Gennady Golovkin looks like a really nice guy. Athletic but not aggressively muscular, soft-spoken and polite, graceful in victory and respectful to every one of his opponents; Golovkin is a perfect ambassador for the sport of boxing. And yet to some, he is one of the scariest men on earth.
Watching Golovkin's opponents during his fights, a common thread quickly emerges: they are terrified of him. Every one of them. The natural power that Golovkin carries in either hand is as good a deterrent as one could ask for in this sport, and it's been a long time since he's found himself in against an opponent who doesn't respect it. More than any other fighter in the world, Golovkin is known as a man to fear.
But therein lies the problem. At some point, as it always does, the legend must outgrow the man. Most of Golovkin's opponents these days enter the contest worried about the crushing power in his fists. Matthew Macklin, supposed to be Golovkin's toughest test to date at the time, spared no opportunity to cover up and run from Golovkin's punches. Judging by his body language, Macklin treated every jab as if it preceded the ten-punch combination that would surely end his life.
And Macklin's seconds were complicit in this gut-wrenching fear. "Circle away from the right hand!" they demanded between rounds, all but forgetting to advise their fighter on how to, you know, hit the other guy back. Golovkin hits hard, yes, but what chance do his opponents stand if that's all they ever focus on? How do you survive power like his if your only goal is just that: to survive? Boxing is not a game of survival, but of domination. And (this is where this article gets controversial) Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin is capable of being dominated. He simply has yet to meet the man who will do it.
Let's look at the evidence.
In January of 2013, Golovkin fought Gabriel Rosado. It was a big step up for Rosado, and it was something of a get-over fight for Golovkin, not in terms of success, as he was riding a 24-0 record at the time, but in terms of fan appeal. By crushing the young, promising Rosado, Golovkin sold himself to the North American boxing market like never before.
He did crush Rosado, right?
Actually, no. Though most remember Rosado's split eyebrow (now an unfortunate theme in the career of a talented boxer) and the numerous punches that Golovkin landed in the early and late rounds of the bout, they tend to forget the success that Rosado had in rounds four, five, and six, wherein he successfully evaded many of Golovkin's shots and fired back with meaningful counters. Like so:
Golovkin has often been praised for the intelligence of his combination punching, and it's a well-deserved accolade. Few boxers are more adept at using touching, throwaway punches to feel out and create holes in the opponent's defense. Defense is the operative word there, however, for it's defense that Golovkin expects from his opponents. As with poor Matthew Macklin above, Golovkin absolutely flourishes when his opponents are desperately trying not to be hit by him. Ironically, that's when their likelihood of being hit--and knocked out--becomes a veritable inevitability.
But when Golovkin's probing is met with offense? Well, you can see the results of that above. With Rosado on the ropes, Golovkin has his eye out for openings, and forgets to mind the openings he himself is presenting. The flaw becomes a touch more obvious when Golovkin's opponents press the attack.
Pressured with feints, aggressive footwork, and combination punches, Golovkin just kind of . . . backs up. Occasionally he will fire back with a counter, but that's really it. His defensive footwork is uninspired and one-dimensional--rather than creating opportunities for his tremendous punches on the retreat, he merely hopes to reset, and plants his feet right in front of his opponent to throw if he feels he's being pushed back too far.
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Being a puncher doesn't mean responding to everything with punches . . .
Perhaps this doesn't seem glaring to you, reader. Perhaps this is the only Gennady Golovkin you've ever really known. After all, Rosado was more or less his first big fight for American audiences, as I mentioned above. When boxing fans think "Golovkin," who can fault them for picturing the offense-only knockout artist pictured in that GIF?
There was a time, however, when Golovkin was not merely a puncher. He was, in fact, an archetypal boxer-puncher, and a very good one at that. As part of his series "For Your Consideration," Bad Left Hook's Scott Christ recently named Sergey Khomitsky as Golovkin's first real test--Khomitsky is a tough fighter better than his 29-11-2 record would suggest--and his third best win overall. I tend to agree, and what stands out about that fight is the manner in which Golovkin beat Khomitsky. He didn't crush him outright, as he is wont to do to opponents today, but he dismantled him piece by piece, and in some sense that's more impressive.
