By Cliff Rold
Pretend to forget everything you know.
It’s 1983. Marvin Hagler is stepping into the ring with Roberto Duran. He’s already defended the undisputed middleweight crown seven times. Boxing people hold him in the highest regard. Ray Leonard might have avoided him. The Tommy Hearns fight fell apart on an injury.
Obviously, he’s really good.
But is he more than that?
Duran is older now, certainly smaller, but he’s the chance Hagler has been waiting for. This is the first superfight.
You wake up the next day and read the headlines: “Duran shocks Hagler!”
Pretend to forget everything you know.
It’s 2001. Bernard Hopkins has outfoxed Keith Holmes in the first round of the middleweight unification tournament, adding the WBC belt to the IBF crown he’s defended thirteen times. The January 2001 issue of Ring Magazine had him listed, already, as the sixteenth best middleweight of all time.
You wonder about that. He lost pretty clearly to Roy Jones all those years ago. Most of the guys he’s defended against barely ring a bell. Who is Syd Vanderpool? Weren’t John David Jackson and Simon Brown well past it already? He’s never faced anyone like Felix Trinidad before. Trinidad is younger and at the peak of his powers, destroying WBA champ William Joppy just months ago.
That’s the guy we all want to see fight Jones next.
You wake up the next day and the headlines blare: “Trinidad adds another scalp to his Hall of Fame mantle.”
We won’t have to pretend this Saturday night (HBO PPV, 8 PM EST/5 PM PST). This Saturday we’re going to find out if that sort of headline is possible. Gennady Golovkin, after years of calling for the big names capable of making him more than a boxing follower’s favorite, has one of those big names in front of him.
At 35 years old, Golovkin is several years older than Hagler was for Duran and roughly a year younger than Hopkins was for Trinidad. The moments arrive when they do. This is Golovkin’s. He has three of today’s four most recognized belts, the three oldest in fact (WBA, WBC, IBF). He has defended a version of the WBA belt, from their sub-world title to their super championship, 18 times. Defeat Saul Alvarez this Saturday and he adds history’s crown as well, dating directly to Hopkins unifying the division.
It’s hard to imagine scenarios where Hagler or Hopkins lost those fights. We know they didn’t. Duran, because he was Duran, made a night of it but came up short. What if it had gone the other way? It wasn’t impossible. Duran was within striking distance on the cards late into the contest. Would Hagler have secured a rematch? Would the war with Hearns have ever taken place?
It’s difficult to say but no doubt it would have hampered the lofty place in history he holds. Most rate Hagler one of the top five middleweights of all time. If, in his first real place at center stage against a real name brand in the boxing world, he’d faltered, so much of what he’d done to then would have been lost.
The same is true for Hopkins. Had Trinidad done what most thought he would, mowing through Hopkins the way he had David Reid and Fernando Vargas the year before, would Hopkins still have been in the top twenty middleweights of all time? Hopkins accomplished a ton after the Trinidad win, including spending his 40s in the light heavyweight division fighting more top guys than not. Trinidad was the validation to the masses that he was special.
If he’d lost there, the doors may not have opened to show just how special until almost the age of fifty.
This weekend, Gennady Golovkin can’t lose.
For Golovkin, the fight with Alvarez isn’t just about a purse or the limelight. It’s about how he will be recalled. He’s clearly a hell of a fighter and has been a boogeyman in the division for years, even before he landed in the United States in 2012. Felix Sturm’s team wanted nothing to do with him as a WBA mandatory back when Sturm was the super champion. Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto found easier ways to make a living.
Alvarez was even accused of ducking him until he didn’t.
The same way he didn’t duck Austin Trout, Floyd Mayweather, or Erislandy Lara.
He did make Golovkin wait a little.
There will be those who discredit Golovkin’s whole career if he loses this weekend, even while lauding him as a great win for Alvarez. Some boxing fans can be funny that way. How can a fighter be a great win on a resume and also be “exposed” or a “fraud” or whatever other inane bit of social media nonsense bandied about?
It’s not fair of course but fair has nothing to do with it. It’s the risk inherent in Golovkin’s approach to the ring. It’s not his fault that he came along in a middleweight era that wasn’t particularly deep. Hopkins had the same problem. Some fighters in those positions, unable to find the name opponent they need at their best weight, start moving up looking for riches against bigger men.
The greatest middleweights of the last forty or so years didn’t for the most part. Carlos Monzon never chased Bob Foster; Hagler didn’t tempt Michael Spinks. Hopkins didn’t bother with bigger men until someone took his middleweight crown.
Golovkin has backers who already see him in or near their class. It will be a hard case to make without a win this weekend. It’s not that Alvarez has proven to be that special a foe yet. No one has ever confused him Duran, even the older one. He’s not quite comparable to Trinidad in terms of esteem heading into this fight.
It doesn’t matter.
Alvarez is the star, the showdown built towards for two years, the one with the recognizable name. Golovkin gambled on the path of the career middleweight and so the obligation falls on him to clean out the class. Let’s face it: Golovkin hasn’t faced a single fighter to date who is likely to show up on a Hall of Fame ballot.
Without Alvarez, no one can take away his belts or amateur accomplishments but try making a case for a fighter as one of history’s best with career best wins over Matthew Macklin, Martin Murray, David Lemieux and Daniel Jacobs. Even with Alvarez it might be tough but in the game of “he beat who was there in his division,” he’d at least be able to say he did that.
Pretend you wake up this Sunday and the headline reads “Alvarez Hands Golovkin First Defeat.”
That might be the only headline that really matters in looking back on the Gennady Golovkin era at middleweight.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]