Bernard Hopkins is waging a historic campaign Saturday on HBO to become the oldest boxing champion ever, as he tries once more to beat light heavyweight king Jean Pascal, something Hopkins says he believes will move him from living legend to the kind of pugilist people talk about for 100 years. And it would be quite an achievement. It might even put him over the top of a pair of greats who, like Hopkins, relied on their proverbial old age and treachery to triumph over youth.
Hopkins is already in the same sentence as George Foreman and Archie Moore as the best over-40 boxers of all-time — he’s one of the sport’s finest-ever middleweight champions and a 46-year-old man who keeps defying his age to beat or battle on even terms with younger opponents favored to defeat him. Just when it seems his career is ready for burial and some new turk is shoving him off into dotage, the salty old master draws on reserves of ring knowledge and pure meanness to charge back in his next fight or even within the same fight. (Foreman and Moore experienced similar things in their old age, too.) Hopkins becoming the oldest boxing champion — and we’re talking about claiming a legitimate, lineal Ring championship belt, not one of the fraudulent “championship” belts doled out by a parade of sanctioning organizations who seem to give belts out to anyone willing to pay a fee — almost surely vaults him over Foreman and Moore.
The first time Pascal fought Hopkins, the way the early rounds went — with Pascal scoring two rare knockdowns against Hopkins, even if they were on or over the borderline rabbit punches — it looked as though maybe Hopkins wouldn’t be able to once more overcome the youth of his opponent. But for most of the remainder of the fight, Hopkins gave Pascal a boxing lesson. The drama of Hopkins’ early knockdowns and late surge, combined with a stirring 12th round exchange of blows, combined with the controversial decision of a draw, ended up making the fight an excellent one, unexpectedly. Hopkins has always been good, but his bouts have often been ugly. It was expected that the trash-talking war between the two gifted smack talkers would exceed any value of televising the actual fight on Showtime. Instead, it came so close to matching the entertainment value of the pre-fight jawing that HBO quickly bought up the rematch.
Hopkins enters as the favorite of a large number of fans, but the betting contingent is narrowly picking Pascal. Although some believe Pascal is a champion hanging by the skin of his teeth who was lucky in his narrow win over Chad Dawson and his draw with Hopkins, it is nonetheless the case that he held his own with those past top-5 pound-for-pound boxers, and also did the same in a loss to Carl Froch, whom I include in my current pound-for-pound top 10. Because Hopkins could “age overnight” at any time, and because Pascal’s speed is the kind of thing that has troubled Hopkins most in his later years, he is not a substantial underdog. Pascal stands in the way of history, and he probably isn’t going to get out of the way easily.
As before, the trash-talking war has been as good as it gets. Early on, it appeared to me as though Pascal had gotten into Hopkins’ head by screaming at him at a press conference and implying that Hopkins’ ability to fight at such an old age might be due to performance-enhancing drugs. Hopkins came back at Pascal thereafter with his reliable old “he’s going to leave the ring in a bodybag” trick. Then came these glorious 12 minutes of footage, the most entertaining piece of celluloid in boxing in 2011 that didn’t involve any of the year’s best in-ring action — a no-holds-barred barrage of two-way smack. If I had to guess where the mind games were at this point, I suspect Hopkins has gotten back into Pascal’s head. (For bad measure, Hopkins has also “promoted” the fight by taking racially-themed potshots at Donovan McNabb, calling the Redskins quarterback an Uncle Tom, basically.)
If so, that could be very bad news for Pascal. For the first four rounds, Pascal, who has always been one of boxing’s most confident or even cocky fighters, was having success with his speed and strength. But after that, the look on his face as Hopkins flummoxed him was telling. It’s not the first time someone had such a look on their face fighting this old version of Hopkins, but the ones who didn’t have that face as much — Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe — were the ones who beat him. Taylor just kept trying to overwhelm the older man with his speed and strength until he couldn’t, and Calzaghe just kept outworking Hopkins.
Pascal is not without some boxing skill, which he displayed most prominently by circling backward, defending himself surprisingly well and countering Chad Dawson, who was thought to be the superior technician by a wide margin. But Pascal is still crude, which is why so few believe in him despite his competitive showings against Hopkins, Dawson and Froch. One gets the sense if you can time his bull rushes and avoid getting caught with his counter left hand, you can beat him. That is especially true because his other major flaw is a tendency to fade late in fights, which he did very obviously against Dawson and Hopkins. With his bulky, muscular frame, stamina could once more be a problem for him. As for his gameplan against Hopkins, Pascal has talked about abandoning the “new” things he tried against him in the first fight — I have no idea what those were — and going back to his old style.
What Hopkins needs to do is be the “old Hopkins,” i.e. the Hopkins he was for the middle to late rounds against Pascal, and avoid becoming the “too old Hopkins,” i.e., someone whose almost-miraculous run of late-career success finally comes to an end as his years finally catch up to him. After a shaky start in the first fight, the “old Hopkins” began timing Pascal and countering him, especially with his right hand. You have to imagine he’ll be more prepared yet for Pascal’s awkward charges and herky-jerky, sub-Roy Jones, Jr. schtick.
Which is a good thing, because he needs to be the “old Hopkins” even better than he did the first time. I was in the camp that thought the draw decision was unjust, and that Hopkins clearly deserved to win the fight. But the judges didn’t see it that way, and there were plenty of boxing writers and fans who thought the bout could be credibly scored a Pascal win or a draw. The fight is once more on Pascal’s home soil of Montreal, and even though Canada’s bias for its fighters has been a touch exaggerated compared to any other kind of hometown advantage, well, a hometown advantage is still a hometown advantage. A close fight could very well go to Pascal.
This might be an easy pick for some, but it isn’t for me. If I was convinced Pascal could get his stamina house in order, I’d take him. I’m thinking in some ways about Hopkins’ two losses to Jermain Taylor, where Hopkins seemed to figure out Taylor in the first fight but still had trouble with Taylor’s youthful energy in the second fight. I also keep thinking that Hopkins will finally drop off for good, but he keeps not doing it. Because he keeps not doing it, I’m not going to bet against him unless I really believe in his opponent. I believe in Pascal some, more, really, than many others, just not enough. I’ll go with Hopkins by a close decision, although it will be a bit more conclusive this time, with Hopkins winning rounds by a margin that the judges will find hard to ignore. And then we won’t be able to ignore those blasphemous-sounding assertions about where he stands next to Moore and Foreman.