By Cliff Rold
This Saturday, middleweight Gennady Golovkin (37-0-1, 33 KO) will attempt the 20th defense of the WBA middleweight belt he has held since a 2010 victory over Milton Nunez. In the years since, he’s added WBC, IBO and IBF belts with wins over Marco Antonio Rubio and David Lemieux. With a victory over 2004 US Olympian Vanes Martirosyan (36-3-1, 21 KO), he would tie Bernard Hopkins for the most consecutive title defenses of all time at 160 lbs.
Hopkins set the record in 2005 with a victory over Howard Eastman, his only defense as the first man to hold all four major sanctioning body titles (WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO) in any division at the same time. It was the culmination of a reign that began first with knocking out Segundo Mercado for the vacant IBF belt in 1995. Marching through 20 subsequent defenses, he won the WBC belt from Keith Holmes, the WBA strap from Felix Trinidad, and finally the WBO belt from Oscar De La Hoya. In the end, he shattered the mark once held by the great Carlos Monzon.
Monzon won the middleweight crown in 1970. In the moment when he did, there was only one recognized champion, the great Nino Benvenuti. Benvenuti held both the WBC and WBA titles before the IBF or WBO were even fistic zygotes. Monzon stopped him in twelve rounds of the Ring Magazine choice for Fight of the Year. Monzon was stripped of the WBC belt in 1974, regaining it in 1976 from the man who picked it up in his stead, Rodrigo Valdez. Valdez, defeated in each of Monzon’s last two fights, represented the 13thand 14thconsecutive defenses of the lineal middleweight crown.
This Saturday night, there will certainly be plenty of conversation over the HBO airwaves (11 PM EST) about what the number 20 means for Golovkin. Among boxing fans, historians, and pundits, it can be a source of debate.
That debate boils down to a pretty simple thing: caveats.
When looking at the record for consecutive middleweight title defenses, the discussion is about understanding the differences in the numbers and figuring out what conclusions to draw from the resulting caveats.
Golovkin’s numbers are full of caveats.
The 20thWBA title defense comes for a belt he won in the interim variety, recognized by his first defense as the full (but not “Super”) WBA belt. Golovkin made five defenses while Felix Sturm was the top WBA champion, only becoming their full titlist when then-IBF titlist Daniel Geale defeated Sturm in a unification match. Geale opted to keep on with only the IBF belt and only then was Golovkin elevated to top WBA titlist.
In the years since, he’s won every belt but the WBO but never technically won the lineal crown in the division. That lineage can be traced to the last man who unified it (Hopkins) and included two men who wouldn’t fight Golovkin (Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto) before Saul Alvarez finally faced Golovkin last year, retaining his tie to history’s crown in a highly debated draw.
For those who find the WBA title situations (hardly isolated to middleweight) absurd, and there are plenty, Golovkin’s 20 would ring hollow. For those who see Golovkin as heavily avoided and the real best in class for many years, they might not. The title situation of boxing in the 21stcentury is often so chaotic that trying to split hairs even between beltholders of the same sanctioning body is just too much work for some fight followers.
Golovkin would have defended something 20 times and that would be good enough.
Of course, with Hopkins, there are caveats as well. When he won his first belt, there was no ‘man who beat the man’ for him to defeat. Middleweight was wide open in 1995 and over the course of his reign it was Hopkins who proved himself the true champion. Paraphrasing Max Kellerman years ago on ESPN2, Hopkins’ win over Trinidad legitimized his whole reign. It validated the numbers and made it seem fair to say he bested the record of Monzon.
A strict purist might not see it that way. While Hopkins unified, they might say (and some have) that he wasn’t really the man until he proved it. There is also the issue of a “No Contest” title defense against Robert Allen that can spark a good debate about whether that should count towards the title defense record or not.
At least Hopkins can say when he was IBF champion there wasn’t another IBF champion positioned up the ladder from him for a quarter of his reign.
Even Monzon, his reign coming early in the alphabet era as we know it now (and there were plenty of title splits prior to that), has the caveat of the Valdez reign and a portion of his run where he was ‘disputed’ on paper.
That dispute was only on paper.
Monzon beat the man who beat the man in the line that produced Benvenuti (and that lineage at middleweight only traced to earlier in the 1960s), beat Valdez, and was the recognized true king of the class by pretty much everyone but the WBC from defense one to defense fourteen.
It’s still the cleanest mark to look at. Neither Golovkin or Hopkins has the wire to wire control of class he did. The man who came closest to matching him might well still be Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
That’s another debate for another day.
It doesn’t mean it’s the record that has stood the broader test of time. Hopkins’ 20 has been embraced as the record by many and Golovkin, if he gets to 21, may find himself similarly regarded.
He has to get to 20 first. It’s just worth remembering that in boxing, when it comes to numbers and statistics, sometimes the caveats are as important as the totals.
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]