How’s this for an odd sport: The best thing to happen to boxing in a long time is a 49-year-old man taking on one of the sport’s premier power punchers in his prime. That’s what’s happening Saturday on HBO, when the crusty, mean-spirited old alley cat named Bernard Hopkins steps into the ring with the new blood on the block, Sergey Kovalev.
Unlike Hopkins’ most recent light heavyweight opposition of youthful vigor, be it Tavoris Cloud or Karo Murat or Beibut Shumenov, Kovalev is no hopeless target in a carnival kiddie shooting gallery. The fellows Hopkins has been dismantling with mathematical ease didn’t have a fraction of Kovalev’s skill, and none of his power. Even among the better power punchers Hopkins has solved over his long career of “Hurt Locker”-style boxing antics, Kovalev is at once the most dangerous skills-wise since Felix Trinidad and the physically biggest; Hopkins defused the likes of Kelly Pavlik at lower weights, whereas Kovalev is a natural 175-pounder. And that it’s happening at a more advanced age for Hopkins makes it all the more daunting.
Try as he might to humiliate anyone who suggests this fight won’t change his legacy, Hopkins is dead wrong. Archie Moore and George Foreman did plenty before the age of 40, but things they did afterward propelled them into the rarefied air of “greatest old fighters of all time.” Indeed, what Hopkins has done above the age of 40 already has put him in that same rarefied air. Beating Kovalev would cement his claim to “best old fighter of all time,” and then some. It had long commonly been thought that this is the era of Floyd Mayweather and/or Manny Pacquiao, and that Hopkins has just sort of overflowed from his era of the 90s into the 00s, and now the 10s. The longer Hopkins fights and wins, the less accurate this seems. A win against Kovalev gets us closer to a revision of history where this is Hopkins’ world, and Mayweather and Pacquiao are merely living in it.
To be sure, Hopkins’ legacy to date won’t be diminished if he loses. It’s just that this is indisputably a legacy fight for Hopkins if he is victorious, and would count among the finest few wins of his career if he snags it, in large measure because of the circumstances under which he will have done it. (And while the chorus of questions about why he hasn’t done advanced drug testing has grown in volume of late — check out the Twitter traffic — that’s a subject for another day.)
What it means for Kovalev is less clear, and there will be a staff roundtable post where this is addressed in greater length. While it’s true that Kovalev beating up a man born in 1965 will bring some scoffs from the notoriously unimpressionable boxing fan base, it’s also true that in this sport, the fastest path to superstardom is hanging a loss on a big name. The more definitively Kovalev does it, the better for the start of his own legacy — Hopkins has never been stopped, and almost as rarely hurt. Kovalev, with his power and blunt Russian charm (he owns an offbeat sense of humor, and a confidence bordering on cockiness), has a couple major selling points as the near-future of the sport. All he needs now is the defining win. For some, at least, Hopkins will count.
Kovalev is the 2-1 betting favorite. As someone who is about to explain how Hopkins is likely to win, this strikes me as too much, but it would strike me as too much even if I favored Kovalev. For one, betting against Hopkins against young power punchers is historically fool’s gold. For another, betting against Hopkins at all, after he’s been counted out so many times as the years tick upward, is some version of foolish. 2-1? No.
The enthusiasm about Kovalev is at least somewhat understandable. He’s a well-schooled fighter, especially offensively, not some empty-headed strongman. He has more dimensions than Pavlik, say. And he’s bigger than Trinidad. And, again, he’s fighting a far older version than earlier power punchers Hopkins discouraged. He has not, of course, beaten anyone better than Nathan Cleverly, who himself wasn’t all that formidable, even if he was a top 10 light heavyweight at the time. Gabriel Campillo was comparable in acclaim, perhaps, to Cleverly. Everyone else has been a journeyman or fringe contender. He nearly lost to Darnell Boone, then avenged that. Blake Caparello, his last victim, was just on the outside of the division’s top 10. Etc. Kovalev has looked like the goods, but you can’t ignore that he’s done so against fighters not even as remotely as good as a version of Hopkins approaching his fifth decade of life. That said, he has brutalized fighters who had otherwise proven resilient, so to suggest he’s a mirage with a trumped-up record is a fallacy. If everyone could score early knockouts over Cleverly or Campillo, somebody else would’ve done it before or since.
Kovalev has struggled the most with crafty and/or athletic movers, where he has struggled at all. Campillo’s slick movement got Campillo nothing but knocked out, for instance. Cedric Agnew’s defensive-mindedness and athleticism made it so he lasted seven rounds, by contrast. And Boone, who held Kovalev to a split decision the first time, isn’t without veteran savvy, not that it helped him much in the rematch. Kovalev has a few tools for handling this sort: relentlessness, for one; a sharp jab, for another; and feints and combination punches, for yet another. A fake combo set up Agnew for the first Kovalev knockdown. When he struggles, it’s in part because he’s slow of hand and foot, and timing only goes so far there. He also can be backed up, frozen and countered. At times, Kovalev didn’t attack Agnew until he was sitting with his back to the ropes for three seconds or more.
Hopkins isn’t going to sit around with his back on the ropes. He is, at times, going to try to back up Kovalev. Everything Hopkins does in the ring is aimed at freezing his opponent’s offense and leaving a sliver of an opening for a scoring punch or two, usually a lead right hand. The freezing involves feints, it involves making himself hard to hit with his tucked in chin and high gloves, it involves excessive clinching, it involves more movement than anyone his age has a right to do and it involves constant, unpredictable changes of direction. All of that frustrates the piss out of his opponents, as does his dizzying array of never-penalized fouls, and the more he frustrates his opponents, the more Hopkins seizes the advantage.
The people who have beaten Hopkins since his career debut all fit the same description: long and fast. Only two men have definitively beaten Hopkins, even — a prime Roy Jones, Jr. and Chad Dawson. Joe Calzaghe and Jermain Taylor just eked by. What, exactly, does Kovalev have in common with any of those men?
One could retort that Kovalev doesn’t need to be like Jones, Dawson, Calzaghe or Taylor; he just needs to be the most well-mixed big and smart power puncher Hopkins has faced, and to be it against an older version of Hopkins than ever. He does have a tendency to make sure referees see when he is fouled, does Kovalev, so maybe he can take that weapon away from Hopkins. He does have John David Jackson in his corner, who knows some of Hopkins’ best tricks from when they used to spar, and savvy Glen Johnson (another Hopkins victim) will be around offering advice, too. Jackson has preached the right message: Don’t respect Hopkins, go after him.
But it won’t be enough. Kovalev has the kind of power that can change a fight instantly, and knows how to use it. Hopkins has the style to beat him anyway, and while he hasn’t knocked anyone out in forever, he tends to earn respect with what power he has. That’s what he’ll do — beat Kovalev — by a unanimous decision that’s not quite the cinch it was against recent light heavyweight conquests.