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It is, conservatively speaking, about 9 million degrees inside Abel Sanchez’s boxing gym in Big Bear Lake, California, and still his prized fighter, world middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin, is in the ring doing chin pushups — wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sweatpants.
Yes, chin pushups. Arms behind his back, his chin rests on a towel, bearing the full weight of his 170-pound frame. He dips within inches of the canvas and rises back up. At the end of the set, he turns on his back, wraps the towel around his head and face, loops a rope with a weight attached to the end of it around his neck and does a set of what can only be described as blind, hanging, weighted neck crunches. Golovkin conditions each part of his sinewy frame like this, in rigorous isolation drills. The chin must withstand pain. The neck must be strong enough to absorb punches. To give him strength to fight inside, he works his forearms — which he often has trouble fitting in the sleeves of a normal dress shirt — with resistance bands and a homemade contraption of steel and rope pulleys that his trainer affectionately calls “the machine.”
Decades of such rigorous training have seen Golovkin establish himself as one of the best fighters of his generation. He has defended his middleweight title 18 times over the past seven years, putting him within range of Bernard Hopkins’ record of 20 defenses in his division. So it’s not surprising that he’s had trouble persuading boxing’s biggest names to get into the ring with him.
“I understand,” Golovkin says. “It’s too dangerous. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how much money [you offer]; people don’t want to lose reputation.”
This happens far too often in boxing — the best fighters simply don’t fight one another. It’s why Golovkin’s Sept. 16 showdown with Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez is being billed as the superfight that actually will live up to the hype, after Alvarez’s dud against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in May, Floyd Mayweather’s bore against Manny Pacquiao in 2015 and whatever the hell you want to call the Aug. 26 fight between Mayweather and Conor McGregor.
But for Golovkin, the showdown with Alvarez is something far simpler than a bout to save boxing: It’s the fight he’s waited his entire life for.
Finally, the stage matches his skill and reputation. Finally, a top-flight opponent is willing to risk something of real consequence to fight him.
Finally, a fight feels fair and important, even historic.
“He never really believed that he was going to get to where he’s at right now because everybody screwed him along the way,” Sanchez says.
When Golovkin lost a controversial decision to Russia’s Gaydarbek Gaydarbekov in the gold medal fight of the 2004 Olympics, his disillusionment nearly drove him into early retirement. When Europe’s top fighters refused to get into the ring, afraid a no-name boxer would beat them, he worried he might spend his best years in purgatory. In 2010, he left for the United States at the relatively old age of 28, looking for a trainer who could help him get his shot.
Sanchez remembers fondly the call that sealed a seven-year relationship with his fighter. A man claiming to be Golovkin’s manager called from an unknown number and said Golovkin was arriving at Los Angeles International Airport from Kazakhstan the next day — could Sanchez pick him up?
“Aeroflot at 2 p.m.,” Sanchez says, smiling at the memory. “Then he comes up the tunnel with one little bag.”
One bag? For two months of training in the United States?
“I came to train,” he says. “Not to party.”
Seven years later, he hasn’t brought much more to Sanchez’s gym. And perhaps even more than before, he knows exactly what is at stake.
“Boxing is serious. It’s not a game,” he says. “Just one punch — change life.”
Inside Sanchez’s two-story compound, the latest Andre Ward-Sergey Kovalev fight is playing on the big-screen TV near the ring. The TVs in Sanchez’s gym are always replaying classic fights. It’s an atmosphere thing, like hanging photos of the champions who have trained here, or cranking the thermostat up to 90 degrees so sweat streams out of every pore of every living soul inside.
Gennady is working out alongside his twin brother, Max, on an adjacent training table. Both steal glances at the TV each time they come to the top of a situp. The brothers almost move in tandem through their sets of core exercises. At one point, Max motions for Gennady to lie down, face-first, in the ring, then massages his neck and back.
Max, who trains with his brother before almost every fight, flying to California from Kazakhstan, is the only member of Golovkin’s family invited to be a part of his boxing. Their mother, Elizaveta, has not attended any of Gennady’s nearly 400 amateur and professional fights. His father, Gennady Sr., was allowed to attend just one of Golovkin’s fights before he died in 2014. Gennady’s wife, Alina, and their 8-year-old son, Vadim, do not come to his fights.
“Too much emotion, too much stress,” Golovkin says. “I’m like a genie for my son. If he saw a crazy fight … not good [for him] now. He is living in Santa Monica. He love hockey, he love tennis. Nice food, ocean. He is different from me.”
