The Transfer of Power: On Saul Alvarez-Gennady Golovkin

Gennady Golovkin v Canelo Alvarez
Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez battle in the seventh round of their middleweight title fight at T-Mobile Arena on September 15, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Forget about the decision. Whatever your reaction to it, that reaction is explained by how accurately those scorecards reflected what you saw; and what you saw is probably influenced by what you wanted to see more than you care to admit. And that’s fine because, yes, you know what you saw. But also because to remove that connection to the men in the ring, that urge to see what you want, is to remove much of what drew you to our sport, and what will keep you—outrage aside.

But forget about the decision. Decisions are a necessary but largely unimportant consequence of what really matters, dependent as they on the biases and leanings, flaws and foibles, even eyesight and concentration of strangers you trust primarily because they agree with you. Despite being delivered at the end, they are hardly a culmination, and at times hardly even a confirmation, of what preceded.

What preceded the decision of the main event at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Saturday night was what really mattered. Saul “Canelo” Alvarez won a majority decision over Gennady “GGG” Golovkin in a fight that, if it did not exceed expectations either lofty or cynical, managed nevertheless to elevate each man, and deservingly so. What was woefully absent from their first fight—evil intentions married to daring and craft, the blood that union begets—the rematch furnished and furnished richly.

For that, both fighters deserve credit, though Alvarez should reap the lion’s share. Despite the asinine assertions of Team Golovkin, Alvarez did not run in their first fight and, as he promised, he did no such thing in the second. Alvarez took center ring from the opening bell; a tactic less about machismo than his devotees may care to concede, but a ballsy one nonetheless. What Alvarez learned in their first fight is that while Golovkin cannot short-circuit him with one punch, backing up provides the Kazakh fighter the room, momentum, and confidence to attack. By bringing the fight to Golovkin, Alvarez forced the pressure fighter to constantly reset his offense, a process that included moving, setting his feet, and testing his range—all while Alvarez, stalking the stalker, controlled the optics of the fight. Alvarez, at least early, reverted one of boxing’s premier search-and-destroy fighters into his first incarnation: the Eastern European amateur.

It was an uncomfortable and mostly ineffective position for Golovkin to be in, one that appeared disastrous. And yet it was here, with Alvarez pressuring him, that the full extent of Golovkin’s skills was on display. Much will be made, and rightly so, of Alvarez’s versatility; but Golovkin too showed wrinkles to his game that only the direst moments could demand. It was as a boxer that Golovkin worked himself into the fight, as a boxer that he landed the right hands that opened up cuts over Alvarez’ eyes, and as a boxer that he secured some momentum and the more dynamic offense it afforded him. A pronounced reliance on fundamentals and craft was not what made Golovkin a millionaire, but against his best opponent this reliance gave him the best opportunity to win—and there is no reason to deny him an earnest and determined attempt at victory.

Some will, of course, deny him this and anything else they can. They will ask what happened to the bogeyman with the absurd knockout ratio—if only to provide the answer they think best diminishes the fighter and his accomplishments. Such is Golovkin’s fate, and perhaps rightly so. Did he get old in his mid-thirties, as pressure fighters typically do? Perhaps. But then Golovkin is likely to still crumple all but the four or five best fighters in his division, so pointing to age as the crucial factor behind the diminished returns of his recent fights must to his detractors feel far too charitable. They would assert instead that it was a rather drastic improvement in his opposition that made a man of the monster. Trust that Golovkin’s supporters would respond by saying he should still be undefeated and so, man or monster, he remains the class of the division.

That division, in the years Golovkin fixed his grip around it, was undeniably weak. And Golovkin’s achievements suffer as a result. For whether it was age that caught up to Golovkin, or finally facing opponents who could make him mortal, or some confluence of the two, Golovkin’s career is disappointing to the extent that we may never have seen how good he really was. Such insight would have had come at the expense of his too long, too often frustrated, and—where his chance at greatness was concerned—too well-compensated pursuit of a middleweight monopoly. A loss to Andre Ward would have been hell for Golovkin’s mystique, but it would also have set the man’s ceiling at a height it may soon be denied. Make no mistake: there was greater glory in losing to Ward than in fighting Alvarez, regardless of the outcome.

The scale wager, meanwhile, is one Alvarez has dared; so for him, glory Golovkin can never attain remains possible. He has shown the ambition to pursue that glory too. Early in his career, Alvarez forced his team to make fights against the likes of Austin Trout and Erislandy Lara, despite the dangers they posed in the ring and to the bottom line. The Alvarez brain trust absolutely waited Golovkin out, producing an interregnum that exhausted any interest in Alvarez’ career. In fact, for people uninterested in nationalism or freckles, it was really only the specter of Golovkin that kept Alvarez relevant. Throwaway fights aside, however, Alvarez still fought Golovkin at a time when the Kazakh remained fighter enough to have beaten Alvarez twice in the eyes of many.

It seems near impossible, though, to win a decision over Alvarez, who has received scores both absurdly favorable and conveniently close against his best opponents. Despite the smug pride this elicits among his fans—fans who hilariously celebrated his draw with Golovkin last September—this favoritism is hardly endearing. It removes much of the drama from any Alvarez fight, since he apparently need only go the distance to keep from losing, and because it seems to confirm in the spotlight those nods and winks we prefer hidden from the cameras. The number of fighters who can starch or school Alvarez, though, might very well be zero. Golovkin would only confirm that were they to fight again—and his team surely knows it, however much they may rattle their pitchforks and light their torches in the aftermath. Alvarez is a world-class fighter with an extra advantage, sure, but he is no less a fighter for that advantage.

What he is not is great, nor is Golovkin, despite the urge people have to identify themselves as witnesses to greatness. The preoccupation with anointing greatness, like outrage over decisions, is another vain obsession we would probably benefit from abandoning. Alvarez’s middleweight reign is likely to be about as compelling as Golovkin’s, however you feel about the latter of those. But their transfer of power was something to behold. So let’s dwell in the present for a bit.