The International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York, looks a bit like a funeral home, with its drab, brown exterior, canopied entrance, and flowerpot-lined walkway. Of course, it's probably true that scores of print, digital, and broadcast proclamations of boxing's demise have primed my subconscious to make these morbid associations. But Saturday morning, when I parked in front of the one-story building that houses the Hall, I couldn't help but envision a hearse backing up to the front door and unloading a heap of Bernard Hopkins memorabilia on the front steps.
There are a few reasons that this town of fewer than 5,000 people, located about 250 miles from New York City, came to host boxing's Hall of Fame. For starters, Canastota is the hometown of two former world champions — Carmen Basilio, who fought a pair of legendary 15-round bouts (and won the first fight) with Sugar Ray Robinson in the late 1950s, and his nephew, Billy Backus. Sports halls of fame also happen to be something of a cottage industry in upstate New York, where cash-strapped towns have tried to mimic Cooperstown and the National Baseball Hall of Fame to attract tourism dollars. Aside from Canastota's shrine to hand wraps and medicine balls, there is the National Distance Running Hall of Fame in Utica, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, and Oneonta's now-defunct National Soccer Hall of Fame. When the boxing Hall opened in 1989, it wasn't recognized as the official guardian of boxing history, but because the place managed to stick around for 23 years and no competitor in another city came along to replace it, the sport's establishment accepted Canastota as its Holy Land. The museum's creation story boiled down to being named winner by default.
You could probably argue that the richness of the history inside the museum only brought today's grim state of boxing into greater relief, but, for some reason, I didn't feel that way. I stared at the burgundy robe "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler wore to the ring and the impressionist cover art on the original fight program for Muhammad Ali's 1967 heavyweight title defense against Zora Folley and felt the same uncritical reverence I knew as a child, when I gawked at the blue whale in the Museum of Natural History. If I had made a conscious effort to think of boxing's lost glory, things might have gotten pretty bleak, but instead I just wondered what it would have been like to watch those fights live. There were also plenty of oddities to smirk at — one of Ray Leonard's jock straps with "Sugar" painted above the cup, Hector "Macho" Camacho's used mouthpiece, a cast of 1930s heavyweight champion Primo Carnera's cantaloupe-size fist.
I went upstate last weekend to watch an HBO Boxing After Dark event featuring two Eastern European middleweights, the former of whom had never fought in the United States: Kazakhstan's Gennady Golovkin, the defending WBA champion, and a Polish challenger named Grzegorz Proksa. The fights were being held 15 minutes down the road from the Hall of Fame, at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona. I mostly had the museum to myself, except for HBO's unofficial ringside judge Harold Lederman, who was puttering between display cases of donated championship belts and inspecting a life-size statue of Basilio, and a couple promoters who were involved with that night's undercard. This felt like the most discouraging "state of boxing" sign — that, for the most part, average sports fans weren't wandering into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Instead, people who made a living off the sport were visiting this forgotten town to remember the sweet science's proud history.
When HBO announced that Golovkin and Proksa would be headlining Boxing After Dark and that the fight would take place at a Native American casino 20 miles west of Utica in upstate New York, it took some effort to figure out what the network was thinking.
So much of the boxing business in recent years has been based on promoting around established stars (like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao) or built-in ethnic audiences (such as Saul "Canelo" Alvarez with Mexican fans or Miguel Cotto with Puerto Ricans) or hometown fighters (like Lucian Bute in Montreal and Andre Ward in Oakland). This card met none of those criteria. Golovkin was widely viewed as boxing's best-kept secret, a 2004 Olympic silver medalist from Kazakhstan with a 23-0 professional record, 20 knockouts, and a middleweight championship. But Golovkin had never fought in the United States. He was a fighter with no name value (but a fabulous name, Gennady Gennadyevich Golovkin) and hardly any ethnic support, as there are only about 22,000 Kazakh-born U.S. residents. His opponent, Grzegorz Proksa, had also never fought on American soil or television, and although Polish Americans reliably pack the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, to watch heavyweight Tomasz Adamek fight, it was hard to imagine that many of them would make the five-hour trek to Verona from the New York metropolitan area. The HBO undercard featured Sergiy Dzinziruk, a Ukrainian junior middleweight known only to American audiences for taking a savage beating from Sergio Martinez in March 2011, and Jonathan Gonzalez, a Puerto Rican prospect whose name wasn't even familiar to many devoted boxing fans.
