TQBR Roundtable: Hopkins Vs. Kovalev Edition

Big fights are a special time here at The Queensberry Rules. They are an occasion for our team (a group spanning 15 time zones, four countries, three continents, and one tenuously shared language) to gather and slam our heads together until something useful oozes out.

With that noble purpose in mind, we offer you our insights and analysis of this week’s fascinating light heavyweight fight between Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (above right) and Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins (above left).

1. If Kovalev wins impressively (i.e. a stoppage), will he be given credit for blasting out a top light heavyweight, or accused of beating up an old man?

Patrick Connor: As is generally the case in boxing, Kovalev’s win would likely be downplayed. But past the usual shooting down of accomplishments, it’s also difficult to envision Bernard Hopkins hurt, much less decisively stopped or taken out. After the initial shock, there might be some backtracking over exactly how cooked Hopkins was going in.

Alex McClintock: The problem with analysing top level boxing is the small sample size, so if Kovalev krushes Hopkins, it’ll be impossible to know whether it was because Hopkins got old(er) overnight or because the Russian is a beast. That being said, I don’t see Hopkins getting stopped unless he realises he’s in over his head and begs out of the fight early a la the first Chad Dawson fight.

Andrew Harrison: Unlike Alex and Patrick, I’m confident that Kovalev can hurt Hopkins and even put him on his backside. Whether Kovalev can keep him down is another matter. The Russian tends to swamp his opponents with heavy handed attacks but unlike a Golovkin, who can fell a man with one shot — or even Jean Pascal, who despite his anaemic punch output, managed to drop Hopkins twice in their first fight — Kovalev usually has opponents on his hook for some time before finally reeling them in. Hopkins, old trout that he is, will likely find a way to break Kovalev’s momentum should he feel his knees beginning to sag — be that by feigning injury, fighting dirty or creatively exiting the ring altogether. If Kovalev can put away Hopkins — who, traditionally, has been as difficult to dissuade as Lyme disease — he’ll get his dues.

Sam Sheppard: I think this fight is very much a lose-lose for the sport. As Patrick says, we tend to downplay the achievements of the victors in cases like this, and I don’t see how this can be any different. If Kovalev (a man with crushing power in both hands and an immense work rate given his size) is able to damage and hurt a 50 year old, then he’s done what he’s supposed to do. No amount of revisionism regarding Hopkins career, such as the claim that he’s never ducked anyone (which I’ve seen repeated multiple times in the last week), or that he chose to take this fight and the pending Main Events lawsuit had nothing to do with it, is going to change the fact that he IS an old man. Have people forgotten when he collapsed after the Roy Jones rematch? His great friend Richard Schaefer was telling him to retire even then!

Matthew Swain: As everyone else has pointed out, there are always going to be people who refuse to give the winner of a fight credit, no matter what happens, and I imagine that this fight will be no different. I don’t see a scenario in which Kovalev walks away without criticism. Even if the fight is entertaining and Hopkins fights like a much younger man, people will say that it was only thus because Kovalev is limited. It’s a fairly damned miserable position to be in, but a win is a win.

Jeff Pryor: It depends on how Hopkins looks. The truth is, if Hopkins were not 49 years old Kovalev wouldn’t be a favorite. So if the determining fact seems to be that Hopkins was old and lost because of it, then therein lies your answer. There has been talk of Hopkins being over the hill and how that would factor into his fights since 2001 as he walked in to face Felix Trinidad. Over the next 13 years he did the majority of his most notable work and every time before every fight there has been the question of his age. If he FINALLY looks old, Kovalev’s credit will be diminished. If he looks great Kovalev will get a good amount of credit. Realistically, this is not an anywhere near prime Hopkins and that’s rightly going to color viewpoints.

Tim Starks: Let’s set aside the question of “will” and change it to “should,” since I think the gang got it right on “will.” We know boxing fans will diminish it, rightly or wrongly. My view would be that they almost certainly shouldn’t. Sure, beating up an old man isn’t especially sporting or impressive in some ways. Let’s just not forget that this old man has been beating top 10 light heavyweights for years now, dominating most of them and only losing to Dawson, a nightmare match-up for Hopkins at any age. Surely that says something bad about the state of the division right now, but it’s unfair to judge Kovalev at this point in his career against all-time light heavyweights. SHOULD Kovalev get big credit for beating this dude at this age, especially if he wallops him? Hell yes, unless Hopkins comes into the fight looking like wet toast, and only if it’s clear that Kovalev didn’t make him look that way.

2. In recent years, Hopkins has relied heavily on his ability to use feints, angles, and distance to grind the pace of his bouts to almost unwatchable levels. Will he be able to neuter Kovalev’s offense in the same fashion or will he be forced to trade? Also, does having former Hopkins opponent/victim and trainer John David Jackson in his corner improve Kovalev’s chances of avoiding this fate?

