There are boxers who, when the gloves have been hung up and the ring left behind, are considered indisputably great. Nobody’s going to argue with the appearance of a Sugar Ray Robinson or a Muhammad Ali on an all-time pound-for-pound list because there is no asterisk attached to their career. They really were that good. Then there are those who, for all their talent and achievement, will always have that question over them: could they have done more?
Gennadiy Golovkin, who fights Ukrainian Sergiy Derevyanchenko this Saturday at Madison Square Garden, is at risk of falling into that second camp. It’s insane really, to doubt a guy who reigned as middleweight champion for eight years, making twenty successful title defenses and racking up a string of brilliant knockouts. A man who holds an Olympic medal and who has never been knocked down in 391 amateur and professional fights. A pugilist who has only lost once, in a contentious decision against an opponent whose place in the Hall of Fame is already assured before he has reached thirty.
And yet here we are. Enough has been written about the two fights against Canelo Alvarez: this is not the place to speculate over hypotheticals and rue judges’ decisions. Golovkin’s legacy, for better or worse, will likely be decided by those twenty-four rounds against his Mexican nemesis, but he is determined, at the rather advanced age of thirty-seven, to write an extra chapter in his career.
Triple-G’s options are, of course, looking slimmer now that two of his rivals are intent on climbing divisions. Canelo has Kovalev-sized fish to fry in the light heavyweight division, while Daniel Jacobs is moving up to super-middleweight with a fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. on the horizon.
This weekend’s clash is for the vacant IBF middleweight strap, which has been passed around like a hot potato in the last eighteen months. In June 2018, Golovkin was stripped of the title for refusing to fight Derevyanchenko in the midst of tangled negotiations for the Canelo rematch. Jacobs then defeated the aforementioned Ukrainian for the vacant belt before losing to Canelo this May. Following that match-up, the Mexican had the IBF title stripped from him for his failure to agree to a match against, you guessed it, Sergiy Derevyanchenko.
Golovkin has made no secret of desire get Canelo back in the ring and make their rivalry a trilogy, and the money men at DAZN, with whom the Kazakh has signed a six-fight, three-year contract, wouldn’t complain about that either. There are plenty of fans who, their appetites whetted by two thrillingly close contests, would relish a third, but I cannot share that enthusiasm. Golovkin, even under new coach Johnathon Banks, looked slow and often defensively sloppy in his win against the unheralded Steve Rolls in June. Canelo, on the other hand, is only getting better, hell-bent as he is on becoming the most celebrated boxer of his generation. With the two heading in opposite directions, Golovkin would not win that third fight. Worse, he would likely be decisively outclassed for the first time in his career.
It is good, then, that Triple-G is competing for a world title again, facing off against a worthy opponent known as “The Technician.” Derevyanchenko’s only loss came in his previous world championship tilt versus Jacobs, the victim of a razor-thin split decision. The Ukrainian is a talented body-puncher, with sound fundamentals and decent power, and will most probably fight off the back foot to avoid a brawl with a man who retains his awesome ability to render men helpless with either fist.
At thirty-three years of age, Derevyanchenko is no spring chicken himself, but, watching the Rolls fight, he will have spotted chinks in Golovkin’s formerly Terminator-like armour. He is an underdog with the bookmakers, but not by much. Given that the Kazakh seemingly has one eye on Canelo closure, motivated by a cocktail of payday and pride, his focus could be lacking here. As we saw with Anthony Joshua this year, a fighter whose mind is on tomorrow’s match rather than today’s is ripe for an upset. Derevyanchenko will look to provide that upset.
Should Golovkin win this, the calls will again go up for the vaunted trilogy to be fulfilled. Maybe it will be. Maybe, just maybe, the Kazakh could surprise us all and get the win he deserved in the first Alvarez fight. For now, though, he would do well to concentrate on the hurdle in front of him. After that, a unification fight against WBO belt-holder Demetrius Andrade would prove popular, not to mention winnable. Golovkin could even join his foes in taking on the big boys: a match between him and one of the champions at 168 is a tantalizing prospect indeed.
At an age usually reserved for retirement, Triple-G has plenty of options in front of him. He is chasing the greatness he believes he deserves, his otherwise Hall of Fame record currently pockmarked by boxing politics and questionable scorecards. If he loses this Saturday, however, and this is no hysterical hyperbole, there may be no way back at world level. Then, we will wonder, could he have done more? And those doubts could well haunt his legacy.
In other words, the stakes this Saturday are higher than many seem to realize. Golovkin vs Derevyanchenko is a critical match in the career of the Kazakh great and a truly vintage Triple-G performance may be required. In short, Golovkin looks past “The Technician” at his peril. — Rob Lownie