My guess is that HBO probably decided there would never be a perfect time to introduce Golovkin and Proksa to the American audience and figured that they might as well just go for it. Golovkin and Proksa had each looked electric in recent fights, and HBO needed to establish meaningful opponents for the network's middleweight stars, Sergio Martinez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. Six months from now, if Proksa or Golovkin were to face Martinez or Chavez, at least HBO would have given viewers a previous opportunity to see these obscure opponents in action.
But why upstate New York? Why Turning Stone, a casino that had never hosted a bigger boxing event than ESPN's Friday Night Fights? Greg Cohen, one of the event's promoters, told me he could barely remember the last time he'd worked on a fight at Turning Stone. It was six or seven years ago, he said, and his fighter was former heavyweight contender Shannon Briggs. "Look it up on BoxRec," he said. (I did; the fight was June 10, 2005, and Briggs defeated Abraham Okine.) Cohen explained that he and the event's other promoters wanted to keep it in the Northeast, and Turning Stone's offer was the best, but it wasn't hard for my overactive imagination to conceive fate intervening to bring boxing, a supposedly dying sport, to central New York, a region whose glory days passed with the railroad and the Erie Canal.
Utica, the closest big city to Turning Stone, has been in decline since the 1920s, when the city's textile mills began relocating to the South. The city reestablished itself as an early hub of aerospace and computer engineering after World War II, but those industries moved away as Silicon Valley became the center of tech innovation and when Griffiss Air Force Base, the area's largest employer, closed in 1995. Around that time, as SUNY Oneonta sociologist Alexander R. Thomas writes in the book In Gotham's Shadow: "The city itself had fallen into disrepair, the suburbs were lethargic, and the global economy appeared to have passed by the area." It's not that hard to recalibrate that sentence to tell the story of boxing's recent woes: There are few American stars left in the sport; promoters have consistently put their own financial interests ahead of what's best for boxing; and the U.S. audience has passed by boxing in favor of the major team sports, and, to some extent, mixed martial arts.
Despite the parallels between upstate New York and boxing and their respective declines, I felt drawn to Turning Stone for Golovkin-Proksa. Elaborate metaphors aside, something told me that the main event would be memorable.
Well, the fight wasn't spectacular, but I'm pretty sure I'll never forget being ringside for Gennady Golovkin's first U.S. fight. Golovkin floored Proksa three times before the referee stopped the fight, late in the fifth round. It was probably the most impressive HBO debut since 2001, when a 22-year-old Manny Pacquiao upset South African Lehlohonolo Ledwaba to win a super bantamweight championship. Golovkin's attack is something to marvel at — efficient, continuous, ruthless, and with power so pure that it seems effortless. He doesn't load up or wind his body or throw himself off balance when he punches. His arms flow outward in a steady stream of jabs, hooks, and overhand rights. His punches are so fluid and smooth that they remind me of Ray Allen's jump shot, only there's nothing soft about Golovkin's touch. He doesn't reach or lunge, but occasionally he'll step into a right hand, swinging his back foot forward and bringing it square with his lead foot while delivering the blow. Saturday night, he landed a couple of those shots on Proksa's head and neck, and the impact sounded like an aluminum baseball bat thudding against a side of beef.
Some of Golovkin's most breathtaking moments Saturday night were not even knockdowns. In the closing seconds of the second round, Proksa leaned forward and Golovkin rammed an underhand right half-uppercut into the left side of his opponent's face. Proksa didn't react in the dazed manner of a boxer who's just had his bell rung, but instead clinched Golovkin, turned his head to the crowd, and winced in piercing agony. Moments later, the round ended and Provka walked back to his corner while rubbing his eye socket. Boxers take punches for a living, and it's uncommon to see them in such obvious pain, but nearly all of Golovkin's landed blows left Proksa in visible discomfort. The best indicator of Golovkin's power might have been the number of times he caused the crowd to let out a collective oof when his punches landed. It was as if everyone watching could see, hear, and almost feel how much it must have hurt to absorb those blows. HBO's Max Kellerman even let out one such oof with five seconds left in Round 3, when Golovkin stepped into one of his aluminum bat rights and placed it over Proksa's guard, landing the punch right under the left side of his jaw.
