Gennady Golovkin eagerly dips a spoon into the bowl of blood-red borscht before him, going to work on the soup with gusto while friends and fellow fighters chat all around him in a lively Russian restaurant.
The Kazakh boxer who lives in Germany and trains in California knows how to enjoy a little taste of home wherever he can get it. The WBA middleweight champion is comfortable on three continents — and the way his career is going, the rest of the boxing world should know his name very soon.
Golovkin (23-0, 20 KOs) makes his American debut Saturday night, fighting Poland's Grzegorz Proksa at a casino in upstate New York. Already a world citizen, Golovkin is determined to conquer the U.S. — and he's got the might of the Klitschko brothers' promotional company behind him.
"This is my dream, my first fight in America," Golovkin said in his ever-improving English — his fourth language, by the way. "Maybe the next fight is in New York, in Vegas, but now, I'm very happy."
After a deliberate amateur career that took him out of Kazakhstan to the Athens Olympics, where he beat Andre Dirrell on the way to a silver medal, Golovkin is eager to take on the world's best middleweights immediately. His major knockout power and minor name recognition have made it difficult to get his calls returned, but Golovkin's camp is confident his first HBO appearance will tantalize boxing fans and move him up the list in a deep division.
His boyish face has almost no pugilistic scars, but the 30-year-old Golovkin is eager to show North America he's a fighter.
"He's going to be one of the good guys to root for in boxing," said Tom Loeffler, the managing director of K2 Promotions, the Klitschko brothers' company. "We don't sign a lot of fighters, but we went out of our way for Gennady. He won't just be limited to the Russian-speaking community, because his style will come across to boxing fans, and people will want to see him fight."
Golovkin has been a poorly kept secret for several years since his amateur career. He beat several of that sport's biggest names, including Lucian Bute, Andy Lee, Matvey Korobov, Daniel Geale and Dirrell — but until a messy divorce from his previous promotional company about two years ago, Golovkin fought almost exclusively in Germany, his adopted home.
Golovkin was determined to become a worldwide name, dreaming of following in the Klitschko brothers' footsteps by fighting in Madison Square Garden and Staples Center. He signed with K2 and went into training in Big Bear, Calif., with Abel Sanchez, the veteran trainer behind Terrible Terry Norris and many other top talents.
Sanchez was stunned by Golovkin's talent, and impressed by his attitude from their first meeting. He's trying to add Mexican-style aggression to Golovkin's Soviet-style amateur discipline, hopefully producing a fearsome hybrid champion.
"I have a chalkboard in the gym, and I wrote Ali's name, Floyd Mayweather's name and his name," Sanchez said. "I told him, 'You could be right there.' He was all sheepish, but once I felt his hands, and I saw how smart he was in the ring and how he caught on — sheesh. He's going to be the most-avoided fighter in boxing, or he's going to get the chance he deserves."
When Golovkin is asked to list his favorite fighters, his eyes light up. He worships American champions: Sugar Ray Robinson, Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Leonard and Muhammad Ali.
"I like the middles," Golovkin said. "Fast, strong guys who are good athletes, who have good conditioning."
Although he plans to keep living in Stuttgart with his wife and 3-year-old son, Golovkin's determination to be an American success keeps him in Big Bear, high in the mountains above Los Angeles, for two or three months at a time. He kills time between workouts with trips to the movies and the ice cream parlor, also playing basketball and volleyball to drive away the boredom.
Russia's Dmitry Pirog, another intriguing and undefeated middleweight, originally was scheduled to be Golovkin's opponent in this bout, but an injury sidelined him. Proksa (28-1, 21 KOs) is respected, but even less well-known than Golovkin.
If Golovkin beats Proksa in impressive fashion, he hopes to get the attention of stars Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. or Sergio Martinez, who will meet Sept. 15 in Las Vegas. He would also enjoy fighting Felix Sturm, the German champion who won't return his calls back home.
And before he finishes off that borscht and digs into some vareniki, Golovkin confirms he'll go anywhere to do it.
"People are going to see what a singular talent he is," Loeffler said. "We're really looking to build upon this first fight."