Expect both Canelo and Golovkin to find mental strength from their previous meetings, writes sports psychology Chris Marshall
SAUL “CANELO” ALVAREZ heads into Saturday’s fight with Gennady Golovkin off the back a one-sided defeat to Dmitry Bivol but, back at super-middleweight – where he has had so much success – I would hope that he will relish their trilogy.
In his post-fight interview, after Bivol had been announced the winner, he accepted defeat. In his post-fight press conference an hour later he insisted he had won, but with the opportunity for reflection – however short – that genuinely may have been how he saw it. During the first instance his body would still have been in fight or flight mode, when hormones including adrenaline are surging around his body – which is extremely tiring. By the time of the second his body would have been working to reduce the stress response, and because it can do so so quickly it’s very possible he already believed he deserved victory.
He, regardless, is no longer being referred to as the pound-for-pound king – but you would hope that this wouldn’t unduly affect him. Focusing only on the things inside your control is always a far more effective approach for athletes. Despite defeat, he also remains the favourite to beat Golovkin – and as long as he remains confident in his approach and skills there is little reason his mindset should be unduly affected by this.
It is when a fighter is unsure that he can deal with the demands in front of them that the pressure increases – what is said or written about them doesn’t really matter, particularly given it is safe to assume that both fighters have the time and resources to train and physically and psychologically prepare as they need. They have also been in the ring with each other twice before, so if they manage their mindsets they can also be relied upon to know exactly what it is they need to do to secure victory.
For the first time in his career, at the age of 40, Golovkin will be fighting at 168lbs – and the heavier weight means that he could find himself tiring more quickly than he is used to. Psychologically, it is important that he spends plenty of time training and sparring at the heavier weight so that he can build his confidence in carrying his body around the ring. Despite his often impressive punch resistance he will also have to condition himself to take slighter harder and heavier shots, because the increase in weight and size also brings the potential for an increase in power.
I worked with Carl Froch for his rematch with George Groves, and for the first three-to-four rounds of sparring Rob McCracken matched him with lighter, quicker fighters to get him used to the speed they were anticipating from Groves. As the sparring continued, Rob used heavier sparring partners who would then hit Carl hard when he was tired. Ultimately, Carl’s confidence really grew in the knowledge that he could thrive in the early rounds when lots of punches were being thrown, and having repeatedly taken himself to a dark place when it got tough after the eighth round and beyond. The rewards for a fighter’s confidence from appropriate sparring cannot be underestimated.
Most fighters – Golovkin is unlikely to be different – are, come fight night, keen to take matters into their own hands and away from the judges, but not necessarily because of a wariness of the judges. Regardless of how he felt their previous two fights were scored, he cannot afford to become immersed in what the three judges this weekend may or may not do – it’s not worth expending the psychological energy. He’s never officially beaten Canelo, but there will be moments in their previous two fights that he’s able to reflect on and believe he had success, which could prove valuable. The opposite could even apply to Canelo, who has a victory over Golovkin on his record, but will know there were times that Golovkin was troubling him.
More so than before their previous two fights, both fighters have been critical of each other when speaking about their fight. There appears to be a greater level of emotion in their words than there has been historically. Only their responses to each other this week will make clear whether or not they have succeeded in getting under each other’s skin – if one of them becomes emotional then they will be at greater risk of making a mistake, whether by saying something they don’t want to and perhaps revealing something tactically or once they’re in the ring. Every time they stand face to face or listen to the other speak they’ll be watching for clues regarding how the other is thinking and feeling. Their emotional regulation, then, will also be important.
Chris Marshall is a sports and performance psychologist, who worked at the English Institute of Sport between 2009-2015, during which he spent five years with GB Boxing.