And the knockdowns were overwhelming. Near the end of the first round, Golovkin backed Proksa up against the ropes and threw a vicious overhand right. Proksa blocked the punch with his glove, but the force of the blow seemed to break Proksa's concentration for a split second. That was long enough for Golovkin to stagger Proksa with two left hooks and then send him to the mat with glancing body blows. In the fourth round, Golovkin began to attack Proksa's body. A pair of digging lefts buckled Proksa at the waist, then Golovkin straightened him up with an uppercut that landed flush on Proksa's nose. Sensing extreme danger, Proksa tried to turn off the ropes and retreat, but Golovkin turned with him and landed a left hook, overhand right combination that sent Proksa sprawling onto his back. Finally, in the fifth round, Golovkin broke free from a clinching Proksa and sent a chopping right hand down across his face. That right and a glancing left hook sent Proksa stumbling backward on wobbly legs, and the left-right-left combination that followed dropped Proksa to his knees and then flat on his face. Proksa somehow managed to beat the count, and for a blood-curdling moment it looked like referee Charlie Fitch might allow the fight to continue. In that moment, I scrawled "suicide by Golovkin" in my notebook, and Fitch wisely decided to stop the fight and declare Golovkin the winner.
For a fighter who suffered three knockdowns (two of them brutal) and took one of the defining beatings of 2012, Grzegorz Proksa looked good. He recovered from the first knockdown and managed to mark up Golovkin's face in Rounds 2 and 3 with a handful of lunging straight lefts and counter uppercuts. Proksa's awkward southpaw style owed much to fellow middleweight Sergio Martinez, but the imitation was only effective on offense. Proksa could land the lead straight left à la Sergio, but he wasn't quick enough to avoid Golovkin's attack like Martinez often does, slipping punches with his gloves at his waist. Still, Proksa looked the part of a top middleweight contender, and that made Golovkin's performance that much more impressive.
So can Golovkin be boxing's next Pacquiao? The comparison is imperfect. Pacquiao was 22 when he debuted on HBO. Golovkin is 30. Pacquiao turned pro when he was 16 and his boxing skills remained unrefined throughout the first decade of his professional career. Golovkin, on the other hand, had a decorated amateur career and possesses the polished technique of an Olympian. Pacquiao's kinetic hand speed and improvisational flurries allowed him to overwhelm champion fighters like Marco Antonio Barrera, Erik Morales, Oscar De La Hoya, and Miguel Cotto, while Golovkin's attack is more steady than fast. But here's what they have in common: Manny Pacquiao and Gennady Golovkin both throw punches with real stopping power. They have aggressive styles that lead to knockouts and TKOs, and they don't mind taking a few punches in the course of landing their own. They both hail from countries that aren't well known to the American mainstream (although, with more than 3 million Filipino Americans buying his pay-per-view fights, it's fair to say that Pacquiao's ethnic draw is far greater than Golovkin's). But as Pacquiao has proven, boxing fans don't need to be able to locate the Philippines on a map to decide that Manny is worth their pay-per-view money.
Unless Golovkin's fight with Proksa was somehow a fluke, this Kazakh with the shaggy helmet of hair, slightly Eurasian features, and devastating fists is a special fighter — one who can carry boxing when Pacquiao decides to retire and open a megachurch and when Floyd Mayweather collects his last mammoth paycheck. Will Golovkin get the opportunity? Boxing experts have predicted that Saturday's devastating performance all but ensures Golovkin will never set foot in the ring with a cash cow like Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. And Golovkin is one challenge that the 37-year-old Martinez may prefer to overlook. Call it wishful thinking, but I believe there's a fair chance that the cable networks and boxing's other prime movers will recognize Golovkin's star potential and insist that promoters allow him to challenge their star fighters.1 His performance over Labor Day weekend breathed life into an event that felt like a metaphor for all that ails boxing. Imagine what he could do on a larger stage and against a world-class opponent?
Gennady Golovkin can't restore boxing to its former glory — no one can. But I'm willing to bet that he's good enough to be boxing's lifeline for several years, and that he'll remind any sports fan who cares enough to watch him fight why, once upon a time, a championship bout could capture the whole world's attention.