At 40 -- and 16 months since his last fight -- can Gennadiy Golovkin show he's still Canelo Alvarez's match?

Gennadiy Golovkin and then-trainer Abel Sanchez, right, believed they deserved a victory in the September 2018 rematch against Canelo Alvarez. Tom Hogan/Golden Boy/Getty Images

Gennadiy Golovkin stormed through the red, white and blue ropes encompassing the ring in disgust and made a beeline for his dressing room.

He wasn't interested in sticking around at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas for the customary postfight interview. What was left to be said? Golovkin firmly believed he had defeated Canelo Alvarez yet again, just as he had felt one year earlier.

There was a blank stare on Golovkin's face as the twin tallies of 115-113 rendered Alvarez the winner in their September 2018 rematch, a verdict that ended Golovkin's five-plus-year reign as middleweight champion and handed him his first career defeat at 36 years old.

Golovkin's lucrative run fighting on HBO ended with that bout, but he quickly linked up with DAZN for a six-fight deal worth up to $100 million that guaranteed him a third crack at Alvarez -- or so he thought. More than 3½ years later, the trilogy bout still hasn't materialized, but Golovkin's opportunity to settle the score appears to be closer than ever before.

If Golovkin can topple Ryota Murata on Saturday in Saitama, Japan, in a middleweight title unification bout, he'll move to the precipice of a grudge match he -- and the world -- has been waiting for. A Golovkin victory paired with an Alvarez win over Dmitry Bivol on May 7 should set up the fight that finally, once and for all, will bring closure to one of boxing's greatest rivalries.

Since they last met, is Golovkin still the same elite boxer who tore through the middleweight division and fought Alvarez on even terms twice?

Golovkin's fight with Murata -- the Japanese boxer's first since December 2019 -- figures to deliver some clarity on GGG's form just one day after his 40th birthday. The path to a third meeting with Alvarez, slated for Sept. 17 on DAZN PPV, has featured numerous twists, turns and legal hurdles, and Murata is the final roadblock.

How can it be four years in the making for boxing to deliver what is clearly one of its biggest commercial matchups?

"That is a question you should ask Canelo," Golovkin, a native of Kazakhstan who trains in Los Angeles, told ESPN through an interpreter. "After the rematch, when everyone wanted to see a third fight, he did everything he could to avoid it. He even took his promoter to court. Who knows?"

ALVAREZ AND GOLOVKIN find themselves on a collision course once again, but much has changed. In the 3½ years that have passed, Alvarez has firmly established himself not only as boxing's top star but as the universally recognized pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter. At 31, the Mexican boxer is undoubtedly at his peak and is currently the undisputed super middleweight champion.

Golovkin, meanwhile, has endured long stretches of inactivity marked by some lackluster performances. His matchup with Murata isn't simply a precursor to a high-stakes showdown with Alvarez, it's an opportunity for Golovkin to prove he is still elite and capable of hanging with his archnemesis while in the twilight of his career.

"The motivating part is that he's fighting Canelo," said Abel Sanchez, who was Golovkin's trainer from 2010 until they parted ways following the Alvarez rematch. "Make sure [Murata] doesn't make you look bad and people start doubting you. There's no way he'll doubt himself. I would not like to see it get to a point where people are saying he shouldn't fight [Alvarez].

"If he's aggressive with Murata and doesn't take too many shots, maybe you'll all say he's ready for Canelo now. But if he gets hit a lot and it gets to Round 9 or 10, the fact a guy can carry him for that long will just put doubts in your mind about that matchup in September."

Golovkin's deal with DAZN kicked off in June 2019 with a fourth-round knockout of journeyman Steve Rolls. When he entered the ring for his first fight since the loss to Alvarez, Golovkin did so with a new chief second: Johnathon Banks.

"Canelo is the strongest athlete and boxer I have faced. I thought I won the first two, so winning the third one would be the same to me. Nothing would change for me." Gennadiy Golovkin

The successful run with Sanchez, training in the mountains of Big Bear, California, had ended acrimoniously following a dispute over money, according to Sanchez. In need of a new trainer, Golovkin looked to Banks, a disciple of Hall of Fame coach Emanuel Steward, who had helped former heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko enjoy success and longevity.

All seemed to be going swimmingly for Golovkin (41-1-1, 36 KOs), before he met Sergiy Derevyanchenko four months later in what appeared to be a prelude to a third bout with Alvarez in 2020. Derevyanchenko was a legitimate top-10 middleweight, but this was Golovkin he was fighting. Derevyanchenko was expected to present a stern challenge but never threaten to win the vacant title up for grabs.

Instead, Golovkin struggled to a controversial decision victory in one of the best action fights of that year. Derevyanchenko landed 230 punches, the most absorbed by Golovkin in 26 bouts, according to CompuBox.

Promoter Eddie Hearn revealed afterward that Golovkin had been ill all week, which could help explain the unimpressive performance that began his second title reign. But in the 30 months since the win over Derevyanchenko, Golovkin has competed only once, a seventh-round TKO of fringe contender Kamil Szeremeta in December 2020.

