Time waits for no man, except, perhaps, Bernard Hopkins. The 48-year-old has fought at a high level despite a decrepit-for-boxing age far later than he has had any right to, and probably better than anyone ever has in the history of the sport. As his Saturday showdown on HBO with Tavoris Cloud nears, though, one gets the impression that time has at last grown impatient with Hopkins. It has tapped its foot, drummed its fingers, hinted that it has to wake up early in the morning, stopped offering him cocktails and is this close to physically throwing him out.
If anyone has the physicality to throw out the cantankerous old man, it’s someone like Cloud, a power-punching young light heavyweight. In two meetings with Hopkins, division champ Chad Dawson nudged him closer to the door during a no contest and then the first definitive defeat of Hopkins’ career in decades. But he did it by outmaneuvering him, rather than roughing him up, and left the sentiment that Hopkins merely ran into the kind of style match-up – speedy, long, technically proficient – that always would’ve caused him consternation.
Thing is, the famously stubborn Hopkins has chewed up many a strong youngster in the winter of his ring life. Jean Pascal, Kelly Pavlik – they were hard-hitting boxers in their primes when Hopkins opened up his devilish bag of tricks on their asses, giving Pavlik a career-altering beating and first drawing with then defeating Pascal by decision. You’d be foolish not to at least wonder whether he can’t do it again, even with Hopkins showing clear signs of aging. When is it, then, that boxing’s natural order – the young eat the old – is restored with Hopkins, and is that moment Saturday? Because Hopkins fights are rarely works of art in any conventional understanding of beauty, that is the central appeal of Hopkins-Cloud – that, and it’s the first really high-level boxing match on one of the main two networks in what feels like months.
Both men limp into this weekend’s main event, one way or another. Both are emerging from layoffs of approximately one year. Hopkins is coming off the unimpressive performances against Dawson, when it looked like he could no longer win fights merely by junking them up so badly the judges couldn’t tell one scrap heap from the other and he’d steal the occasional close one. Cloud is coming off a robbery win over Gabriel Campillo that exposed just how vulnerable he was to crafty boxers, after appearing so much like a force of nature against the Glen Johnsons and Clinton Woodses of the world.
What Cloud has going for him here is that he’s better positioned against Hopkins than were Pascal or Pavlik, and Campillo’s brand of craft isn’t like Hopkins’. Pascal had a certain crudeness that threw Hopkins off, but he was so limited in his technique that eventually Hopkins figured him out. Cloud is rudimentary, but he gets the basics in a way Pascal doesn’t – keep your gloves up, work the jab. Pavlik was undersized and slower than Cloud, not that Cloud is what you’d call “fast.” Campillo was able to confound Cloud with a southpaw stance, with length, with hand speed, with good legs and with combinations that froze Cloud’s brain and made him stay on defense more often than he wanted to be there. Hopkins’ legs and speed are basically gone, he only throws pot shots and while he’s taller than Cloud, the advantage isn’t as pronounced as it was with Campillo.
Of course, Hopkins has a deviousness Campillo doesn’t. Campillo got caught and dropped early against Cloud in part because he refused to tie up when he got cornered. Hopkins will place Cloud in a figure four leg lock, if he has to, in order to get out of trouble. Hopkins will inevitably find a way to get into Cloud’s head and mess with his psychology. His pre-fight trick this time wasn’t to trash talk like a mad man, but to leave news conferences mysteriously after saying nothing. Inevitably there’s a method to that madness, and maybe it’s just to get Cloud thinking about what the hell Cloud is up to, and doubting himself. Once in the ring, Hopkins will foul Cloud like he’s got a checklist of every illegal tactic. Dawson, in their last meeting, was the first fighter in some time to stay relatively unflappable against Hopkins’ mind games and rule bending, but even his was visibly irritated by it all. Who wouldn’t be?
Cloud is the betting favorite, and originally I, too, had favored him. The image of Hopkins looking his age against Dawson was indelible, and the image of Cloud’s left hook power shots and right crosses connecting on what was left of the old man played out in my mind. But Dawson, as mentioned before, would’ve been a difficult out for even a younger version of Hopkins. Cloud doesn’t pose nearly the same problems. He’s powerful, he throws a lot of punches, and he’s a basically good fighter who exists in the top 10 of the division for a reason. There may soon come a day when Hopkins can’t contend with that kind of fighter. There’s no evidence that day has yet arrived, although one suspects it would sneak up upon Hopkins with little warning, the way “aging overnight” often does. I just know that siding against Hopkins has only made me look smart once – with Dawson – and when there’s reason to doubt he’ll lose, I’ll take that reason.
I see Hopkins winning by decision, probably in the vicinity of 116-112 or 117-110, but it could be closer if Hopkins gas tank is running low in some of those rounds against an aggressive Cloud. And if Hopkins beats Cloud, time just might have to move from “passive aggressive suggestions” to something much more unpleasant to rid boxing of Hopkins.