Gennady Golovkin’s journey to the threshold of boxing history began on the streets of Karagandy, the gritty industrial town in Kazakhstan that is a world apart from the bright lights of Las Vegas.
As a boy growing up in the twilight of the Soviet Union, Golovkin’s elder brothers, Sergey and Vadim, had steered their younger sibling and his twin, Max, into boxing.
Golovkin still thinks of Sergey and Vadim every time he laces his gloves. By the time he had turned 12, both Sergey and Vadim had died while serving in the Soviet Army.
“My brothers first brought me to boxing,” Golovkin said last year. “I dedicate the fights to them and my father and fight for my family.”
The early promptings of his elder brothers set Golovkin on a path to the T-Mobile Arena, where on Saturday he faces a rematch with Mexico’s Saul “Canelo” Alvarez.
Victory will see the 36-year-old Kazakh world champion set a new record for consecutive middleweight title defences, moving him one clear of the mark he shares with former champion Bernard Hopkins.
For Golovkin’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, Saturday represents an opportunity for his fighter to seal his place in the pantheon of boxing greats. Sanchez believes Golovkin is already ranked in the top five middleweights of all time.
“The only reason I say top five is because I think he needs that signature fight, the legacy fight that people recognise,” Sanchez told AFP. “And I think this fight could be it.”
Sanchez has worked in Golovkin’s corner since 2011.
In late 2010, he received a phone call from a German manager asking to meet Golovkin at his gym in Big Bear, the picturesque mountain town 96 miles (154 kilometres) east of Los Angeles.
“When he first walked into my gym I thought he was a choir boy,” Sanchez said. “I thought ‘This kid couldn’t hurt a fly’. Seriously.”
Impressed by Golovkin’s credentials — around 350 amateur fights, a silver medal at the 2004 Olympics and an unbeaten start to his professional career — Sanchez agreed to train him.
A few months later, Golovkin arrived at his gym to start work.
“I would tell him to do things and he was so intelligent he would understand immediately,” Sanchez told AFP.
But it was not until Sanchez experienced Golovkin’s punching power that he understood the nature of the Kazakh fighter’s talent.
“After about 10 days of training, I started working with him on the mitts,” he recalled. “And after that first punch I thought to myself ‘Oh boy, have we got something here.’
“When he first hit the mitt with his right hand, I felt it all the way down to my toes. Definitely not a choir boy. And I said ‘This one’s going to be a good one.'”
Sanchez underscored his belief in Golovkin by writing a list of boxers ranked from one to 12 on a board in his gym.
“I put Muhammad Ali at No.1 and I left No.2 vacant, and then put Mayweather, Tyson, everybody else, down below that.
“I said to Gennady ‘If you give me three years, I promise you you’re going to be the best middleweight, you’re going to be undefeated, nobody’s going to want to fight you and you’re going to be knocking people out with body shots.
“And you’re going to be right there at No.2.’ He looked at me like I was crazy.”
Golovkin is now arguably the most feared finisher in boxing. Thirty-four of his 38 wins have come from knockout.
While Golovkin’s success has been founded on talent, but also a ferocious work ethic.
From the outset, Golovkin was drawn to the relative isolation of Sanchez’s Big Bear gym precisely because it was free of distractions.
“To this day he has never said to me ‘Coach I don’t want to do that, I don’t know how to do that, that’s impossible for me to do that’.
“He just listens and does exactly what I’ve asked of him.”
That dedication has led Golovkin all the way to this Saturday’s date with Alvarez in Las Vegas.
While Sanchez believes a decisive win over Alvarez will secure his legacy, he rejects suggestions that Golovkin owes his success to a “weak” middleweight division.
“None of the other middleweights in the top five of all-time have the knockout ratio that he has,” Sanchez said.
“They’ve never had 23 knockouts in a row, they’ve never dominated the division the way Gennady has now. Some people come back at me and say ‘Well it’s a weak division’. But you can’t tell me in 150 years of boxing or whatever that there’s never been a weak division.
“So I put him in the top five.”