Golovkin dropped Szeremeta four times in the victory -- a mandatory title defense of the IBF title GGG won from Derevyanchenko -- but Golovkin appeared a bit slower than usual. Perhaps he was unmotivated when faced with an opponent so far below his level. And considering Szeremeta's quality, it seems the boxing world is still judging Golovkin based on the fight with Derevyanchenko. Maybe he's still the same Golovkin who ripped through the middleweight division and became a pound-for-pound star. The same fighter who owns one of boxing's best chins and endeared himself to fans with catchphrases like "Big Drama Show."

"It has been frustrating. All I will say is this inactivity has not been my fault," said Golovkin, who formerly sparred with both Alvarez and Murata long before the future opponents were champions. "I made a commitment to Ryota Murata and his team that he would be the next fight after my mandatory defense against Szeremeta, and I honored that promise.

"This fight has had numerous postponements that were unavoidable. I choose to look forward and cannot wait to return to the ring soon. It is almost here."

The Golovkin-Murata matchup first was first explored in 2019 because DAZN has long owned a major foothold in Japan, and Murata is the country's biggest star, even ahead of bantamweight champion Naoya Inoue.

But there were numerous complications. Japan is among the nations with the strictest COVID-19 restrictions, and there was worry that if the fight took place in 2020 and was canceled due to the pandemic, it could impact the Olympic Games in Tokyo slated for that summer.

Numerous attempts to stage the fight in 2021 were stymied by the ongoing restrictions in Japan, before the bout was finally set for Dec. 29. Golovkin was in camp in South Florida when the omicron variant outbreak led to Japan's banishment of foreign visitors, and the fight was postponed once again.

Considering Murata's star power in Japan, this matchup with Golovkin is one of the nation's biggest boxing bouts in history, and moving it stateside wasn't a realistic consideration. So the fight was eventually shifted to April, and after nearly 16 months outside the ring, it's impossible to know Golovkin's current form.

Before the pandemic struck, Golovkin planned to fight twice in 2020. He has always been an active fighter since turning pro in 2006, following his silver medal run at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. He often competed three times annually during his title reign but never less than twice. He shares the record for most middleweight title defenses (20) with the legendary Bernard Hopkins.

But before Golovkin could fight in 2020, DAZN officials attempted to renegotiate his deal, which gave him the option to purchase equity in the streaming service. DAZN, which charges a monthly or annual subscription fee, relies on live sports rights to sustain its business. And with the majority of sporting events paused during the pandemic, DAZN sought to halt payment of rights fees to its various worldwide partners, including Major League Baseball.

After months of negotiations, Golovkin eventually agreed to a reduced guarantee for a December 2020 fight with Szeremeta, whom he owed a title shot after the defeat of Derevyanchenko. But Golovkin missed out on a bout in the first half of 2020.

There was interest in a matchup between Golovkin and Jaime Munguia, a former 154-pound titleholder co-promoted by Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions, but Golovkin's issues with Golden Boy made the prospect of the bout a nonstarter for the first half of 2020.

Golden Boy still owed Golovkin $9,025,351 in financial upside from the rematch with Alvarez, per court documents. And Golovkin wasn't interested in doing business with a fighter promoted by that company until the dispute was settled.

According to a lawsuit filed by Golovkin last month in California, he was entitled to 45% of all gross revenue -- including gate receipts, sponsorship, pay-per-view revenue, closed-circuit TV and international TV rights -- after Golden Boy received the first $2.5 million in net ticket revenues. Golovkin said he was paid $9,025,351 by July 6, 2021, but he is still seeking at least $3 million in damages.

The lawsuit wouldn't affect Canelo-GGG 3. DAZN brass also tried to renegotiate Alvarez's deal before he sued the broadcaster and his then-promoter, Golden Boy. Alvarez was released from his 11-fight, $365 million deal with DAZN after the lawsuit was settled in November 2020, making him a promotional free agent.

Since the settlement, Alvarez has competed four times; all but one of those bouts were promoted by Hearn's Matchroom Boxing and broadcast on DAZN. In total, Alvarez has entered the ring seven times since his September 2018 rematch with Golovkin, including a brutal knockout of Sergey Kovalev to win a light heavyweight title.

Alvarez then dropped down to 168 pounds and was crowned undisputed champion following victories over Callum Smith, Billy Joe Saunders and, most recently, Caleb Plant.

The potential third bout with Alvarez would require Golovkin to make his debut as a 168-pound fighter and present the chance for him to become not just a two-division champion but undisputed at super middleweight.

How will the jump to 168 pounds impact Golovkin?

"That is a question that will be answered on the night of the fight," Golovkin said. "Even 2 pounds can affect a fighter in a good way or a bad way."

No matter how the matchup is viewed from a competitive standpoint, it's sure to be a financial bonanza for both fighters. The first two bouts generated more than 1 million pay-per-view buys apiece, in addition to more than $50 million in total gate receipts in Las Vegas for both fights combined.

"I think it is the biggest fight that is feasible," Golovkin said. "There could be others, but the boxing business prevents them from being made. The reason I think it is a big fight is because we have already given the fans two fantastic fights.

