The warriors’ rugged features tell what is already a fairly intriguing story, however incomplete. Neither is any sort of pretty boy, a De La Hoya, say, or a Leonard, or a Mayweather. Both have the air of having cleared countless hurdles over the course of their hardscrabble existences, and an entrenched look of hunger that money and fame might mitigate but possibly never cure. Ring institution Michael Buffer handles the preliminary introductions before his trademarked “thousands in attendance” (in this case, an overflow sellout crowd of 9,300), who in turn thrum with anticipation as HBO’s cameras inspect the two combatants. One bounces with nervous energy while the other radiates quiet confidence, but their eyes are both lively. The bouncing ball is Marco Antonio Rubio, a Mexican journeyman-plus who once gave Julio Cesar Chavez’ more famous son twelve hard rounds at a time when the trust fund terror still seemingly cared about pursuing boxing as a profession. Rubio also once shockingly upset the applecart of Canadian uber-prospect David Lemieux and stood up to a near-prime/pre-rehab Kelly Pavlik for ¾ of a championship fight before insistently, definitively being shown the door. He is no #1 contender, let’s be clear, but rather a tough, tenacious, lunch pail-carrying scrapper type. Tonight’s fight is one of the highlights of his career, win or lose, but, again, to be clear, he comes in with no intention whatsoever of losing. Victory must be taken, or extracted, forcefully – and, without exception, violently – from a man like Marco Antonio Rubio. His pride will allow nothing less.
Tonight, as with Pavlik, Rubio fights a man billed as the recognized Middleweight champion of the world, though this moniker is a bit of creative license on Buffer’s part. Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, the Kazakh wrecking ball, comes to the ring sporting enough gold to make Glen Beck salivate, but, because this is boxing*, he is, in fact, not THE champion, but merely the WBA and IBO titlist. Like all titles not sanctioned by the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board these make not the slightest bit of difference. 9,000+ screaming people are packed into Carson, CA’s StubHub Center, and Buffer’s “millions” are watching at home because Gennady Golovkin, who has galvanized and put them there, is the very best kind of boxing success story: a humble, essentially good-natured man whose is all action and zero nonsense in the ring, a John Wayne-level talker (in endearingly fractured English, no less) whose fists paint like Rembrandt (or maybe Dali at his more extreme) in the realm of prone bodies on canvas. He carries the electric air, at times, of a pre-reign Mike Tyson, or, perhaps more accurately, of an ascendant Manny Pacquiao, both of whom were largely unheralded, deceptively skilled and feared punchers who achieved meteoric success on their own merits. Rubio stands across from the undefeated Golovkin (during intros, Buffer rapturously notes GGG’s 90% KO rate – 30-0 (27 KO) – as the highest in Middleweight history – the same history that also contains “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon) not because he deserves such a high profile fight, but simply because he does not fear taking it. In the end, maybe that is why he does indeed deserve the fight. Moral victories will be the closest he comes to satisfaction all night.
*Because this is boxing, Rubio also had a dubious belt on the line, one of those absurd “interim” varietals peddled by the shameless WBC, held aloft during introductions by the actor Emilio Rivera, who plays a rival gang leader to SAMCRO on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy”. The WBC famously gives each of its victorious supplicants a not at all tacky t-shirt, emblazened with a 2-D replica belt and the legend “World Champion”, to wear during post-fight festivities. One wonders, given the governing body’s track record, which is the harder trinket to secure: the belt or the shirt. It amuses me to imagine the WBC gift shop in Mexico City, stocked to the rafters with both items, available to tourists the world over for a nominal sanctioning fee.
So far the “GGG” hype has been justified, organic, and inextinguishable, with the nagging caveat of his perceived lack of competition, a complaint the Rubio fight will obviously do nothing to address. Nevertheless, over the course of two years, Gennady Golovkin has absolutely become appointment television, and now stands at a pivotal juncture in his career. During the broadcast, HBO’s Max Kellerman astutely called it a “tipping point”. HBO remains America’s most distinguished boxing platform, with a track record of star creation that stretches back to the 1970s. Golovkin made his American debut on the channel in late 2012, and from his auspicious fifth-round demolition of busy but light-hitting Pole Gregorz Proksa, unleashed a string of increasingly impressive knockouts against off-marquee foes. Word of mouth built slowly as the hits kept coming. For a little while, the reported audiences were so underwhelming that I actively wondered if people at home were even seeing – or was it craving – the same thing I was. The hype and criticism built, and swelled, concurrently.