There is a divide between the man Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin and the boxer GGG, one that has nothing to do with the number of syllables. Gennady is a polite family man who rushes home from camp to be with his family or happily interrupts his dinner a dozen times to take pictures with fans at a restaurant. GGG is a relentless fighter whose sparring partners are required to wear vests to protect them from fists that land like cannonballs.
Gennady plays against every Ivan Drago trope with a rosy-cheeked charm and a penchant for coming up with endearing witticisms on boxing — a “big drama show” and “very serious business.” GGG is a ruthless, high-pressure knockout artist who attacks like a swarm of bees and cuts off every exit route.
Gennady can’t even make it through a postfight interview without smiling or politely congratulating his opponent. GGG just knocks people out. Head shots to the temple, body shots to the liver, uppercuts that crunch jawbones and teeth. The method is never exactly the same but is always ruthless. Almost all of GGG’s fights — 33 of his 37 professional bouts — have ended with a knockout.
The shift between the two is sudden and silent but noticeable. Sanchez sees it as he wraps the boxer’s hands before fights. They don’t talk, nor do they need to. “I can see the transformation,” Sanchez says. “I can see he’s already concentrating.”
There’s a part of Golovkin that wants to explain where GGG came from. The tragedy at the core of his family’s story. The dangerous land he called home. The insults and professional injustices he’s had to swallow. His English is strong enough now that he can converse without an interpreter. But there are some things language cannot describe, no matter how many words he learns.
“I’m a boxer, I’m a boxer,” he says. “If you’re interested, just watch my boxing, not my life.”
Golovkin was born in Kazakhstan in 1982, nine years before the Soviet Union collapsed. It had always been a contested region of the world, dating back to the times of warring nomadic cultures such as the Huns and Mongols. The Soviets built their nuclear testing program in Kazakhstan and used the vast territory as one of the Soviet Union’s main forced relocation sites, along with Siberia. Members of both sides of Golovkin’s family were forcibly relocated — a Korean relative on his mother’s side and a Russian relative on his father’s — during one of the many deportations of the 20th century.
After the Soviet Union fell in December 1991, what little social structure held the country together under communism completely unraveled. The corrupt bureaucrats who were forced out in riots all over Central Asia left a huge power vacuum for organized crime and militaristic strongmen to fill. That, along with economic uncertainty, heightened existing tensions among all the ethnicities that had been forced to live in the harsh climate.
“These times [were] terrible and very ugly, very dangerous for some people,” Golovkin says. “Everybody has problems. There are, like, no jobs.”
He tries to explain what it’s like to come from a place where you had to defend yourself and your place in the world every day.
“If you want to have nice shoes … fight,” Golovkin says. “Nice jeans, fight. Nice cap, fight.”
Gennady and Max had one key advantage, however. “We stayed together,” Gennady says.
Max says their two older brothers, Vadim and Sergey, taught them how to fight and stand up for themselves. “Just protect yourself,” Max says through an interpreter. “Never fight first. Just protect yourself.”
One day Gennady and Max got into a fight at a soccer game with a bunch of older kids. A boxing coach took note of how well the young boys fought and suggested they try boxing. Max was the skilled, polished fighter among the twins. Gennady was the brawler. “Fighter,” Golovkin says, pointing to Max. “Street fighter,” he says, pointing to himself.
The brothers became the best fighters in their town of Karaganda and were often the last ones standing at the end of tournaments. Rather than fight each other, they took turns forfeiting so they’d each have titles.
The brothers have a hundred stories of their fights and their suffering, each one layered on top of the others like Russian nesting dolls. In 1990, their eldest brother, Vadim, was killed while serving in the army. In 1994, Sergey died the same way. In both cases, no official explanation was provided. A government official simply called the house to say they were dead. Those losses — and the questions that came with them — still haunt the family.
“I lose my brothers,” Gennady says. “[It] was a very bad situation. … I’m young, and this is my story. This is my family.”
Their only choice was to lean on each other. Gennady says Max was the better, stronger fighter and easily could have had a professional career of his own. But in 2004, only one of them could make the Kazakhstan Olympic team. Despite Max’s superior strength and skill, Gennady was chosen because he was the older of the twins.
For Gennady, the Olympics were a chance to fight his way out of Kazakhstan. After his gold medal loss, he spent six months at home deciding whether to continue. But how could he give up after Max had sacrificed his career for him? When Max was his biggest supporter and ally?
Eventually, he reconnected with some former training partners who had moved to Germany to train and compete professionally — a common route for fighters from former Soviet republics, including the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali. Golovkin fought professionally in Germany for more than three years, becoming one of the most feared fighters in Europe. But when it came time to match him against star contemporaries, there was always an excuse from his German promoters. Eventually, he realized he’d never accomplish his goals if he stayed in Europe. It was time to come to America — and leave his family behind.