Published on BleacherReport.com
It happened, this odd connection between Kazakhstan’s Gennady Golovkin and Mexico, almost as if by accident.
After crushing yet another opponent—in his fifth bout in the United States after fighting in obscurity throughout Germany—Golovkin was asked by HBO’s Max Kellerman to describe the right hand that felled his opponent and how he, despite also getting hit, stayed up while his opponent crumbled. “Max,” he answered, a sinister smirk on his face, “this is my style, like Mexican style. This is fight. This is not game.”
That was late July 2014 in Madison Square Garden. Less than three months later, Golovkin fought for the first time in Southern California in front of a largely Mexican crowd. “It was one of those moments that creates goosebumps,” recalls Tom Loeffler, Golovkin’s promoter.
As Golovkin walked to the ring, fans stood on their seats. “Triple G, Triple G,” they chanted. It didn’t matter that his opponent was Mexican. “Right there, you could see they embraced him,” Loeffler says. “And I think it is because of his style in the ring but also his character outside [it].”
The love between Golovkin and the Mexican and Mexican American fanbase isn’t new. That those fans would embrace a Kazakhstani boxer may seem unusual, but it’s less so the more you know about how boxing influences Mexican culture and vice versa.
Mexico has a rich boxing tradition. The sport speaks to the culture’s deeply rooted machismo. While a problematic concept that many would argue has had harmful social ramifications, this is where the style—Mexican style, which both Golovkin and Loeffler mention—comes from. It emphasizes offense over defense. Some might argue this fight style is much more reliant on continual pressure, body punches—especially the dreaded liver shot that paralyzes the body—and overall toughness. This is mostly how Golovkin fights.
Abel Sanchez, Golovkin’s trainer, is the man who taught his pupil the Mexican style. That process began almost as soon as Golovkin walked into Sanchez’s boxing gym in 2010.
Sanchez sat Golovkin down and played him a video of Julio Cesar Chavez—a Mexican national hero—fighting Edwin Rosario. They both watched Chavez dismantle his opponent—watched how, round-by-round, Chavez broke down the defending champion. And in doing so, Rosario felt the slow and painful agony of withering under Chavez’s unrelenting attack.
“When I showed him that video, I asked him to give me three years without interruptions, without any kind of questions,” Sanchez remembers telling Golovkin. “I promised him that in three years I would make him the best middleweight in the world, an undefeated world champion, and no one would want to fight him. And I was going to try to mold him like [Chavez].”
Chavez personifies Mexican style. He has Robin Hood appeal, a Mexican working man’s ethos; even if he earned millions from fighting, he could still pass as a poor man who just happened to have money. That distinction is vital. It’s the difference between a folk hero and a star.
Golovkin is a bit more the former. Even though he now has major sponsorships, he’s considered someone who, quite literally, fought his way to the top without ever getting much of a break. Someone who came to the United States not knowing the language and who was forced to remake himself.
“Golovkin is [like], whether people like it or not, the son of that Mexican that came here, crossed the border, busted his ass off,” says Salvador Carrillo, explaining Golovkin’s appeal to the Mexican fanbase. “He is the epitome of hard work. That’s why a lot of us…fell in love with the guy.”
Besides hosting The Boxing Rundown podcast, the enterprising Carrillo also created and sells a T-shirt showing Golovkin’s face imposed on an iconic Chalino Sanchez album cover. He made it prior to Golovkin’s first fight in Southern California. The T-shirt displays folk singer Chalino—his face replaced with Golovkin’s—loading his gun. Atop it, the phrase “Mexicans for Golovkin.”
“I don’t sing, I bark,” Chalino once joked in Spanish. And with that horrible voice, he sang of a way of life—violence and all—that helped audience members reminisce about their lives back in Mexico. He was a “valiente,” a word for which there’s no exact translation in English but meaning essentially a local tough who no one would mess with—unless one sought the same reputation.
Carrillo chose Chalino because he’s a modern-day reference that some Mexican and Mexican Americans relate to. “Golovkin has that scary look to him,” Carrillo explains. “It’s that bad guy that you want to root for. It’s your Pablo Escobar, your Chapo.”
Carrillo sells another Golovkin T-shirt. It shows Golovkin with a neatly manicured mustache and wearing a button-up shirt that’s an unmistakable part of the narco fashion Chalino helped inspire—the same one you can see on the Las Vegas strip. “Chapolovkin”—a reference to El Chapo Guzman—extends above Golovkin’s head.
El Chapo, Chalino and Chavez each have a folk-hero identity. Golovkin, to a lesser extent, has tapped into something similar that Mexican fans recognize and appreciate.
That Golovkin’s aggressive style makes him a favorite among Mexican fans isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is how he’s maintained that fanbase even as, for the second time, he’s about to face Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a Mexican national and the country’s best boxer, with the WBA and WBC world middleweight titles on the line Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
Walk through the main entrance of the MGM Grand Hotel, the media headquarters for the fight, and the first thing you see is a boxing ring. “Canelo vs. Golovkin 2” is promoted on each of its four sides. There’s a gold-colored statue of a sitting lion inside the ring. It appears life-size, maybe five feet tall. To the left of the entrance is a hotel gift shop with an entire front area dedicated to hats and T-shirts bearing each boxer’s name.