probably has as much to do with his age as anything else, yet it is a shame nonetheless that Golovkin, at 40, offers the impression of a man coming to the end of the road but also still having something to prove. It has turned out this way, I suppose, because Álvarez is a name he has never been able to shake, never mind forget. What’s more, because their careers ran in parallel before then separating, Golovkin’s earning power and so-called legacy was always going to pale in comparison following that disappointing night at the T-Mobile Arena in 2018.

Indeed, even now, as they prepare for fight number three, Golovkin will be only too aware he has been “gifted” the opportunity by the man who still holds all the cards. He will know the fight is happening in 2022 because in 2022 Golovkin turned 40 years of age and, more pertinent than that, had to overcome some difficulties against Murata just five months ago. He will understand, too, that his name is being used to sell the latest installment in a franchise – Canelo vs. GGG III – rather than being given the fight for competition reasons or to maybe, I don’t know, settle a score.

Álvarez, after all, is the one in control, always. He is also, in 2022, a man in a bit of a funk himself, the result of being soundly outboxed by Dmitry Bivol in May. That fight took place up at light-heavyweight, so can be considered a case of Álvarez getting too big for his boots as opposed to a sign of sudden regression, yet, even so, there is clearly a sense some of the shine was removed from the Mexican that night against Bivol. For in losing the way he did, so emphatically, he watched doors close for him at light-heavyweight, this division with which he had previously flirted, and when looking back down at super-middleweight and middleweight saw divisions he had almost completely cleaned out.

“But what about Golovkin?” someone likely one day whispered in his ear. He is still going; he is still trying. He also looked vulnerable against Murata in Japan and, at 40, won’t be around much longer. It might be a good time to get him now, with few other options on the table, and with Álvarez in need of the kind of statement win that will, at least in the eyes of casual fans, repair some of the damage caused by Bivol four months ago. Because in a sport of illusion and perception, there can be no doubt: Álvarez beating Golovkin, whatever the context, is a result more likely to stick than Dmitry Bivol doing anything to anyone.

Able to relate to Bivol in so many ways, Golovkin appreciates this better than most. He will accept as well that although this third fight with Álvarez takes place at super-middleweight, a division new to him, he is not in a position to be calling the shots, nor trying to bargain with someone like Canelo, still the sport’s number one cash cow.

It is an exercise in acceptance, then, this fight on Saturday. Both fighters have accepted their current situation, with neither of them exactly ideal, and all those watching will also have to accept the fact these two men who should have fought for a third time long before this are now finally getting around to it in 2022, take it or leave it.

To then aid the process of this acceptance, we will remind ourselves that while, historically, the third fight of any trilogy tends to be the weakest on paper, there are more than enough examples out there of it becoming the most compelling of the three in reality. For, in the end, the only thing more compelling and potentially brutal than the pairing of young and ambitious boxers is the pairing of two ageing and desperate ones, with so much between them still to be said.

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