Golovkin and Brook in London: A View From the Stands

Photo: Will Hart

By Oliver Goldstein

LONDON, Sept. 10, 2016 – Up in the rafters they think Kell Brook is going to win. In the queue for the toilets someone tells his mate that after seeing Brook at the weigh-in, he’ll be disappointed if he doesn’t knock Gennady Golovkin out.

“It’s a tough one, Golovkin is so good,” says his mate, “but yeah.”

Partly this is jingoism, stoked by a promotion trading on the possibility that Brook might become “the best British fighter ever,” whatever that should mean, and partly also a sincere belief that the Sheffield man does have the capacity to handle a two-division weight rise and the small matter of GGG.

At 9:30 p.m., when Golovkin’s face appears on the big screens at the O2 Arena, he looks much as he has for most of his week in London: bemused. Golovkin’s bemusement looks not a lot different from his other expressions, warm as he is, near-smiling as ever, but an arch or two across his brow gives it away. An hour from his fight with Brook, he’s being asked the same questions he’s answered all week: Are you unwell? Jet-lagged? Has the London traffic put you off? Are you intimidated?

Golovkin has been bemused all week because he is none of these things. Throughout the week, in a transparent bid to drum up support for Brook, rumors have been circulated that Golovkin had struggled to make weight, is unhappy with London, surprised by his reception, drained. Did none of these people see his fight with Gabriel Rosado? Then, face pouring with cold, Golovkin left Rosado looking like the victim of a late-night beating down a dark alley. And still they ask: Are you 100 percent? Do you not like the London traffic? And so Golovkin is bemused.

For much of fight week Brook’s credentials as an Ingle-trained fighter, from the same Sheffield gym that produced Naseem Hamed, have been talked up by the local broadcaster and promoter, Eddie Hearn. There’s more than a touch of nostalgia about this. Where the Ingles once produced fighters like Hamed and Herol Graham, the latter of whom used to box in working-men’s clubs with his hands tied behind his back, Brook represents something far more orthodox and conventional. And even Graham was liable to get caught in the end: The "Bomber" was laid out famously by Julian Jackson in 1990, asleep before his body hit the floor, in a knockout straight from the movies.

From on high in the stands, Brook looks easily as big as Golovkin, if not bigger. This might be an illusion: Brook has always rippled with muscle, his body’s torque mapped out by lines and definitions, while Golovkin’s physique is slim and unshowy (though every bit the boxer’s). But the crowd, sleepy through the preliminaries, feeds off this anyway. After Brook is roared to the ring, Golovkin is booed in return, though in comparison with those London crowds of the 1980s, which rioted after Marvin Hagler won his first world title against Alan Minter, this is a fairly welcoming hostility. There is even some clapping, which means that Golovkin’s reception is at least better than David Haye’s, who is roundly booed when his name is read over the speaker.

“You’re going down, Golovkin,” shouts someone in the stands, who then shifts a little embarrassedly: “Go on, Kell!” There are two lone Kazakhs in this section of the crowd, sitting in the very back row. They belt out the national anthem and then watch over Golovkin’s introduction like a proud family.

Brook wears red, as always. Golovkin dons powder blue trunks and luminous, shiny gold gloves, which look silvery from the stands. Abstracted from on high, one imagines his bemusement hardening into seriousness: “You won’t like me when I’m angry.”

At the first bell, Brook comes to meet GGG at the center of the ring. Golovkin wings out a wild left hook, his silvery glove arcing wickedly through the air. As soon as Brook takes to the ropes, Golovkin lands his hook to the body and then head. Brook staggers and collectively the crowd gasps, as though stunned to discover that, yes, GGG hits hard. But the Brit resets and from the middle of the ring he rips Golovkin with a combination, touching the top of his forehead with a right and then smashing his head back with a left uppercut. Through the rest of the round Brook’s red gloves flash in straights and diagonals.

Golovkin is irked by now. In the second he comes out firing and hurts Brook again. After a tangle of legs, the Brit goes down. The referee waves the knockdown away, but Brook staggers a little as he gets to his feet. “Not your referee, Golovkin,” someone shouts from nearby. But Brook is defiant and Golovkin, if anything, a little too stationary, his head completely still behind those gleaming gloves. Indeed Golovkin does not so much move his head as have it moved by Brook, who tags him repeatedly with the right. Through two rounds the Sheffield fighter is just about even.

Nonetheless, it is apparent even from the top of the O2 Arena’s vast auditorium how hard Brook has to work just to achieve parity, the cost of which, it turns out later, is a broken eye socket. And by the fourth round the crowd’s roars are ebbing somewhat, as Brook’s feet slow and he gets increasingly caught up on the ropes. Golovkin exacts due punishment, battering him to the body and head before tapping him again with the jab when Brook tries to reset.

Still, the end when it comes is a surprise. Rumor of Brook’s bloodied, swollen eye has spread around the upper tier, but it’s impossible to locate any particular signs of damage from such distance. What the crowd does see is a fighter notably slowing down, for whom the center of the ring increasingly is a refuge from the danger of the corners and ropes. Even so, they’ve come to watch a man go out on his feet, even if that means him leaving off them.

And so something faintly surreal sets in when Dominic Ingle climbs to the ring apron waving his white towel. For at least 10 seconds referee Marlon Wright hears and sees nothing. Golovkin continues chasing Brook about the ring, catching him with silvery whips. And Ingle keeps waving, waving, waving the towel back and forth, until his futile, desperate gesture comes to recall the famous first line of a Stevie Smith poem: Ingle is not waving, but drowning. When Wright finally stops it, Brook is struggling to protect himself against the ropes.

Boos rain down, and to honor age-old traditions no less than a few beers are flung from the stands toward the ring (soaking fellow crowdgoers instead). The stands are a mixture of anger and acceptance. Golovkin is no longer bemused. Brook semi-seriously professes disappointment at the stoppage, ungenerously redirecting the crowd’s anger toward his trainer.

Still, these days they mostly know a good champion when they’ve seen one here, and those who stay to witness the aftermath warmly applaud the Kazakh, who nods and smiles and bows. “I’m proud I saw Golovkin fight,” says one of them afterwards on the Tube home. “He’s a special fighter.”