Honest-to-goodness, cross-my-heart: the following GIF has been pulled from Golovkin's fight with Khomitsky utterly at random, in order to illustrate how complete Golovkin's transformation has been. I think you'll find that the difference between today's all-offense stalker and the clever boxer-puncher of 2007 is striking, to say the least.
Again, this is not a particularly slick sequence pulled to demonstrate my point; this is a good representation of what you would find were you to jump to any random time in the bout and watch for five seconds or so.
So, compare the movements of that man to the figure being chased around the ring by Rosado in GIF before. Here, Golovkin responds to Khomitsky's jabs and feints with small angles and adjustments. He uses his hips, slipping one way and then the other, both making himself a difficult target and spying out angles for punches. Offense and defense together, a far cry from the Golovkin who seemed taken aback when Rosado and Curtis Stevens dared to throw punches back at him (and succeeded in landing).
Let's compare that last GIF to another, this one from the Stevens fight. Curtis Stevens is another opponent whom most remember as an easy win for Golovkin, but I recall a surprisingly stiff test. It was also a fight that revealed the limitations of Golovkin's new style even when he was winning convincingly. For example, this is what it looked like when Golovkin stalked Stevens:
Some might see one fighter dominating another, but what I see is a fighter who doesn't seem to know how to move around his opponent. There is absolutely no reason to stand in front of a puncher like Stevens. The kind of movement utilized by Golovkin in that Khomitsky sequence above would have worked beautifully here, and would have given the Kazakh safe opportunities to hit Stevens. Instead, Golovkin stands directly in front of one of the hardest punchers in the middleweight division and tries to loop punches around his gloves.
Many have suggested that this doesn't represent a digression in skill, but merely a more efficient approach for a puncher of Golovkin's caliber. But that doesn't really add up. In fact, Golovkin used to be better at finding openings for his punches. Let's go once again to the Khomitsky fight.
This sequence begins with a combination from Khomitsky--a counter left hook followed by a double jab. Golovkin uses his hips in the pocket--something he almost never does anymore--first pulling away from the hook and then slipping to avoid a follow-up punch while sticking out a feeler jab. Not just punching, but punching and utilizing defensive hip movement in conjunction. Then, when Khomitsky pushes forward, Golovkin backs up, circles, and drives Khomitsky into the ropes with a beautiful combination culminating in a left hook to the liver, the same punch that would eventually put Khomitsky away in the fifth round.
That combination, a throwaway uppercut followed by a perfectly-placed body punch--is the exact same one which Golovkin used to put away Matthew Macklin last year. The only difference is that, on the rare occasions when Macklin elected to throw punches at Golovkin, he tended to land, while Khomitsky was lucky if he landed a half dozen clean punches per round. So where does the argument for Golovkin "refining" his style come?
Before joining Abel Sanchez and breaking through in the US, Golovkin was an efficient, intelligently crafted boxer-puncher. Defense and offense were not only equally present in his style, but mutually beneficial. That Golovkin could counter, fight reasonably well off the back foot, and keep from being hit when he had his opponent on the ropes.The contemporary Gennady Golovkin is a fighter for whom offense and defense are almost completely separated, and the gap between the two seems to be growing wider and wider with every knockout win.
Boxing should not be "hit OR don't be hit," but "hit AND don't be hit." Defense and offense are, ultimately, two inseparable halves of one whole. Somewhere, sometime in the last half decade or so, Golovkin and his caretakers have lost sight of that fundamental truth.
Of course, a punch like Golovkin's can turn any fight around in the blink of an eye.
Golovkin will never be more than one punch away from winning a fight, and that's a fact. But once a fighter starts thinking of his power in this way it becomes a crutch, not an attribute. Natural power should enhance technique and strategy, not serve as an excuse for abandoning them. Much like his fans, Golovkin now seems to view the KO as not a possibility, but an eventuality.
What happens when he finally faces a fighter prepared to take him on? One who knows how not to be hit, or doesn't care about getting hit in the first place? What happens when an opponent comes along who doesn't admire Golovkin's power as much as he does?
Gaugamela. Crecy. Cannae. Belief is a powerful thing, but if history has taught us anything, it's that discipline trumps conviction in the end. Eventually the legend will outgrow the man; fans of Triple-G must entertain the very real possibility that it already has, and that the man just doesn't know it yet.