Reigning And Defending: Bernard Hopkins

Could it be six years ago already? Six years since Bernard Hopkins turned in what many saw as half a performance against Jermain Taylor in their first bout to lose to the young Arkansan upstart and end his reign as the longest defending middleweight champion in the history of the sport?

The fingers clacking on keyboards and the grim voices intoning in interviews all were providing the same words and conclusions. Hopkins was old. Hopkins was at the end.

The old lion had just barely been overtaken by the young lion. But from there Taylor would likely soar, Hopkins would only fade more.

Run the credits and turn on the house lights, show’s over.

In fact, that was pretty much the movie we saw play out in the next few years… only Hopkins flipped the rolls. Jermain Taylor went from matinee idol to washed up bit player. Hopkins went from faded star to indomitable legend.

Like an aging Clint Eastwood in “Unforgiven,” he came out of retirement looking for redemption against Antonio Tarver, reinventing himself as a dark avenger looking to put right his reputation. Like a legend often heard of, but long missing, he came out with a vengeance and set the record straight. He was a champion. THE champion.

Like a deceivingly old Robert Duvall in “The Apostle” preaching with fervor and energy, Hopkins emphatically worked to convince the remaining unbelievers, laying waste to Kelly Pavlik’s career and reviling the faithless on an autumn night in Atlantic City. His legend soared.

And like John Wayne turning in his eye-opening late career performance in “True Grit,” Hopkins turned in career defining performances of true grit against Jean Pascal, re-framing his legendary status once again, as though anyone was left that doubted it.

Six years ago, and he’s still here: at 46, the oldest champion to reign in the sports history.


The milestone that passed us by recently, on September 11th, also brought about reminiscences of the middleweight championship fight that went on in the shadow of the tragedy. When the former American prison inmate went in to face the idol of an island nation. The sport’s darling versus boxing’s dark horse.

The 36-year-old Hopkins, the commentators espoused, was only at his prime in one sense way back then, in 2001… He was a prime candidate to serve as fodder for the Felix Trinidad juggernaut steamrolling the division.

Looking back, we can now see that he was only at the beginning of a legendary string of fights ten years ago, a remark that no one would have believed for a moment had you nudged them just before the bout at Madison Square Garden on Sept. 29, 2001 and whispered it in their ear.

Ten years later and Hopkins is in the ring against Chad Dawson on Oct. 15, a formidable physical specimen that has proven his championship mettle in bouts against Tomasz Adamek, Glen Johnson and Antonio Tarver.

It’s getting almost impossible to try and predict a Hopkins’ fight outcome without this simple caveat… “If he hasn’t gotten old.”

As in: Hopkins has the tools, the smarts, the heart, and everything he needs to beat Chad Dawson… if he hasn’t gotten old.

At this point everyone knows it has to happen — even Hopkins’ body seems to know it — but the old man refuses to concede it, to let it happen. The signs are starting to show. It’s alarming for long time B-Hop backers. When was the last time you’d seen Hopkins down before the first Pascal fight? The answer is probably never, unless you’re the type of fan who maniacally tracks down boxing matches on DVDs to watch old VHS transfers of forgotten fights. If you’re one of those (and you probably are, if you’re reading about our largely niche sport), you might have seen some fuzzy footage of Hopkins before the turn of the century, hitting the deck against Segundo Mercado back in ’94.

When is the last time you’d even seen Hopkins look hurt or buzzed by a punch as he was several times in the last bout against Pascal? The answer is quite possibly never. In any fight.

The signs are starting to show up, dark portents of things to come… but for now, so far, Bernard Hopkins has risen above them with relative ease. One simply never knows if that subtle descent will continue to be gentle or if it will drop out from underneath him suddenly like a cliff’s edge.

And if that day is to come some time in Hopkin’s future, how much will the opponent be responsible for making Hopkins look old? Is Dawson the right combination of youthful energy and technique to make Hopkins look his age?


Chad Dawson’s closest parallel in the cadre of opponents that Hopkins has faced is very likely one Jermain Taylor — young, energetic, long, with a good jab. The question, then, is what is different about this Hopkins from the one who faced the young lion of six years ago.

Why did Hopkins only fight for half of the Taylor fights? Likely it was because he was finally growing out of the division. Making weight wasn’t terribly difficult for him, but he was always so diligent in his training that it’s very possible his body was wearing down a little from maintaining 160 lbs. for all those years. When he moved up to 175 lbs., suddenly he looked like a different fighter, and his punches per round went up significantly.

