“Had I an enemy whom I wished to ruin, body and soul, I would ask no more than to turn him out into the company of pugilists and their clique, and the matter would be effected without delay.”-The Spirit of the Times, 1832.
Not much has changed in the last 183 years. Madison Square Garden on Saturday night was full of all of the most bloodthirsty elements of humanity: Canadians, Kazakhstanis, Nicaraguans, and, most threateningly of all, Americans young and old. It was filled from the floor to the rafters with those of us whose souls, if not bodies, have been ruined by pugilism. And in the center of it all, like the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, was that guileless Superman, Golovkin.
At the age of 33, after several hundred amateur fights and 33 professional fights without a defeat, Gennady Golovkin has finally ascended to stardom. A pay-per-view fight at Madison Square Garden. How did he get here? By hurting people. Why do the thousands of stomping fans and hundreds of reporters and every semi-prominent retired boxing personality in the tri-state region and Liev Schrieber and Rosie Perez and, yes, Donald Trump all crowd in here for Golovkin, Golovkin, Golovkin? For blood.
We want to see a motherfucker get smashed, and no one in boxing is able to deliver that in a more consistent and predictable fashion than Golovkin, an extremely polished fighter, most of whose skillful attributes are subtle, except for one. Imagine two humans fighting, and one has human arms and hands, and the other one has two-by-fours for forearms topped by large chunks of cement tucked inside boxing gloves. The latter is Golovkin. Volumes can be written on why certain fighters possess such transcendent power in their punches, but the prime and most evident fact is that guys get hurt when Golovkin hits them. That’s what we come to see.
For his big pay-per-view coming out party, he was matched against David Lemieux, a French-Canadian who himself is known for busting up, smashing, and destroying opponents with extreme violence. But where Golovkin is all skillful refinement topped with a cherry of murder, Lemieux shades more towards a brawler, who over a lifetime in boxing has evolved into someone whose style emphasizes his one best talent, which is brute force. His toolbox is much emptier than Golovkin’s. Besides, a committed power puncher coming up against Golovkin is like a barracuda coming up against a great white. There are levels to this.
The undercard featured an Irish fighter who couldn’t manage to keep his hands close enough to his face getting repeatedly poked with right hooks for 10 rounds; a big, soft Argentinian heavyweight who had clearly feasted on smaller men back home getting put to sleep face down in the ring by Luis Ortiz, a big and less soft Cuban nicknamed “King Kong”; and Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez, the 112-pound champion of the world, who relentlessly wore down Brian Viloria for nine rounds until the ref stopped it. Gonzalez, who is probably the most famous athlete in Nicaragua and whose fans chanted “CHOCO-LA-TO! CHOCO-LA-TO!” for the entire fight, is the closest thing in boxing to a mini-Golovkin. He’s 44-0, he knocks out nearly everyone, and he has power that transcends his weight class. Indeed, HBO executives have paired him with Golovkin on fight cards twice now, hoping to create a strong mini-me type of relationship in fan’s minds. But Gonzalez is not quite Golovkin. He is very strong for a very small man, and he chops down opponents with a ruthless diet of left uppercuts and looping rights, but he lacks just a bit of the cartoon-man type of punching that sets Golovkin apart from most everyone. Gonzalez’s power may stem from his absurdly long arms—when he stands with his defensive guard up, his forearms comfortably cover him from his beltline to the top of his forehead. Try that some time.
There are many strong punchers, but there is only one Golovkin. The fact that he looks so very unintimidating, like some country boy whose mom slicked down his hair with her spit for his first day at work, only enhances his appeal. David Lemieux, on the other hand, looks like a true beast—thick at the torso, dark eyes, stubble, hair shaven all around the sides and long on top, and a vicious disposition. When Lemieux dons a suit for interviews and such he looks like the man that organized crime figures send to collect their money. He entered the ring to the sounds of “Wind of Change” by Scorpion, its whistle echoing through the Garden. This made me like him more. Its contrasted nicely with his thuggish reputation. And its soothing tones, perhaps, calmed him for what was to come.
Before the fight begins, when both fighters and their trainers and entourages are all in the ring and Michael Buffer is reading out the hype-laden descriptions of the fighters, Golovkin has a charming habit of nodding along with his, an imperturbable look on his face. “Yes,” he is thinking as he sucks on his mouthpiece. “Yes—this is all accurate. Yes. I am big champion.”
The fight proceeded exactly as we knew it would. Golovkin has impeccable balance. He always stays between his own feet. This means he never has to hop. His feet are always on or close to the ground, so his punches are always rooted deep in the earth, and carry all the earth’s weight with them. His jab, which appears slow but always seems to land, lands with a thud. He steps into it. Many times that jab sent Lemieux’s head flying backwards, his top-heavy hair flying upwards more and more as it became soaked with sweat. Occasionally Lemieux, who lacks Golovkin’s perfect footwork, would jump in and try to start smashing, as is his way. But he could never sustain it for any length of time, because a single counterpunch from Golovkin would force him to step back. It is impossible to stay within punching range of Golovkin for an extended period of time. It is impossible to win a war of attrition with a man who has iron fists. In the fourth round, both men were standing in the center of the ring, and both threw hooks and hit each other at the same time. Golovkin seemed largely unaffected, but Lemieux went reeling off to the side. There are levels to this. Most fighters—particularly those like Lemieux, who are not particularly prone to dipping and dodging and moving—fend off most punches by blocking them. But even the punches that he blocked from Golovkin clearly hurt him. He would catch a hook on his right glove and stagger and back up. That sort of deep, penetrating power can make even the best fighters panic. There is no armor thick enough to ward it off.
After one shot, Lemieux sank to one knee, but not quickly enough to stop Golovkin from throwing his next punch, which hit Lemieux’s unguarded face. That is the kind of punch that can kill someone. Lemieux, fortunately, was not too badly hurt from it. He lasted a few more rounds, and then, in the ninth, succumbed to the inevitable. As he backed up in the final seconds of the fight, falling into the ropes, Golovkin cocked a final punch—but held it back, unthrown, and allowed the ref to step in and stop the fight. Earlier in the day, a fighter named Prichard Colon, a flamboyant up and coming Puerto Rican who’s fought on multiple undercards in Brooklyn, suffered a brain bleed and lapsed into a coma after he was hit on the back of the head in a fight in Virginia. He remains in a coma. News of his condition was trickling in during the fight Saturday night, which sapped some of my appetite for the glorious violence. Golovkin’s failure to throw that last punch will do wonders for his karma.
After his win, Golovkin, waiting to be interviewed in the ring, pulled on a pink t-shirt. He wore it with neither self-consciousness nor self-regard. He just wore it. It was just a t-shirt. This was just a fight. And no one had died, that night.
[Top quote via “The Manly Art,” by Elliott J. Gorn. Photos: AP]