“Easy Work”: In Camp with Gennady Golovkin
Abel Sanchez steers the Audi along the empty roads, the early morning sunlight glinting through the trees and dappling the road. The air is crisp and clear, and for it being 6 AM at an altitude of roughly 7,000 feet, the morning is surprisingly and pleasantly warm. On a day like today, Big Bear exudes an irresistible charm.
“I do like it here, I do,” Sanchez says. “But the winters are hard. I feel it in my bones. Maybe I’ll just be up here a few more years, see Gennady to the end of his career, then maybe Ryan [Martin, Sanchez’s touted lightweight prospect] and move back somewhere warm.”
Gennady, of course, is Gennady Golovkin, the middleweight champion from Kazakhstan; and while we are in the car, he and training partner Murat Gassiev, a Russian cruiserweight, are on their morning run.
“What we do is, he runs about one and a half miles, then a mile back to this spot,” Sanchez explains as we pull over to the curb. “Then he runs sprints, about 1,800 yards of sprints. Then he runs back to the gym. And as we get closer to the fight, we do more. Basically, I set it up so they don’t know exactly what’s coming at them on any given day.”
Camp is in in its second week, two months away from the Kazakh’s blockbuster September 16 clash with lineal middleweight champion Canelo Alvarez, but it will be another full month before it includes any sparring.
“I only have him spar 70 to 75 rounds,” explains Sanchez. “It’s what we’ve done for the last 10 fights. Because by day three, he’s ready and raring to go fight. Besides, guys who spar 130 rounds for a bout – that’s 10 full extra fights. That’s how you get damaged.”
At no stage will preparation involve watching video of Alvarez.
“No, we don’t watch film. How Canelo fought [Julio Cesar] Chavez Jr. won’t be how he fights Gennady. My goal is to get them to 100 percent so then the other guys have to adapt to us.”
Which is not to say that he and Golovkin have never sat down and watched tapes before.
“When he first got here, I showed him video of cutting horses” – horses that are trained to separate cattle from a herd. “I wanted him to see how the horse moved to cut off the calves, to make them go where the horse needed them to.” It is an instructive aside. Golovkin may most be celebrated for his power, manifested in a 23-bout knockout streak that lasted from November 22, 2008 to March 18, 2017; but what has, from the very beginning of his apprenticeship with Sanchez, caused old-school observers to appreciate Golovkin’s skills is his ring generalship, his footwork, the way he steers his foes into places from which they cannot escape.
The run and sprints completed, Golovkin and Gassiev return to The Summit – the property that Sanchez, a building contractor by trade, bought in 1998 and by 2003 had converted into a gym facility. For Sanchez, his partnership with the man widely known as GGG (and referred to by friends, the boxer himself reveals in conversation, simply as G) has marked an autumnal renaissance in a training career that saw its initial apogee in the 1980s as the chief second of junior middleweight champion Terry Norris but which, in the early years of the 21st century, had seen him settle into a life of semi-retirement from boxing.
Then, in April 2010, two years after re-entering the sport’s orbit and opening The Summit for business, he received a phone call from Oleg Hermann, manager of a young Kazakh middleweight with an outstanding amateur pedigree and a professional career that was undefeated but obscure. Hermann and his brother and co-manager Max wanted to bring the boxer to Big Bear.
“When I first saw him, I thought, ‘This can’t be right,’” chuckles Sanchez. “I mean, he looked like a choirboy.” Sanchez and Golovkin talked as best they could – one man speaking very little Russian, the other highly limited English – and the boxer showed the trainer some videos of his fights. Not until the trio had left Big Bear did Sanchez have the chance to go online and find more about Golovkin, and when he did, he marveled to friends that he might have the chance to work with such a talent. He wondered how Golovkin and the Hermanns had found their way to him, so many years after he had steered Norris and others to success, and although they promised they would be back in touch, he doubted it. When, a couple of months later, the phone rang again and the voice at the other end asked if he would be able to pick up Golovkin at the airport, he assumed it was a prank. But it was very real; Golovkin was on his way to Los Angeles, to Big Bear and to The Summit, and he and Sanchez have been a team ever since.
Immediately inside the gym’s front door is an open space with folding chairs, a TV on the wall – tuned this morning to local news – and some exercise benches near the far wall. The business end of the gym is to the left, down a step. Here is the ring, numerous heavybags, and an assortment of small weights. This is the area to which Golovkin retreats when he returns from his run, stretching and recovering before stepping up and toward the benches. He lays down, pauses, and cranks out a quick 100 crunches. He pauses again, centers himself, takes a couple of breaths, and then does another 100. He repeats the cycle several times – straight crunches, oblique crunches, side crunches – until all told he has done 500. Then he tops it off with the same number of leg lifts before finishing with a set of oblique crunches while holding a 35-pound weight plate. He stops, lets out a breath, and smiles.
“There,” he says. “Easy work.”
Golovkin is not the kind of boxer who needs to spend the first part of camp getting himself into shape.