"A lot of people from around the world watched them. The fans know what to expect, and I think they want to see more of what we gave them the first two times."

GOLOVKIN, RANKED AS ESPN'S No. 2 middleweight, was certain he bested Alvarez when they first met in September 2017, a bout that was declared a majority draw after a controversial scorecard from judge Adalaide Byrd. No matter; Golovkin hoped to set the record straight in the rematch. But before they could fight on Cinco De Mayo weekend in 2018, Alvarez tested positive for the banned substance clenbuterol.

The adverse finding set off a firestorm of controversy that created plenty of bad blood between the pound-for-pound greats. Golovkin commented that on second thought, he had noticed track marks on Alvarez's arms, proof to him that the Mexican star had injected a performance-enhancing substance.

The remarks didn't sit well with Alvarez, who maintained his innocence all along and insisted the evidence of clenbuterol was the result of tainted beef he had consumed in his native Guadalajara. Alvarez promised to bring the fight to Golovkin the second time around and make him pay. Alvarez did just that by applying nonstop pressure instead of boxing off the back foot, making the rematch a far more exciting fight. And this time, Alvarez earned the nod on two judges' scorecards.

The passage of time, apparently, has done little to cool off the bad blood. Alvarez told reporters last month in San Diego that it's personal. "He talk a lot of s---, he talk a lot of things, but we gonna see," Alvarez said of Golovkin. "First is first: I need to win May 7."

"It is not personal for me," Golovkin said. "I moved on from those fights before I returned home. I do not dwell in the past. If fighting me again is 'personal' to him, why did it take him four years to decide to do it?

"Numerous reporters have asked me about his recent comments, and it sounds to me like he is facing his own insecurities. Maybe he wants people to forget the first two fights because they are too painful for him? I do not know why, because they were both great fights."

Throughout boxing history, promoters and networks have set up the big fight with final hurdles for each boxer in one last attempt to create buzz, only to have those plans implode. Most recently, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua were on the brink of an undisputed heavyweight championship fight, but each man had one more fight to win. Fury handled business with a knockout of Deontay Wilder in October, but Joshua's loss to Oleksandr Usyk a month earlier had already erased hope for the heavyweight title fight in the spring.

Joshua was only a slight favorite against Usyk, but there are plenty more examples. De La Hoya was a heavy favorite in 2004 when he received a gift decision against Felix Sturm to preserve a showdown with Hopkins for the middleweight championship. Zab Judah was shocked by Carlos Baldomir in 2006 in a prelude to a fight with Floyd Mayweather, but Top Rank went ahead with the bout anyway, albeit with far less hype.

Now, Murata and Bivol each has his own opportunity to catch a superstar opponent looking ahead.

"I've been in boxing long enough now to know: You can't plan too far in advance,'" said Joe Markowski, DAZN's executive vice president of Global Platform. "But if [Canelo-GGG 3 is] ever going to happen, it's going to happen this year."

Naturally, Alvarez and Golovkin insist they are solely focused on the task at hand, but this is an emotional sport, and there's so much vitriol involved.

Alvarez (57-1-2, 39 KOs) is at the top of his game, but he is moving up in weight for a formidable challenge. Bivol (19-0) is a tricky, precise boxer with an excellent jab; he is rated No. 2 by ESPN at 175 pounds.

Murata (16-2, 13 KOs), ESPN's No. 4 middleweight, is levels below Bivol, but the 2012 Olympic gold medalist is a dangerous puncher who has taken out solid opponents such as Rob Brant and Steven Butler. However, the 36-year-old's layoff extends even farther than Golovkin's; the fifth-round TKO of Butler, his most recent fight, was more than 27 months ago.

Besides, Golovkin's form is a mystery at 40 years old and following a 16-month ring absence.

"If he goes out and does what Golovkin does best, it's not a hard fight for him," Sanchez said. "But don't get me wrong: Murata will give him a fight. He's in his home country; he has to give a show. But Golovkin is a step above, even at this stage.

"But he will get hit because Murata isn't going to lay down. Very good fighter in Murata but just not on Golovkin's level."

Simply earning the victory on Saturday in Japan won't be enough for Golovkin to truly build buzz toward the third Alvarez fight and prove he's still among the sport's elite.

A brutal finish of Murata -- the sort of victory Golovkin scored repeatedly during his stretch of 23 consecutive knockouts that lifted him to superstardom -- could spark renewed interest in the trilogy battle with Alvarez and give fans a sense of Golovkin's form at this stage of his career.

But any struggle with Murata -- a 4-1 underdog, according to Caesars Sportsbook -- will lend credence to the belief that Golovkin has virtually no chance against Alvarez later this year, despite the consensus that GGG won at least 12 of his 24 rounds with Alvarez.

"I have no interest in proving anything to 'doubters' or anyone," Golovkin said. "I love the sport of boxing and preparing for a fight. Training is hard work. But hard work has made me successful. ... When I enter the ring against Murata, it will be entertaining and exciting. I expect it to be the fight of the year."

"Canelo is the strongest athlete and boxer I have faced," he said. "I thought I won the first two, so winning the third one would be the same to me. Nothing would change for me."