Everything has its limits.
A car stops running, a cigarette burns down, a love affair only goes so long.
How things run out of time is maybe more important than that they inevitably will. Watching Bernard Hopkins fight in Atlantic City this past Saturday night one was seeing the slow demise of a once and in many ways still great prizefighter.
In against a monster named Sergey “The Krusher” Kovalev, a KO king leaving a string of broken boxers on the mat in the light heavyweight division, the soon to be 50-year-old Hopkins suffered the first truly unquestionable defeat of his career in over 20 years.
Sometimes in life things lasts longer than you can reasonably expect. In 1993 Bernard Hopkins lost a close but clear decision to Roy Jones, Jr. in the first major matchup of each man’s career. On that day in May, Jones was a little further developed than Hopkins and it was enough to distinguish the two over 12 rounds.
What wasn’t apparent then was that Hopkins was at the beginning of a slow burn career that would in another year begin a historic run for the next two decades that has seen the man from Philadelphia never faltering from fighting at a championship level.
So it was that for the first time in all those years, Hopkins in Atlantic City, 14 years after the turn of the century, the era of his probable zenith as a fighter, that he finally looked to have reached his limit, losing every round, on every scorecard, yet still hardly losing any esteem because of who he is and how he comported himself.
Greatness lies not just in the winning, but in the trying.
Still, everything has its limits.
With the division’s lineal champion Adonis “Superman” Stevenson hiding behind the spectacles of Clark Kent and refusing the worthy challenges of the weight class, Hopkins the man with the clout, esteem and promotional backing (Golden Boy Promotions of which he is a business partner) to make whatever fight he wishes looked to face the most difficult opponent available to him.
It was only in April that Hopkins sat among the gathered press, the sweat and blood spattered ring just over his shoulder at a hastily gathered post-fight press interview in Washington D.C.’s Armory, after his impressive drubbing of then WBA titlist Beibut Shumenov, that he made it clear his next target was the division’s acknowledged true champion, Stevenson.
He emphatically repeated again and again to those of us gathered there, as the facility crew started to sweep away the empty popcorn boxes and soda cans scattered around the arena, that he wanted the undisputed light heavyweight championship, “Money is great, but history is something you can never get rid of.”
When asked if that fight were to never materialize what he would settle for, he didn’t hesitate: “Something else big, I’ll take that.”
As it turned out Kovalev, a fighter most other light heavyweights have avoided and who many expected Hopkins to avoid, became the “Something else big.”
It was in those moments, holding court with the remaining writers, that Hopkins revealed his true self to those listening closely. He is a man who sees greatness in himself; a man who believes in himself; a man who wants others to believe in him.
True to form, no other fighter in the last few decades has given himself as many chances to be great as Bernard Hopkins has. Whether it was stringing together wins as a middleweight champion or traveling up two divisions to face every big name that was worthy, he truly has answered the call.
Stepping into the ring with Kovalev, a dangerous and youthful opponent, should lay to rest any lingering doubt about whether Hopkins has been the type of fighter to turn down challenges.
That he did so when his physical prize fighting peak was likely around 1997 when he demolished an undefeated Glen Johnson underscores what a rare fighter and athlete he is in all of sporting history.
In his long pugilistic career he has truly tested his limits, routinely signing on for fights where he was the underdog, against younger, and often times, undefeated men.
Over the years Hopkins has faced 11 undefeated fighters… and another nine who had suffered defeat just once before. Hopkins has been at the top of his sport for so long, in fact, that since 1998 he has faced just three fighters with any more than three losses: a middleweight defense against Robert Allen a decade ago, an ’09 a tuneup with Enrique Ornelas after a one-year layoff and a rematch with Jones a few months later.
When one is so constantly faced with real fighters and little fluff it’s almost unfathomable that it took so long for someone to comprehensively defeat “The Executioner” turned “Alien.”
Hopkins finally found the edges of his career — his limits painted in broad strokes by the hard artistry of Kovalev.
Kovalev’s limits seem ill-defined just now. Until facing down the legendary Hopkins there was little on his ledger to test his mettle by. After his steady and impressive handling of of the old man, though he is certainly the new man to beat in the light heavyweight division.
While the knockout by which he has earned his feared reputation never quite came, Kovalev swung for it in impressive fashion until the final seconds ticked down, knocking the legend’s head around more than any other mitts have ever managed.
As Hopkins — the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing history — later said, he felt like a middleweight in the ring with the hulking Russian. Even the division’s lineal champion Stevenson is a former 168-pounder now just a few years removed from that weight.
Kovalev seems to have the natural frame to dominate in the weight class for several years and controlling three of the major belts puts him in the position to pick his path outside of the aforementioned Stevenson.
Should Stevenson continue to filibuster the championship with meaningless matches, Kovalev will likely look to entice the names just outside the division into his ring — Andre Ward, Carl Froch, perhaps Gennady Golovkin — somewhere down the line.
All would be intriguing fights to further test the limits of Kovalev, but as of this moment what we do know is that anyone looking to see where the edges of Kovalev’s career lay is putting themselves in serious jeopardy.
A car breaks down, a cigarette gets stubbed out, a love affair ends in tumult and heartbreak. This is most often what life brings, but sometimes it is not always so.
In the hardest of sports, one’s limits often show up suddenly.
Most often a superstar is born in blood, at the expense of an old champion. Rarely though there are times when I fighter goes out on his own terms. There is not a ripping from his grip of his senses or his identity, a severing of his consciousness to awaken to a new world, one where he is no longer the man he’s always worked so hard to be.
Some times there is a gentle release.
Bernard Hopkins has earned just such an ending to his long career.
He’s “passed the torch” to the likes of Jermain Taylor and Chad Dawson, young talented champions each, only to see them fall out of the race, while he has continued running, passing them by again, and leaving them long behind.
He’s faced young blood and old blood, the Pavliks, Calzaghes, Tarvers, Pascals, Trinidads, Joneses… Win lose or draw, he’s transcended them all — champions, Hall of Famers, legends.
Nearing age 50, he’s been a professional boxer for more than half his life.
His contemporaries in any meaningful way are all gone and he is at least two generations beyond his own.
He joked as he left the stage of the post fight press conference in the wee hours of Sunday morning about how if he had known Kovalev was watching his fights back while he was in high school he would have been long gone from the sport already, knowing what was coming.
But he wouldn’t have.
Arguably the sport’s premier KO artist could not finish Hopkins’ career for him the other night.
Hopkins has been, and will always be, the one to decide his own limits.
Whatever limits the man may have, they are for him to know.
The only question remaining is, does he know them yet?