A Pole, a Kazakhstani, a Puerto Rican and a Ukranian walk into a casino in upstate New York, and…
There’s no punchline to that, actually. And whatever the odd confluence of circumstances bringing the four men together at Verona’s Turning Stone Resort & Casino, there’s nothing funny about the main event on HBO Saturday when Gennady Golovkin of Kazakhstan and Grzegorz Proksa of Poland square off in a quality match-up that, hopefully, heralds the start of a fall boxing season that on paper eclipses the rest of 2012’s seasons so far.
Golovkin is something of a cult figure, a gym legend with astounding power who doesn’t exactly fill up the stands in more favorable locales like his current residence of Germany, as exemplified by this clip of Golovkin fighting in a facility about the size of a bathtub housing two whole rows of spectators. Proksa, like Golovkin, is one of the surprisingly deep middleweight division‘s emerging talents, and like Golovkin also has been fighting outside his birth land, in the United Kingdom. That commonality — two emerging talents — makes the match-up attractive, but there’s more besides: Proksa, again like Golovkin, can really punch. Fights with this air of danger are exceedingly rare. Both men are taking big chances in their choice of opponent, and both are risking the high likelihood that if they don’t render unconsciousness, they will suffer it.
The undercard junior middleweight fight with the Puerto Rican (Jonathan Gonzalez) and the Ukranian (Serhiy Dzinziruk) is a fight HBO is televising because they owe the Ukranian a date from a prior agreement, a bout which our Alex McClintock discussed here. What HBO hopes to get out of Golovkin-Proksa is slightly more mysterious. This fight almost assuredly won’t deliver ratings, but is only in the U.S. because of the HBO money; a similar phenomenon also explains the upstate New York location, i.e. Turning Stone wanted to pay for it. Perhaps HBO sees Golovkin as a potential star, as he was originally scheduled to face Dmitry Pirog and kept the date after Pirog dropped out. Maybe the idea is to build up someone as a potential opponent for the winner of the Sept. 15 clash between middleweight champ Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez, Jr. Maybe they just saw Golovkin-Pirog as a good fan-friendly fight, rightly, and saw Golovkin-Proksa as a worthy replacement, rightly.
Whatever. It’s times like this where my interest in the business of boxing is submerged beneath being a plain old boxing fan. We’re talking about a fight that hints at Fight of the Year potential, with ramifications for the future of the division, in a bout where both men have thrown overcautious matchmaking to the wind.
Count me as mildly skeptical of the cult of Golvokin. Maybe I shouldn’t be. As an amateur, he beat the likes of Lucian Bute, Andre Dirrell, Daniel Geale and Andy Lee, and won silver at the 2004 Olympics. As a pro, he’s knocking everyone out — 23 wins, 20 stoppages — and in the gym he’s given a hard time to a variety of “names.” Plus, he’s been adopted a bit by Ring’s Doug Fischer, whose record with fighters he adopts is solid, at least on the talent front (see: Edwin Valero).
But Golovkin’s mostly knocked out unknowns and faded contenders. The Lajuan Simon 1st round KO was impressive because Simon had not been stopped before, but Simon had lost three of his last five coming into that bout after a one year layoff. The Kassim Ouma stoppage was impressive because the sturdy Ouma had only been stopped once before. But Ouma isn’t a real middleweight, plus he had lost five of seven fights from 2006 to 2010. And Golovkin didn’t exactly wow against Ouma. Ouma made him look slow and hittable, before Golovkin wore him down. If an Ouma well past his prime and above his best weight makes you look semi-bad, maybe you ain’t all that.
Golovkin does, nonetheless, have a lot going for him. There’s that power, of course. He has both one-punch power in both fists — the stoppage of Simon came on a counter left — and he makes up for his lack of speed with timing and smart punch placement. A lead right is his favorite weapon, which he throws to both the head and body, but he disguises it pretty well, either with a probing jab or a weird leaning-forward feint that simultaneously makes him vulnerable to uppercuts, if someone can ever take advantage. Against Ouma, it was as though he didn’t care about defense; I’ve seen him defend more responsibly in other fights, though, mostly with upper body movement. Interestingly enough, for as supremely aggressive as he was with Ouma, his trainer said he had to convince Golovkin to adopt that style, as he is comfortable waiting and countering, which he does quite well. Word is that he can take a shot, having never been dropped as an amateur or a pro.
Proksa will test that chin. He has the best pro win of the two, against Sebastian Sylvester, and it opened a lot of eyes, including mine. Sylvester had recently lost a split decision to Geale, and no shame in that, but Proksa diced him up and made him look like he was well out of his league. He did it with powerful, accurate lead straight lefts, his money punch. He’s 28-1 with 21 knockouts, so he too has serious power.
That one loss is hard to figure. Coming off a win over Sylvester, Proksa had big momentum as a middleweight threat to watch, but in his next fight against Kerry Hope, he looked nothing of the sort. He was badly cut in the fight, and most have blamed that cut on his poor performance, and there is evidence it probably played a role: When Proksa rematched Hope, he had relatively little trouble, even starching Hope in a borderline Knockout of the Year candidate.
Stylistically, Proksa appears to be emulating Martinez’s hands-down gag, but I don’t think it works for him quite as well as it does for Martinez. Defensively, he pulls it off, because he dodges a lot of punches with clever upper body movement and reflexes, and he’s got good legs. He’s just not quite as accurate as Martinez — he throws a lot of sloppy stuff that misses, whereas Martinez’s awkward punches land — and not quite as fast, although he is indeed fast. When Proksa attacks is when he’s most vulnerable, and fighting a good counterpuncher like Golovkin, that could be trouble. But Proksa does have authentic two-handed power, when he lands stuff other than his reliable left cross. The Hope knockout was on a counter right, and I’ve seen at least one stoppage win he earned with rights to the body. And Proksa’s probably a bit better on the inside that Golovkin, at least based on how Ouma outmaneuvered Golovkin on the inside in the first part of their fight. There’s also little evidence that Proksa can’t take a punch.
So this stacks up a slugfest with style contrasts — Golovkin will probably pressure and throw a ton of punches, countering for stretches, and Proksa will probably try to land meaningful blows then stay away from Golovkin, occassionally opting to stand his ground on the inside. In some ways, I don’t know if either man will give the other a choice in moving away from their preferred battle plan; I can see Proksa hurting Golovkin (he’s open for uppercuts, in particular) and forcing him to counter in retreat, and I can see Golovkin wearing Proksa down and forcing him to battle up close.
We don’t know if Golovkin’s chin can hold up to the kind of power Proksa will be throwing at him, and we don’t know the same about Proksa. The weird first Hope loss makes me wonder if Proksa had some “give” in him exposed, but his bounceback makes me wonder if he’s corrected that. It’s that element that makes me lean Golovkin, probably by late stoppage. I wouldn’t be surprised if either man KO’d the other early, either. But I expect both men to impress — more than they have already, just by signing the fight at all.