There was something thrilling about Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather’s fight last month, a loud, garish, irresistible spectacle that delivered exactly what it promised-complete and utter chaos. The two battled fiercely outside the ring in a series of explosive press events, each more over the top than the last. And then when the bell finally rang, well, they did the best they could.
The ancient Mayweather and amateur McGregor tried their darnedest to put on a show. Neither quite had what it took to truly make it look like a competitive bout. There was only so much McGregor, a UFC champion in his boxing debut, could do to disguise his lack of expertise in the squared circle. And even a 40-year-old Mayweather couldn’t hide his undeniable advantages in craft and talent for long, outclassing McGregor once he decided to start fighting, finishing him in the 10th round to end his Hall of Fame career with win No. 50.
Whatever it was, it was never boring.
But neither was it a compelling contest between the best boxers in the world. That will come Saturday, in a fight that will be watched by a fraction of the fans but remembered long after the circus act that preceded it has faded into the ether.
Gennady “GGG” Golovkin and Saul “Canelo” Alvarez are boxing’s current most important fighters and compete in one of its marquee weight classes-the two top middleweight boxers in the world, expert craftsmen with unusual power, persistence and courage.
When the two enter the ring Saturday in Las Vegas and they finally trade blows, no one can truly say what will happen.
This shouldn’t be a rarity. In today’s boxing, unfortunately, it is. Fighters are spread between competing promoters and fiercely territorial television networks. The odds of two top stars being available and at the top of their games at the same time in the same weight class range from slim to none.
“For 2017, this is unusual, for the most part,” boxing writer Patrick Connor said. “The normal sequence that fighters generally went through to get bigger fights made doesn’t happen anymore. Fighter rises through the ranks, defeats progressively better opposition, gets a bigger shot and goes from there. That formula doesn’t even really exist anymore.”
You have to go back decades to find the right cultural touchpoint for a middleweight fight like this. Bernard Hopkins against Felix Trinidad was eagerly anticipated by hardcore fans but didn’t reach the broader populace. Alvarez’s fight with popular Puerto Rican star Miguel Cotto was haunted by Golovkin’s specter. Few believed the winner was truly the best middleweight in the world.
You have to go all the way back to Marvin Hagler’s famous tilt with Thomas Hearns in 1985, five years before Canelo was even born, to find a fight that promised the same kind of butchery, especially one between two fighters at the peak of their powers.
“This is the biggest fight, probably, in the history of the middleweight division,” promoter Oscar De La Hoya told the press in a conference call. “In terms of magnitude, in terms of PR, in terms of attention that it’s receiving, in terms of people that will be watching, yeah, this has to be the biggest. … It has all the ingredients to unfold to be one of the biggest fights in the last 30 years.”
While promoters tend to overpromise and underdeliver, it’s hard not to get excited about this fight. Both are aggressive, offensive fighters, the antithesis to Mayweather’s careful, defensive-oriented style.Golovkin stalks his opponents like a Terminator robot, unyielding, unrelenting and unusually dangerous. He corners his foes, forcing even the most craven to find their courage, creating both skittish-eyed wildmen and openings for his own punches.
He once racked up 23 knockouts in a row, his power so legendary that even men 30 pounds heavier feared facing him in the training room. Perhaps those stories are embellished a bit. Then again, a giant falls down as readily as any man, and a little embellishment can be the difference between a legend and a fighter forgotten to history.
“When I first started working with Gennady seven years ago, I showed him a video of Julio Cesar Chavez and Edwin Rosario,” Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, told Bleacher Report. “They went at each other. No holding-but there was movement, repositioning, shifting, angles-all leading to body shots and head shots. It was all a calculated chess game to try to outdo one another. Chavez eventually wore him down and stopped him in the 11th. I thought I could mold Gennady into that kind of style.
“The difference is, I told Gennady, ‘You have the heavier hands. You can hit harder with both hands.’ I thought, by showing him that video, that I could give him an idea of what I was talking about. It’s matured since then, and he’s added that to his European style to create something special. The mixture is combustible. At any moment, there could be a body shot that stops the fight or an aggressive move that forces the other guy to make a mistake.”
Canelo, more defensive and wily in some ways, is still a devastating puncher, his power generated by a physique seemingly crafted for a violent, singular purpose. In recent pictures, muscles bulge, his already absurd musculature adding pounds and armor for his greatest challenge. Just 27 years old, he’s taken on the challenges others would shirk, becoming the sport’s biggest star in Mayweather’s absence.
Mayweather had to go against type to generate anything resembling excitement in the McGregor bout. The MMA star gave his all, but scored a moral victory by simply surviving as long as he did. It was super, but it wasn’t much of a fight.
“This will be different because you will be watching two of the best fighters in the world go head-to-head,” Canelo told Bleacher Report. “This is the fight the boxing world has been asking for, the fans have been asking for. And it’s going to be an exciting fight inside the ring.
