Thursday afternoon Saúl ‘Canelo’ Álvarez sighed and rose to his feet as he prepared for his latest face-off with Gennady Golovkin at their final press conference in Las Vegas. Two more long days and nights would need to pass before their bitter rivalry reaches its culmination in a third fight. Álvarez, who said earlier in the week that he was sick of the stare-downs that accompany professional boxing, had also had enough of the same old questions.
He crossed the stage with studied disdain and reached the spot where Golovkin was waiting for him. These are two of the greatest fighters of the century and this trilogy has festered for years. Golovkin, and most boxing pundits and fans, believed he won their first bout in September 2017 – only for it be judged, controversially, as a draw. The rematch, exactly a year later, ended in a narrow points victory for Canelo. They were both memorable contests but Golovkin turned 40 this year and Álvarez is eight years younger than him.
Yet, all week, Golovkin has cut an impressively composed figure who looks primed to dredge up one last special performance full of his enduring excellence. Álvarez has shown much more emotion and raw enmity towards Golovkin. Suddenly, as their eyes locked together in a way which suggested they could see deep into each other’s buried selves, Canelo’s right hand closed into a fist. It seemed an almost involuntary gesture but it was striking too.
Nothing changed in his expression but, as the face-off intensified, it was hard to look away from the tension in that tightly shuttered fist. In contrast, Golovkin’s left hand hung loose and free. I thought again of the words Álvarez had uttered the previous afternoon: “I just want to punish him really hard. That’s the only thing happening in my mind. I’m very close to doing it now.”
The Mexican, who defends all four of his belts as the undisputed world super-middleweight champion, paused before ripping into Golovkin again. “He pretends to be a nice person and he’s not. He talks a lot of shit about me, and that’s why I don’t like him. He’s a good fighter, he’s a great fighter, that’s for sure. But, as a person, I don’t think so.”
Such animosity is tangled up with Álvarez’s respect for Golovkin’s outstanding technical ability and implacable will. Canelo had grown used to opponents buckling in the face of his intimidating aura. And against those who had been brave or skilled enough to push him hard, he stayed patient in the certainty that he would eventually overwhelm them.
However, Golovkin is no ordinary fighter. The current IBF world middleweight champion believes he beat Álvarez twice and that conviction has steeled him as he climbs up in weight to face his rival again.
Álvarez is moving back down from light-heavyweight where four months ago he lost clearly to Dmitry Bivol, a naturally much bigger world champion from Kyrgyzstan. Bivol’s mother is from Kazakhstan, Golovkin’s home country, and both men are similar in the impassive and methodical threat they offer.
But Canelo’s tetchiness is fuelled more by the knowledge that a second successive defeat would be a personal catastrophe. Bivol’s size was a crucial factor in only the second loss of Álvarez’s career which stretches across 17 years and 61 fights. Losing to a middle-aged Golovkin would be devastating.
Álvarez nodded when I asked if it had taken him weeks to get over the pain of the Bivol fight – his only previous defeat, to Floyd Mayweather Jr, had been in 2013 when he was so much less experienced. “Yes, of course. Nobody wants to lose, nobody likes to lose. So I felt a lot of pain after Bivol, because I love what I do and I don’t want to lose. But you need to keep moving forward and keep fighting.”
Had it made him more intense? “Yes,” Canelo said softly, giving me the stare, before he echoed himself. “Yes. I feel more hungry and more dangerous now. I don’t need to show people anything, but I need to show myself. I’m very happy to get back in the ring.”
His initial preference had been to fight Bivol again. “I really wanted that rematch, but Eddie Hearn [his promoter] says we have that contract to fight Golovkin in September. So that’s why we are here. And I’m happy. It’s a rare moment to have this trilogy.
“It’s one of the biggest fights in my life, because of our rivalry. Out of our three fights this one will be the most important. The fact he’s going into the fight thinking it might be his last makes him even more dangerous. But it’s the same for myself. I’m going to leave everything in the ring.”
Golovkin poured scorn on the suggestion that he is heading for retirement. Álvarez, meanwhile, is intent on knocking out Golovkin. “I go into every fight with that objective but this one has become personal. From the first round I’ll be looking for that stoppage.”
Golovkin, who rarely loses control of his emotions, smiled at the suggestion that Álvarez has allowed their third fight to become so deeply personal. He might struggle to withstand the ferocity coming his way at the T-Mobile Arena – the same arena for their first two bouts – but Golovkin believes Álvarez’s aggression will give him the openings he needs.