The Making of Gennady Golovkin, Boxing's Silent Superstar

How a boy from a soot-soaked corner of the Soviet empire—a city that grew out of a labor camp, in a society shaped by the warped, paranoid mind of Joseph Stalin—grew into the man they call “Triple-G.”

by Finn Cohen
15 September 2017, 7:28am

Illustration by Elliot Gerard

"We live in a morbid society here in America," says Abel Sanchez. "We want to see somebody get hurt. We go to the bullfights not to see the bullfighter win, but to see the bullfighter get thrown up in the air."

Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin came to America seven years ago from Germany, but he was born in Karaganda, a city in Kazakhstan, the Earth's ninth-largest country, dotted with underground coal mines that once fed the machine of Soviet industry. He was an amateur champion in his country, won an Olympic silver medal in 2004 and spent years knocking out every fighter Europe could throw at him before he finally showed up at Sanchez's gym in Big Bear, California, looking for someone to help him break into the U.S. market.

"I explained to him what America wants and what America needs, and if he gave me the chance, without any interruptions, I could make him that," says Sanchez, a construction contractor from Tijuana with a steady stable of fighters in Big Bear. "But he had something I couldn't teach, and that's the punch."

That punch has elevated Golovkin to the biggest stage in boxing. His life has revolved around the sport for decades, but slowly it is beginning to revolve around him. He is the real thing: a superstar, a knockout artist, a brand with increasingly strong endorsements—the custom Hublot watch, the Apple Watch ad, the Air Jordan gear. He walks with a placid swagger, in and out of the boxing ring, like a velociraptor in repose. In 37 professional fights, he has never lost, and he has never been knocked down.

Golovkin also does not enjoy suffering fools, but he does it well. Those endorsements that feed his family's future—and the promotional machine that sustains them—require a modicum of forced smiles, a flurry of necessary evils.

"Boxing is not a business," Golovkin recently told a Mexican reporter during a day of interviews and a public, outdoor workout in 100-degree weather in Los Angeles. "It is a sport."

But it is a huge business. On Saturday, Golovkin will face off against Saul "Canelo" Alvarez in the year's biggest boxing match to feature two actual boxers. Millions of people will spend $69.99 to watch on Pay Per View. Thousands will spend even more to see it live in Las Vegas. The naked capitalist theater of the recent fight between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Conor McGregor was a strangely attractive vortex of attention this summer, but the matchup with Golovkin and Alvarez is one the boxing world has wanted for years.

The fight takes place on Mexican Independence Day, one of boxing's marquee weekends. It features Mexico's most famous and accomplished contemporary superstar in Alvarez, and one of the country's favorite outsiders in Golovkin—a man who has claimed to fight "Mexican-style": with constant pressure, fearlessly, brutally.

Canelo Alvarez is Mexico's biggest boxing superstar. Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports.

"We as Mexicans remember the greats and how they fought. And the greats of today, or the elite of today—Mexican fighters—don't fight the way our heroes used to fight," Sanchez says. "When [Golovkin] goes out there and puts it out on the line, the Mexican fan remembers those days when we used to have those kind of fighters."

This spring, Alvarez defeated Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., the son of Mexico's most iconic fighter. The fight, a mismatch from conception, was essentially a staged showdown for Mexican supremacy of Pay Per View boxing, the level at which a boxer's checks get substantially larger. By defeating Chavez Jr., Alvarez set himself up as the legitimate heir of Mexico's boxing tradition. In Golovkin, who is favored by oddsmakers—and adored by many Mexican fans—he faces the perfect rival.

"If you were to search the world to find the two people who know the most about how to construct and conduct their lives, maximize what they can do as a prizefighter, these are the two guys," says Jim Lampley, the HBO boxing commentator who has seen many of Golovkin's fights from ringside. "They train monastically. They live quiet, controlled personal lives. They are not out there presenting themselves crazily or for attention on social media."

So now, after a summer of dick-swinging from Mayweather and McGregor, boxing has a narrative less about spectacle and more about honor: Alvarez, the heavily marketed and relentlessly scrutinized son of a country that reveres its bloodsport heroes, will meet Golovkin, a boy born in a soot-soaked corner of the Soviet empire—in a city that grew out of a labor camp, in a society shaped by the warped, paranoid mind of Joseph Stalin—who grew into the man they call "Triple-G."

The mines of Golovkin's home city were built on several hundred thousand backs, and knees, and crushed hopes. The miners working there, and the population tasked with feeding that labor, were internally exiled citizens; ethnic minorities from the empire's vast corners; farmers who resisted Stalin's forced collectivization of agriculture; people who maybe were suspected of thinking (or, God save you, saying) something negative about Soviet life—packed into train cars and put to work. Babies in Karangada were kept a half-hour's walk away from their mothers, who were required to walk there and back several times a day to nurse them until they were two, at which point they were put up for adoption. Prisoners were tortured; some were tied up and left outside in the sub-zero winter temperatures.