Here was a totally unassuming boxer, technically sound and possessed of sudden, frightening power, a smiling family man outside the ring, who, once the bell rang, routinely spent the first few rounds delivering and absorbing blows and pressing his opponent strategically before shifting gears into combination flurrying and thudding bodywork, then erasing him utterly. When Golovkin ended Irishman Matthew Macklin with a withering third round body shot, Macklin’s pain as he writhed on the canvas had a visceral impact on me. When Golovkin knocked down hard-hitting Curtis Stevens with an overhand bomb early in their 2013 fight, Stevens wore a spontaneous, comically shocked expression in the seconds before he gathered himself up off the mat. Golovkin’s punching power tends to elicit strong and memorable reactions from both the people he hits and the boxing public at large. As the demand to see Golovkin has become increasingly commensurate with his in-ring results – bringing the risk-reward proportion that has thus far kept away the division’s bigger names into better alignment – matches like this latest against Rubio become even harder to stomach competitively, though they are probably still no less compelling on a primal level.
Alas, the kind of bravery necessary to enter the ring against an assassin like GGG – along with an ostensibly shrewd but effectively pointless eight-pound weight advantage that disqualified him from seeking Golovkin’s belts – was about all that Rubio brought with him. The 67-fight veteran fought a competitive first round, pushing forward against Golovkin’s always effective jab and landing a hard few shots of note. Golovkin largely controlled the round behind, for my money, the most formidable one-two combination in modern boxing this side of Heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko. The crowd audibly rustled each time the right landed, whether or not it landed cleanly. A right hand staggered Rubio just before round’s end, and he instinctively responded with a right of his own that nudged Golovkin off his axis. In the corner between rounds, trainer Abel Sanchez attempted to center the already businesslike Golovkin further, telling him, “we have 3-4 rounds to try things and do what we want”, but, having apparently found the Mexican plodder’s power lacking, Golovkin sped up the schedule in round two. The ticket had already been written; it just needed to be punched. Golovkin visibly hurt Rubio early with a right, then again a few seconds later with a wicked right uppercut, using each occasion as a chance to unload with his deceptive combination flurries. Golovkin pinned Rubio along the ropes, and, about a minute in, hit him with a looping left hook directly on the ear, presumably knocking his equilibrium into a different Los Angeles suburb. Rubio flailed on the canvas until referee Jack Reiss picked up the count at five. He looked not merely disoriented but definitively hurt, though he gamely struggled to his feet. Reiss pulled that occasional ref move where he speeds up the count from 9 to 10 to cut short the fight as a KO and save the fallen combatant from the further consequences of his own bravery. Rubio, owner of one of boxing’s most delightfully expressive faces, was shocked – shocked I tell you – upon receiving news of his demise, though, if he ever rewinds the tape, he might eventually be grateful for not tasting defeat in terms quite so resounding as he probably would have, had he been allowed to continue.
I expected more from the fight, truth be told, at least in terms of rounds fought and two-way grit, though the KO – a very legitimate one in spite of Reiss’ enthusiasm – ranks right up there with the top half of Golovkin’s other HBO victories. The precise details of Golovkin’s future are, unfortunately, unpredictable if not downright murky, for reasons having to do with intractable promotional conflicts and the ever-present fact that few if any top tier fighters will risk stepping in the ring with him until all other possible moneymaking options have been exhausted. I referenced the legitimate Middleweight championship earlier. Puerto Rican icon Miguel Cotto is currently the recognized Middleweight king: the lineal champ, the man who, in Ric Flair parlance, beat the man who beat the man, etc. Should it happen (fingers crossed), one of 2015’s biggest, most lucrative fights, not to mention one of its best, will be waged for that very belt, between Cotto and Mexican popstar Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. Golovkin is already a significant favorite against either of those terrifically worthy figures – in no small part because they would fight as blown up Junior Middleweights – according to a highly scientific poll I just made up, though I think those results do reflect reality. One of these days, the options for the biggest names at or around Middleweight will be slim, none, and Gennady Golovkin. If he continues on this current path and pace of skillful, willful destruction, he will be a massive star, and deservedly so, when that happens. I referenced Tyson and Pacquiao in passing earlier for a reason too. Right now, the “GGG” hype still outpaces the results overall, but none of that is really Golovkin’s fault. He is winning definitively and impressively, hitting his opponents harder than they’ve been hit before and knocking them out in more ways than they can possibly defend. He’s not a star in the making anymore. The point has been tipped. Golovkin is already a star in his own right. It falls now to boxing’s other stars to step forward, step up, and step to him. The fans will be waiting, impatiently but excitedly. Possibly for a long time. Because this is boxing.