Undefeated in his professional career, middleweight boxing champion Gennady Golovkin has a lethal jab inside the ring but an easy grin outside of it. Learn why this part Korean, Kazakh boxer is sweeping fans off their feet.
story by STEVE KIM
photographs by MIKE LEE
It’s Saturday evening at The Forum, the massive indoor arena in Inglewood, located southwest of downtown Los Angeles. On this May 16 evening, there’s a certain electricity in the arena not felt since perhaps the heyday of Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers.
A crowd of nearly 12,500 cheering fans has filled the building to watch one of the most anticipated fights of the year: powerhouse middleweight boxer Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin, known as “Triple G,” defending his titles against Willie Monroe, Jr.
As the White Stripe’s “Seven Nation Army” pumps over the loudspeakers, signaling the entrance of the Kazakhstan-born Golovkin, the crowd goes wild. That energy will sustain itself throughout the night, as Golovkin goes on to secure the 20th consecutive knockout victory of his career, boosting his record to 33-0 by defeating Monroe in six rounds.
And then, as one looks out into the arena and sees the flurry of Kazakh and Mexican flags in the rafters, one image stands out: a lone South Korean flag.
In a sport as ethnically diverse as boxing, it’s not unusual to see fans waving their flags with nationalistic fervor. The sport is one of the few remaining where there really is no place for political correctness, and racial and cultural pride is still absolutely a selling point.
So that tenet becomes particularly intriguing in the context of Golovin, whose father was Russian and whose mother is half-Korean, she herself the daughter of an ethnic Korean man, Sergey Pak, who grew up in Russia.
“I have Russian-style, Korean-style, I have a lot of different blood,” Golovkin, 33, says in an interview in June, at Hillstone, an upscale eatery in Santa Monica, where he trains and resides with his wife, Alina, and their 6-year-old son, Vadim.
Golovkin, despite his fearsome stature in the boxing ring, looks like any other resident of the city roaming the streets (he is approximately 5-feet-10-inches and gets up to no more than 170 pounds when not in training). Having moved to the U.S. just five years ago, he’s still learning to master his English and tends to rely on certain catchphrases and clichés to capture his feelings. Using the word “style” at the end of certain sentences has become one way of conveying his thoughts.
Yet the athlete’s demeanor in person is friendly and amiable. Most of all, he is very respectful to reporters who can forgive someone’s limited vocabulary if an honest effort is given. There’s a genuine likeability to Golovkin that comes through almost immediately when you meet him.
“He’s very approachable and he doesn’t turn nobody down,” agrees trainer Abel Sanchez. “Sometimes, when we go to functions, I have to be the bad guy or keep him isolated so that he can get things done. We have a schedule of things we need to do, and he gets carried away and starts signing every autograph, taking pictures, walking among the crowd.”
He’s known to attract plenty of attention wherever he goes. During KoreAm’s cover photo shoot in July at 220 Fitness, a boxing gym in Santa Monica, the actor Mickey Rourke—who once trained as a boxer and is friends with the gym’s owner—stopped by to meet Golovkin and say hello.
But what’s that old saying, never mistake kindness for weakness? Listening to Golovkin when the tape recorder is off and the conversation becomes much less formal, another side of the man comes through. His interviews in his native tongue are said to be much more bold and downright cocky. In fact, he’s nicknamed the “smiling assassin” for his good-natured demeanor outside the ring but lethal jabs inside of it.
Sparring partners, who oftentimes are a good 25 pounds heavier, speak with awe about his punching prowess. It’s become a bit of an urban legend, his strength in these practice sessions, where men are routinely given rib protectors to minimize the impact of Triple G’s heavy-handed salvos.
In boxing, furthermore, how you win is almost as important as the act of winning; style points matter. Boxing is often called “the sweet science” because it can be an intricate sport that relies on timing, dexterity, strategy and skill. Golovkin not only possesses all those traits, but he’s able to break the game down to its simplest, most brutal form—such showmanship is also called being “fan-friendly.”
