American fight fans heard of Gennady Golovkin before many got to see him in action. An amateur star out of Kazakhstan, tales of his gym displays, including sparring brutality against the likes of Canelo Alvarez, made the rounds before he was ever televised on U.S. TV.
Now, Golovkin is an unlikely building block in a rebuilding phase for HBO. While the network still does routinely higher ratings than its competitors at Showtime, the fact is that Showtime is now a fierce, actual rival, rather than an also-ran featuring a lot of second-tier (if often highly exciting) fighters. Working closely with Golden Boy Promotions, Showtime has made enormous strides this year in building a boxing brand, and with Floyd Mayweather locked in for four more fights, that doesn't seem likely to change any time soon.
HBO is in no desperate or dire situation, though. Their "fall" has been greatly exaggerated, but while that is a fact, it's also a fact that when they decided to no longer do any business with Golden Boy or Al Haymon fighters, they were putting themselves in a position where they needed new stars, and those would have to come from inside the Top Rank stable, or the second-tier and international promoters.
Golovkin, 31, fights for the Klitschko brothers' K2 Promotions, hardly a force in the States. But the hard-hitting "GGG" is a force of nature to the point that someone was bound to sit up and take notice. Luckily, HBO had some openings in 2012, and Golovkin was featured in a Boxing After Dark main event against Poland's Grzegorz Proksa.
Nobody watched the show, as it did a pitiful number in the ratings, but those who did started to spread the word: Golovkin was must-see TV, as he took care of the game but outclassed Proksa in five rounds, scoring knockdowns in the first, fourth, and fifth frames.
Though Golovkin (27-0, 24 KO) has yet to face a truly top-level middleweight, few seem to care. Like the aforementioned Canelo, he's a phenom that captures fan interest, though for different reasons. Alvarez, with his red hair and precociousness, fights out of Mexico, arguably still the most boxing-mad culture in the world. A built-in fanbase was there, ready to be plucked by an intriguing fighter like that, and Alvarez has become the biggest star in Mexican boxing because he's done all the right things to take make those fans his fans.
Golovkin, a Kazakh fighter with fairly limited English, didn't have such luxuries to become a Stateside star. With his entire career being fought in Germany, Panama, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine prior to the Proksa fight, Golovkin was more myth than anything, which was not to say his talent was doubted by those who had seen him, but relatively few had in fact seen him at work. And with no star power or name value, top middleweights weren't exactly lining up to face him. Felix Sturm notably avoided a fight, as did Hassan N'dam.
That meant that the most notable names on Golovkin's ledger were Kassim Ouma, who was well past his best days, Lajuan Simon, and Ian Gardner. It wasn't "who's who" on his résumé, but "who's that?"
The Proksa fight planted the seed. In January of this year, Golovkin got a slot on a Top Rank-led HBO card featuring Orlando Salido and Mikey Garcia in the night's main event, guaranteeing more eyes than had been on him in September. That night, Golovkin obliterated tough fringe contender Gabriel Rosado, smashing up the crafty Philly fighter over six rounds and change, before Rosado's corner had to make the right decision to stop the fight as Gabe bled all over the place and just took tons of punishment while refusing to give in.
After we've seen Rosado give Peter Quillin a tougher than expected night in the meantime, that win says a lot more than it appeared to in January. Rosado is no chump, and was able to stay with Quillin. Golovkin eviscerated him.
A stay-busy walkover fight against Nobuhiro Ishida in March wasn't televised by HBO (and rightly so, as it was a lousy matchup), but Golovkin returned to their airwaves in June against Matthew Macklin, a contender who had nearly won a world title in 2011 in Germany, losing a very controversial decision against Felix Sturm. Macklin figured to be the first real test for Golovkin, the first serious middleweight he'd faced to date.
If that was a test, Golovkin aced it, knocking out Macklin in three rounds on a terrifying body shot. It hadn't even taken long for the always-ballsy Macklin to find out he was in the ring with a different animal, either. Even in the first round, Macklin was looking a bit leery of Golovkin's nasty power.
Now, on Saturday night, Golovkin stays at about the same level of competition, but against a man who has his own designs on an early knockout. Curtis "Showtime" Stevens may not be an elite fighter, but the 28-year-old slugger from the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn can thump with the best of them. Stevens (25-3, 18 KO) was last seen on HBO way back in 2007, when he lost a dreadfully dull decision to Andre Dirrell, a super middleweight thought to be on the rise at the time.
As Dirrell avoided Stevens as best he could, clearly not wanting anything to do with his power and content to win boring and kill the crowd by rather easily outboxing the cruder Stevens, it was thought then that neither man would be on HBO again any time soon. Dirrell because he was so offensively boring, and Stevens because he just wasn't good enough.
It's debatable whether or not Stevens has gotten a lot better since then, but it seems fairly clear that moving down to 160 has done his already-good punching power some favors. At 5'7", Stevens is a compact, powerfully-built middleweight who may have the best left hook in the division outside of Golovkin, who may have the best version of every punch in the division. A vicious headhunter, Stevens doesn't figure to be able to stand up to Golovkin's power any better than anyone else has, but he has the puncher's chance many of them did not.
If Curtis Stevens lands a clean bomb, anyone in the division is in trouble. He's got that kind of power. Whether he'll have a chance to show any of it on Saturday is the question.
An impressive win for Golovkin will keep him moving forward as an unlikely new cornerstone performer for HBO boxing, and really, this could only happen in a world where we have seen a Filipino ex-flyweight become the sport's biggest global superstar. It's a worldwide sport, and American promoters and TV networks seem to finally be realizing that if you can't count on "the next American star" at heavyweight or any other division, there's no reason to not go international.
Gennady Golovkin probably isn't going to be the next Manny Pacquiao, but h's definitely on the road to being a box office fighter. Curtis Stevens will look to change that tomorrow night.