In the 1930s, the gulag camp system phased into a working-class city, choked with coal dust. In 1982, in a neighborhood called Maikuduk, twins were born to a Russian man and his half-Korean wife. (Nearly everyone of Korean descent in the Soviet Union was sent to Karaganda in 1937; anyone with ties to an external country was seen as a threat, regardless of their Soviet citizenship.)

He started boxing at 10: city champion, regional champion, champion of the Kazakhstan Republic, Asian champion, Asian games—like the Asian Olympics—world youth champion, world amateur champion, Olympic finalist. He's like a professor.

The twins, Maxim and Gennady, had two older brothers, Sergey and Vadim, who explained to their younger siblings the need to defend themselves: Karaganda in the last days of the Iron Curtain was a tough place, and it got much tougher after the Soviet Union's collapse. A small group of citizens with enough foresight in this shaky, pirate capitalism were able to manipulate wealth for personal gain, while their countrymen were left without basic needs, without jobs or with currencies that didn't mean anything. In the 1990s, the city's last hospital was turned into a casino.

The twins preferred soccer, but Sergey and Vadim took them to a boxing gym. Years later, Sergey and Vadim would both die fighting in the Russian Army—the where, when, and how are still unknown to the family.

Maxim was the better boxer, by all accounts, but Gennady pushed himself harder as an amateur, losing only 5 of 350 fights in a country with one of the world's strongest boxing programs. He won a silver medal for Kazakhstan in the 2004 Olympics, but wanted to get out of the amateur current. After signing with a promoter and moving to Germany, he spent years knocking people out in Europe as a pro.

"He started boxing at 10: city champion, regional champion, champion of the Kazakhstan Republic, Asian champion, Asian games—like the Asian Olympics—world youth champion, world amateur champion, Olympic finalist," Max Golovkin said of his brother's pedigree. "He's like a professor."

Golovkin knocks out Curtis Stevens. Photo: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

But Gennady wasn't getting the challenges he felt he deserved, and had no shot at breaking into the larger boxing market, so his German managers began scouring the U.S. for options. In 2010, they arrived in California, and met with Sanchez, whose Summit gym in Big Bear was a secluded place, 7,000 feet above sea level, where he could embrace a monastic training schedule.

They looked at some videos of Golovkin's fights. Sanchez spoke no Russian, and Golovkin spoke no English. Communication was primarily physical, a pantomimed twisting and shifting of weight to transfer power from one hand to another. Then Sanchez showed him a video of Julio Cesar Chavez, the beloved Mexican champion, fighting Edwin Rosario in 1987.

Chavez pursued Rosario for the entire fight, keeping him cornered, repeatedly bullying him against the ropes. Rosario had heart; he stayed upright the whole time, but his lips and nose were busted, and one eye swelled to a close by the 10th round.

"Chavez is turning this into an abattoir of Rosario's blood," intoned Larry Merchant, who was calling the fight for HBO. For Sanchez, a trainer whose hyperbolic praise for his fighters is one of the tools that helps Golovkin's mythical status, this was the type of violence he believed Golovkin was capable of doling out.

"I said to him, 'If you give me three years, I promise you that in three years, you'll be the best middleweight, you'll be undefeated, you'll be world champion, and we won't be able to get you fights. Give me three years, don't interrupt.' Still, to this day, he doesn't argue, he doesn't question, he does what he's told," Sanchez said. "Three years went by, and just like I said, he was the undefeated middleweight champion and nobody wanted to fight him."

"He's always looking at them with this predatory look, they can't seem to find space for escape from him.

It didn't take long for Golovkin, under Sanchez's power-first tutelage, to start turning heads. His penchant for knocking opponents out (33 KOs in those 37 fights) is what has endeared him to fans who will pay premium fees to watch him. His polite demeanor and dazzling smile have endeared him to the brands that make him the face of their products: outside of his myriad endorsements in Kazakhstan, he's the first boxer to have been endorsed by Chivas, and has been fitted for suits by the exclusive Bijan tailoring boutique on Rodeo Drive. At a time when boxing's ability to attract new fans is being overshadowed by the rising popularity of mixed martial arts, for such companies to attach themselves to Golovkin is a testament to his marketability.

For a while, his reputation had many opponents ducking him. He has not really ever been rattled, opting instead to apply a cold, steady pressure that leads to a breaking of the spirit. A velociraptor has no emotional investment in you. It just wants to eat.

"It's very unsettling to opponents," says Lampley, the HBO commentator, who often yells "KAZAKH THUNDER!" as Golovkin inevitably dismantles a foe. "They all talk about the fact that he's constantly directly in front of them, he's always looking at them with this predatory look, they can't seem to find space for escape from him, and that all becomes a difficult obstacle both mentally and physically."

