Gennady Golovkin was a conspicuous ringside spectator on Saturday night as Saul Álvarez and Amir Khan contested a share of a middleweight crown that the Kazakh believes should be all his. He is currently following Marvin Hagler’s template, but will GGG get the mega fights he so craves at 160 pounds, or should he begin to look elsewhere to cement his legacy in the sport?
In September of 1980, Marvelous Marvin Nathaniel Hagler battered Alan Minter inside Wembley Arena and fled from the ensuing, racially-charged riot as the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. Three years later, the IBF sprang forth from Springfield, New Jersey, and Hagler immediately claimed their pretty red trinket to accompany the green WBC and black WBA straps that were already a fixture around his waist. In case you are wondering, at this point in time the WBO was mercifully still little more than a twinkle in a Puerto Rican businessman’s eye.
Meanwhile, two weight classes below, Roberto Duran, Sugar Ray Leonard and Tommy Hearns were busy making 147 pounds the sport’s marquee division. In three tumultuous months either side of Hagler’s bloody coronation in London, Duran defeated Leonard for the WBC title, Hearns knocked out the great Pipino Cuevas to claim the WBA version, and Leonard broke Duran’s spirit and reclaimed his crown in the infamous No Más bout. From thirteen pounds above, Marvelous, a bona fide middleweight from his first fight to his last, was already making envious eyes at the three lighter men.
But he had a 160lb reign to consolidate and so swiftly set about knocking off the main pretenders to his throne in destructive fashion. Good honest fighters and deserving challengers, the likes of Obelmejias and Sibson and Hamsho, were all well beaten and added to a list of successful defences that eventually extended to twelve over the course of a glorious, seven-year rule.
But these names, along with those of Antuofermo, Caveman Lee, Scypion and Roldan, could never hope to sate a thirst for everlasting glory like that which consumed Marvin. He was chasing Greb and Ketchel and Monzon and Robinson on the all-time middleweight-great lists. He needed legacy fights, but there was no one in his division fit to provide them. He needed Duran and Leonard and Hearns.
Typically, Roberto was the first to stick his defiant head above the parapet in 1983 and Hagler showed the lightweight legend too much respect in eking out a narrow decision. Two years later, the Hitman tried his luck and was blasted out in three memorable, barbarous rounds. Finally in 1987, Leonard agreed to fight a past-his-peak Marvin, took the title from the champ in a hotly-debated split decision, and retired before the sweat had dried to thwart calls for a rematch. Marvelous subsequently hung up his own gloves and spent many years stewing over that climax before finding peace with pasta, pinot grigio and a new partner in Pioltello, Italy.
Like Hagler, Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin is a middleweight monster in need of legacy-defining fights. And just like Marvelous thirty years ago, GGG currently appears fixated on lower divisions in the hope some stellar opponents will emerge. So far, the Kazakh has found himself frustrated as the supposedly-retired Mayweather, the apparently-finished Cotto, and the very much alive-and-thumping Álvarez have politely declined invitations to dance with the sweet-smiling, 160-pound terror.
Instead he has dealt with a string of decent but unspectacular mandatories in Hagler-esque fashion as they have shuffled tentatively into his range. But while knocking out the Geales and Lemieuxs and Wades of this world may have cemented Golovkin’s status as one of the best fighters on the planet, that calibre of victim will count for much less when the all-time, pound-for-pound books are opened, dusted down and updated at the end of the decade. Yet still, GGG sits and waits and prays that a superstar will swim into his treacherous waters before it is too late.
Mayweather, once again giving teasing interviews on the topic of his inevitable comeback, remains the boxing cash cow Golovkin would most love to milk. But Money is a master of risk-versus-reward calculations and it is unlikely he will ever opt to roll those dangerously-loaded dice. This reluctance to move up has attracted unjustified accusations of cowardice and unfavourable comparisons with the Four Kings, despite the obvious flaws in the parallels revisionist boxing historians attempt to draw.
For one, at 5’ 10” and 6’ 1”, Leonard and Hearns were naturally bigger men who began as welters and organically rose to middleweight and beyond. Mayweather, on the other hand, is only 5’ 7” and already put on twenty-four pounds to move from his original super featherweight home and campaign at super welter before settling back into 147lbs. To rise again and much higher, particularly to face a beast like Golovkin, is certainly no small ask.
