The fights went as we expected, but optimism holds that Saturday was but a brief glimpse of the future’s promise. Headlining on pay-per-view for the first time, Roman Gonzalez and Gennady Golovkin gave boxing clerics fresh oil with which to anoint them. Both men showed masterful skills and the mutual trouncing of their opposition enlivened the ethnic mosaic that filled Madison Square Garden. Barring any surprisingly low pay-per-view receipts, the event was, in every way, a success and portends fine things for a sport in flux.
The self-proclaimed ‘World’s Most Famous Arena’ was sold out on Saturday. On its concourse merchandisers hawked ‘GGG’ hats, t-shirts, overpriced sweatsuits and iPhone cases, the latter item perhaps promising buyers the nerve to tweet with more gusto than usual. The phrase ‘Mexican Style’ was nowhere to be seen, mostly because the fight was held in New York, where Latinos are disproportionately Puerto Rican and Dominican, but also because the slogan has fully-served its marketing purpose; fans are now well-acquainted with Golovkin’s style, and the expectation is not whether his opponent will walk the road to perdition, but how quickly.
Finding an answer to this question is what brought fans through the turnstiles on Saturday. Indeed, the crowd’s mood was markedly different than what one might find at a Mayweather fight. Fans hadn’t come to bask in legacy or proximity to greatness, as if some vestige might rub off on them, after which they might boast about having witnessed ‘The Best Ever’ despite being unable to recount a single moment of note. Instead, fans came on Saturday with concrete expectations of what was to come, and the anticipation of ‘GGG’s’ brand of carnage fostered a bubbly excitement that affirmed the singular fascination punchers inspire. In light of recent pay-per-view disappointments, it all felt very fresh.
And Golovkin, who prior to the fight did an obligatory handshake with the travelling nest of golden hair that is Donald Trump, surely understood the night’s magnitude. He was headlining his first pay-per-view in the continent’s most important media market, only three years removed from knocking out Grzegorz Proksa at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino. ‘GGG’ has undeniably made it in America, and fans turned out in force to revel in the violence he’d bring on his new platform.
Of almost equal fascination, and armed with even greater boxing skill, is Nicaragua’s Roman Gonzalez, whose clash with Brian Viloria served as the lead-in to the main event. Gonzalez has recently usurped Floyd Mayweather in most pound-for-pound rankings, and this was his first appearance as the new prince. The Garden was emphatically in his corner, its seats filled by legions of Nicaraguans, both real and pretend, and it roared when he was introduced, the cheers appreciating in volume each time one of ‘Chocolatito’s’ strikes found its mark during his dissection of the tough Viloria.
Seeing Gonzalez in person gives one a true appreciation of how small he is. ‘Chocolatito’ is so youthful-looking that watching him perform summons images of an infant genius dancing his fingers across an expanse of piano keys with an expert’s assurance. Gonzalez’s prowess isn’t born of mimicry, however, but of a marriage of instinct and technique, further supported by tactical expertise. On Saturday he waited patiently for opportunities to present themselves, and then, as Viloria began to open up like a siege wall when bombs and bullets blow out its bricks, Gonzalez placed his punches inside the holes he’d created, forcing the referee to call a halt in round nine. It was marvelous.
The headliner proved just as dominant, although, by virtue of his inferior challenge, Golovkin’s victory can’t be held in the same esteem as ‘Chocolatito’s’. His opponent, Montreal’s David Lemieux, fought bravely, but haplessly, in face of ‘GGG’s overwhelming advantage in skill. The Montrealer was billed as Golovkin’s most dangerous test, but the Kazahk encountered little hazard on Saturday. What he frequently found instead was David Lemieux’s face, as Golovkin punished the Canadian with repeated jabs, causing blood to gush from Lemieux’s nose like heavy rain falling from a broken pipe. By fight’s end, its nasal cartilage had turned to mush.
It was not a competitive fight, a testament as much to Golovkin’s dominance as it was to Lemieux’s limitations. By remaining out of range and refusing to stand and engage, ‘GGG’ neutralized any danger Lemieux might have posed and came forward at will to land a jab, hook, or uppercut, sometimes all in succession. It became obvious rather early that Lemieux’s only hope was to launch himself forward and detonate a warhead. That is an easy sentence to write, but a far more difficult tactic to employ, particularly when you risk getting picked off by a punishingly-sharp jab, or equally, fall short of a target that’s consciously remaining outside of your reach. As Lemieux became gradually more damaged, the possibility he would land a fateful blow turned obsolete, and it came as a relief when, in round eight, referee Steve Willis made the prudent decision to stop what had turned into a one-sided butchering and save the Montrealer from his own bravery.
If ‘Chocolatito’ is a whirling prodigy, artful and astute, who blinds opponents with his gorgeous combinations, GGG is a measured hunter whose feet herald doom once they take possession of the ring. Both are patient; each is skilled; neither takes prisoners. They complement one another in the same way that New York City complements the sport of boxing: the reputation of each is enhanced by its affiliation with the other.
After losing one of the biggest fights of his career, Brian Viloria was asked by Max Kellerman whether or not ‘Chocolatito’ is the greatest talent he’s ever faced, to which the Hawaiian responded affirmatively. In the fight’s aftermath, it was important that HBO establish the legitimacy of Gonzalez’s exceptionalism as a way of strengthening his marketing position for future cards. Lemieux, the other loser, wasn’t posed the same query but Golovkin’s reputation is already firmly established, and his opponent’s blackened right eye, swollen nose, and respectful, if reluctant, acknowledgement of ‘GGG’s’ proficiency provided all the validity HBO required.
Where Golovkin is concerned, there is little left to prove at middleweight, and few against whom to prove himself. The dearth of talent there means he must look elsewhere for the rivals he needs to become a pay-per-view draw. One of these might be Canelo Alvarez, who, if he defeats Miguel Cotto this September, would elevate Golovkin to superstardom should ‘GGG’ meet and beat the young Mexican in what would be a genuine superfight. HBO wants this, and Jim Lampley almost said as much, ending his broadcast with a paean to the rise of Manny Pacquiao and a contemplation of whether Golovkin, at his relatively advanced aged, can repeat Manny’s immigrant-to-eminent trajectory.
To modify an old quote, boxing, the most elemental of sports, does not know extinction; all it knows is transformation. Decline, however long it may last, and irrespective of how dire it may seem, always leads to rebirth. And so it is that boxing’s protean identity, which is inseparable from those of its biggest stars, is changing its shape again. As Gonzalez and Golovkin assume more prominent positions on the sport’s big stage, boxing once again becomes a theater where action trumps exposition. — Eliott McCormick