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September 11, 2018

Golovkin On the Verge Of Making History… Or Is He?

by Matt O'Brien

An edited version of this article was originally published on on September 11th, 2018:

In the wake of Triple G’s return to knockout form last May, there was much fanfare regarding his purported achievement of equalling Bernard Hopkins’ middleweight record of 20 consecutive world title defences. Assuming he is victorious next Saturday versus Canelo Alvarez, Golovkin will therefore set a new all-time record in the 160lb division. Well, sort of. As the saying often goes in love, life and boxing trivia, “It’s complicated.”

Before getting to the nitty-gritty of said complications, first of all let’s deal with a big elephant in the room here. While everyone seems to be distracted debating the historical merit of the World Boxing Association’s assortment of “world title” belts (more on that later), there appears to be a lack of sound bookkeeping when it comes to the great Bernard Hopkins’ fight ledger. The record set by Hopkins, as often reported, is 20 straight title defenses. Except it isn’t really, because he did not successfully defend his middleweight championship 20 times.

The reason why is simple. On 28th August 1998, Hopkins fought Robert Allen in what should have been the eighth defence of his IBF title. But in a freak incident in the fourth round, Hopkins was pushed out of the ring and injured by referee Mills Lane. With Hopkins unable to continue, consequently the fight was declared a “No Contest”. And a No Contest, unlike a draw result, should not count as a successful title defence for the champion because there is no “result” to speak of, in any meaningful sense. The champion keeps his title, but he does not keep it by virtue of gaining any competitive advantage in the contest, since there was No Contest (it’s all in the name, really).

Why, in that instance, should Hopkins be given any credit over Allen? If Hopkins made a “successful defence,” conversely that should mean Allen made a “failed challenge.” But in fact, he did not fail. He had his opportunity to find out whether he would succeed or fail taken away from him by a mere quirk of fate. And since neither fighter bested the other in accordance with the rules of boxing, neither should be credited with such a success on their record – which is surely the whole point of having a “No Contest” ruling available in the first place.

Even assuming we go with the flawed but commonly accepted record number of defences as 20, the question then arises about whether Hopkins’ title run is really commensurate with past middleweight reigns. The problem is that, unlike with great fighters from eras of the past, for the majority of Hopkins’ reign up to three other men walked the Earth with a claim to being “the middleweight champion of the world.” It wasn’t until Hopkins defeated Felix Trinidad in 2001, unifying the IBF, WBC and WBA titles, that he became recognized as the lineal and undisputed middleweight champion. Then, in 2004 Hopkins defeated Oscar De La Hoya, adding the WBO title to his collection and becoming the really-really-undisputed champion. (You may wonder, if De La Hoya was a legitimate middleweight champion when facing Hopkins in 2004, why wasn’t De La Hoya’s WBO predecessor also considered legit when Hopkins faced Trinidad in 2001? Answer: It’s complicated).

So, depending on whether you count Hopkins’ reign as the middleweight champion beginning in 1995 when he defeated Segundo Mercado, or in 2001 when he beat Felix Trinidad, or in 2004 when he fully unified against De La Hoya – and depending on whether you want to count his non contest against Robert Allen as an actual contest – you can reasonably argue that Hopkins’ true record of defences is either 20, 19, six or one. Still with me? I did say it was complicated.

Compare this with the great Marvin Hagler, who took the undisputed (WBA & WBC) title in his very first championship win in 1980. Hagler defended those belts 11 times and collected the newly created IBF title along the way, making a total of 12 defences of the lineal crown. Or, better still, compare it to Carlos Monzon, who became the undisputed (WBA & WBC) middleweight champ in 1970. Monzon defended the WBA and lineal crown 14 times (the WBC stripped Monzon in 1974, but he re-unified the belts two years later). If you are of a mind to only count Hopkins’ “proper” title reign as beginning with his win against Trinidad – which, considering it came in a tournament specifically designed to crown a supreme champion in the division, seems reasonable – that would place his consecutive number of defences well behind both of these legends.