In 2005 at 40 years old he was also in a transitional stage in his style. He wasn’t sure about stamina as he got older, almost like a midlife crisis, perhaps. Such a thinking man’s fighter, is “The Executioner,” that it’s not a leap of logic to surmise that he was trying to micro-manage his stamina to make sure he would have the energy there for later rounds. Planning and strategizing for everything is the classic Hopkins mentality; perhaps this is one case where it was too much of a good thing.

Over the course of the next few fights Hopkins adjusted his style and increased his output, particularly in the Tarver and Winky Wright bouts (more on Winky’s sudden involvement with Dawson later). And against Pavlik and Pascal, Hopkins has looked refreshed and energized, willing to attack earlier in the fight.

The other factor, oft denied now, is that Taylor deserves to get some credit. He was a big, young, strong fighter, and even if his technique and ring smarts were eventually revealed to not be breathtaking, as a physical specimen he had speed and power that kept him dangerous throughout.

Also we’re now looking at all of this in retrospect, after Taylor had his miserable Kassim Ouma and Cory Spinks fights, after he was dethroned from his perch and has been brutally knocked out a couple times… that’s not the Taylor whom Hopkins fought. When Hopkins fought him, he was mentally and physically an elite fighter.

Taylor left something in the ring facing Hopkins — if not physically, then certainly mentally.

Lastly, Hopkins was later reported to have had a hyper thyroid condition, which can drastically affect energy and stamina levels. It was an issue for the Joe Calzaghe fight, Freddie Roach, Hopkins’ (literally) one-time trainer said months after the bout. If that was the case, it certainly could have affected him in earlier fights as well.

Combine that with the fact that Hopkins has little left to prove and the pressure he may have felt to stamp his name in the books has lessened, having scrawled his signature all across boxing’s history ledger. He seems willing to fight more and think just a little less.


What does all this mean to the pending clash of youth versus legend?

It should be an interesting match-up… Brain and Experience versus Brawn and Energy. In a vacuum it looks like Dawson’s fight to lose. He’s got the length to keep someone at the end of his jab and make it a long-range tactical battle, something Hopkins has never excelled at. If it’s a jabbing contest, Dawson’s your man.

Hopkins wants to be inside. Inside, speed gaps tighten. There’s less ground to cover so everything is quick and short. Inside, things get rough; there is constant contact. Arms are tangling, gloves are pawing, heads are battering. A long, lanky body with reach becomes a disadvantage.

So the first question is, who gets to determine where the fight gets fought? Hopkins has been the pre-eminent master of the era in taking away the jab from his opponent. Taylor, Wright, Pavlik… all were thought to have dominant jabs before they faced Hopkins, yet none were successful. No one has ever consistently landed a jab on Hopkins. Dawson will likely struggle, too.

If Dawson can’t land with the jab, he still may succeed in keeping him at bay with the stick, should he stay diligent in using it. Having to evade a long jab will at least keep Hopkins from having unfettered free range with this his chief Executioner’s tool: the lead right hand.

The X-factor (pun intended) of this fight, really, is the lead right bomber that Hopkins likes to launch from outside. Dawson has proven to show lapses in defense which suggest that Hopkins may find real success with his weapon of choice. Launching one from the outside is Hopkins version of jabbing his way in.

Feint… feint… pawing with the left… and BANG! A big right hand and suddenly Hopkins is inside grappling your waist with one mitt, while he chops away at your side with his free hand, walking you to the ropes. Reset. Play it again. You know it’s coming… you eat it anyway.

If Dawson is open for that shot, he may be in serious jeopardy at some point in the fight and Hopkins may be punching his ticket to another big fight showdown in a few months. Perhaps that showdown would be with Canada’s promising paper champion Lucian Bute or whoever emerges as the Showtime’s Super Six Tournament winner, either Andre Ward — who some call “Hopkins Lite” — or Carl Froch, the man who has lain waste to former Hopkins play partners Pascal, Taylor and Glen Johnson, among other luminaries.

However, the fight at hand holds its fair share of career peril for Hopkins. If Dawson fights with energy and stays focused for 12 rounds, something he has often failed to do, most noticeably in his razor tight first fight with Glen Johnson, he can win a pretty clear victory — bloodless and light on action most likely, but a reclamation of his championship mettle nonetheless.

Dawson has the tools and the style to make Hopkins look like a middle-aged man.

The worrisome part for Dawson backers — which, judging by the number of fans who flock to see his fights, is almost zero — is that in the first Johnson fight and in several of the fights after it, he showed an unhealthy penchant for languishing inside and not playing to his own strengths… or even worse, becoming complacent and lacking any urgency in his ring demeanor.

