Picture credit: Zaqir Ismale
This weekend, an intoxicating emotional cocktail is served for boxing fans. There is a measure of the anticipation that every genuinely big fight brings, especially when it features one of the planet’s current greats of the pugilistic art. We can then add a generous dash of terrestrial TV nostalgia. On Saturday, St Helens hard-case Martin Murray, a British middleweight of inordinate and uniquely northern-English toughness will walk out beneath the chandeliers and ornate frescoed ceilings of the Salle des Etoiles in Monte Carlo to take on the most feared and avoided man in world boxing.
The champion from Kazakhstan, Gennady Golovkin, who looks and dresses as if he teaches Latin at your local grammar school, has not yet broken through into the casual-sports-fan consciousness here in the UK. With Saturday’s bout broadcast live on Five, it could be his moment. Anyone tuning in to watch him for the first time can expect to see some strangely compelling interviews – for fight fans used to belligerent boxers projecting a contrived bad-boy image, staring down camera lenses, scuffling at press conferences and potty mouthing each other, GGG, as he is affectionately known, is a refreshing change. He is always calm, respectful and dignified, flashing his toothy smile, yet this can still exude its own unsettling menace. He may look like a guy who enjoys crosswords and always returns his library books on time, but there is something genuinely disconcerting about watching him in his tweed jacket, grinning and saying things like “Yes, I like to win with knockout. This is my wish. I like this very much.” Or “I like my style. It is good style. Power, speed, timing, big drama show.” Golovkin simply does not need to act like a gangster. Yes, he has the face and manners of a choirboy and the vocal intonation of Borat, but in the ring he is an absolute force of nature.
Martin Murray, on the other hand, presents a much more typical fighter visage. A proper tough-nut who had four spells in prison as a young man, he has used boxing to turn his life around and channel his aggression. Murray is followed by a notoriously rowdy set of fans and carries the hardening experiences of his younger days into his contests. Since emerging into the public eye by winning Prizefighter in 2008, he picked up the British and Commonwealth titles and failed very narrowly on two previous occasions to bring home world championships. In 2011 he was awarded a draw against defending WBA champ Felix Sturm in Mannheim and as anybody who follows the international scene knows, being given an away draw in Germany is the equivalent of a clear victory. In 2013 Murray was the victim of an even more blatant robbery when he travelled to Argentina to take on Sergio Martinez for the WBC crown, contending with a hostile crowd, whipped into a frenzy over the ongoing Falklands dispute, spitting on him and throwing objects at him during his ringwalk. Completely unfazed, Martin proceeded to take the fight to the champion, wobbling him a few times and putting him down in the eighth, only to lose on a highly dubious and much criticised unanimous decision.
As he prepares to go away again, to take on the most feared middleweight since Marvin Hagler, are there any signs that Murray can pull it off? Perhaps, but they are not easy to find. Both men were top-class amateurs. Murray won the Welterweight ABAs in 2004 while Golovkin racked up an incredible 345-5 record in the unpaid ranks. This pedigree means that both are technically adept but whereas Murray has a tight, tidy, slightly more circumspect style, Golovkin has learnt that he can fight more openly. It is not that GGG is incapable of boxing on the back foot or using a high guard and flicking out the jab, it’s just that he hasn’t really needed to. With crushing power in both hands, Golovkin can take one to land one of his own if necessary and is even capable of knocking opponents out while off balance, as in his recent fight with Australian Daniel Geale.
Saturday’s contest is for the WBA ‘Super’ Title and WBC ‘Interim’ title as well as the IBO, which very few people care about. For readers who have not taken the three year course necessary to understand boxing’s governing bodies and their multitude of ridiculous belts, the whole thing can be quickly simplified. This is for the Middleweight World Championship. The real one. The one that Robinson, LaMotta, Hagler and Leonard won. Golovkin is widely regarded as the man. The supreme world middleweight at the moment, the Kazakh is at the peak of his powers. None of his last eighteen opponents have lasted the distance and elite level contenders like Geale, Birmingham’s Matthew Macklin and American Curtis Stevens have been dispatched with relative ease. If Murray can pull it off it will be the greatest Middleweight win by a British fighter since Randolph Turpin in 1951.
Despite GGG’s power, Martin has to have a chance of hearing the final bell through sheer bloody-mindedness. But a victory? It’s an extremely tall order. Historically, Brits have had mixed fortunes on these sorts of occasions. Here are four examples from boxing history when the UK’s best have gone in with the world’s genuine no.1 in their division.
1. Robinson v Turpin
On the 10th July 1951, Leamington’s British middleweight champion Randolph Turpin took on the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson at Earl’s Court in London. At the time Robinson had a staggering 128-1 record and was considered virtually unbeatable. Still today he is regarded by many as the best fighter, of any weight, ever. Fortunately for Turpin, Sugar Ray was on a world tour, taking on challengers in their own countries, travelling around with a sizeable female entourage, neglecting his training and partying into the night. This approach got him past champions in France, Switzerland, Belgium and Germany, but the ‘Leamington Licker’ was a decent fighter in his own right and a below-par Sugar Ray couldn’t handle his strength. Turpin won a decision and became a national hero. It was short-lived, however. Three months later, in the rematch in the States, Robinson trained properly and won his crown back.
2. Hagler v Sibson
‘Sibbo’, from Leicester, was a strong-as-hell brawler who earned his crack at Marvelous Marvin by beating Alan Minter for the European middleweight title in 1981, establishing himself clearly as UK no.1. Hagler didn’t much like British fighters though, following his treatment by the Wembley Arena crowd who hurled bottles and other missiles at him after he had beaten Minter for the undisputed world crown in 1980. Hagler, who was at his menacing, switch-hitting best, showed Sibbo no mercy , stopping him in the sixth in a one sided bout in Massachusetts after Sibson had been down twice.
3. Tyson v Bruno
Loveable giant Bruno was 32-2 when he travelled to Las Vegas to take on undisputed heavyweight champ, Iron Mike in 1989. Tyson was still at his zenith, and Bruno’s reputation for being slightly chinny meant that few gave him a chance. He withstood Tyson’s early onslaught to back him up with a left hook in round one, causing Harry Carpenter to memorably shout “get in there Frank!” on the BBC commentary, but once that moment passed, the fight went increasingly in Tyson’s favour before the inevitable fifth round stoppage.
4. Curry v Honeyghan
Perhaps the biggest encouragement for Martin Murray can come from remembering the time when the ‘ragamuffin man’, British, European and Commonwealth champion Lloyd Honeyghan, took on Don ‘Cobra’ Curry for the undisputed welterweight title in 1986 in Atlantic City. The fight was considered such a mismatch that UK television didn’t even show it. Curry was 25-0 and had cleaned up the division with impressive wins over Milton McCrory, Colin Jones and Marlon Starling. He was regarded as one of the pound-for-pound best in the world and a guaranteed superstar for years to come. Honeyghan, by contrast, was considered a domestic level fighter and a soft defence. There are many theories about the fight, the most prevalent being that Curry was weight drained, but when news filtered through from the states in the wee hours of Sunday morning, few believed what had transpired. Honeyghan had boxed with energy and aggression, gone after his man from the start, battered him from pillar to post and forced him to retire in six rounds. He would go on to hold versions of the world title for the next two years, while Curry was never the same again.