Features | Society | Central Asia

Gennady Golovkin and Kazakhstan’s Soft Power

The boxer is following a path first blazed by the Philippines’ Manny Pacquiao.

Gennady Golovkin and Kazakhstan’s Soft Power
Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Just weeks ahead of his April 23 bout, a boxer from Kazakhstan took a break from his training. The undefeated Gennady Golovkin flew to Washington D.C. to meet with Kazakhstani President Nursultan Nazarbayev late last month. In a short, private reception, Golovkin was named an ambassador for the 2017 Astana Expo, which will focus on the “Future of Energy” and will include the participation of more than 100 countries.

The expo is important for Kazakhstan. Having failed to secure the 2022 Winter Olympics (which went to Beijing) the expo will allow the Central Asian state to demonstrate its ability to host high-profile international events. The pavilions will focus on cutting carbon dioxide emissions, energy efficiency, and similar topics, all housed with a purpose built exhibition hall that will be converted into a Museum of the Future once the event finishes.

The March meeting in Washington D.C. was followed by a press conference and photo opportunity at Kazakhstan’s embassy, where Golovkin enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate his rising star power with the media. The 34 year-old boxer has almost a boyish shyness in front of the microphone. Golovkin told the media he was just as concerned about the future of energy as he is about the kinetic energy of his fists: “This issue is important even not just for me but for humanity as a whole. As an informed person, I understand the need for events like this to address environmental issues,” he said. Even prior to the event, Golovkin had been spotted wearing the EXPO 2017 Logo on his shorts in his recent fights.

The Kazakh embassy is housed in a historic building that was once the home of the relatives of William Tecumseh, the Civil War general whose famed “March to the Sea” ravaged its way through the Confederacy in 1864. Golovkin, who holds the highest knockout percentage in middleweight boxing history (91 percent), has dealt similarly with his opponents on his way towards the lineal and undisputed middleweight championship. When asked if he was the hardest puncher in middleweight boxing, Golovkin declined the honor. “No, I don’t think so. I do want to thank all the fans who think this of me,” he said with a grin.

In 2005, the Kazakhstani government-funded film Nomad was released. Its $40 million budget making it one of the most expensive films ever made outside Hollywood. Though reviews were positive, the film did little to offset the country’s status as the punchline it became in the West after the 2006 film Borat. In more recent years, however, Golovkin has destroyed that embarrassing image one punch at a time, and as his naming of ambassador for the Astana 2017 EXPO suggests he is an important part of Kazakhstan’s soft power. In this role, he is following a path to global stardom first blazed by Manny Pacquiao.

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Golovkin, who is ethnically Russian and Korean, may be the world’s most famous Kazakhstani. He has been profiled in international magazines and featured in an Apple I-watch commercial. He has also caught the attention of American sport stars. Basketball legend Michael Jordan met with Golovkin and later named him only the third boxer to become part of Nike’s Jordan brand. He is also the only non-American born of the three.

Lessons of Pacquiao

Nike recently moved to end its relationship with Manny Pacquiao, who “retired” this month to pursue a senate seat in the Philippines. In many ways the surprising route that Golovkin has taken was paved by Manny Pacquiao. The American market is boxing’s largest, with fights in Las Vegas earning millions more than fights in Europe or Macau. But until the emergence of Pacquiao, foreign fighters found it difficult to crack the American market. Former heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis never figured out the formula for popularity in the United States, and nor did Vitali Klitscko, a Ukrainian heavyweight who is now the mayor of Kiev. Both had the high knockout percentage that fans like, but none of the charisma.

In 2001, Pacquiao took a championship fight on short notice on the undercard of a Mike Tyson fight. It was Pacquiao’s first fight in the United States and his first outside of Asia. Just like Pacquiao, Golovkin has shown a willingness to take on any fighter, a far cry from the hand-picked opponents of other boxing stars like Floyd Mayweather.

Pacquiao cobbled together a fan base of boxing fans and the 3.4 million strong Filipino-American population in the United States. Filipino fans were slow to take to Pacquiao, but when they eventually did, it was with gusto. In 2006, when Pacquiao knocked out Erik Morales in a rematch in Las Vegas, Filipino-American fans and the Filipino politicians who had flown in just for the fight spontaneously stood and sang the national anthem after Pacquiao won the fight.

Unlike Pacquiao, Golovkin has only been fighting in the U.S. since 2012 and has a much smaller built-in fan base. The number of Russian speakers in the United States is no more than 1 million. Golovkin, though, is part Korean and has tried to build his profile amongst the 1.7 million-strong Korean-American population as well. While Pacquiao maintained his popularity with fights in the Philippines and Macau, Golovkin may also opt eventually to take a fight in Seoul as well.

Pacquiao ultimately became sufficiently mainstream to appear on late night talk shows and commercials for products like Hewlett Packard. Given Pacquaio’s draw, American politicians in recent years have sought out his endorsement, including Nevada Senator Harry Reid, California Governor Jerry Brown, and Republican politicians like Hawaii’s Duke Aiona. The 37-year old Pacquiao became a congressman in the Philippines in 2010 and has clear aspirations for the presidency. But before he can move into Malacañang Palace he must win his senatorial race on May 9.

Golovkin has no apparent political ambitions but, is certainly attracting political attention. Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev isn’t the only politician to have sought him out. Kazakhstani diplomats and other notables traveled to New York’s Madison Square Garden last November specifically to see Golovkin.

So many were there, in fact, that advertisement for banks in Kazakhstan filled the arena. “He’s very important for Kazakhstan’s image abroad,” a Kazakhstani envoy told The Diplomat at the Washington D.C., presser, as dozens of embassy staff and members of the media posed for photos with the champion. American politicians are coming around too. Last November, Republican Presidential Candidate Donald Trump took a break from the campaign trail to meet with Golovkin in his dressing room before his most recent fight. Conveniently for Trump, the event was broadcast to millions via the fight’s pay-per-view broadcast.

Joseph Hammond is a freelance writer and former correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.