On the wall in Abel Sanchez's boxing gym in Big Bear, Calif., is a board with the names of some of the greatest fighters who ever lived. Muhammad Ali is on top. Spot No. 2, though, is blank, before the list continues at No. 3.
The blank spot is Sanchez's none-too-subtle reminder to middleweight champion Gennady Golovkin of what he could become.
Sanchez thinks so highly of Golovkin, his star pupil, that he believes he has the ability to not only become the best active fighter in the sport, but one of the best who ever lived.
That blank No. 2 spot is Golovkin's reminder to follow Sanchez's instructions as a way to reach immortal status.
"It's not just Gennady's goal, it's the team's goal, to help him reach that type of status," said Tom Loeffler of K2 Promotions, Golovkin's promoter. "We feel he's such a spectacular, special athlete, he's not going to be remembered as just the boxer of the year or the best middleweight of his time or not just as a champion in multiple divisions.
"He has the aspirations and we feel he has the ability to have a historic career in the sport of boxing."Golovkin is an outstanding fighter, to be sure. But it's a long way from beating up the likes of Grzegorz Proksa, Gabe Rosado, Nobuhiro Ishida and Matthew Macklin to being compared to boxing legends like Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali.
Golovkin faces a stern test Saturday in the theater at Madison Square Garden when he takes on aggressive Curtis Stevens in the main event of an HBO-televised card.
Golovkin is an easy-going, friendly sort who has nothing bad to say about anyone. He's taken a slew of taunts and barbs from Stevens in stride and said nothing the outspoken New Yorker has to say – or might say – will get to him.
Golovkin praises Stevens lavishly and says, "it's an honor" to be fighting him.
But Sanchez, long one of the sport's most respected trainers, isn't so kind. Assuming Golovkin doesn't put his hands at his side, stick out his chin and ask Stevens to try to belt him, Sanchez is supremely confident.
"Look, I know that at this level, all fights are risky and all of the guys can punch," Sanchez said. "If you're not physically and mentally ready, all it takes is one shot and you could wind up on the mat. What makes this kind of fight exciting is that theme of Rocky, where the big puncher has the chance to knock off the golden goose and a guy who nobody thinks has a chance to win can win with one big punch.
"But we're not taking Curtis lightly. Gennady knows what he is in for. But we're talking about a championship-level, world-class fighter against an A-minus, B-plus type of fighter. Gennady has nothing to be concerned with about this guy if he does what he's supposed to. If Gennady boxes to the level he did against Macklin, this is an easier fight than the Macklin fight."
Golovkin destroyed Macklin in just three rounds in June, pummeling him from the outside. The fight was never a contest.
A silver medalist in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece, Golovkin had an uneasy start to his professional career. He's 27-0 with 24 knockouts, but there were nights when he didn't look like the best fighter in the ring, let alone the best ever.
He struggled with then past-his-prime veteran Kassim Ouma in 2011 before finally stopping Ouma in the 10th.
But he's made significant progress since working with Sanchez. He's always had raw power, but has refined it and now can hurt his opponents with anything he throws, even a jab.
He's 30 years old and still trying to build an identity in the sport. His goals are ambitious, but who wants to root for someone hoping to become a middle-of-the-pack type of guy?
It's much better to have someone shoot for the stars than to want to be just another name in the business.
That's exactly what Golovkin is doing. His favorite fighters are Ali, Robinson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler, he says.
They all "commanded the ring," Golovkin says, but more so, they were willing to do it all.
"They could box, they could punch and they always wanted to fight the best," Golovkin said. "They didn't just talk. They fought."
And so, too, does the engaging but soft-spoken Golovkin. He's not one for trash talk and he giggles when some of Stevens' best lines are relayed to him.
He understands selling a fight and he's content to let Stevens do his job. But when the bell rings, Golovkin is set to continue his assault on the history books.
"I want to win, I want to make the fans happy with the most exciting [bouts] and I want to face all the best [opponents]," he said.
If his peers were similarly inclined, boxing would be in a much better place.
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