In his fight against Golovkin last fall, Kell Brook, an undefeated British welterweight champion who had come up two weight classes for the bout, snapped Golovkin's head back. This is a rare sight. Golovkin's opponents are almost always running, moving away from him.

Brook, sensing a rare weakness in Golovkin, hit him with several more combinations; the crowd, at the 02 Arena in London, stood up, roaring. Golovkin retreated. It was rumored that he had been ill in the days leading up to the fight, which would have explained this display—or anything short of gracefully robotic pursuit. Or maybe he was just playing possum.

"I'm not sure you can take the Kell Brook fight as legitimate evidence of Gennady's capabilities," said Lampley, citing the potential need for Golovkin to lay some bait for Alvarez, who still would not agree to fight him. "He was attempting to say to potential opponents—most particularly Canelo, and Canelo's surrounding brain trust—'Look, I'm vulnerable. There's no reason to stay away.'"

Golovkin broke Brook's right orbital socket in the next round. Brook's corner stopped it in the 5th. After fighting in the center of his country's second-largest arena, Brook was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

Curtis Stevens, a middleweight from Brownsville, Brooklyn, the neighborhood that produced Mike Tyson and Zab Judah, pushed Golovkin back multiple times in their 2013 matchup. But these were tiny victories; later, Stevens leaned against the ropes, getting his liver hammered. In the 6th round, his mother walked out. In the 8th, at which point Golovkin was playing with him like a cat with an injured mouse, Stevens's corner stopped it.

Matthew Macklin, who fought Golovkin in 2013, spent the first round trying to push him back, dipping in and out in a circle. Golovkin let Macklin wear himself out; he broke two of Macklin's ribs in the 3rd round, ending the fight.

"He was exceptionally good at range," Macklin said. "To stand off at range and try and move and box was the worst thing I could have done. It just invited more pressure."

In 2015, the quick-footed Willie Monroe Jr. tried dancing around Golovkin's attack for several rounds; when that didn't work, Monroe took the fight inside, putting his internal organs at risk. When he was knocked down for the third time, in the 6th round, he barely got up in time for the count of 10.

"You just beat it. YOU JUST BEAT IT. You gotta move faster," the referee, Jack Reiss, chided Monroe. "Do you want to continue?"

Monroe, trying to keep his face calm, mumbled something inaudible, as if he didn't want to admit it.

"DO YOU WANT TO CONTINUE?" Reiss asked again—it was on him to determine whether doing so would be dangerous for Monroe.

Monroe waited a beat, pondering the option.

"I'm done," he said, looking down.

For most of its citizens, the end of the Soviet Union was an economic trauma. Currencies were devalued overnight. Government systems of support were erased. But Kazakhstan's abundant natural resources helped it rebound a little quicker than other Central Asian republics. And in the past decade, it has invested in Gennady Golovkin.

Now he's an international hero. An increasingly large diaspora of Kazakh fans attend his fights, holding the country's flag aloft. He is plastered on billboards in cities. He recently helped inaugurate a sports complex for children in his hometown. He was named an ambassador for Astana EXPO2017, a trade and energy summit in the country's capital.

"He's like Elvis over there. Girls see him on the streets, on the sidewalk, and they start screaming," said Tom Loeffler, Golovkin's promoter. "With Kazakhstan, it really wasn't that well-known on a global basis. You had that whole thing with Borat and Kazakhstan, and Gennady's pretty much wiped out that whole image. Now, he's the best middleweight champion in the world, representing his country, and every time he gets in the ring, he's carrying the flag."

Sanchez gets email from Kazakh fans, whose references to Golovkin render him an anthropomorphic emotion. "'Take care of our pride and make sure our pride is ok, we thank you for everything you have done for our pride.' He is Kazakhstan."

Golovkin comes to parties after his own fights dressed in a tuxedo. He's an icon to his own people, a rock star in a former Soviet republic. He reportedly does 2000 situps a day. But the man who possesses these credentials is not particularly concerned with discussing them.

Seated at a table full of reporters, a few hours before stepping into an outdoor ring in downtown Los Angeles for an open workout, Golovkin seemed uneasy—which he never does during a fight. If one wanted to see a rare example of a rattled Golovkin, it would be here, in front of a billboard full of sponsor logos, taking questions. Does he feel the pressure? Why did he close his camp? Was it important to face adversity in his last fight, against Daniel Jacobs (one of the few fighters to avoid being knocked out by Golovkin)?

"Did you watch the Mayweather fight?"

Golovkin winced, shaking his head. "Maybe I'll watch it later in the week."

"What does Canelo do best?"

Golovkin shrugged. He let the question hang in the air, like a punch he didn't respect enough to dodge.