In professional boxing, the fight is not always won by the fighter who hits harder. More often, it is won by the fighter who hits hard enough to hurt the other guy.
Case in point: No heavyweight in history hit harder than Earnie Shavers. And yet, every one of the 14 losses he suffered in his 85 pro fights came against guys who couldn’t hope to crack like The Acorn, and seven of them came by KO. No disgrace in losing to the likes of Muhammad Ali or Larry Holmes, of course, but Shavers’ record is littered with KO losses to guys like Ron Stander, Tex Cobb and Brian yates, and in his highly-touted Madison Square Garden debut, Shavers was starched in one spectacular round by Jerry Quarry.
I point this out because on paper, Saturday night’s middleweight bout at the Garden between the fearsome Gennady Golovkin and the inspired, and inspiring, Daniel Jacobs, appears to be a mismatch.
Golovkin is unbeaten in 36 fights, has knocked out all but 3 of his opponents, and is as frightening to today’s middleweights as Mike Tyson was to the heavyweights 30 years ago. Not only has Golovkin never been beaten, neither has he been visibly hurt in the ring. Jacobs, by comparison, has been knocked down by the light-hitting Sergio Mora – Jacobs got up to win – and stopped, in his only pro defeat, by Dmitry Pirog back in 2010.
The question is not which of these two legitimate middleweights hits harder – no doubt, it is Golovkin – but which of the two hits harder to hurt the other?
The answer to that, too, would seem to be Golovkin.
And yet, there are enough seeds of doubt to make this a truly intriguing matchup, even with the wise boys in Vegas determining that Jacobs is a 7-1 underdog, and there are enough examples of the supposedly unbeatable fighter suddenly becoming quite beatable — Tyson again — that nothing is out of the question.
As the great A.J. Liebling once wrote, no human being deserves to be a 3-1 favorite over any other human being, the point being that all of us are made of the same fragile stuff that bruises, breaks and rattles if hit hard enough.
And whatever flaws there might be in Daniel Jacobs’ arsenal, punching power has never been one of them. His 32-1, 29 KO record might be slightly less gaudy than Golovkin’s, but the fact remains that he does, and has, hit hard enough to stiffen some legitimate 160-pounders, most notably his first-round KO of Peter Quillin in December 2015.
Even Golovkin, who does not lack for self-confidence, refuses to dismiss the possibility that Jacobs could turn out to be his Waterloo. “This is boxing,’’ he said at Monday’s final pre-fight news conference. “I think everybody has a chance.’’
This fully-rational belief is given further credence by Golovkin’s last outing, a surprisingly tough struggle with Kell Brook, a former welterweight making his first start at middleweight last September. Brook fought GGG on even terms for nearly five rounds before having to retire after suffering a fractured right eye socket from Golovkin’s relentless assault.
In fact, Brook was leading on one card and was even on the other two after four rounds. More enticingly, if you’re Jacobs, is the fact that not only did Brook hit Golovkin cleanly many times early in the fight, he even drew a reaction from a fighter whose in-ring demeanor is generally as expressive as one of the stone heads carved into Mt. Rushmore.
The reaction may not have been entirely what you might expect – after eating a solid left uppercut followed by a peach of a straight right to the chops, Golovkin smirked and waved Brook forward – but for Jacobs, the tape of that fight could serve as either a blueprint for victory, or the prelude to a nightmare.
On the one hand, Brook exposed some of Golovkin’s previously hidden vulnerabilities. On the other, it also seemed to show that if you hit him hard enough, all you’ll do is make him mad.
Jacobs – who has already overcome the real-life horror of osteosarcoma, an aggressive bone cancer that nearly killed him in 2011 – prefers, of course, to see the first interpretation.
“Brook shook him up,’’ Jacobs said. “I don’t know if you can say that he hurt him, but he shook him up. That’s why I’m excited. I know if I land those same shots it might have a different effect.’’
Jacobs has several on-paper advantages that make him appear to be a more than live underdog. At 30, he is nearly five years younger than Golovkin, and at six-feet tall, more than two inches taller. His hands are faster, his reach slightly longer and he can lay bricks with either fist.
But the question that hangs over every fight – and the one that is impossible to answer by watching fighters in action against different opponents and then imagining what they would do against one another – remains hanging in the air until first bell Saturday night: Does Jacobs hit hard enough to hurt Golovkin, or even slow his relentless charge?
And conversely, is Jacobs’ somewhat suspect chin sturdy enough to withstand an assault from a fighter who has knocked out his last 23 opponents, stretching back nearly a decade?
In some ways, Golovkin is reminiscent of Rocky Marciano, who the great Liebling once described as “clumsy’’ but “capable of occasionally doing something of great skill.’’ Golovkin is nobody’s idea of fast, he tends to loop his punches and he can be robotic, but only in the sense of a robot that can work non-stop without slowing down. He gets stronger as a fight wears on, and his opponents invariably grow weaker. He can break a guy’s spirit as easily as he can break an eyesocket.
As good a scouting report as you’ll ever get on GGG comes from Matthew Macklin, a former British middleweight contender who fought Golovkin in 2013. Their encounter lasted seven minutes, 22 seconds, and here’s how it went:
“I expected him to hit hard, but I wasn’t prepared for how patient he was. I tried to take him out of his game plan, but he was unfazed, really. I couldn’t ruffle his feathers. He started to break me down behind his jab, which felt like a right hand. The way he stalks you and cuts off the ring, he’s able to apply pressure without doing a lot. You’re moving, but you’re not moving at your leisure. You’re going where he wants you to go, at his pace. So after three rounds you feel like you’ve gone six rounds. I felt like I spent the whole fight in fifth gear in reverse while he was still in first gear. And you’re so preoccupied with your own defense you can’t really get your punches off.’’
The end came, mercifully, halfway through the third round, and it came not via brute force, but by cunning – after hitting Macklin with several right uppercuts followed by left hooks earlier in the fight, Golovkin changed things up by following his uppercuts with a vicious hook to the body.
“He caught me downstairs and broke two of my ribs,’’ Macklin said. “And that was that.’’
Consequently, Macklin said, “I do give Danny a chance, a slim chance, because he has good hands speed and he’s dangerous early. But I think he’d have to have a bit of luck.’’
Luck, alas, is one thing Golovkin seems to have outlawed in his fights.
To borrow from Liebling one more time – quoting Marciano’s cornerman Whitey Bimstein’s explanation of why Marciano was able to overwhelm Archie Moore – “Boxing is not like football. In football, both teams get a chance with the ball. Well, Rocky never gives you the ball.’’
Neither, so far, has Golovkin. And unfortunately for Danny Jacobs, that may render any other consideration meaningless.