Cordiality and Hints of Tension as Fight Night Approaches

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Tom Loeffler chuckled at Wednesday's press conference as he introduced Gennady Golovkin as the A-Side' of Saturday's middleweight title fight – a pointed reference to the tension between Miguel Cotto and Sergio Martinez over that same phrase when they met here at Madison Square Garden last month. But the Kazakh's promoter knows what it's like to be on the other side of the equation at the Mecca of Boxing; so too does Golovkin's trainer Abel Sanchez, although the fortunes of their respective 'B-side' fighters varied greatly.

Loeffler was manager of featherweight Kevin Kelley when the "Flushing Flash" was the chosen opponent for the U.S. debut of Naseem Hamed in 1997; after a seven-minute wait while Hamed made his way to the ring, Kelley knocked the Brit down three times in less four rounds, but was dropped hard three times himself en route to a stoppage loss. Six years previously, Sanchez was the trainer of "Terrible" Terry Norris when Sugar Ray Leonard unadvisedly dropped down to junior middleweight to take on the younger, faster fighter and was soundly thrashed over 12 rounds.

There's been plenty of water under the bridge since then for all concerned, of course, but it seems safe to say that, even for the defeated Kelley and certainly for the victorious Norris, those Garden nights shine brightly among the memories of their careers. Of course, the venue alone, even the World's Most Famous Arena, does not a great fight make; nor is a storied site a prerequisite for an electric event. Terence Crawford and the people of Omaha underlined that latter point just a few weeks ago; and, as Golovkin's opponent Daniel Geale told Inside HBO Boxing this week, "it doesn't matter if it's someone's backyard or the Mecca of Boxing, I'm going to do my thing." Or, as heavyweight Bryant Jennings – who fights Mike Perez in the co-main event – put it: "I could be fighting in a cave 1,000 feet below sea level; the ring's still going to be there."

Even so, to headline at the Garden is to perform on the biggest of boxing stages, and for the winner of both of Saturday's televised fights, victory will almost certainly mean a launch pad to even bigger and better things. It is therefore to the credit of all involved that Loeffler could joke about A-sides safe in the knowledge that nobody involved would take umbrage, or that Jennings could say complimentary things about Perez even as he promised victory.

Of course, the presence of goodwill doesn't in any way equate to the absence of ambition, and as Saturday night grows ever closer, the tension rises and so does the bluster. "What is good about Jennings?" asked Perez rhetorically at a Friday morning meeting between fighters and the HBO broadcast team. "I don't know. I see nothing." Jennings countered that, "I have a size advantage, I have a reach advantage. I have an advantage, period." Even Golovkin – who smilingly acknowledged that "I am a gentleman outside the ring" – got in on the act. "I have a predator instinct," he said. "It's inside. I feel it inside. Killer instinct. I see blood, I wait … and then I finish him."

By the time the four fighters stepped on the scales to weigh in on Friday afternoon, the niceties seemed fully dispensed with: Jennings and Perez standing nose to nose, Golovkin and Geale staring coldly into each other's eyes. But then each pair broke apart, each boxer shook his opponent's hand, and they took different exits from the stage, away from each other's sight until Saturday night, when they will look at each other across the ring, the bell will ring, and they will fight.

The weights from Madison Square Garden:

Gennady Golovkin: 159.8 lbs.

Daniel Geale: 159.2 lbs.

Bryant Jennings: 222.6 lbs.

Mike Perez: 242.2 lbs.