And while it is true that that is not far off what the 5’ 7” Duran did, there are again important distinctions to be made. Firstly, the notoriously profligate Duran’s winnings disappeared so quickly that he lived in an almost constant need of another big payday. Coupled with the size of his cojones, he would have fought Larry Holmes if there were enough Balboas on the table. Floyd, on the other hand, is never short of a few quid.
Secondly, the heavy-handed Panamanian grew exceptionally light on his feet around a Vegas breakfast buffet as his career progressed and continually moving up a division proved more appetising than the tortuous process of shedding excess weight in the gym. Floyd is never out of shape.
Finally, and this in no way detracts from his legendary status, Duran was nowhere near as successful once he set sail from his lightweight domain. On the nights he jumped up to challenge for super welter, middle and super middleweight titles, he lost on each occasion to Wilfred Benitez, Hagler and Leonard respectively. His record before he first fought Sugar Ray was an incredible 72-1. In contrast, he went 31-15 from the second Leonard fight onwards. Even allowing for the distortion caused by fighting on too long as he prolonged his career, it is clear what Duran’s perfect fighting weight was. Floyd’s too savvy to go out like that.
So with the criticism of Mayweather refusing to venture beyond super welterweight appearing harsh, and Cotto currently grazing in or around a comfortable pasture field somewhere, the focus has turned to Saul Canelo Álvarez. Since Cotto snatched the WBC middleweight crown from a crippled Sergio Martinez in 2014, it has been defended at a sub 160 catchweight, first by the Puerto Rican and now by Canelo, ever since. It is a ludicrous situation, but this is boxing and catchweights have been around since the 19th century when the moneymen first realised they could widen or narrow the pool of prospective opponents with impunity.
Álvarez is certainly the naturally smaller of the two, but there is not much in it and as a middleweight title holder he should attempt to unify the division regardless. There were positive noises on Saturday when, after crumpling Khan and showing great dignity to withhold celebration until the game Brit had regained his senses, Canelo invited Golovkin into the ring and, through an interpreter, told the Khazakh that he’d put the gloves back on and fight him right now, that they don’t fuck around in Mexico.
Unfortunately they most certainly do fuck around in the boardrooms of the promotional teams and television networks where super-fights are made, and if the Mexican’s handlers truly want to avoid GGG, then they will. Canelo has never weighed in more than a pound over the super welter limit – that’s the weight of an average pair of underpants. If he is instructed to, he’ll cut those extra 16 ounces by standing on the scales as God intended for a couple of outings until Golovkin is closer to forty than thirty and a slightly softer touch.
A shame for Gennady and fight fans alike but, again, this is boxing and such Machiavellian manoeuvres pre-date the drafting of the Queensberry Rules. So to approach the debate from another angle, is it perhaps time that Golovkin contemplated a contingency plan and, a decade on from the day he debuted as a middleweight, considered doing what he has spent years urging others to do: leave his comfort zone and move up in weight?
Just one division north, there are big fights to be made with the latest young Mexican sensation, Gilberto Ramírez, Britain’s own IBF champion, James DeGale, or the Mayweather-managed Badou Jack who might be the best of the three. As GGG already enters the ring north of 170lbs on fight night, that step up would be no problem whatsoever. But if he were to push on through another couple of pounds to light heavyweight, dream match-ups with Andre Ward or Sergey Kovalev could not only secure his legacy as one of the best to ever lace a glove, but also guarantee riches beyond his wildest dreams.
Hagler stuck rather than twisted. He never went up in weight. In part that was because there was nothing particularly alluring to chase there, but also because he knew that, sooner or later, Duran, Leonard and Hearns would simply grow too big and have to come to him. In the end, only Marvin can say whether he made the right decision, but his widely-accepted status as one of the five greatest middleweights of all time suggests he is probably happy enough with how things panned out.
But imagine an alternative scenario where none of the other three Kings grant Marvelous a ticket to gate-crash their party, and the biggest name on his resume is Mugabi or Sibson. That would be a very different tale for Marv to tell the grandkids. And it begs the question, if Golovkin remains at middleweight for the rest of his career and Floyd, Canelo et al never share his ring, will he sleep as easy as Signore Hagler now does in his Lombardy villa?
You’d need to ask Triple G that one, but I’m not so sure.