By: Kathir Ilango
The success of a boxer comes down to not only how he can fight, but also how he can spread his brand. The man from Kazakhstan known around the world today as 'GGG' did not have traction in the popularity department for a massive portion of his fighting career. After an incredible amatuer career of 350 fights, Gennady Golovkin's professional career stalled for years due to promotional issues. In 2012, already 30 years of age, Golovkin finally decided to take his career to the United States under a new promoter. At the time, his record was 23-0 with 20 knockouts and he was already the WBA Middleweight Champion. Because of his dangerous record and lack of popularity, the top fighters in the division heavily avoided him for years.
Many lower-tier middleweights were put in front of Golovkin and he dismantled one after the other, gaining favor with American fight fans as the "people's champion". Of great importance is the fact that he began to have a massive following among Mexican fans as well, as his "seek and destroy" style and increasing knockout streak was reminiscent of the Mexican legend Julio Caesar Chavez. In other words, Golovkin finally had a promotional cornerstone. His promoter Tom Loeffler and trainer Abel Sanchez promoted the 'GGG' brand as 'Mexican Style' and promised action in every fight.
By 2015, Golovkin went from being a foreign delight to becoming the IBF, IBO, WBA, WBC, and Ring Magazine Unified Middleweight Champion of the World with one of the largest fan bases in North America. Phrases like 'Triple G', 'Mexican Style', and 'Big Drama Show' have become forever tied to his legacy. He lived as boxing's longest reigning champion of his time until September of this year, when he lost via decision to Mexican superstar Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez. It was the rematch of a fight that took place a year prior and ended in a draw. Both results are deemed controversial because 77% of ringside media scored the first fight for Golovkin and 98% of ringside media scored the second fight as either a draw or win for Golovkin. So how did he end up walking away with a draw and a loss on his record (now 38-1-1, 34 KO) instead? Perhaps it was simply corruption since Alvarez is the biggest money maker in prize fighting and has a history of judges being biased towards him in big fights. But more plausible is the idea that the very 'Mexican Style' brand that brought Golovkin to stardom was not accurate. His style is simply not that of a belligerent Mexican fighter and the numbers are here to prove it. This truth was made clear when he came out and fought a very cautious, non-'Mexican Style' fight against the highly talented Alvarez. Although Golovkin may have won both fights in the eyes of the fans, this uncharacteristic change of gameplan was likely and unfortunately seen as discomfort and failure in the eyes of the judges.
Mexicans are not from Kazakhstan
It is important to first have an idea of what Mexican style boxing really is. Technically, Mexican style fighting involves close proximity between fighters and emphasizes power punches, especially body work, over jabbing and distance. As much as Golovkin has been branded as a Mexican style fighter, his fighting simply does not line up with this definition. In fact, he controls distance and utilizes his jab more than any fighter in the entire sport:
Golovkin lands more jabs than any man in boxing with 10.3 per round and does so at a higher percentage than any man boxing with a 31.6% connect rate. He has mastered the art of distance, using his ramrod jab to set up his offense. This is not something that is encompassed by the Mexican style as distance is relatively ignored and fighters prefer to exchange in the pocket.
There's also the less technical but more electric quality about Mexican style fighting: fighters are willing to take punishment to give it back. It involves a certain lack of respect for opponents' power that makes every event a fight rather than a boxing match. But the hardest puncher that Golovkin has faced, Canada's David Lemieux, ended up being the man against whom he took the least risks and fought the most carefully behind his jab:
Golovkin obliterated rational jabbing statistics across the board in his fight against Lemieux. He landed an unreal 21.3 jabs per round, four times the middleweight average at the time, with 47% connection. A staggering 65% of the punches he threw were jabs. So what does all of this jabbing mean? It means that while Golovkin is known for having a tremendous chin, he had absolutely no interest in a "take two give one" war against a big puncher when his ring generalship and length could dominate the fight. Nothing is being taken away from Golovkin's win; he brilliantly out-boxed Lemieux and his performance was a masterpiece. But brilliantly out-boxing someone is not nearly the Mexican solution to that problem.
It's important to note that Golovkin still landed 58.8% of his power punches in the Lemieux fight when the middleweight average was 37.7%. Throughout this time he was also thought of as perhaps the biggest puncher in the division. His high power output and connection in virtually all of his fights is what continued to string him along as a Mexican Style destroyer, a false image that would create unnecessary expectations for him in his two historic fights against Canelo Alvarez.