Johnson had success battling away on the inside with Dawson, even shaking the young man several times in the fight. It was a controversial decision to some, but ultimately a fair victory for Dawson in that bout, one that did not wipe away the notion that for all the promise of Dawson’s physical nature, he lacks pure fighting spirit at times.

The recent addition to Dawson’s team of Emanuel Steward, the famed trainer of vast amounts of boxers so famous even your mother has heard of them, was a good match in that sense. Steward works hard in the corner to keep his fighters riled up and understanding when they need to put more on the line, even if they are winning handily. He also immediately began implementing his standard fight strategy in Dawson, that of tall, rangy fighters standing behind the jab and using the simplest punch as the funneling point for everything else to flow from.

Then, just a month before the Oct. 15 fight, as The Queensberry Rules exclusively reported, Dawson split with Steward. Both sides stated that the reason for Dawson’s decision was that he did not want to travel from his home in Connecticut to train at Steward’s famous Kronk Gym in Detroit.


What exactly does this say about Dawson’s focus, mentality and fight strategy going into the bout he’s been lobbying loudly for over the last several years?

Well… it doesn’t lend itself to bolstering one’s confidence in the young man, that’s for certain. If he is unwilling to sacrifice some time away from his family or the comforts of home, while natural and understandable, it makes one wonder about his mindset and how serious he is taking his career and this fight.

Can his focus be at its optimum if he is dealing with friends and family surrounding him in the lead up to the fight? No other sport asks more of it’s participants than boxing. A warrior must make hard choices to be victorious. With this decision, everyone is rightly questioning Dawson’s hunger to win.

The other facet of this move is what his strategy will now be in the fight itself. Steward’s replacement is John Scully, a former Dawson trainer. To aid Scully in some form of advisory role is former Hopkins boxing foe, the aforementioned Wright. Some may wonder whether Dawson has designs on taking more control over his own training camp. Whether that is true or not, certainly the strategy in the ring will be different from what Steward would have concocted to try and offset the wizardry of Hopkins.

One couldn’t be faulted for having the general feeling that Dawson’s approach, inside and out of the ring, will just generally be less intelligent without the Hall of Fame guidance of Steward at the helm. Whether you like Steward’s style, you can’t argue with his results. He’s a proven winner, with a legendary resume. If his “jab first” mentality hasn’t always meshed with every fighter he’s ever trained, he is at worst a top-notch professional and one of boxing’s truly admired minds.

The combination of Scully and Wright are a far less proven commodity in a corner. Scully has never been known as much more than a jouneyman’s trainer, and Wright, while a talented former titlist, is stepping into a new, ill-defined role with Dawson.

Wright has Hopkins experience and that should be worth something. He’ll be able to tell Dawson how Hopkins was faster than he had expected, how Hopkins threw more punches than he was prepared for, how he bullied Wright in unexpected ways. He’ll give him insight that only a former opponent is going to be able to convey.

But what tactical advice will he pass on?

His own vaunted jab was a failure against the defensive mastery of Hopkins. In the face of having his most reliable and trustworthy tool removed from the fight, Wright was left looking awkward and off balance while he launched unusual punch combinations that seemed to catch him more off guard than Hopkins.

Strategies and game plan aside, the one factor that still remains as Dawson’s most critical hurdle is his own psychological approach to the fight. How much is he willing to put forth to win? Can he stay diligent in the ring and stick to a winning strategy for a full fight?

Or will he look listless and bored as he did in losing his title to Pascal? Will he fight in places he shouldn’t and in styles that don’t suit him as he did in his narrow miss against Johnson?

Hopkins’ greatest asset, his mind, is Dawson’s weakest. Sure, he has shown spirit in rising from the deck to hold off Ademek. He fired back when Tarver had some renewed energy in their rematch and battled foolishly, but with grit, against Johnson in close quarters.

But his recent decision to stay in his comfort zone and sacrifice a great trainer for convenience tells of what may be a fatal flaw in his career as a fighter. More than any recent titlist or champion, Dawson seems to experience boxing as a job and not a passion.

In fact the one fighter of recent stock who shares that view most closely?

Jermain Taylor.

A man who for that and all his other faults still found a way to squeak out a victory against a legend of the sport… not once but twice. And ended Hopkins’ career, all those years ago.

Can Dawson end Hopkins’ career… one more time?

On that subject, the loquacious Bernard Hopkins would tell you one thing…. (and he’d do it over the course of a 30-minute conversation).

Hopkins decides when Hopkins is done, win, lose or draw.

And if Dawson isn’t willing to sacrifice outside the ring, he may be made to suffer inside it.

About Tim Starks

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