“WHORE the ramparts, weeee watched...” Some lady was singing the national anthem. “WHORE the lan-nnddd of the freeee...” We don’t care about that. We don’t care about any of that. We only want the Grade-A violence, now.
Golovkin versus Canelo promised the real Grade-A shit. There are boxing matches that promise great technique and others that promise intriguing stylistic combinations, and this was those, for sure, but what we also had here was a matchup of two absolute wipeout punchers who go forward and knock off heads. Not brawler types, not unskilled goons, but two very polished and very different punchers who both, fundamentally, succeed by smashing. You can google the resumes if you want. Golovkin versus Canelo was not the best possible fight that could be made in boxing, but it had, perhaps, the most assured promise of actively applied skillful violence. Regular people love the smashing and purists love the boxing and everybody, everybody loves both at once.
There was a whole thing about who was the “real Mexican.” This is all stupid. Boxing’s continued embrace of ethnic stereotypes that slot fighters from different places into certain expected styles is one of the sport’s old-timey practices that is actually, if you think about, racist and factually useless, rather than charming, in the same way that the tradition of “never stop fighting until you’re knocked unconscious because only cowards admit they’re defeated” is indicative of a stupid and dangerous tendency to cling to past practices. Some people love boxing for this kind of shit.
Anyhow, Golovkin’s line was that he was the “real Mexican” fighter, even though Canelo is the real, Mexican fighter, and this was all played for hype. (The Mexican fans didn’t seem too affected. On fight day on the Vegas strip there were groups of them wearing red Canelo headbands and other groups of them wearing “GGG” headbands printed in the colors of the Mexican flag, in roughly equal numbers.) The stereotype of Mexican fighters is that they’re not slick, they come forward and pound the body and fight hard. Neither Golovkin nor Canelo actually fights like that. Canelo, Mexico’s favorite modern superstar, is sui generis. It is hard to think of another fighter today who combines his raw strength, explosive punching, and great upper-body movement combined with slow feet. Canelo’s upper half is great at defense. He wants to plant his feet and slip punches and knock you out with counters. For a pure and fluid boxer who uses all dimensions of the ring, like Floyd Mayweather, Canelo’s flat feet made him easy prey. For more human fighters, there has been a tendency sooner or later to get caught in an exchange with Canelo and be smashed. Golovkin, the good boy, has heavy punches, that look normal but sweep away everything in their path, like a wrecking ball whistling in with an inevitable arc of beautiful doom. Canelo’s punches are more like a .45 that blows your fucking head off.
Canelo is physically strong, a little tank, built like a running back, but Golovkin is naturally bigger, and a bigger puncher, and also a more experienced boxer, a smarter fighter with more depth. Golovkin was destined to win this fight from the day it was made. I wasn’t sure that Golovkin could actually hurt Canelo, that no-neck tank motherfucker, but I knew that he would beat him. Both men can punch, and neither has ever really been hurt, and they both have a great deal of pride, and both come to smash, in their own favored ways. This is how the best violence in the world is assembled. The elite uncut shit. This was going to be it.
And it was. Almost, almost, almost everything went according to plan.
Golovkin is well-schooled. He is to the average pressure fighter what a yacht is to a canoe. The arcs of his wrecking balls are carefully described. I was sitting up high in the T-Mobile Arena, a big black sink with the ring as the drain, and from that perspective the most striking aspect of the fight was the fact that Canelo went backwards. All night. He tried to do so tactically, but understand that he went backwards because he had to. He had met, for the first time, a force that he could not move forwards through. That force was Golovkin, who came forwards as usual. Canelo went backwards, put his ass on the rope, and tried to lay a trap. He tried to present a stationary target that might tempt Golovkin to reach in just a little too far, so he could counter with a shooting right hand or uppercut that would snap his jaw off. This is the sort of thing that works against normal fighters. But not against Golovkin. Golovkin refused to stick his head into the alligator’s welcoming jaws. Instead of firing a huge right hand at Canelo against the ropes, which could risk pulling his head forward just enough to let himself get popped with a counter—the snapping of the trap—he stayed back just far enough and fired his thudding jab, over and over again. The jab is the punch easiest to land without getting countered, which is why smart fighters use it a lot and dumb fighters don’t. Dumb fighters live and die with their gargantuan power punches, which either land and give them glory or miss and set them up for death. They rely on luck. Golovkin landed that jab all night. And his jab is not a flick; it is heavy. He seems to lift all his energy up from the floor into his neck before he throws it. Using that jab allowed him to keep his shoulders between his feet and keep his head safely out of range of most of Canelo’s rockets and just pound and pound and score and score. Canelo preened and postured and jutted his very square jaw. But he didn’t land punches. And you can’t win rounds without landing punches. The reason he didn’t land punches is because Golovkin didn’t make the mistakes that would let him. And the reason Canelo didn’t just march forward and create his own offense is because he couldn’t. This was the basic story of the fight. It was not that Canelo ceased being a dangerous puncher. It was that he was facing a more complete fighter who was even stronger.
It was clear as the fight went on, though it was always competitive, that Golovkin had a solid edge. (This did not stop the Mexican superfan sitting next to me, who booed venomously when any chant of “GGG” went up, from continuously gesturing at my pen when I was taking notes and saying, while making a writing motion, “Canelo is amazing. You write: Canelo is amazing.”) After every separation of the two fighters, it was Golovkin who would hustle forward to close the distance. In the later rounds Golovkin even began bending low and tightening his guard and putting his forehead right against Canelo to fight inside—not really his game, but presumably he wanted to demonstrate his idea of a Real Mexican Fighter. Canelo did not grow visibly exhausted like most pressure victims, but neither did he ever launch his own sustained offense to change the basic flow of the fight. In the 10th, he clipped Golovkin with a punch that seemed to hurt him, for the first time I can remember. But nothing changed after that. Canelo mostly just kept laying that trap, unsuccessfully.
And then, of course, came everything else. Earlier in the night, on the first televised undercard fight, Ryan Martin, a tall and long-armed up-and-coming prospect, was gifted a win against the less up-and-coming Francisco Rojo, despite the fact that the shorter Rojo clearly won, and Martin looked flat all night. This gave me a twinge of foreboding. When the scores for the main event came in—a narrow win for Golovkin (defensible), a draw (wrong, but in the universe of possibility), and one card giving the fight to Canelo by an eight-round margin (ludicrous, insulting, disheartening, enraging)—everyone in that arena knew instantly that it had happened again. Boxing. It was like throwing a bucket of black paint on a beautiful newly completed portrait. At the press conference afterwards, there were varying degrees of scorn. All of it too polite. Oscar De La Hoya, while acknowledging the bad score, said peppily that “boxing won tonight.” The head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission said that the bad judge, Adalaide Byrd, had just had a “bad night.” Only Golovkin himself, whose English is poor, managed to express something close to adequate. “This is terrible for sport. For boxing. I’m a champion,” he said, sitting on stage in a track suit looking deflated. “I saw computer—total punches. I saw people reaction. For me, this is terrible. It’s not great.”
It was not great. It was...boxing. We need a new term to separate the fights themselves from the sewage of everything else in the sport. There is already talk of a rematch. It will prove nothing. It’s like giving the rich kid in private school a chance to take the test over again. We have already seen what we needed to see.
Fighting is an awful way to make a living. It hurts and destroys your body and mind. People don’t choose it so much as they are driven to it. Most people who become fighters do so because they can’t find any justice in the real world. They make their own justice inside of a small square. If there is no justice there either, the world is an even worse place than we thought.