“My natural style creates a good performance for the fans. It’s an aggressive kind of style. If my opponent is willing to take the same risks, that’s when you have a good fight. When my opponent is just as willing to punch and go head-to-head, that makes the fights a lot better to watch.”
This is the fight the boxing world has been asking for, the fans have been asking for. And it’s going to be an exciting fight inside the ring. – Canelo Alvarez
He doesn’t explicitly criticize Mayweather’s swan song, but the subtext is there if you care to look for it. The unspoken message is clear-if you enjoyed McGregor and Mayweather, you’re going to love Golovkin vs. Canelo.
On Saturday night, the lights will dim and both fighters will make the long walk toward history. A crowd of thousands will scream, restlessly awaiting the carnage to come. In a supposedly civilized world, boxing remains one of the last wild places.
Only in boxing could the ethnicity of the athletes be centered, race and locale becoming shorthand for something deeper. In the the aftermath of Mayweather’s surprisingly aggressive performance, McGregor told the crowd, “I made him fight like a Mexican.”
While many in the mainstream were confused by the remark, those in boxing understood immediately. Golovkin himself, a native Kazakh, has taken on the mantle of being a “Mexican-style” fighter, especially when he’s set to do battle in front of the large population of Hispanic fans in Los Angeles, his adopted home.
“This is not new, as history shows that the promotion of non-Mexican fighters as ‘Mexican’ has been utilized for the simple fact that it was good for business,” boxing historian Rodolfo Mondragon said, pointing to a succession of manufactured Mexicans in Los Angeles over the years. “GGG and his team have adopted this tactic for several years now to create a following for him, particularly with a Mexican and Mexican-American fanbase. On the one hand, it appears to be a positive endorsement as he presents himself fighting for Mexican peoples. And people love him for this.
“On the other hand, he makes no mention to the fact that a ‘Mexican style’ of fighting is not just passionate brawling but also a style that requires intellect, strategy and skill. As a result, the ‘Mexican style’ label that GGG adopts reinforces the stereotype that Mexican fighters are savages in the ring in relation to white European modernism that consists of having scientific knowledge and being technologically advanced.”
Perhaps it’s the potentially negative connotation that’s made Canelo push back against the label, especially as applied to a non-Mexican fighter like Golovkin.
“I don’t think there is such a thing as a Mexican style,” Canelo told Bleacher Report. “Mexican fighters are very diverse in their way of fighting. What you can say is, when you go into the ring with a Mexican fighter, you can expect a fighter who is hard, very powerful and will go the distance. …
“I can’t speak on behalf of the title he’s given himself as a Mexican-style fighter. But I can say he’s a very powerful fighter inside the ring and very aggressive. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a Mexican-style fighter or deserves that title.”
Mexican style or not, Golovkin has built his reputation on consistent, almost frightening displays of power. There’s no explanation for why his punches land with such considerable force, no dramatic windup, no cartoonish muscles powering them. But the results are plain, from Matthew Macklin crumpling in agony after a body shot to Curtis Stevens looking up after a knockdown with the shock of Golovkin’s blow written on his face.
GGG is a force of nature, willing to take a punch to deliver one, once eating a powerful Daniel Geale right hand as he was raining down a harder one of his own. His response, typically, is a momentary flash of anger, then a return to business. Sometimes, it is speculated, he’ll even allow opponents to land some good punches to both excite the crowd and get the other man to open up, making him vulnerable to the counterpunches to come.
The result has been a collection of stunning fights and the unlikely establishment of a box-office attraction from an Eastern European nation without a foothold of immigrants to power his rise to popularity. And it’s been very much by design.
“If they don’t like the style, they aren’t going to buy,” Sanchez said. “It was important to me to have Gennady understand that so we could sell him later. For me, as a coach, I have to think two and three years ahead in a fighter’s career. This could be the greatest fighter of all time, but if nobody sees him, it doesn’t matter. I’ve got to expose him to the public in a way that makes people buy tickets and PPVs. That makes sure people are talking about him later.
“It’s like the Tyson phenomenon. It didn’t matter how much the PPV cost or how long the fight lasted. We were going to buy it. Because people were talking about it at work. It was something people couldn’t miss. That was my goal with Gennady. That, when we got the opportunity, we had a chance at the same kind of phenomenon. It’s obviously difficult to duplicate what Tyson did. He was such a destructive force. But I think we’ve done that, while also showing some finesse and boxing skills, as well as some character and class in there. And I think people appreciate that.”
Canelo’s rise has been the result of what can only be called an obsession with the handsome red-haired fighter on Mexican television stations, where his fights regularly attract tens of millions of viewers. He’s become a mainstream celebrity in his homeland and slowly, steadily, made inroads in the American market as well, recently starring in a series of television commercials with Sylvester Stallone for Tecate beer.
Because of his status as a matinee idol, it’s easy to assume Canelo is a carefully manufactured attraction. But inside lurks a true fighter, a throwback to the days when boxers challenged themselves against the best. He fought Mayweather as a very young man and has taken on Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, slick stylists who were almost guaranteed to give him fits. He fought them anyway-because the challenge was there and something inside him demands he undertake it.