Patrick Connor: This is essentially the question of the fight; the answer more or less gives away how the fight goes down. Kovalev’s strength is, of course, his strength, combined with punching power, relative youth and crunching aggression. If Kovalev allows Hopkins to force him to think and second-guess his own tactics, there’s a very good chance Hopkins gets to play whatever mind games he wants. And that’s almost always how Hopkins wins. Unlike most, I actually do believe having John David Jackson in his corner will help Kovalev, even if only because Jackson knows how Hopkins gears up for warfare mentally. Jackson likely won’t have much useful tactical advice to use against the guy who thoroughly defeated him.

Alex McClintock: As he tends to be, Patrick is spot on — that’s the question of the fight. If Hopkins trades with Kovalev, he loses. If he can wrap him up and drag him into the mud, he wins. I don’t see John David Jackson being much of an advantage for Kovalev in terms of tactics and strategy. For one thing, he was comprehensively beaten by B-Hop. For another, that was 20 years ago, when Hopkins was a different fighter: more powerful and active, but not as sly and ornery.

Andrew Harrison: Kovalev is still a pretty rudimentary boxer. I see no reason Hopkins can’t outmanoeuvre a guy with such average footwork – for a time at least. Kovalev’s chin is there to be hit (it’s certainly big enough) and – perversely considering the age of both men – he could be the one concerned about blowing up late, having never fought past the eighth round. Kovalev’s real strength is his ability to make a dent every time he throws. He doesn’t have a honey punch — he doesn’t even need to set his feet properly in order to hurt his man — which makes him all the more difficult to read.

Judging by a recent video interview, Jackson doesn’t figure to offer Kovalev much, other than a few predictable “don’t fight at this man’s pace” barks in the corner between rounds. Hopkins isn’t anything like the fighter Jackson used to know.

Sam Sheppard: The answer to this lies in Nathan Cleverly’s shoulders. After two rounds against Kovalev they were as red as Kelly Pavlik’s nose at last call. Additionally, against the likes of Gabriel Campillo and Cornelius White, who were hardly known as fragile, Kovalev was able to do serious damage despite landing mainly on the gloves and against the guard. But it’s those shoulders that hold the key. Hopkins will be able to roll with a lot of Kovalev’s work, and I expect him to keep his chin out of harm’s way for the most part, but I can’t foresee a scenario in which he doesn’t get hurt, unless the remorseless Krusher inexplicably freezes on the big stage, which is something he’s never looked close to doing before.

It sounds crass, but we’re talking about a guy in Kovalev who’s sent an opponent to the morgue and continued his career without skipping a beat. I don’t think he is one for self-doubt! And I agree with Andrew that John David Jackson’s presence does little to change things. The Hopkins he fought (and got spanked by) was to all intents a completely different fighter.

Matthew Swain: Like Sam and Andrew, I also believe that Kovalev can and will do damage to Hopkins, but he will have to make adjustments to do so. Unlike Kelly Pavlik and Beibut Shumenov, Kovalev doesn’t have to set his feet before he punches. There is no doubt in my mind that Hopkins will be able to frustrate him and stymie some of his production, but I think the Russian will still let his hands go. When he is full attack mode, he seems to totally disregard what the other man is doing and that will be to his advantage. He won’t be looking for the right moment to let his hands go, he’ll just be punching.

However, I do think that there will be times when Hopkins makes him miss badly, though. Hopkins won’t be running around the ring or go into a shell. He’s going to be just barely too far or too close at all times. Watching Bernard Hopkins in the ring is a graduate level course in subtlety and fighting without fighting. Nothing in Kovalev’s career will have prepared him for Hopkins, but I’m betting that he will be able to use his activity and power to force the action.

As for Jackson, if he is able to provide the slightest tactical advice in the corner, it will be to Kovalev’s advantage. I don’t think his history with Hopkins is as important as the fact that he is a knowledgeable trainer. Shumenov was self trained, and the only advice Jack Loew seemed capable of giving Pavlik was to throw his jab more.

Jeff Pryor: I don’t see much in Kovalev’s arsenal that makes Hopkins fight out of character. His power is for real, but at this point we’ve seen Hopkins in against just about every kind of puncher. While Hopkins has been getting hit more recently than in his prime, he is still incredibly difficult to hit flush with any full power shots. Pascal had speed for Hopkins to contend with and historically that has been most difficult for him to handle. A slower, more straight forward attack isn’t something that any version of Hopkins so far hasn’t been able to corral. Hopkins takes your confidence to successfully land a punch. Win that mental battle and keep throwing, it’s the only way to have success. As always, if he’s suddenly his age, then it’s a different story.