“He’s as good as any middleweight or better than I’ve seen in a long, long time,” says Larry Merchant, who for years was the color commentator for HBO Sports and is still one of the most respected voices in the sport.
“It’s a combination of skill and tough-mindedness.”
Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin was born on April 8, 1982, in Karagandy, Kazakhstan, when the central Asian country was still a member of the Soviet Union.
Koreans started migrating to the far eastern region of Russia in the 1850s. They became the largest minority in the Russian empire and gained the right to citizenship under the Russo-Korean treaty. Starting from 1926 up until World War II, however, the Korean minority, known as Koryo sadam, were treated suspiciously by the Russian government for fear they were spying for the Japanese empire, Korea’s colonizer at the time.
In 1930, Koreans in Russia were forcibly transferred to central Asia. Up to as many as 100,000 Koreans were sent to Kazakhstan and three-quarters as many to Uzbekistan.
Golovkin’s maternal grandfather was part of this relocation. Born in Korea but raised in Russia since he was age 1, Sergey Pak was sent to Kazakhstan, where he met and married a Russian woman. In 1947, they had a daughter, Elizaveta Pak, Golovkin’s mother.
The boxer’s father, named Gennady Ivanovich Golovkin, was an industrial coal miner of Russian heritage, while Elizaveta worked as an assistant in a chemical lab. “My mother told me that I have never seen my grandpa. But my mom, she spoke with him a lot,” recalls the athlete.
There were four boys in the family: the two eldest, Sergey and Vadim, and Gennady and his fraternal twin, Max. Legend has it that Sergey and Vadim would roam the streets and pick out older boys for the twins to fight—it was a form of tough love that shaped Golovkin’s fighting spirit from an early age.
“My brothers, they were doing that from when I was in kindergarten. Every day, different guys,” he told Sports Illustrated in 2013.
Sergey and Vadim, who both joined the Russian Army, were killed in combat four years apart, in 1990 and 1994. The deaths of his older brothers is a subject Golovkin is reluctant to discuss. He and Max, meanwhile, became standout amateur pugilists for Kazakhstan. Max, rather than fight his own sibling for a spot on the 2004 Olympic team, decided to walk away from the sport altogether, it’s been said. The darker-haired Max, who has more Asian features than his twin, is still a constant presence in Golovkin’s training camps as he prepares for fights.
Family remains an important part of the boxer’s life. In February last year, his father died of a heart attack, scuttling Golovkin’s plans to fight Irishman Andy Lee in April. Golovkin observed a 40-day grieving period back home in Kazakhstan with his mother in observance of Kazakh traditions. As the oldest surviving son—he was born 15 minutes ahead of Max—it was now his duty to provide for the family.
Elizaveta Pak has not yet had the chance to visit her son in California.
“Maybe next year,” says Golovkin. When asked which culture he identifies with the most, the boxer—who happens to speak four languages, Kazakh, German, Russian and English—says, “It’s a combination.”
Left: Golovkin at the 2015 ESPY Awards in Los Angeles with retired boxer Evander Holyfield. He was nominated in the “Best Fighter” category, along with UFC champion Ronda Rousey (at right), who took home the honor. (Photos courtesy of GGG Promotions)
Golovkin’s rapid ascent the past few years has been nothing short of remarkable. As an amateur, his record was 345 wins and just five defeats. Highlights included winning the 2002 Asian Games in Busan as a light middleweight and the 2003 World Championships in Bangkok as a middleweight.
After winning silver at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the boxer moved to Germany to train and live as a professional, after signing with the Germanybased Universum Box-Promotions.
As he developed into a top-ranked contender, however, he became increasingly frustrated with the company’s refusal to match him against its cash cow, Felix Sturm, who at the time had a middleweight title in his possession. As Triple G’s career languished, he signed on with K2 Promotions, which is how in 2010, Golovkin moved Stateside.
