By Rafael Rodriguez
When Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and Gennady “GGG” Golovkin stepped into the ring a year ago, it was a true test of the time machine.
Big fights are marketed on the narrative created around them, and Canelo vs. GGG neatly fitted the theme of a throwback.
A year later, Mexico’s Alvarez and Kazakhstan’s Golovkin will face off once more tonight on PPV, in Las Vegas’ T-Mobile Arena.
They are still the world’s best two middleweights and two of the very best pound-for-pounders. With the initial bout having ended in a draw, bragging rights have not yet been earned. But the storyline? That’s different.
“The respect,” Golovkin said. “It’s gone.”
Much of the angst stems from a sense of injustice that burns strongly within Golovkin, following what he perceives as a series of slights. He accepted a lesser share of the purse last September as Alvarez is a bigger draw, thanks to Mexico’s huge boxing fan base. Then he felt spurned by the judging, with one outlier official giving Alvarez the bout by an outrageous 118-110 margin in a contest most neutral observers thought Golovkin won.
And finally, after contentious negotiations for a rematch were finalized, Alvarez twice tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol, forcing the rematch to be postponed as he served a six-month suspension, despite the Nevada Athletic Commission accepting the result came about from accidentally ingesting tainted meat.
“(It changed) after the doping scandal,” Golovkin added. “After the first fight I remember I said, ‘Thank you for the fight, it is a great fight.’ He said the same. He said I was a champion, all this. We were friendly. After doping? No. For me this is terrible situation and right now we have only business. I am ready.”
A year back, Alvarez enjoyed the look of the vintage trunks used in the commercial shoot so much that he planned to wear a pair of old-school shorts on fight night, and would have done so had he found a pair comfortable enough for purpose.
While McGregor and Mayweather hurled taunts and obscenities on a four-stop, three-nation press tour last year, Canelo and GGG instead took the higher road, while promising an action-packed brawl of epic proportions. The contest delivered strong entertainment – with Golovkin attacking relentlessly and Alvarez counterpunching with effectiveness and speed.
Now, Alvarez also is enraged, feeling that Golovkin and his trainer Abel Sanchez have repeatedly sought to dirty his name by consistently referring to the drug issue. Public opinion is split – tainted meat is a legitimate problem in Mexico, but one that has cropped up in boxing enough times that Alvarez should probably have been more careful. Either way, Alvarez no longer sees Golovkin as simply a sporting rival, but as a personal enemy.
“I have made a complete and radical change and you will see this on Saturday,” Alvarez said. “I am bothered by all the stupid things they have been saying and I have been using it as motivation for this fight. Maybe they believe what they say, maybe it is to get me mad. But it has worked. I am mad.”
As a result, the promotion this time around has taken a drastic shift in approach. (As a disclaimer, I was hired to write the script for the rematch’s official countdown show, with promoter Oscar De La Hoya serving as executive producer and veteran fight film guru Leigh Simons as director.)
The direction was both clear and obvious — to capitalize on the level of animosity that had sprung up between the men. No more old-school chivalry here. In interviews for the show, Alvarez and Golovkin promised to do what they could to make the other pay, talking of revenge and redemption and the settling of a score. What respect was once there, has long since disappeared.
“I have got a fighter who has been given all the motivation that he needs,” Sanchez said. “GGG is already undefeated, but I (have) never seen him like this. With everything that has happened, he is hurt and angry and he has never been more determined.”
De La Hoya, who has promoted Alvarez to a position as arguably boxing’s biggest active name, says the same applies for his fighter. “It has become personal,” De La Hoya said. “Canelo wants to make him pay. They want to hurt each other.”
Also playing into the shifted narrative is a surprising revelation that came out during filming of the promotional interviews. Golovkin and Alvarez are at loggerheads now, but their upbringings were remarkably similar, albeit thousands of miles apart.
In Karaganda, one of Kazakhstan’s roughest cities, Golovkin was a teenage streetfighter, brawling with rivals over matters as small as pocket change for an ice cream, and even in adulthood beating up a drunken antagonist in a manner he admits was “not legal.”
“(As a boy), everyone was fighting,” Golovkin said. “It was necessary. It was just as common as going to play a soccer game.”
Alvarez claims to have had “more than 100” street fights, largely as a result of being teased over his red hair during his schoolboy years.
“Growing up, it’s normal in Mexico in the neighborhoods and the schools, if you’re different, you’re going to be made fun of,” Alvarez’s trainer Chepo Reynoso said. “You’re going to be bullied. If you break, well, obviously they all beat you up. They all keep picking on you, and it’ll never stop. Or you fight back, and ever since a little kid, Canelo fought back, but that built the character, and that built who he is today.”
Both have plenty of professional polish, with a multitude of endorsements and as much comfort in a designer suit as a pair of sweatpants. Yet within them lies the raw spirit of a fighter, a feeling that has been energized by the rematch’s controversial build-up.
The mutual dislike this time is not a manufactured plotline.
“It comes down to the raw emotion that every human being can identify with, which is that no one likes to be wronged,” Simons, a veteran of more than 50 PPV campaigns, said. “When you have that combination of factors affecting both men, it makes for very strong television.”