By Eric Raskin
“Easy” is a relative word in boxing. Even when a fight is “easy,” it most likely involves getting punched in the face at least a few dozen times, to say nothing of the grueling task of enduring several weeks of training camp. But in the relative sense, Gennady Golovkin and Roman Gonzalez had it easy for quite a long time. Whether because of their supreme skills and talents, the quality of their opposition, or some combination thereof, GGG fights and Chocolatito fights have been, more often than not, showcases in which the outcome was never in doubt. They climbed the pound-for-pound lists through sheer dominance, through mastery of the eye test, without having to prove — again, in boxing’s relative terms — what they were made of deep down.
But how does a fighter respond when it isn’t so easy anymore? What does he do when he can’t just walk in and blow the other guy out? That’s when the true test of a fighter’s greatness is conducted. That’s when we find out if the reality can confirm the theoretical, if what the eye test told us was accurate. And that’s what we will remember about the night of March 18, 2017. In consecutive fights in front of a packed house at Madison Square Garden, Gonzalez and Golovkin had to answer questions rarely posed, questions about their ability to adjust in the face of adversity and to fall back on heart when their fists alone aren’t getting the job done.
Those answers came back in the affirmative. Maybe the official results were mixed. But both Golovkin and Gonzalez proved that they don’t need things to be easy.
Of the two, it was Chocolatito who had to dig deeper (but who was also more used to it, considering his previous fight, against Carlos Cuadras, also pushed him within sniffing distance of the brink). Chocolatito is more than five years younger than Golovkin — he’ll turn 30 in June — but smaller fighters tend to age faster and the Nicaraguan has had 10 more pro fights than GGG. Against Srisaket Sor Rungvisai of Thailand, Gonzalez found himself an undeniably post-prime fighter, a pugilist whose power at 115 pounds clearly isn’t what it was at 105, 108, and 112, and those revelations were complicated by the fact that southpaw Sor Rungvisai applied unrelenting pressure and was as tough to fight as saying his name five times fast.
Chocolatito got dropped by a body punch in round one. He got cut by a headbutt in round three. At a certain point, he decided he couldn’t win this fight with finesse; he’d need to stand his ground and win the exchanges. The 12th round was, in some ways, the finest three minutes of Gonzalez’s career. Fighting with cojones so big it’s a wonder he makes the super flyweight limit, Chocolatito let bomb after bomb go and had Sor Rungvisai reeling and relieved to hear the final bell.
I thought Gonzalez won, 115-111. The judges awarded a majority decision to Sor Rungvisai, a verdict that was met with boos from the MSG faithful. Gonzalez will not finish his career undefeated. He’s not the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world anymore. But he’s all fighter. Whereas once such a statement would have qualified as speculation, now it’s a fact. Or at the very least, it’s one of those opinions you’d have to be insane to dispute.
For Golovkin, the struggle was less about his best days being behind him (although it’s possible they are) or about him fighting above his best weight (although he was certainly outsized). Rather, for GGG, the problem was the other fellow in the ring. In Daniel Jacobs, Golovkin finally met something resembling his match, an opponent with the speed, skill, and self-belief to deny the Big Drama Show its typical early closing. Golovkin had knocked out 23 straight opponents dating back to 2008. He simply isn’t used to this kind of resistance, to a fighter with a game plan and the gifts and determination to execute it. We’d long wondered, what would GGG do when he could knock the other guy down but not out? How would he handle a fight whose outcome seemed up for grabs after six rounds, after eight rounds, after 10 rounds?
The answers weren’t quite everything we’d dreamed they would be. Jacobs got the better of several of the later rounds, and Golovkin rarely let his hands go with the kind of desperation the situation seemed to call for. But he didn’t let himself get discouraged in the face of stiff competition. He remained focused, he kept pumping out jabs, he cut off the ring, he closed the distance, and he took some shots from a legitimate puncher with probably 10 pounds or so on him. He wasn’t required to show as much heart as Chocolatito, but he showed his own brand of steely resolve, and it carried him to a close unanimous decision in by far the toughest challenge of his professional career.
The performances of GGG and Chocolatito, pound-for-pound elite fighters who were being rudely reminded that, to use a Golovkin-ism, “this isn’t game,” called to mind other modern greats having to use a gear they’d never needed to shift into before. Just four months ago, Andre Ward showed what he was made of when Sergey Kovalev had him down — on the scorecards and his knees — and Ward needed to use every ounce of his guile and guts to get back into the fight.
A generation earlier, fellow HBO broadcaster Roy Jones found himself in a similar situation in the same weight division, when the nearly untouchable P4P king was struggling mightily in his first fight with Antonio Tarver. Jones showed a determination nobody knew for sure existed and, like Ward, pulled out a controversial decision win. When two of Jones’ P4P rivals met in June 2000, formerly dominant lightweight champ Shane Mosley lost perhaps five of the first seven rounds against the bigger, seemingly better Oscar De La Hoya, until Sugar Shane elevated his game and streaked to a stirring victory.
And then there was the fight that Sor Rungvisai vs. Gonzalez most reminded me of: the 1998 strawweight rematch between Ricardo “Finito” Lopez (the Chocolatito of his time) and Rosendo Alvarez. Lopez, like Gonzalez, went years without losing rounds, until age and an elite opponent finally made him look human. Lopez battled through the blood to eke past Alvarez in a thriller; it was essentially Sor Rungvisai vs. Gonzalez with more palatable scorecards.
But for every time a great fighter lives up to our expectations, there’s another example of a heavily hyped boxer coming up short when it stops being easy. Mosley was actually on both sides of the dynamic. As inspiring as he was against Oscar, after a few more spectacular wins, he ran up against a nightmare style in Vernon Forrest and couldn’t make any of the necessary adjustments. The same thing happened to Naseem Hamed, who dug deep to beat Kevin Kelley in 1997, but three years later, had no answers for the masterful boxing of Marco Antonio Barrera. Hamed’s fighting spirit seemed to disintegrate over the course of those 12 rounds, never to return again. Then there are cases of highly touted prospects, seemingly working their way toward pound-for-pound rankings, only to get exposed as unworthy of the hype. Think guys like Adrien Broner and Victor Ortiz — not bad fighters, by any means, but men who both folded, to one degree or another, when asked (in both cases by the litmus test that is Marcos Maidana) to find something deep inside themselves.
It probably isn’t going to get any easier after this for Chocolatito. The same might be true for GGG. One of them lost on Saturday night, and the other flirted with losing. But they both showed dimensions they haven’t had to show before and took steps to confirm their greatness on the toughest nights of their respective careers.