The first time Tommy Howat watched Steve Rolls shadowbox, the trainer saw the makings of a future world champ — long arms, loose-limbed fluidity, and a creative way of stringing punches together.
Until then, Howat had only seen skills like that on video.
“I felt like I was watching Sugar Ray (Leonard). I felt like I was watching Thomas Hearns, all boiled up together,” Howat says. “I got goosebumps.”
Nineteen pro fights later, the moment serves as a metaphor for Rolls’ career. The Etobicoke-based middleweight is undefeated, and has shown tantalizing potential in sparring sessions with some of boxing’s heaviest hitters. But Rolls’ pro record lacks a signature win over a big-name fighter, leaving him and his team to imagine exactly how good the 35-year-old could be.
On Saturday night, the imagining stops.
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Rolls will face former middleweight champion Gennadiy Golovkin in a 12-round bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden, the type of career-defining fight he says he’s sought since turning pro. Saturday’s showdown is the first in Golovkin’s lucrative six-fight deal with the streaming service DAZN, and could be Rolls’ only chance to topple a boxing titan.
“It’s a business and (Golovkin) gave me an opportunity,” Rolls said before a recent workout. “Just because I haven’t been in the limelight doesn’t mean I don’t deserve it.”
When Rolls was first announced as the opponent for Golovkin’s DAZN debut, boxing fans reacted with derision online. Golovkin, after all, is one of the top handful of fighters on the planet, and racked up a record-tying 20 straight defences of his middleweight title. Rolls, meanwhile, is a regional champ who’s relatively unknown outside Toronto’s close-knit boxing community.
But when certain top boxers need a versatile sparring partner to help them train for tough fights, they call Steve Rolls. Local fighters such as Ajax native Brandon Cook have enlisted Rolls’ help, and so have world-class performers such as English middleweight Billy Joe Saunders. Rolls says the experience has exposed him to a variety of styles, and showed him he can hang with the middleweight division’s elite, even if he’s never faced them in competition.
“It gives me the confidence to know I belong,” said Rolls, who grew up in Chatham. “I’m going to have to use all the experience I’ve ever had. I know what I’m up against.”
Rolls’ coaches paid special attention to the fighters hired to sharpen him for his showdown with Golovkin. They brought in tall middleweight Patrice Volny from Ottawa and rugged light-heavyweight Shakeel Phinn from Montreal. They also summoned Brooklyn-based Ukrainian slugger Ievgen Khytrov.
Howat and co-trainer Ryan Grant said this six-week training camp has nudged Rolls’ skill level even higher, and they’re heading into Saturday’s bout with something stronger than confidence. It’s more like faith.
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“He’s stayed so loyal for so long, something’s got to give,” Grant said. “We’re trying to make the whole world go, ‘What the f— happened here tonight.’”
DAZN already knows that feeling.
Andy Ruiz’s upset win over DAZN’s heavyweight star, Anthony Joshua, short-circuited the streaming service’s plans to set up a big-money showdown between Joshua and Showtime-affiliated American heavyweight Deontay Wilder.
DAZN’s boxing strategy involves spending huge money on big names — they’re paying $ 365 million U.S. over 11 fights to Mexican star Saul (Canelo) Alvarez, the only fighter to defeat Golovkin. From there, they look to leverage star power to make the type of must-see megafights that used to live exclusively on pay-per-view. Joshua-Wilder would have been one. A third Alvarez-Golovkin bout is another.
Rolls fits into DAZN’s plan as a credible foil for Golovkin’s debut, and as a conduit to potential Canadian subscribers.
“He’s got a hell of an opponent to make a name for himself,” said Joe Markowski, executive VP of DAZN North America.
Grant says Rolls’ will benefit from his B-side status. He thinks Golovkin views Saturday’s bout as a stay-busy assignment, where Rolls sees a life-changing opportunity.
“I want this to play out as a marathon. Golovkin’s into sprinting, but let’s see how many laps he can do,” Grant says. “Golovkin thinks this is a tuneup, but this is the Indy 500.”
But Golovkin, who watched from ringside as Ruiz outclassed Joshua last Saturday, insists he’s treating Rolls as a challenger, and not a rehearsal for Alvarez.
“The Joshua fight showed me everything is possible,” Golovkin said during a media conference call. “I’m not thinking about (Alvarez). Zero per cent. My focus is on Steve Rolls.”
Golovkin left last September’s Alvarez rematch with a pair of black eyes, and enters Saturday’s bout at 37 with a new trainer. He split with long-time coach Abel Sanchez shortly after signing with DAZN, and hired Detroit native Jonathon Banks to guide the final phase of his career.
If those details suggest late-career vulnerability, Rolls says he’s not depending on them slowing Golovkin down.
“If I start looking at it like that, it can backfire,” Rolls says. “I’m preparing for the best Golovkin possible, the guy everybody was afraid to take fights with. I’m gonna have to go to hell and back.”
TALE OF THE TAPE
HOMETOWN: Karaganda, Kazakhstan
REACH: 70 inches
WEIGHT: 163 pounds
AMATEUR BACKGROUND: 2003 world middleweight champion. 2004 middleweight Olympic silver medallist.
PRO RECORD: 38-1-1 (34 KO)
TITLES: WBA, IBO world middleweight champ (2011-2018), WBC world middleweight champ (2014-2018)
LAST THREE BOUTS
Sept. 15, 2018: Lost a 12-round majority decision vs. Saul (Canelo) Alvarez.
May 5, 2018: Defeated Vanes Martirosyan by second-round knockout.
Sept. 17, 2017: 12-round split-decision draw vs. Alvarez.
HOMETOWN: Chatham, Ont.
REACH: 72 inches
WEIGHT: 163.8 pounds
AMATEUR BACKGROUND: Two-time national champion (2009, 2010). Quarterfinalist at 2009 world championships.
PRO RECORD: 19-0 (10 KO)
TITLES: NABF junior middleweight champion (2015). USBA middleweight champion (2018)
LAST THREE BOUTS
Dec. 15, 2018: Won a 12-round unanimous decision over KeAndrae Leatherwood.
April 18, 2018: Won an eight-round unanimous decision over Damian Ezequiel Bonelli.
Oct. 28, 2017: Defeated Andrik Saralegui by third-round TKO.
Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell