Gennady Golovkin has what they call a moon face: Open, apple-cheeked, with wide lips and a toothy grin and a haircut that looks like a buzz cut that's been allowed to grow too long. Moon faces imply guilelessness. Such faces seem at home on simpletons. Less so on one of planet Earth's most feared humans.
"Golovkin" is a word long invoked in boxing gyms in the same way that "Keyser Soze" was invoked in The Usual Suspects. Keep your head down and your mouth shut, or else we'll have you spar with Golovkin. Golovkin is an undefeated professional fighter, yes, and one of the top-ranked middleweights in the world, sure, but his real buzz started with all of the whispered legends about what he did to other men sparring, in dingy gyms. This or that undefeated young buck was made to look like an amateur; this or that world champion had to quit; this other one is flat out scared to spar him at all. Though he fights at 160 pounds, he tends to spar guys who fight at 175 or 180. And they wear body armor around their torso, the same kind that NFL quarterbacks wear. And he is not allowed to hit them in the head during sparring, lest they get hurt so bad they refuse to come back.
Golovkin has knocked out 89 percent of his pro opponents, the highest rate in the sport. He's not a flashy fighter. He doesn't throw blinding 10 punch combos or wound-up bolo punches or huge swinging hooks that look like he's trying to punch down a house. It's not how his punches look so much as it is what happens to people who get hit by his punches: they fall down. Often they look shocked, even offended, when they feel his first punch, as if their promoter sneakily signed them up to fight a grizzly bear. Aggressive fighters often turn meek immediately after being touched by the most routine Golovkin jab. Soon afterwards—a round, or two, or five—they fall down unconscious. Golovkin punches like Cartoon Man. Opponents go flying backwards or fall straight down like the fake fights in movies, the one-hitter-quitters that never really happen too much in real life, outside of Golovkin fights.
Golovkin, 31, had 350 amateur fights. Of those, he lost five. Each of his last half dozen professional opponents has been absolutely smashed—flat on the back from a left hook, laid out like a cadaver from an overhand right, bent over struggling to breathe from a body shot, or otherwise. The only one to make it longer than five rounds was Gabriel Rosado, in January, who lasted seven before his cornerman, aghast at the blood streaming down Rosado's face, exclaimed, "I gotta stop it. He's gonna die, man!" and threw in the towel. Golovkin was seriously ill with the flu during that fight.
Golovkin, the most avoided fighter in boxing, sat on a couch on the roof deck of the Refinery Hotel yesterday in a soft peach-colored sweater over a white collared shirt, light blue fabric pants, and cream patent leather shoes with a matching belt. He looked like a kid whose mom had dressed him ambitiously for the first day of school. He was, by far, the least threatening-looking man in the room.
He also wore a smile. Golovkin always smiles. It's a sort of knowing smile, though, a smile turned inward, stemming no doubt from the knowledge that he has plenty to say, but not necessarily the words to say it. His English is a work in progress. He is learning it, for the sake of his career and his PR, but he still has a translator, and he still struggles to find words. This, like his moon face, can make him appear to be a simpleton, which he is not.
"I'm not mad, just, this is boxing," he explained to a reporter asking him about his upcoming fight with Brooklyn badass Curtis Stevens. "I think… a couple rounds, first, just… easy fight." The reporter looked up from his notes. "Sorry Gennady, did you mean to say this will be an easy fight?" "No. Not an easy fight," Golovkin replied. Then he smiled.
I asked him about the source of his mythical power. Was it a natural gift? A special training method? Unlocking the key to such strength would be priceless. "It's my coach," Golovkin replied. "Work hard. It's… class. Distance, I can. Speed, I can." I nodded. The secret of his power cannot be unlocked so easily.
In nearly 400 fights, and countless thousands of rounds sparring in the gym, Golovkin has, he says, has never been knocked down. Though he does not look that big, if you peer closely, you can see his forearms are thick as baseball bats, and his neck is the same width as his head, and he walks with the bowlegged stance of those whose hamstring muscles are tight like guitar strings. He attributes his imperviousness to his upbringing. "Bad school. Every week, every second day, I have street fight. Seventeen. It was crazy time." But, he adds, "Boxing is sport. Is good. Not just for bad guy. First is sport."
Curtis Stevens, Golovkin's opponent on November 2, is more of the bad guy type. (Reformed bad guy now, having found God.) He's from Brownsville, just like Mike Tyson, and he has a wide variety of tattoos, and he wears his hat backwards, and he's aggressive and a big puncher, and that's all it really takes for boxing writers to slot the two guys into their respective spots in the narrative. Despite Stevens' intimidating aura, he is, like all of Golovkin's opponents, generally regarded in the same way that visitors to a pet store regard the mice being lowered into a snake's cage at feeding time. During the press conference, his promoter, Kathy Duva, seemed to be digging his grave even as she was talking him up. "Curtis has come so far. He's changed so much... sometimes, someone just has to find the right team... he's a diamond in the rough." They were not particularly encouraging words. "Superman does have a weakness—and it's up to Curtis to find it!" she said brightly. Stevens seemed to twitch a bit in his chair.
When Golovkin's turn to speak came, after all of the promoters and trainers and permatanned announcer Michael Buffer had had their say about his mindboggling potential to save boxing and change the game and make lots and lots of money for Madison Square Garden, he leaned forward into the mic. "I remember long traditional big history for box, in New York City," he said. "Thank you. November second, Madison Square Garden. Welcome. Guys. Thank you." He leaned back, satisfied.
After the press conference, Golovkin, the man with the iron fists, dutifully struck various humiliating poses at the direction of the assembled photographers, never appearing to get annoyed even as these rumpled men ordered him to move here, then there, now face this way, now, Gennady, mime some punching, you know, punch punch PUNCH. Golovkin quietly did as he was told. The most fearsome person in the room, destroyer of men, who laid waste to opponents, rendered them senseless, and made hard men slink away in fear, was the man in the peach sweater, with the nice open face, and the endearing accent, and the stilted English. And the toothy smile. Always the toothy smile. Golovkin only slipped into eloquence once all day. It was when I asked him what his fighting style was. He paused for a moment and looked down into his lap, struggling to find the words. Then he looked up. "Predator style," he said.
He smiled the toothy smile. And all the teeth were fangs.