For upwards of 20 years, Mike Tyson fought with tar in his belly and malice clenched in both hands – double-edged weapons he’d earned as a fat kid with a lisp and a sensitive soul growing up in the dark heart of Brooklyn’s Brownsville neighborhood. By the back half of the 1980s, he was regarded as the living embodiment of violence: Tyson was a menace to all he encountered outside the ring. Inside it, he made professionally dangerous men tremble, taking them apart in a hail of physical malevolence, then stewing and festering and often coming unhinged until the next opportunity arose to beat another professionally dangerous man senseless.
Tyson was an aberration, if not quite unique. Sam Langford had known hard times, then showed them to his opponents. Jake LaMotta was a monster. Sonny Liston’s old man left him scarred. First Act George Foreman was pure savagery. Carlos Monzon and Edwin Valero had been guided by demons. Some fighters are hard-wired for wrath, and woe to the poor mook who shares a canvas with them.
Yet you don’t choose anger. Tyson no more chose anger than one could opt for a common cold. Anger – the bone-deep fury forged in the seventh circle of New York’s tenements, shaped in an early life shot through with fear, shame and resentment – is a virus that infects without agency from the host. Real anger crawls under your skin and boils you inside-out. Real anger chooses you.
All of which is a roundabout way of arriving at the narrative being peddled ahead of Saturday’s rematch between Gennady Golovkin and Canelo Alvarez from the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada on HBO Pay Per View. You won’t find it on the official fight poster, but it reads something like this: “These dudes are mad, bro. Really.” Golovkin, the unbeaten Kazakh middleweight, is aggrieved by any number of his opponent’s transgressions: from Alvarez’s alleged cheating ways, to the outcome of the fighters’ first clash (ruled a draw), to a lack of respect from Canelo’s camp, to quite possibly the challenger’s off-putting taste in musica norteña (we can only assume). Alvarez, meanwhile, is incensed by … Golovkin’s umbrage?
Golovkin (38-0-1, 34 KO) calls Alvarez a liar. Alvarez says Golovkin whines. GGG claims he has seen “injection marks” all over Canelo’s body. Canelo 49-1-2 34 KO) says he’s lost respect for GGG. Gennady dismisses claims that Saul’s positive test for the steroid clenbuterol – which scuttled the rematch for four months – can be explained away by tainted meat. Saul finds Gennady’s accusations to be “offensive.” It’s a wonder, frankly, that Liston himself hasn’t risen from the grave during this Real Housewives heel-throwing session to punch both men’s teeth down their respective throats.
In boxing, the utility of anger is restricted to the purview of the angry. (Read: That shit had better be real.) Confrontation and villainy can be great fun during weigh-ins and ring walks, but ginned-up animosity evaporates instantly in the face of actual combat. You can literally spit in the face of Goliath, but if you don’t have the sand and the skill (looking at you, Dereck Chisora), the big man with the smokestack jab is gonna pound you.
The fight network (HBO) could air its cartoonishly goofy promos on a 24/7 loop – Look, GGG and Canelo are literally throwing bombs! – and still fail to convince fans who’ve been paying attention for more than a minute that any supposed rancor has meaning or import in the rematch. Both men are patient and calculating, assets undermined by ill temper. Fitness? You could bounce a dime off either man in the days leading up to any one of their fights. Canelo arguably has the better feet, but I’d put the fighters’ ring generalship at about even. Don’t let anyone fool you: Golovkin has the superior power, but he’s 36 and, following a string of 23 consecutive stoppages, has now been taken the distance in two of his past three fights.
The first fight demonstrated only how evenly matched the fighters are, as Golovkin hedged his trademark aggression with a dash of discretion and Alvarez took the blows other GGG foes couldn’t in order to get off his counter-heavy attack. If you think their initial 12 rounds of back-and-forth revealed all the unknowable secrets of this matchup to your eyes only, you may just be Abel Sanchez.
If you’re betting your last dime, the smart play is Golovkin. His power remains transcendent when he’s able to land squarely, and Alvarez’s stated goal of a knockout – in the first round, no less – would theoretically plant him in GGG’s wheelhouse from the opening bell. Does Golovkin overextend himself looking a bit too eagerly to drop Canelo and avoid the scorecards a second time? If he does, and if Canelo counters with his best stuff, we can’t be sure it’ll matter: In the 9th round of the first fight, Alvarez landed a blazing right hand that spun GGG’s exposed chin a quarter turn and bounced him onto his back foot. It was met by Golovkin with all the casual indifference of a Bond villain.
So whether Golovkin has the red ass over what he believes are Canelo’s dalliances with the testosterone gods isn’t likely to change his fighting style honed over a lifetime. If anything, he’s likely to lean back into his traditionally aggressive fight strategy – no indignation necessary. Furthermore, Canelo can swallow gunpowder and wash it down with rhino piss to get up his own dander, for all I care. Even if he’s been dining daily on that Guadalajara ribeye, his hostility will be as consequential to the fight as the color of his trunks.
There’s a great lyric from Joe Strummer that once inspired a legion of brooding young Brits living on the dole to resist the Establishment: Let fury have the hour, anger can be power/You know that you can use it. But Saturday, in a Las Vegas ring shared by a Kazakh and a Mexican, who together combine for all the inherent villainy of a Wal-Mart greeter, it’s just a line from a bang-on Clash tune.
(LAS VEGAS– Canelo Alvarez, left, and Gennady Golovkin fought to a split draw on Sept. 16, 2017; Photo by Joe Camporeale, USA TODAY Sports)