As all of you have said, John David Jackson faced Hopkins 17 years ago and that was a few versions away from this Hopkins for better and for worse.

Tim Starks: Yeah, I do think Hopkins can neuter Kovalev, it’s just that he’ll be a less anesthetized version of the fare Hopkins has faced of late. I wouldn’t underestimate the value of the advice from Jackson of “Attack! A lot!” because it’s key to Kovalev’s chances. It isn’t enough, because Hopkins hits just hard enough to keep his opponents honest, but anyone who can get past his bee stings and flash knockdowns to win the majority of rounds has a chance of winning. What’s more, while I agree that Hopkins now vs. Hopkins against Jackson 17 years ago is a different animal, the psychological warfare element and the bag o’ tricks are fairly similar. Back in 2001, Hopkins was holding and hitting Trinidad just like he does to fellas now. If Jackson can offer any advice on how to counter some of that, it’ll be potentially helpful, not that anyone has fully figured out how to deal with the Hopkins rules ambushes to date.

3. Do you make anything of Kovalev’s recent comments about gaining experience simply by fighting Hopkins? Is he simply being self-aware by acknowledging that no one has taken him many rounds or is Hopkins in his head?

Patrick Connor: There haven’t been any obvious indicators that Hopkins has gotten into Kovalev’s head, but the Russian also has the same happy-to-be-here demeanor in almost all of the outside the ring dealings we see him involved in. Kovalev seems to know who and what he is, for the most part, which should be a positive against Hopkins. In other words, I think Kovalev is admitting his relative inexperience, but is also seeing the fight as an opportunity to become a better overall fighter, win or lose. While losses weigh heavily these days, I’d rather a fighter have his outlook than an all-or-nothing one.

Alex McClintock: I reckon Kovalev’s comments about gaining experience just by being in the ring with Hopkins reflect a mindset that will serve him well, win or lose. He has a good sense of his identity as a fighter (which is always good), and knows there’s no way he’s going to beat B-Hop by out-boxing him. He’s not going into the fight like it’s going to be easy or that Hopkins is old news, so if he loses he’s not going to find it especially dispiriting. That’s good, because Kovalev is fun and none of us want him to end up like Kelly Pavlik.

Andrew Harrison: I wouldn’t read too much into that comment. If we all tried to blog in Russian, I’m pretty sure we’d produce something equally as enigmatic. Kovalev doesn’t care a jot for Hopkins’s reputation, which is another reason I think he’ll dismember the old boy on Saturday. The ability to ignore all the pre-fight brouhaha worked a treat for the likes of Joe Calzaghe and Chad Dawson.

Sam Sheppard: I think Kovalev has precisely the right idea. He gave the most asinine reply possible, because he knows Hopkins thrives on the mind games of being underestimated and written off. He’s wise to decline him the ammunition. We’ve seen in the past that big talk from the likes of Trinidad and Pavlik did nothing but add extra fuel to the old man’s fire.

Matthew Swain: I cracked up when I heard the comments and people began wondering if Kovalev was somehow setting himself up to justify taking a loss. A man who throws mid combination dick feints at his opponent is unlikely to suffer from mental weakness or self doubt in the ring.

Jeff Pryor: From reading a number of Kovalev’s comments over the last few weeks he seems to have a good mix of respect and confidence going into the fight. Per-fight report card there is just fine. Perhaps the only troubling thing if one is trying to over analyze his words is that he say’s he doesn’t know what to expect until he is in the ring and sees what Hopkins does on the night. Everyone here knows what Hopkins does. What Kovalev really means is, he has to wait to see if Hopkins can do the same thing to him. And if I were in his corner, I would tell him to assume that he can. So what do you do when the punches you’ve landed against everyone else you’ve ever fought aren’t landing and your confidence wavers, and on top of it, Hopkins is busting you in the face with lead right hands that you can’t seem to get out of the way of. Start there and build the strategy from that. No one assumes the worst when they face Hopkins. I think that’s their mistake.

Tim Starks: The language gap serves Kovalev well here. But I distinctly recall watching Kovalev’s body language slowly shift after his last win, against Blake Caparello, when Bernard Hopkins popped over for an interview with HBO’s Max Kellerman. My first thought was, “Man, Kovalev is eyeing him like he’s a steak.” Later, when Kovalev started to talk, he seemed shook. Hopkins’ intense confidence and flair for the unpredictable messes with people, including people I didn’t think it would mess with. Now, it must be said, my body language education is strictly amateur, and even the experts are mostly full of shit. The only thing we know is that almost everybody who faces Hopkins ends up with Hopkins in his head, based on past results. I wouldn’t be surprised if the seemingly unflappable Kovalev has been flapped. It’s my vague suspicion that it has happened.