Where “Important” And “Best” Don’t Always Meet: Pavlik-Hopkins Preview And Prediction

I worry about this one, this Kelly Pavlik-Bernard Hopkins fight. I don’t worry so much about whether one of my favorites, Pavlik, will win or lose against one of my least favorite, Hopkins. No, I worry about whether Hopkins puts the stink on Pavlik. Placing Pavlik in a ring with Hopkins is like cutting out two members of AC/DC and inserting Joan Baez and James Taylor. You can’t argue with the skill of the musicians on stage, but they aren’t going to make raucous heavy metal of the kind Pavlik represents in the ring, nor is it all going to sound very good smooshed together. In other words, and no disrespect to Ms. Baez or Mr. Taylor, Pavlik may be boxing’s most exciting fighter, and Hopkins its most boring. It’s going to be hard for Pavlik to come out of this one pretty, because nobody ever has against Hopkins, not even when they win.
It as not as if there isn’t anything commendable about Pavlik-Hopkins. It is one of the most important fights of the year, by far. It’s arguably a match-up between two of the top five fighters in the world, regardless of weight. Hopkins has one of those names known outside of hardcore boxing fandom, while Pavlik has the potential to become boxing’s biggest star, period. It’s rife with storylines, too. Is Hopkins, 43, too old for the best young fighter in America? Is Pavlik, 26, too limited for a master wood-whittler like Hopkins? To whose advantage is it that the fight is at a catch-weight of 170 lbs.?
Despite those points of intrigue, though, this is not the fight that Pavlik’s camp wanted, nor is it the fight boxing fans wanted. It settles nothing about the best middleweight (160 lbs.) in the world, which a Pavlik-Arthur Abraham bout would have done, nor does it offer as many championship belts across as many weight classes as Pavlik-Joe Calzaghe would have – two fights that also would have had the benefit of being significantly more watchable, but that aren’t happening for an assortment of boxing politics/business reasons. In the end, this is simply the most important and highest-paying fight that could be logistically worked out for both Pavlik and Hopkins, more than it is a fight that satisfies any larger question in the sport; but one that, if Pavlik wins dramatically, could prove he’s better even than we know – with a possible asterisk for Hopkins’ age – and one that, if Hopkins wins at all, could prove there’s boxing life yet in a walking legend left for dead by many after his last loss – with an asterisk that it comes at the expense of a potentially transcendent boxing figure.
The upside for Pavlik is this: Hopkins’ scalp is still valuable enough on the open market that it will help him become more ubiquitous. He’s well on his way. Besides E:60’s segment on him, there were features in ESPN the Magazine and the Wall Street Journal this week. He might have earned that attention even if he wasn’t fighting Hopkins, but fighting somebody that casual fans might have heard of didn’t hurt. Pavlik is, as the Wall Street Journal headline reads, a knockout artist. That always brings in the crowds. That he throws around 100 punches a round at his best guarantees action, knockout or no. Then there’s his unique marketability as a white fighter from an impoverished city, Youngstown, Ohio, who climbed off the canvas in the second round to knock out Jermain Taylor in their first fight in 2007. He was bolstered, he claims, by the screams of the hometown fans that came to watch him fight, whose spirits he in turn lifted. Beating Taylor brought him the undisputed middleweight (160 lbs.) championship, and his win in the rematch and decimating title defense against Gary Lockett helped him climbed the pound-for-pound rankings further. I have him at #6 in the world, although one can easily make the case that he’s in the top five.
Hopkins took a long time to get to be the name he is. There was no dramatic skyrocket to the top like Pavlik took. Thinking back on his career, his historic middleweight title reign isn’t necessarily the most impressive part. It’s the list of names he’s fought that is astounding, a list that includes pretty much every big star or major contender of his era that he could get his mitts on, many of them Hall of Fame-bound. Roy Jones, Jr. Oscar De La Hoya. Felix Trinidad. Winky Wright. Joe Calzaghe. Antonio Tarver. Jermain Taylor. Glen Johnson. He became a star in the sport the hard way, with an in-ring style that is, at best, an acquired taste, and resisting boxing’s biggest political forces at every turn: By fighting and beating