Which brings us back to the issue of Golovkin’s title run. Following his second-round victory over Vanes Martirosyan, Tom Loeffler, Golovkin’s promoter, tweeted that: “GGG tied the all time record for Middleweight Title defenses last Saturday” – a claim many fans and news outlets have taken and run with.

More discerning fight fans have pointed out that not only is Triple G’s reign tainted by the fact that other champions from rival organisations also held a claim to the middleweight throne during most of that time (as with Hopkins), for a significant period he also faced the absurdity of having a rival champion from within his own organisation. This ridiculous situation is thanks to the WBA, who in their finite wisdom looked at the plethora of titles available and decided they would help to sort out the mess by recognizing both a “regular” and a “super” world champion for each weight class (not forgetting the occasional “interim” champion as well). Naturally, we await the introduction of the WBA super-duper champion with bated breath.

When Golovkin first captured the WBA’s “interim” version of the 160lb world title in 2010, Felix Sturm was already recognized as their “super” champion. Sturm lost his super title to Daniel Geale in 2012 (who promptly vacated the belt), but it wasn’t until two more years later that Golovkin was finally elevated to the WBA’s super championship status. In other words, Golovkin’s first 11 “world” title victories were not even recognized as the highest form of world honours by his own governing body, never mind the wider boxing establishment.

As Triple G’s quest for the undisputed title gathered steam, he also picked up the WBC’s interim belt in 2014 and defeated IBF champ David Limieux the following year. Unfortunately, despite being almost universally regarded as the best fighter in the division by this point, “full” WBC and lineal middleweight champion at the time, Miguel Cotto, was in no hurry to face the marauding Kazakh. And with the WBC reluctant to enforce a fight between them, Golovkin had to wait a further year before finally being upgraded to the WBC’s full title status, making him WBA, IBF and WBC champion. By this point though, Golovkin was 16 defences into his reign – two later than Hopkins when he unified the same three belts.

And if all that wasn’t complicated enough, there’s also the small matter of the more prestigious lineal and undisputed championships – both of which, to this day, GGG has still not laid his hands on. Britain’s Billy Joe Saunders holds the rival WBO strap, so far preventing a clean-sweep of the Big Four belts for Golovkin. Meanwhile, Saul Alvarez earned lineal championship status in 2015, and technically still holds recognition as the number one in the division, having never officially lost that title in the ring.

Many will argue that Alvarez, who took over the lineage that stretches through Miguel Cotto, Sergio Martinez, Kelly Pavlik and Jermain Taylor all the way back to Hopkins, is undeserving of the title. And there is certainly some merit to this view: Canelo won and then defended the title in fights that were contracted at 155lbs, five below the middleweight championship limit of 160, then continued the trend set by Cotto and Martinez by refusing to face GGG in the ring for two whole years. When they finally did meet, only a controversial draw allowed Canelo to retain his status. The cold fact remains though that Triple G has never actually won the lineal title – the same one held by Messrs. Hopkins, Hagler and Monzon – regardless of what politics are to blame.

Golovkin himself was more than happy to invite comparisons between his own championship achievements and The Executioner’s, telling reporters prior to his last fight: “if you check Bernard’s opponents probably you understand that my record is much bigger, is much stronger.” The quality of their respective opposition is another debate for another time, but statistically speaking, Hopkins can justifiably point out that when it comes to the lineal and undisputed middleweight title, GGG is not even a member of the club yet.

Once upon a time when Hopkins was still the ruling middleweight champion of the world, I read an interview where he said, and I paraphrase from memory, “One day I’ll be the answer to a trivia question: ‘Who made the most successful defences of the middleweight title?’”

If Golovkin beats Canelo next weekend, he’ll certainly have a claim to holding that record – at least, a watered down version, anyway. But if you’re ever taking part in a pub quiz down at your local and they hit you with this zinger, my advice is to be careful how you answer. The truth is, it’s complicated.

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