From Shadows to Spotlight: The Rise of ‘GGG’

On a May morning in 2010, boxing trainer Abel Sanchez sat outside of the Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for the kid from Kazakhstan.

Eventually Gennady Golovkin appeared, a single small bag hung from his shoulder.

“Let’s go get the rest of your luggage,” Sanchez said, sure that the boxer had brought more with him to the United States.

“Coach, I came to train,” Golovkin said. His command of the English language was still rudimentary. “Not to party.”

With a shrug and a smile Sanchez got back in the car and they drove to Big Bear.

They’d met two months prior, when the Kazakh boxer’s managers, Oleg and Max Hermann, brought him to Sanchez’s gym in Big Bear, California. It was Sanchez’s first time even hearing about Gennady Golovkin. But after reviewing hours of European fight footage, Sanchez was overcome with the feeling that he’d stumbled upon something special.

When the managers took their fighter back home to Europe and said they’d return, Sanchez believed he’d never seen Gennady Golovkin again.

“During those two months, I kept talking to my friends about this guy that came to my gym,” Sanchez recalls. “What a great fighter he was…I just kept bragging about him being in my gym and possibly coming back to train with me.”

So when the two reunited at LAX, Sanchez was as ready to get started as Gennady was.

In the seven years since then, Gennady Golovkin (37-0, 33 KOs) has reached the pinnacle of the sport of boxing. On his way to the top of the pound-for-pound list, the man now more commonly known as ‘GGG’ has decimated most of the fighters brave enough to share the ring with him. He has become this era’s defining middleweight champion. After years of toiling in obscurity and awaiting spotlight, Golovkin is days away from the fight that will define his career, as he faces Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez on Saturday night in Las Vegas.

But Golovkin’s journey began long before he crossed paths with Abel Sanchez. It began in a country in crisis, a dilapidated land where the only escape from life’s unpleasantries was found in the boxing gym.

The Soviet Union fell nine years after Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin’s 1982 birth in Karaganda, Kazakhstan. His older brothers Vadim and Sergey were killed fighting for the Soviet army. His partner through a childhood of uncertain survival was his twin brother Max, the last one he had left.

Together Gennady and Max discovered the sport of boxing. The world around them was in a state of social and economic collapse. They watched as the people they’d grown up around struggled for the most basic of human necessities. Due to the nature of their crumbling environment, they chose to make the boxing gym their new home. Such human hardships as the ones that hit the people of Kazakhstan in the early 1990s are enough to cripple the souls of grown men, let alone ten-year-old boys. The boxing ring became a salvation for Gennady and Max.

While they trained together, the two brothers did not fight alike. The style that ‘GGG’ has become famous for — constant forward aggression, all-out assault, willingness to take punches as a means to dish them out — is the style he chose as a boy. Max was by all accounts the boxer of the family, and as an amateur he was even more accomplished than his twin.

However, Max’s success in the amateur ranks meant he never felt Gennady’s hunger to take the next step. After losing controversially in the finals of the 2004 Summer Olympics, Gennady grew disenchanted with the amateur circuit — but there was no professional scene in Kazakhstan. If he wanted to reach his true potential, to become more than a survivor of unfortunate surroundings but something greater, then he would have to leave his home.

Golovkin moved to Hamburg, Germany and signed with German promotion Universum in May of 2006. Within two years he had put together a 14-0 record with 11 KOs. Here, the narrative that would follow Golovkin deep into his professional career began: he wanted to fight everyone, and very few wanted to fight him.

“He wasn’t given a chance to fight for a title against the German fighters,” Sanchez said. The two top fighters in Germany, Felix Sturm and Sebastian Zbik, were also signed to Universum and thus their records weren’t risked against the foreigner Golovkin.

Stung again by the politics of boxing, Golovkin terminated his contract with the German promotion and set his sights on America. He left Germany with a record of 18-0, and soon would find himself in Abel Sanchez’s California gym.

In all sports, great athletes have a shelf life, an expiration date. In boxing, that inevitability manifests itself in the most unforgiving ways. To pass one’s prime in another sport may mean racking up fewer points over the course of a season. In the ring, an athlete exiting his prime often wakes up on the canvas on his way out.

Some feared that Gennady Golovkin was inching towards that proverbial cliff after his last fight against middleweight contender Danny Jacobs. He won the bout by unanimous decision, but Golovkin, now 35 years old, appeared beatable for the first time. His defensive flaws that were once negligible became troubling, and when the final bell rang there was an unfamiliar sense of doubt hanging in the air.

Two months after Golovkin vs. Jacobs, the fight that the boxing world has been waiting for was finally confirmed. ‘GGG’ would no longer have to chase Canelo Alvarez, and the Mexican superstar would no longer have to answer to critics who claimed he was avoiding the Kazakh knockout artist. The timing of the fight is far from coincidental; Golovkin’s flawed performance against Danny Jacobs may have been a major factor in Golden Boy Promotions deciding to book the fight and risk their top draw.

Abel Sanchez, who knows ‘GGG’ better than anyone in the boxing world, laughs off those who believe Golovkin is slipping. In his assessment of Golovkin’s previous fight and his next one, Sanchez speaks with a blunt confidence.

“This fight coming up is big because Canelo is well-known,” he said. “Canelo is not a better fighter than Danny Jacobs.”

While Sanchez’s conviction borders on dismissiveness, he is not someone who needs the stakes of this contest explained to him. He recognizes the significance of Canelo Alvarez. In a way, the two boxers need each other. Canelo needs to an opponent like ‘GGG’ to silence the doubters who believe he’s been protected by his promoters. And Golovkin needs Canelo. As he enters the twilight of his career he needs the marquee name on his resume that has for so long eluded him.

The talk of Golovkin hanging up the gloves soon after the Canelo fight has heated up in recent months, but the man who knows ‘GGG’ best says that the narrative is premature. The Canelo fight may be career-defining right now, but Golovkin and Sanchez have much more work to do.

“There’s no reason for him to call it quits after the Canelo fight. He and I have talked about three or four more years. If he’s successful in this fight, I’d like to see about him fighting in December. Then maybe in April or May of next year. So there’s no talk of retirement from him.”

A single night can change the course of a boxer’s legacy, and on September 16 that will be the case for both men. Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez will step into the ring with the same goal, and the piece of history that will be written will favor only one man.

It is a daunting notion, the swiftness with which a boxer can see his legacy dented. But Golovkin aims to be remembered for something simpler than his dominance, something that cannot be taken away from him by a victory or a defeat.

“He and I have spoken about how he wants to be remembered,” Sanchez said. “The most important thing he wants to be remembered by is that he gave 100% to the fans. He always put on a show and made the fans happy.”

Though he is as matter-of-fact as a grizzled boxing veteran can be, Sanchez speaks pridefully as he discusses the legacy his star pupil is building.

Now as the two of them prepare to fight on the world’s biggest stage, there is the sense that not much has changed. Sanchez is still in Big Bear, looking for ways to make ‘GGG’ better. And Gennady is still that same boxer that stood outside LAX with one tiny bag of belongings, looking to do nothing but fight.

Gennady Golovkin will fight against Canelo Alvarez for the unification of the WBA/WBO/IBF/IBO Middleweight Titles on Sept. 16 at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

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