Before Golovkin...

Andrew Harrison
04/08/2016 8:51am

When Boxing Monthly caught up with Kell Brook back in May, the IBF welterweight titlist sounded like a frustrated fighter. At the time, a unification bout with his WBO counterpart from California, Jesse Vargas, had been mooted to take place at his dream venue of Bramall Lane (the home of his beloved Sheffield United) yet there was a sense that Brook craved something bigger. Something huge.

Few, though, could have imagined what was to come. On 8 July, after negotiations between middleweights Gennady Golovkin and Chris Eubank Jr. broke down at the 11th hour, Brook dropped the bombshell that he was stepping into the breach. He would challenge Golovkin for the Kazakhstani’s WBA, IBF, IBO and WBC middleweight world titles on 10 September 10 in London.

Many have suggested it is a forlorn task. The TNT-fisted “Triple G” Golovkin is on a 22-fight knockout streak and is probably the most avoided middleweight since Marvelous Marvin Hagler. Brook, though, isn’t easily discouraged.

Brook’s 12 years in the pros have veered between intermittent highs and harrowing lows. After tearing to 14-0 as a 20-year-old prospect, Brook was attacked by a gang outside Sheffield’s once notorious Cactus Club, stabbed multiple times and left for dead.

Brook, though, who recently turned 30, was fated for spotlights, not street lights. He bit down on his mouthpiece, and within two years he’d secured the 147lbs Lonsdale belt outright, before bracing for a logjam of world title eliminators. The reward was an ill-starred crack at American IBF champion Devon Alexander. Throughout 2013, the match with Alexander fell apart three times (after first Brook, then Alexander and then Brook again, succumbed to injury).

Alexander went his own way, only to be dethroned by then-unbeaten Ohioan Shawn Porter, whose rambunctious fighting style had earned rave reviews in the U.S. In August 2014, Brook neutralised the highly-regarded “Hawk” Porter over 12 rounds in Carson, Los Angeles. It remains “Special K’s” career-high point.

Ten days later, the new champion was staggering, caked in blood, through the terracotta lanes of San Miguel de Abona, Tenerife. Attacked with a machete on a celebratory night out while holidaying on the Spanish island, Brook was left in critical condition. Thirty-five staples held his left leg together, and with it, his career.

He returned once more, to wipe the floor with three over-matched opponents (a rib injury cost him a date with the more robust Diego Chaves in October 2015). Illogically, in a division teeming with talent, two of those – Ionut (Jo Jo) Dan Ion and Kevin Bizier – were deemed the IBF’stop contenders. Both contests resembled a classic winner romping around a maiden chase at Pontefract. 

Yet again, Brook had proven a level above anyone outside of the cream at 147lbs. He explained that he was done treading water.

“I’d like to fight the very best out there one after another,” Brook told BM at the time. “I’m in the third trimester of my career now and I wanna be involved with some massive names and some massive fights. I’ve had bad injuries and I’ve had things happen in my career, and I’m ready to be tested. Really, really tested at the highest level. I’ve been tested against Porter when I took the title, and I’m ready to do it again.”

One of boxing’s more curious paradoxes is: the finer the fighter, the harder it can be to land the biggest bouts (unless they possess the crossover appeal of a Floyd Mayweather, which is rare). A world title often doesn’t help in that regard; in fact, belts can come at a cost (aside from the extortionate sanctioning fees they levy on the holder). Brook explained his frustration, and how he’s strived to stay motivated in spite of it.

“It is [difficult] when you get to this level,” he explained. “The people behind the fighters, most of the time they don’t want them to be in the big fights, where it’s very high-risk for them. If they’re unbeaten fighters, or if they’re the flavour of the month, they want to keep them winning. They like to pick the right fights for them. And I get all that. But I think that now, it’s time where we need to have a big fight.

“I obviously stay professional and work hard. I’m very competitive, so I’m always chasing the Ingle fighters down on the track. Or, if I’ve got numerous sparring partners and they’re all trying to take my head off, I’ve got to be on my game. I’m always looking to push on in the gym, so I don’t overlook my opponents.

“I think that, you know, boxing should change. We should see the top fighters fighting the top fighters, because we want to bring that exciting aspect to the game, where the fans are split and we get everyone tuning in [from] all over the world to watch these kind of fights. Instead of one-sided fights.”

Brook speaks like he fights: cool, precise but all-business. He’s from the Steel City; although, little Ezekiel “Kell” Brook grew up amid a former industrial powerhouse haunted by its past. Once the epicenter of steel production in Britain, Sheffield went from boom to bust in the 1980s. The families of those who had toiled in the steelworks’ extreme conditions inherited a hardiness; a flint-edged defiance. Attitude. All of the best Ingle Gym fighters have it. It’s in the eyes. Even when they’re smiling, their eyes betray a sneer.

For a fighter of his ilk, vilification for facing opponents he was obligated to, has been difficult to take.

“It is, but what can you do?” he protested. “You’ve got mandatories. You’ve got certain things you have to do. There’s no side-stepping. You’ve got to deal with the mandatories. It is hard when I see [criticism] on social media sites. I’m biting my lip.

“At the end of the day I’m doing my job and I’m beating whoever’s put in front of me. And I’ve been screaming out that I want these massive names. I wanna be in fights where I’m scared and excited about proving myself. I want those [opponents] that’ll bring the very best out of me.”

In Golovkin, Brook has secured the ultimate challenge he’d been craving. His reputation will be evaluated based on how well he performs against a bone-breaking menace he isn’t expected to beat (Brook is a long shot 5-to-1 underdog). Brook viewed the final stage of his career as the defining one and promised there was more to come.

“Every fight’s very crucial,” he said. “You know, Bizier’s not been stopped before. [He’s a] very tough and durable kinda guy. I took him out in two rounds in style and that’s what I should be doing. I should be doing that if I’m the fighter I say I am – which I am.

“That wasn’t me [in the Bizier fight], really. Yeah, I was very fit and very ready, but I always bring something special out when I’m in with somebody very, very good also.”

His third title defence unfolded in a now well-worn pattern. Brook established his jab from a solid base (he always appears well-balanced) and then worked the challenger onto his straight right. These two punches are Brook’s bread and butter. Immediately rattled, the challenger began winging at Brook, who switched stances intuitively to whip home uppercuts and left hooks. Out gunned and unable to retaliate, the Canadian visitor visibly sagged at the bell. Before the end of round two, he was bloodied, wobbled, dropped twice and beaten.

When asked to critique his welterweight rivals (Brook has retained his IBF welterweight title, in spite of his move up to 160 lbs), his interest waned. Brook didn’t want to talk about his peers. He wanted to fight them. The message was clear: just get him a big fight already.

“It’s like I’m there but I’m not there,” he said regarding his place among boxing’s leading lights. “I want a big fight where people are like: “wow, this is the real deal, this kid’s a real fighter” and then I’ll push on from that. And [then] I’m in the elite. A lot of people know [how good I am] who are around me, but the world needs to know that I’m here to stay."