“That’s the great thing about working with a professional,” says Sanchez. “If you come into camp overweight, you’re not giving yourself a 100 percent chance to win.”
Indeed, Golovkin appears to be already close to fighting weight. When it is suggested that he looks like he is roughly 170 pounds, he shakes his head firmly and says “No,” then smiles broadly.
“Maybe 172, 173,” he says. “After breakfast.”
We are sitting in the morning sunshine at a picnic table outside the gym, and he is expounding on how much he enjoys the solitude and quiet of Big Bear.
“It’s a private gym, which is very important to me,” he explains. “If I go to a gym in Hollywood or Santa Monica [where he lives], one guy may say, ‘Hey, can I get a photo?’ and then everybody has his cell phone out. Here, we might do one day – say, a Saturday morning – when we open the doors, but otherwise no.”
Most weekends, he drives down the mountain to see his family for a day before returning to his quarters above the gym. There are two separate dwellings, linked by a connecting door; Golovkin lives in one; other boxers, including his sparring partners, in the other. There will be six such sparring partners by late August, but for now it is just Golovkin and Gassiev.
“I’m very much enjoying the time with Murat,” he says. “He helps. He brings me shakes when I need them, and he’s also a very good guy. He’s young. He learns. He supports me and I support him.”
Much of the time during camp, Golovkin’s world does not extend beyond the property’s boundaries.
“Maybe every second day, we may go to a store, go to Starbucks,” he offers, but otherwise he works out in the gym below and relaxes in the apartment above. Unlike his trainer, he enjoys Big Bear winters (“It’s a little like my country”). But while he isn’t sure about the benefits that altitude training is said to bring, he knows all too well the challenges it poses.
“The first week, I feel it,” he acknowledges. “The second week, not so much. The first three days are terrible. Can’t breathe, can’t even sleep.” But the possibility that training in thin air may reap benefits for fighting closer to sea level has brought many boxers to this bucolic ski resort. Oscar De La Hoya owned a house and gym here. Shane Mosley still does. These days, The Summit is the biggest game in town, and in addition to his own stable, several big names have taken advantage of Sanchez’s facilities. De La Hoya. Miguel Cotto. Canelo Alvarez.
“I know Canelo a long time,” says Golovkin. “I remember four years ago, I spar with him in the gym. I tell him, maybe next year, we’ll get together.”
It took considerably longer for the fight between the Kazakh and the Mexican to be made, of course, and GGG is sure that the biggest cause of the delay was De La Hoya, now Canelo’s promoter, being ringside when Golovkin destroyed David Lemieux in 2015, in what Sanchez feels may have been his boxer’s greatest performance.
“After Lemieux fight, Oscar looked shocked,” Golovkin recalls laconically. But, so be it. The important thing now, he says, is that the fight is happening.
“I’m very excited. My focus is on Canelo. He is a real fighter. It’s good for boxing. I think it’s the biggest fight in boxing right now.”
Gassiev pauses before taking the step down toward the ring. A visiting film crew has turned off the overhead lighting and is illuminating the gym with a few broad lights.
“Dark?” says Gassiev, feigning discomfort.
“You afraid?” jokes Sanchez, before turning to a nearby reporter. “The first fight I trained him, in France, at the weigh-in, the guy starts making a mean face. Murat acts scared, says, ‘Coach, I think he’s mad at me.’ Knocked him out in two rounds.”
It is time for the afternoon workout. It is too early in camp for mitt work or bag work; instead, after jumping rope, firing off another six or seven hundred crunches and leg lifts, and shadowboxing for a few rounds, the boxers focus on a series of debilitating exercises designed to strengthen their cores and their necks. They look excruciating, and both Golovkin and Gassiev periodically issue challenges to those watching to get into the ring and try them out. There are few takers, and those who do accept soon wish they hadn’t.
At one point, Golovkin even jokingly asks if anyone in attendance wants to spar.
“Sometimes, sparring partners come in for two rounds and suddenly it’s, ‘See you, coach,’” he smirks, and with his hands he dismissively gestures in a way to symbolize someone turning tail and running out the door. Despite his success and his exalted status in the game, Golovkin unequivocally does Sanchez’s bidding and carries out his instructions (“If I’ve got a young kid in here who doesn’t do what I ask, he’ll snap at them,” Sanchez says), albeit with an occasional half-hearted protest.
“Coach, really? It’s first full day of camp. Are you serious now?” he mock-grumbles when Sanchez tells him how many repetitions he requires of one particular exercise.
The reward for doing all that is asked of him is that Sanchez finally calls time on the session after two grueling hours.
“I take them to the point where I break them,” the trainer explains. “Then I take them that bit farther. Nothing in the ring will be harder than what they face in the gym.”
“Boxing is easy compared to this,” agrees Golovkin. “1-2-3, punch. Hook, jab, uppercut. That’s it.”
He smiles again as he prepares for another batch of several hundred crunches.