Since falling short against Mayweather, Canelo has won seven in a row against a diverse array of fighters, including slugger James Kirkland and speedy welterweight Amir Khan, both dispatched with brutal knockout punches. This Canelo barely even resembles the one who fought Mayweather. His confidence and mastery of craft is that of a fully seasoned professional, not a young fighter with potential.
“The progress he has made has been incredible,” De La Hoya said. “I mean, in terms of punching power, his boxing ability, his combinations. His jab has improved tremendously. And it’s only the beginning. I strongly feel he’s only getting better.”
This will not be the first time Golovkin and Alvarez have met in the ring. Six years ago, before either exploded on the national scene, they sparred together several times in Big Bear, California.
In those days, Golovkin got the better of Canelo. In some ways, despite Canelo’s early start in the sport, it was a man fighting a boy.
But time is a wheel, grinding even the best fighters into mere shadows of themselves. Canelo is now entering his physical prime. Golovkin, who struggled in his last fight with Daniel Jacobs, is entering his mid-30s. All other things being equal, this slight physical decline could be the deciding factor in a bout that otherwise seems remarkably even.
Golovkin, though, is quick to dismiss concerns.
“I feel great at this age,” he told the media during a conference call. “Seriously, I don’t know, just my training every day, I’m just the same. Just my sparring is the same, like my speed, my power, I don’t lose. I feel like 10 years ago. Like right now, you’re right, I’m 35, but I feel like 25. Maybe inside, maybe right now I’m younger than Canelo. I feel like 25.”
If it’s true that Golovkin is still Golovkin, this fight is a can’t-miss attraction.
Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot
GGG has a tremendous jab. Canelo is excellent at slipping an opponent’s jab and countering. Who will win this critical battle? #boxing https://t.co/I7sxROvG8q
Golovkin stalks opponents with clever footwork, shifting stances and a stiff jab that seems to come from nowhere. Canelo, in turn, loves nothing better than to be hunted, baiting opponents to throw a punch he can dart to the side of before unleashing his own assault.
Triple G wants to bully an opponent to the ropes, using a quick uppercut to force their guard in tight to make room for his powerful punches to the body.
Canelo? He often puts himself in the ropes, knowing the other fighter won’t be able to resist coming right to him.
Hybrid Shoot @HybridShoot
GGG uses a right uppercut to setup body punches. These are fight changers. He’ll look to damage Canelo every time he goes to the ropes https://t.co/3KJkiQyCXH
These men were truly made for each other, mirror images, yin and yang. They will match strength against strength in a battle for supremacy. Neither will yield. At this point, they are who they are. It’s only a matter of finding out who does what they do best better than the other man.
“People ask me, ‘What are you working on special for this fight?’ I’m really working on nothing special,” Sanchez said. “I’m working on rounding him out and what he does best. If we can’t beat Canelo with what we do best, then we can’t beat him.
“If I start to change things and modify things, because Canelo throws a great counter right hand let’s say, then my guy is adapting to Canelo. And I don’t believe that’s the way it should be. I believe my guy should be 100 percent and have all these resources we’ve worked on to be able to call on them when it’s necessary in the fight.”
Fights for championships are commonplace, even in today’s boxing landscape. This fight is bigger than baubles, more than a matter of whose name goes atop a list on some website. This is a battle, plain and true, for history.
Normally, fighters are quick to dismiss such considerations, all but begging to be allowed to focus only on the task at hand. But in the days before this fight, both men are contemplative, knowing the other is the only thing standing between them and immortality.
Golovkin has spent years waiting in vain for an opportunity to fight someone the boxing public truly cares about, to test his considerable skills against someone else widely acknowledged as a great fighter. Canelo had that chance against Mayweather and fell short. Both know these opportunities are few and far between.
“The interest for me is it’s a huge fight,” Golvkin conceded. “The story in the middleweight division-it’s a long story. I remember a lot of great champions, like Carlos Monzon, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Bernard Hopkins. Right now I think new stories, new times for us. So many stories are huge in the middleweight division. To be a champion is huge.”
“I am just 27 years old and I’ve already made history in the sport,” Canelo said. “And there is so much more to look forward to. My goal is, that when people think of boxing, the first name that comes to mind is Canelo Alvarez. I am in it to make the best fights. And when I am in the final stages of my career, years from now, I want to be able to look back and make sure that I did and gave my best.”
These are lofty goals. Ones worth fighting for. Both fighters will have an opportunity to stand in very fine company. One will emerge as a legend. The other will spend a lifetime wondering what might have been. Even a young man like Canelo knows fights like this are rare indeed.
Can such a contest be anything but magnificent? Yes, Mayweather and McGregor put on a heck of a show. But Canelo and GGG will have a heck of a fight. On Saturday, we’ll all see the difference between the two.
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.