By Alex McClintock
With a nearly 90 percent KO rate and endearingly broken English, Kazakhstan's Gennady Golovkin has developed a cult following among boxing fans. By contrast, Daniel Geale, the man he will fight July 26 at Madison Square Garden, flies under the radar even in his native Australia.
"Most people around would say I'm shy," says the 33-year-old. "My wife, she's seen me for a lot of years and she knows how shy I was. She can see how much, especially as a professional, how I've come out of my shell. I'm definitely nowhere near as shy as I used to be."
As much as Geale says he's no longer shy, his bashfulness is a defining feature. He sheepishly searches for words in conversation and is at pains not to come off as overconfident or arrogant.
Everything about Geale is understated: he's managed by his wife Sheena, whom he met when he was nine. He trains in an airy, unintimidating gym in an industrial estate a few minutes from his home in Sydney's working class western suburbs. He drives a white Toyota ute (Australian for pick-up truck).
The Aussie, who is best known to U.S. audiences for his split-decision loss to Darren Barker in 2013, is surprisingly humble for a man who punches people in the face under the lights for a living.
While Geale credits boxing for giving him confidence, he has always played the role of quiet achiever in his professional career. In Australia's domestic boxing scene he has been the yin to Anthony Mundine's brash, trash-talking yang for half a decade. And as much as he would hate to admit it, you can't understand Geale as a boxer without understanding Mundine.
Most famous stateside for his "America's brought it upon themselves" comments in the aftermath of 9/11, Mundine has been an agent provocateur Down Under for nearly 20 years. Walking out of a rugby league career at his athletic peak to take up boxing, he's enjoyed a level of fame that Geale has never managed to approach. All of his fights have been on pay-per-view in Australia, from title bouts with the likes of Mikkel Kessler to lesser contests with journeymen like 43-year-old Bronco McKart.
Geale and Mundine first met in 2009. Mundine, the bigger attraction, won a close, controversial decision over his younger rival in an entertaining fight.
"I learned a lot about myself in that fight," says Geale. "I realized how far I could push myself. I pushed myself hard in that fight. It was a good, tough, entertaining fight. But I also knew that I had more left in me, that I could push harder. Even though I lost the decision, I didn't feel like I was beaten in the fight."
Geale wanted a rematch, Mundine didn't. So Geale got to work, quietly defeating all other domestic challengers before traveling to Germany (against the advice of many) to win a pair of middleweight titles from Sebastian Sylvester and Felix Sturm. Eventually, four years later, Mundine had to offer him another fight.
The rematch, though, was marred by more offensive trash talk from Mundine. He labeled Geale, who identifies as a Tasmanian Aborigine, an "Uncle Tom" and criticized him for marrying a white woman. The comments, coming only a few years after the government apologized for the systematic removal of children from Indigenous families, seemed an unwelcome step backwards in Australia's slow progress on race relations.
Geale won the fight easily, outworking and outboxing his rival, but the bitter taste of Mundine's pre-fight comments stuck in his mouth.
"Unfortunately, that's the way it goes," he sighs. "If you say silly things and do silly things, unfortunately you gain more attention. I guess as a sporting person if you're a little bit quieter and a little bit more reserved, you tend to get overlooked."
Brisbane Times boxing writer Phil Lutton agrees with that assessment, and notes that even today Geale still hasn't achieved Mundine's notoriety at home, despite having achieved more in the ring.
"Obviously, Geale is a far more accomplished fighter than Mundine at this point in time," Lutton says. "But Mundine remains a much better known figure, largely because of his background in rugby league and his gift of the gab."
Geale, however, isn't about to change. He didn't complain after his loss to Barker and doesn't have a bad word to say about Golovkin.
"He doesn't carry on, which is good to see," says Geale of his opponent. "It's something I've been saying for a few years: there can be gentlemen in this sport. Not all boxers have to act a certain way to gain attention."
The Australian and the Kazakh saw each other while promoting their fight, but it isn't the first time they've met. Golovkin beat Geale in the final of the 2001 East Asian Games when the pair were amateurs. Geale doesn't read too much into that result.
"Since then we're completely different fighters. There has been a lot of time since then. He had a lot of amateur experience, as did I, and I think you can't really look into that in any way. We were both young and a lot has changed since then."
Looking forward to their date at Madison Square Garden, though, Geale finds himself in a familiar position as an unheralded underdog. Despite the fact that he's easily the best opponent of Golovkin's career, few give him a chance against the Central Asian knockout artist. Not that it bothers him.
"That's something that I enjoy, to be honest," he says with quiet determination. "I like the fact that people just play that card straight away and see him as invincible and everybody that he hits he knocks out, because I've seen it many times over the years."
"At some point it does stop. I'm at the peak of my career and if I concentrate on myself rather than worrying what Golovkin can do, his knockout percentage and all that crap, then I know that I can beat the guy."