In late 2010, Golovkin walked into the gym run by Sanchez at Big Bear Mountain in California. The boxer, who preferred the privacy this setting offered as opposed to the daily hustle-and-bustle of the world-famous Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, clicked with the veteran trainer.
Sanchez has never been shy in telling anyone within earshot that this unknown fighter was someone to contend with. “He’s probably going to be the best fighter I ever worked with,” he said to this reporter way before Golovkin’s meteoric ascent over the last five years.
And that prophecy is coming true: ever since Golovkin’s U.S. debut in September 2012, when he dispatched Polish southpaw Grzegorz Proksa in five rounds at a remote Indian casino in Verona, N.Y., his matches have gotten increasingly bigger in packed, large venues. The problem with being such a lethal prizefighter is that sometimes you’re simply too dangerous for your own good. Golovkin has had trouble getting the other marquee names in the field, such as Miguel Cotto or Saúl Álvarez, into the ring with him—although his next match will be against the hardhitting David Lemieux from Montreal at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 17.
Golovkin’s bout against Marco Antonio Rubio at the StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. last October was the highest attendance the 8,000-seat capacity venue has ever seen for a boxing match. The crowd that evening, which this reporter observed while covering the match for UCNLive.com, consisted of mostly Mexican Americans, a good number of whom sported T-shirts with Golovkin’s image that read, “Mexicans for Golovkin.”
Indeed, much of the fighter’s popular appeal comes from the fact that his style is exactly as he dubbed it after his spectacular knockout of Daniel Geale last year: “Mexican-style.” (In boxing, a fighter tends to adopt the style of his coach’s homeland.) He reminds his Mexican fans of perhaps their greatest fighter, Julio César Chávez. One can make the argument that Golovkin is currently the most popular “Mexican” boxer at the moment.
Despite his part-Korean heritage, Golovkin has been largely without the visible support of the Korean community, particularly in South Korea. Granted, the boxing scene in the country has stagnated for years. Perhaps it was the death of Kim Duk-koo against Ray Mancini in 1982, which took place in front of a live, national audience on CBS, which spurred the decline of the sport in the country. Or perhaps it was the corrupt nature of the 1988 Seoul Olympics, in which Roy Jones, Jr., received one of the most scandalous decisions against him in the gold medal bout against South Korean Park Si-hun—that sealed boxing’s descent in the country.
But that could change as Golovkin joins a handful of boxers who can legitimately be called an “attraction”: an athlete who sells tickets and keeps the turnstiles in an arena moving.
Unlike Manny Pacquiao who is considered the most famous—maybe most important—person in the Philippines, or Floyd Mayweather, who is always surrounded by a security team that is as large and as imposing as most NFL offensive lines, however, Golovkin’s accessibility is still largely unaffected by his surge in popularity.
He is usually just accompanied by Sanchez and his promoter Tom Loeffler. “I’ve been with him for over five years and I see the same guy every time I see him, [whether] in the gym, on the morning run or when he shakes your hand. He’s got that toothy grin on him. He doesn’t change,” marvels Sanchez, who believes that Golovkin’s character comes from his roots.
“Good parents,” adds the trainer. “I think that he had parents who taught him morals and good character. That smile on his face is something that I’m sure [reflects] a happy life growing up.”
Fighting before thousands of fellow Koreans is something Golovkin is eager to do, as Loeffler eyes Korea as a future fight destination. “It’s very interesting for me because that’s something I want,” Golovkin says. “It’s part of my tradition. I feel it’s my blood. I feel more respect for my family, my mom, my grandpa, my grandma; and it’s more respect because I have blood that is Korean.”
Soon, as the summer fades away, the boxer will be up in the mountains by Big Bear Lake training with Sanchez, perhaps reflecting on the journey that’s brought him to the U.S.
“I have more interest now from Korean people. I have more interest from Russian people because that’s what I am,” Gennady says. “I have more interest from my Mexican fans because of my coach and a lot of friends from Mexico. This is my home, my second home.”
Perhaps it can be said, he is now truly “American-style.”
This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)