The Wars in the Desert
The Canelo-Golovkin fights both took place in Las Vegas and generated tremendous interest as boxing's Super Bowl. Both delivered on their promises, but Golovkin was coming into each with an additional onus. Alvarez is a natural counter puncher so it was widely expected that Golovkin, the "true Mexican style fighter" of the two, would be the one to take the fight to Alvarez and press forward. But when push came to shove in the ring, he realized how dangerous Alvarez was and did what his instincts told him. Much to the surprise of experts and fans, 'Mexican Style' officially went out the window. Golovkin has a 2 inch reach and height advantage over Alvarez and, as it has been throughout this article, Golovkin's jab was a key ingredient to both fights:
Alvarez is known for being a counter puncher with tremendous power. A Mexican Style fighter may normally walk such a man down and be willing to eat leather along the way as long as he can get inside and dish punishment back. But the most prolific jabber in boxing once again stuck to his true roots to win rounds in both fights. He did not need to get hit unnecessarily when he could wear Alvarez down with his jabbing and footwork.
So Golovkin jabbed, jabbed, and jabbed to set up his power punches, seemingly racking up points as the mere volume of his attack was tremendous. He didn't just out-jab Alvarez, he more than doubled Alvarez's landed jabs across both fights. And such a mismatch in the jab department was not Golovkin's only notable success. In both fights, he out-landed Canelo in total punches for the majority of rounds:
If a casual boxing fan were told that in two fights, one man would double the other's landed jabs and out-land the other outright in 18 of the 24 combined rounds, the casual fan would probably guess that this man handily won both fights. Yet only one of the six combined official judges had Gennady Golovkin winning. This is where the 'Mexican Style' image that Golovkin has built around himself over the years comes into play. Everyone, including the judges, was expecting Golovkin to make each fight a close distance firefight because that's the way he has been marketed. As great as Golovkin's jab and overall output were, he failed in the 'Mexican Style' department. As mentioned earlier, Mexican style fighting comes down to two technical aspects: power punches and body work. Golovkin was not able to beat Alvarez at either of those two things:
Golovkin totally neglected attacking the body in both fights; only 6.2% of his landed power punches were downstairs. Alvarez, meanwhile, threw to the body much more vigorously, with 35% of his landed power shots going there. More notably, Golovkin, the man who was supposed to bring the power-punching fire, was actually out-landed by Alvarez in terms of power punches and was less efficient with his power punches as well, landing 33.5% of his shots while Alvarez landed 40.2%. Essentially, Alvarez, the Mexican man in the fight, also ended up having the more Mexican statistics across both fights and undermining Golovkin's signature 'Mexican Style'.
This seems to have had a direct effect on the official score cards, as there is a glaring trend about the way that each of the 24 combined rounds was scored (by the majority of the 3 judges in each round):
In general, judges were scoring rounds for the man who had the higher power punch percentage regardless of the volume of punches, jab, or ring generalship.
It appeared to most ringside observers and fans that Golovkin had done enough to win both fights because despite getting outlanded in power shots and never hitting the body, he often controlled the tempo and did so with incredible punch output. But the thing that seems to have mattered to the official judges more than anything else is: "Who is fighting more like a Mexican?", a question that only entered their heads in the first place because of how much 'Mexican Style' had become entangled with the story of the fight over the years. In their eyes, here is what happened: A man who has built his career around being a Mexican style fighter that comes forward and attacks relentlessly was unable to do so because Canelo Alvarez was dictating the fights and making him afraid and uncomfortable in the ring.
It's sound logic if Golovkin was ever actually a Mexican style fighter, but he's not and the numbers have made it quite clear. The fact is that Golovkin is a high quality attacker who had an extensive amateur career for years with an Eastern European style based on distance and calculation. He came to the United States hoping to make the most of his incredible boxing ability and after a string of knockouts against lower-tier opponents, fans across the continent fell in love with the idea of 'GGG': the true Mexican style monster who traps opponents on the ropes and finishes them. But he was just a fighter who had never yet had truly elite-level opposition. When the elite opponent was finally put in front of him, the undefeated champ dug deep into his bag of tricks and amateur pedigree to outbox the man, but it unfortunately didn't come across that way to the judges; they had expectations for him that stemmed from false advertising and were never realistic. He is the greatest middleweight of this era, but like many people who go to Vegas, Gennady Golovkin walked in with high expectations and ended up leaving empty handed.
Sources: CompuBox numbers via HBO Boxing and Sports Illustrated, mmafighting.com, sportsviewlondon.com