Year after year in the remarkably long autumn of Bernard Hopkins’ career, one opponent and then another with the physical upper hand has faced off with the now 46-year-old living legend and slumped off either totally defeated or having been given the toughest night of his professional life. Jean Pascal, in a win and a disputed draw. Kelly Pavlik, in a comprehensive throttling. Winky Wright, in a sound victory. Antonio Tarver, in a thorough outclassing. Joe Calzaghe, in a very close defeat. Jermain Taylor, in two coin-flips that went Taylor’s way.
Next comes Chad Dawson, this Saturday on HBO pay-per-view. And he might be the most gifted of them all. In his career, Dawson, 29, hasn’t done as much as most of the aforementioned list of Hopkins opponents. But he’s got the fastest hands, outside of maybe Calzaghe. He’s the tallest and longest, other than the similarly-dimensioned Tarver. He’s the most fundamentally sound, other than perhaps Wright. He only comes up short amongst the crew of Hopkins foes in the power department. If winter is coming, finally, to Hopkins, then Dawson for sheer talent is a likely candidate to crystallize his first frost. Floyd Mayweather, Jr., during his break from boxing, called Dawson the best boxer in the sport. That Hopkins’ promoter, Golden Boy, spoke openly about not wanting this fight speaks volumes about what they think of the match-up, even if they were required to do it by virtue of various rematch clauses and such.
Hopkins’ gray years, though, are a historic tribute to boxing as a sport that is about more than just what a body can do; it’s also about what the mind can do. Hopkins’ brain has always been no worse than an equalizer against younger physical specimens. There are only a couple boxers with anything near his ring intelligence. Considering that Dawson is one of boxing’s purest talented airheads, the physical mismatch between Dawson and Hopkins has its inverse in the mental mismatch. It’s a fair fight, at least.
The other duality within Hopkins-Dawson is between its significance and its excitement potential. It has plenty of that significance stuff. Hopkins inhabits a lot of top-10 and even some top-5 pound-for-pound lists; before his loss to Pascal, so did Dawson, and he’s back in most top 20s after a rebound win in his last fight. Hopkins is the light heavyweight champion, and Dawson is the #1-ranked 175-pounder. Excitement potential is… pretty low. Style-wise, this isn’t a fight that had anyone daydreaming for it to happen. And as if the style problem wasn’t enough, in just about as big a boxing business c.f. as has graced 2011, it’s almost certain to not generate much of an audience due to it being a fight staged on the West Coast between two East Coast boxers, and because it’s on pay-per-view as a result of some horrendous HBO planning. (At least the undercard’s pretty good, but that probably won’t be enough to generate more than a tepid live crowd or draw very many more PPV buys.)
There is still drama to be had in Hopkins-Dawson. It is a fight between two of the world’s best fighters where Dawson is the narrowest of betting favorites, meaning that who will win is far from a foregone conclusion. It’s just that while both men have been in more exciting fights than they’re usually known for, we might have to witness someone pecking their way to the answer to the central plot question’s fruition.
If you put any stock in how the two fared against common opponents, you’d have to give the slight edge to Hopkins. Whereas Dawson easily beat Antonio Tarver twice, Hopkins did the same AND beat him up, rather than cooly and efficiently dismantling him the way Dawson did. Whereas Dawson lost a technical decision to Pascal, Hopkins’ draw against Pascal was largely considered a bad decision and his victory over him in the second bout, while close, was the legitimate win that Hopkins deserved the first time around. Whereas Hopkins long, long ago stopped Glen Johnson, Dawson struggled badly with him the first time and had a much easier time of it in a rematch decision win. Obviously, Hopkins has the experience edge, to say the least, but for a youngster Dawson has been in pretty tough, including a win over Tomasz Adamek. In their two most recent fights, Hopkins had the rougher time of it against Pascal, but Dawson was in against Adrian Diaconu, whom Pascal had defeated twice.
From the standpoint of both men as boxers, there’s not a lot to criticize outside of a lack of power. Both do most everything well, offensively and defensively — good jabs, versatile, all of it. Hopkins is hard-nosed as all get-out, but Dawson’s fighting heart is a bit underrated — he came on too late against Pascal, but he’s often showed the instincts of a fighter by responding to taking a hard shot with giving several of his own. Defensively, Hopkins has slipped some recently; he says it’s because he’s decided he wants to entertain the fans with give and take, but a big part of me thinks he got hit a lot more by Pascal because Pascal’s raw physical assets presented him with problems. Defensively, Dawson sometimes gets tagged for no good reason, probably related to his concentration issues. Offensively, both Hopkins and Dawson have a tendency not to throw enough punches, leading to close fights at times. And they’re similar in their height and reach.
Where things begin to diverge a bit between the two in substantial ways is in the speed category. Hopkins has been faster than the likes of Pavlik, and fast enough to hang with the likes of Pascal. This time, Dawson has a huge advantage. Dawson is quick and punches very impressively in combination. If you could make up someone to give Dawson trouble physically, you’d make him look like Dawson, an ultra-athletic sort of the kind who has given Hopkins the most trouble in his dotage.
But then, if you were to make up someone who could give Dawson trouble mentally, you’d make him look like Hopkins, a nasty-mean fellow who has a knack for figuring out what you do best and taking it away from you. In the ring, Dawson doesn’t come off like a dolt — he has shown the ability to make adjustments between fights (like he did with Johnson) and within fights (like he did, eventually, with Pascal, albeit too late). But outside the ring, all biomarkers point to a brain hampered by chronic poor decision-making, and a fighter who seemingly has little passion for actual fighting. He’s switched trainers more than any boxer perhaps ever, going from Eddie Mustafa Muhammad against Pascal to Emanuel Steward against Diaconu to John Scully for this fight, and that’s only a fraction of his trainer switcheroos. He’s feuded with managers, and he’s been said by Steward to care more about hanging out with his family than going to the city where his trainer trains.
On paper, I can see it going the way Tarver — a man who has fought both Hopkins and Dawson — sees it: with Dawson making Hopkins feel every one of his 46 years and giving him the most lopsided loss of his career, even worse than his first loss to Roy Jones, Jr.
But Dawson let me down against Pascal, and he hasn’t proven since that he’s figured anything out. Maybe getting his “dream fight,” as he calls it, against Hopkins, will be the proper inspiration. But I think it’s a terrible sign that he waited until so late to switch from Steward to Scully, and in fact that’s what made me switch my prediction from Dawson to Hopkins.
Because there is very little margin of error with Hopkins. Every time I’ve bet against him, I’ve ended up looking bad for it. He’s either won those fights easily, or nearly won them. He’s intelligent enough that I can envision him outsmarting Dawson in a way that is beyond my imagination at this point. Against a fighter whose mind is all over the place, Hopkins could very well be in his environment, even with the deck stacked in the other direction physically.
Give me Hopkins by a very narrow, controversial decision in a fight that will be better than most expect. It won’t be a Fight of the Year candidate or anything, but Dawson is talking about engaging with Hopkins and seems to mean it, and Hopkins will want to make it like that because a jab-a-thon from the outside doesn’t serve him. And Dawson has shown that against an opponent who forces him to fight, he’ll fight. Even if Dawson doesn’t come out looking to make a feisty scrap of it, I think he’ll respond to the feisty scrap of it that Hopkins will try to force. If Dawson does pull it off, he gains very little, because people will say he won due solely to his youth. But if Hopkins pulls it off, it’ll be yet another scalp in a career erected of late on the scalps of athletic betting favorites, the kind of career that even now is underestimated from a historical standpoint.