top boxers, or at worst fighting them to hotly disputed losses. Even at his age, even though he’s lost three of his last five bouts, his quality of competition and the narrow, questionable nature of his losses has been enough for me to keep him at #4 on my pound-for-pound list, although reasonable people may have him closer to the bottom of the top 10. He just didn’t look that great against Calzaghe. Much has been made of him going to the wrong corner four times in the fight, but Hopkins doesn’t talk like a man who’s addled from decades of punches. He doesn’t get hit all that much, and when he does, the punches are rarely clean, thanks to his defensive prowess. No, the reason he didn’t look that great is because he just seemed tired, like he couldn’t keep up with Calzaghe. He tried to feign fouls to get the ref to give him a rest on two occasions.
That, I think, is the most foreboding omen for Hopkins in this fight. If a 36-year-old Calzaghe left him panting, just wait until he gets a load of a harder-hitting youngster with a style that’s just as busy. Certainly, Hopkins’ counter-punching and other clever tactics slowed Calzaghe’s pace to a crawl, compared to his usual output. Pavlik-Hopkins could unfold much the way Calzaghe-Hopkins did, with some minor, but interesting, differences. Hopkins had some success against Calzaghe early, but by the end, Hopkins was exhausted. Since Hopkins can’t suddenly make himself younger, he has to count on things going better for him in two ways. First, Pavlik is neither as fast as Calzaghe nor as diverse in his offense. He’s neither as slow as people think nor as limited as some claim, but Pavlik is no Calzaghe in either category. Second, Hopkins has said his strategy will be to fight Pavlik on the inside. Pavlik’s power is at his best when his man is at the end of his long, straight punches, and it’s unclear whether he can be as effective up close. And finally, there’s the question of weight. I’m in the camp that thinks Pavlik didn’t punch as hard at 166 lbs. for his rematch with Taylor, which means his punches might not slow down Hopkins as quickly as Calzaghe’s did. Hopkins probably can’t hurt Pavlik badly at the higher weight – Hopkins hasn’t really hurt anyone since 2004, when he knocked out De La Hoya, and cynics will argue De La Hoya wasn’t really all that hurt – but he might be able to convince him to throw fewer punches for fear of being stung with counters.
I do think beating Hopkins, even at this stage of his career, would show that Pavlik is well-rounded enough for virtually any kind of fighter, because he’s already shown he can handle fellow brawlers, like Edison Miranda, or more gifted athletes, like Taylor. He has not yet proven he can handle a crafty technician. If he wins by knockout, given Hopkins’ defense, chin and record of hardly ever being stunned, even, it’s that much more impressive. And if Hopkins wins? Maybe it just looks like he took advantage of a fighter who’s still learning the game, but I’d say that a 43-year-old man beating one of boxing’s best young lions – as Hopkins, unusually complimentary in hyping this fight, has referred to Pavlik – would be a major, major achievement.
MY PREDICTION: Pavlik, by a more comfortable decision than we’re used to seeing people beat Hopkins. I expect Pavlik will wear down Hopkins more quickly than Calzaghe did. In rounds where Hopkins is more accurate early, he’ll have the advantage, but eventually Pavlik’s volume will overwhelm Hopkins. Even if Hopkins keeps the fight on the inside where he wants it, I think Pavlik will wear down Hopkins. B-Hop finally showed his age against Calzaghe. Pavlik’s younger than Calzaghe, and Hopkins is six months older than his last fight.
CONFIDENCE: 75%. I’m a long-time Pavlik fan, but I really haven’t seen him fight much on the inside or against anyone even remotely on Hopkins’ skill level. Could he be flummoxed? Perhaps, but Pavlik’s proven more strategically adept than one might expect from a slugger, and I think he and underrated trainer Jack Loew will have a few tricks up their sleeves.
MY ALLEGIANCE: It’s easy when two men inhabit such polar opposites in my brain. Pavlik, always, Pavlik. I say this even though it’s easier to like Hopkins when the things he says are merely smart and eloquent as opposed to smart, eloquent and evil, but he still fights like… that.

About Tim Starks

Tim is the founder of The Queensberry Rules and co-founder of The Transnational Boxing Rankings Board (http://www.tbrb.org). He lives in Washington, D.C. He has written for the Guardian, Economist, New Republic, Chicago Tribune and more.