Canelo-Golovkin Preview: No Margin for Error

By Carlos Acevedo

All too often boxing—a fractured and fractious pursuit—suggests something right out of Nietzsche: “There are no facts; only interpretations.” The subjective nature of the sport, along with its roots in flim-flam, has created the need for a “Ruse or Reality” test for nearly every claim or fight. But when middleweights Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez square off at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas on Saturday night (8 PM ET/5 PM PT on HBO PPV) in one of the most significant matchups of the year, no such test will be necessary.

In a perfect world, Canelo and Golovkin would have met earlier, but boxing, alas, is no kind of utopia. Unlike the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, however, which took five years to consummate, Canelo-Golovkin will take place with both men at or near their peaks.

Before going the distance with a focused Daniel Jacobs in March, Gennady Golovkin, 37-0 (33 KOs), practiced a unique form of aversion therapy in and out of the ring: his crippling attack seemed to affect victims and potential victims alike. Many of the marquee names that were floated as opponents came down with acute cases of Golovkin Avoidance Syndrome. In some cases, better offers caused fighters to skirt Golovkin, but for Golovkin to be the common denominator in so many varying scenarios is telling.

Despite his reluctant opposition, Golovkin has managed to notch several quality wins over the last few years. Among the solid middleweights he has defeated are Matthew Macklin, Martin Murray, Daniel Geale, David Lemieux, and Daniel Jacobs. Regardless of the opponent, however, the results have almost invariably been the same: ministrations from the ringside physician, a referee tolling “10” or intervening mercifully, the ringside crowd sent home early. At one point, Golovkin had scored a KO in 23 consecutive fights. Indeed, his conscious pursuit of the knockout—the most definitive ending in sports—has endeared him to hardcore fight fans, who have made him a legitimate box office attraction in the U.S. and a fair ratings draw for premium cable. But mass appeal has eluded him. A win over Canelo, by far the most accomplished professional Golovkin has faced, would bring “GGG” the kind of widespread recognition he hungers for.

Canelo Alvarez, on the other hand, has had little problem rocketing to rollicking fame. In addition to his telenovela looks and fashionista sensibility, Alvarez has a cool personality to go with his unflappable fighting style. To a certain extent, it is this palpable air of detachment that has endeared Alvarez to Latinos from Quintana Roo to Queens, New York. Mexican ring idols are rarely what Americans consider showmen. In the modern era, only Ruben Olivares, whose nighthawk lifestyle never clashed with his popularity as much as it did with the rigorous demands of his vocation, bucks the trend: a certain amount of gravitas is a prerequisite for the Mexican afición, and the soft-spoken Canelo fits the bill nicely.

As the top draw in North America (now that Floyd Mayweather has retired from circus sideshows), Canelo probably could have gone another six months without facing Golovkin, but the waiting game—as well as the whispers—finally made him restless.

Since outpointing Miguel Cotto for the middleweight championship on November 21, 2015, Canelo, 49-1-1 (34 KOs), seemed to be coasting: he drubbed a trio of pedestrian opponents (an undersized Amir Khan, undistinguished Liam Smith, and unmotivated Julio Cesar Chavez Jr.) that reminded no one of “GGG.” Even while slapping around one longshot after another, Alvarez bristled at the notion that he was sidestepping Golovkin, a man whose growing shadow seemed like a precursor of The Great American Eclipse.

Now, these two athletes, who have been eyeing each other—perhaps warily, perhaps not—for years, will finally meet between the ropes, where there is no room for conjecture.

Golovkin, whose style is modeled on that of Julio Cesar Chavez, Sr., applies relentless pressure without ever being cyclonic; this measured aggression allows him to pick his lethal punches judiciously and also makes it easier for him to cut off the ring. A destructive minimalist, Golovkin is economical and efficient, two attributes not usually associated with such a ruinous style. When Golovkin ratchets up the tempo a bit, his precise attack—shotgun jab, thudding hooks to the head and body, whistling overhand rights—is virtually unstoppable. One element that separates Golovkin from the average pressure fighter (aside from an Olympic pedigree) is his jab, which is both pinpoint and potent.

But the fact remains that Golovkin, 35, does not fit the mold of fighters who have troubled Alvarez in the past. Over the years, Canelo has proven himself to be a versatile performer. He has defeated slick southpaws (Erislandy Lara and Austin Trout), rugged if slightly weathered bruisers (Alfredo Angulo and James Kirkland), and a world-class boxer-puncher (Miguel Cotto). Only Floyd Mayweather Jr., the undisputed king of ring voodoo, could hex Alvarez completely.

Against Golovkin, who is dangerous from bell to bell, Canelo will need to put his tradecraft to good use. Canelo will most likely move to his left, keep his guard high, overwork his jab, and look to counter with uppercuts when Golovkin is within striking distance. Every now and then, when Golovkin is out of range or on his back foot, Canelo, 27, may take the lead with lashing rights over the top. When Canelo has a stationary target in front of him—as he did with Alfredo Angulo and Liam Smith—he is more likely to open up and when he does, his combinations show a seldom-noted quality for a prizefighter: imagination. Doubling rights to the body and head, throwing uppercuts with either hand, and punctuating light flurries with thundering hooks to the body—Canelo has a varied repertoire that often seems to catch opponents by surprise.

For his part, Golovkin will look to shorten the distance behind his battering ram jab and rip hooks to the body whenever Canelo plants his feet or is backed up against the ropes. It will be up to Golovkin to set a tempo that will physically tax Canelo and create openings for his sledgehammer shots. Against Jacobs, Golovkin was sluggish, verging on plodding, and that style gives the edge to Canelo, who has had little trouble with headlong grinders. At a certain point, Golovkin may find himself behind on the scorecards and he will have to surge late, possibly sacrificing technique to land a paralyzing blow. In that case, this fight may boil down to whether or not Canelo, who has spent more than seven years at junior middleweight, can withstand the punishment.

Although Canelo will be moving up a division, there is no reason to believe that he will crumble against Golovkin. Except for a surprising wobbling at the hands of undersized Jose Miguel Cotto in 2012, Alvarez has always shown a sturdy chin and he has displayed a general know-how that will serve him well in the trenches. Behind the basic stand-up pressure style Canelo often adopts during a fight is an array of old-school tricks seldom seen among contemporary pros. Canelo parries, feints, throws decoy shots, and rides with punches. His defense, which is rarely remarked upon, is more than adequate. As stiff as he sometimes still appears in ring center, Canelo has learned to swivel at the waist and bob his head in an effort to become more of a moving target. After years as a world-class professional, his weaknesses remain the same: average speed, limited mobility, and the tendency to be miserly with his punches.

One intriguing factor regarding this fight is recent form. Live-fire is something Canelo has not faced since outpointing Cotto in 2015. While Golovkin struggled with Danny Jacobs in his last fight, Alvarez has barely been tested over his last three starts. Will a lack of competition over the last two years affect him against Golovkin? After all, Alvarez must be at his sharpest to fend off the man he has called “the most dangerous opponent of my career.” Trying to outfinesse Golovkin is like being one of the truck drivers in the film Wages of Fear, who must transport loads of nitroglycerin across rugged terrain. Every rut in the road, every hairpin turn, every sudden brake amounts to potential catastrophe. A cautious Canelo will need all of his guile to go the distance and have his hand raised in victory. In a close and tense fight, it is probably a good bet that he will.

Money—in this case lots of it—is, now and forever, the prime mover in boxing. But somewhere among those floating dollar signs, you can sense in Canelo and Golovkin the lure of epic dreams. This may sound like a romanticized conceit, but every now and then it is as real as anything in boxing can ever be.