Gennady Golovkin could become a household name in 2013.
There aren't a lot of middleweight boxers eager to take on Golovkin these days.
That's because he is perhaps the worst combination for a highly rated boxer: he's a tremendously skilled, hard punching middleweight who also happens to be next-to-anonymous in the US.
If you're a middleweight contender and you're offered a bout with Golovkin, chances are your payday isn't going to be that big, and certainly not commensurate with the risk a fight against Golovkin would bring.
So, after several middleweights declined and after making overtures to a number of super middleweights, Golovkin's promotional team, K2, settled on super welterweight Gabe Rosado as his opponent for Saturday's WBA title fight on HBO at New York's Madison Square Garden.
Rosado is a quality fighter and no pushover, though he's never been referred to as great. He was, though, the best that could be gotten.
In the boxing business, word spreads fast: anonymous, talented fighters are avoided. There's usually not enough money involved to make the risk worthwhile.
The affable Golovkin plans to fight as many as five times in 2013.
"If we keep him active and keep him on television, he's going to build a following and people are going to be looking to see him," said Tom Loeffler, the managing director of K2.
The boxing world is lucky to be seeing Golovkin, because he nearly walked away from the sport. He and his twin brother, Max, began boxing at 10 and were instantly winning tournaments throughout what was then the Soviet Union and in Europe.
By the time the twins were teenagers, it was clear they were elite talents.
A problem, though, was that they fought in the same weight class and had vowed never to fight each other. And so, as a result, it was increasingly difficult for both to remain active and competing at the highest levels.
When the 2004 Olympics came around, it was time to make a decision. Max Golovkin, whom Gennady says was the more talented of the two, didn't share his brother's punching power or passion for the sport and decided to walk away.
"Lucky for me," Gennady says, chuckling. "Max was good."
Gennady is far more than good now, and he is getting better. He easily took apart Gregorz Proksa on September 1, stopping the Pole in five one-sided rounds.
Golovkin showed athleticism, boxing skills, punching power and the killer instinct that trainer Abel Sanchez has raved about since meeting him in his California gym.
But when Sanchez first saw Golovkin, he was troubled by just one thing.
"He had a very European style," Sanchez said.
That involves an erect fighting stance with an economy of punches, and looking to counter often. Sanchez has been around the game for years and knew that Golovkin was gifted enough to shine with the American style that involves more athleticism, aggressiveness and movement.
More significantly, Sanchez knew it was the only way that Golovkin could get himself onto American television.
That meant Golovkin would have to reinvent himself – a risk not many elite or potentially elite fighters are willing to make.
Fighters who have had years of success with one style aren't eager to change. But Golovkin readily went along with the plan because he knew it would help push him toward the ultimate goal: stardom in America.
"If you make it here, this is where you become the big star," Golovkin said. "All the great fighters want to come to fight in America."
And so, day after day, Golovkin worked assiduously in the gym to reinvent himself. Sanchez was amazed not only at how quickly Golovkin picked things up, but by how willing he was to do it.
Golovkin now looks like an American-trained boxer.
"The way he fights, he's the kind of guy who people say, 'Hey, I need to be home in front of the TV at 9 because Golovkin is fighting,' " Sanchez said.
As he rolls up the wins and increases his name recognition, he'll become more palatable to the big-name contenders in the division.
He won't have Loeffler scrambling to find someone for him to fight every time out.
Since moving to North America, he's maintained a desire to fight in New York and in Las Vegas. On Saturday, he'll check one off his bucket list when he fights Rosado in Manhattan.
There is a large Russian community in the New York neighbourhood of Brighton Beach that will be out in force to support him.
Ever the showman, Golovkin wants to give them something to remember.
"[I want to] make them want to come back for more," he said.
So far, he has done nothing but that.
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- Gennady Golovkin