Bernard Hopkins latest phenomenal ring achievement was almost an anticlimax. It should not have been, of course, because there is nothing remotely ordinary or commonplace in a 48 year old athlete winning a major title in their chosen sport.
Imagine a golfer winning a mayor at 48? (it’s never been done) or a tennis player winning a slam at 48 (not even close) or a soccer star turning out for a Champions League winning team at 48 (Manchester United´s Ryan Giggs might eventually achieve that one). It would be sensational – the biggest story in sport for days, weeks, maybe months. Yet Hopkins achievement – dominating the previously undefeated Tavoris Cloud to win the IBF light heavyweight crown – didn’t even make the regular news on UK TV.
It did however two years earlier when he defeated Jean Pascal to win the WBC 175 crown aged 46, beating the previous record set by George Foreman when he regained the heavyweight title at 45 in 1994 with a tenth round KO of Michael Moorer. Then, it did make the national news, and most of the newspapers.
This time around, barely a flicker. That´s the trouble with overkill. Daniel Day Lewis made history this month for winning a third Best Actor Oscar, the first male actor to do so. If he breaks his own record in a couple of years, it wont be half the story.
The problem with Bernard Hopkins is, well, Bernard Hopkins. He is the ultimate Marmite fighter – you either love the guy, or you hate him. Floyd Mayweather arouses similar passions among fight fans, only at least Floyd lets his opponents fight their fight in the ring, and defeats them with his superior skill set. Bernard relies on taking away his opponent´s fight, which recently has resulted in somewhat dull encounters that can only really be appreciated by the purists. As a personality he is outspoken, headstrong, often abrasive and occasionally obnoxious. But never boring.
Personally, I am a huge fan of B’Hop. I love his warrior spirit, his ´´me against the world“ mentality, his sheer bloody mindedness. As we are virtually the same age, he is a massive inspiration to me (as I am sure he is to millions of guys approaching the big Five-O) because he proves that age really is just a number, you really are just as old as you feel, it really is mind over matter, and any other age related clichés you care to wheel out.
Have we ever seen a fighter in his 40´s perform quite like Hopkins? Against the previously unbeaten Tavoris Cloud he was masterful, winning the IBF light heavyweight crown in a canter. Cloud may be somewhat limited technically, but he is as strong as a bull, a solid puncher and relentless. Yet by the middle rounds he looked like a beaten man – so comprehensively was Hopkins in control.
And yet Hopkins has been defying the years – well – for years. He was already pushing it at 36 when he scored his best career win up to that point; a tenth round TKO over the previously unbeaten Felix Trinidad to unify the world middleweight title in 2001. Three years later at 39, he became the first man to stop Oscar De La Hoya with a ninth round body shot induced kayo.
When he lost his middleweight title aged 40 in 2005 to Jermain Taylor, fight fans believed they had seen the best if not the back of Bernard Hopkins, and yet the following year he astonished us yet again by completely dominating the much bigger Antonio Tarver, universally recognized at that point as the best light heavyweight in the world.
When Hopkins took on Joe Calzaghe in 2008, he had entered phase-two of his career. Gone was the dangerous boxer puncher that Hopkins had been as a middleweight, and in its place was a savvy counter-puncher that was content to expend a minimum amount of energy and instead utilize extensive brainpower.
Although this new approach would prove to work with the majority of opponents, against a metronome like Joe Calzaghe who simply never stopped throwing punches, Hopkins was forced out of his new found comfort zone and simply out-worked. Calzaghe made the fight while Hopkins tried to turn the contest into an almost anti-fight. The bottom line was that no matter how much he protested otherwise, Hopkins was decisively beaten.
And yet, just when we were about to hammer the final nail in Hopkins´ career coffin, he pulled off both the biggest shock and in this writer’s opinion career best ever victory as he completely dominated the highly dangerous and at that point unbeaten Kelly Pavlik in an unforgettable night at the iconic Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City in October 2008.
In this bout, gone was the cagey counter-punching minimal energy expending Mark-II model of Hopkins and in its place was an exciting, aggressive slick boxing warrior that stayed in the pocket against his heavy hitting opponent, slipping shots with breathtaking precision to land his own. Hopkins didn’t just win every round against Pavlik – he won every minute of every round. Kelly was never the same again after that night in New Jersey.
Hopkins twice dominated the technically limited but powerful and talented Haitian born Canadian Jean Pascal in 2010 and 2011, and then came the low point of his career, his embarrassing no-contest against Chad Dawson in which he fell heavily in the second round and injured his shoulder, conveniently or otherwise. The two got it on again six months later, and although the outcome was only a majority 12 round decision in Dawson’s favor, ´´Bad Chad“ had clearly won the fight.
At that point, Hopkins career looked for all intents and purposes over, although his name was soon linked to a lucrative bout with WBO light heavyweight underachiever Nathan Cleverly. It says something about how far Hopkins´stock had fallen if Cleverley´s brain-trust, who have so far risked their charge against such fistic powerhouses as Shawn Hawk and Tommy Karpency, considered Hopkins so little a threat that they were willing to risk a fight with him.
Had he indeed quit at that point, I believe Hopkins still would have been regarded as the greatest 40+ fighter in history. Hopkins only real rivals for this crown are Archie Moore and George Foreman, both of whom achieved amazing feats in their fifth decades on the planet, yet hardly in the league of B´Hop.
The highlight of Moore´s 40´s with his come-from-behind kayo of the dangerous brawler Yvonne Durell, surviving four knockdowns in the process. This fight has gone down in boxing folklore, and was undoubtedly a thrilling encounter, but lets not forget that Durell was little more than a game journeyman, and had been beaten 19 times prior to his first fight with Moore.
George Foreman defied the odds aged 42 in a thrilling fight with Evander Holyfield, and then three years later landed one perfect right hand to the chin of Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight crown. It was a truly astonishing achievement but to put it into some kind of context, Foreman had arguably lost all nine previous rounds, and ex-light heavyweight Moorer´s chin was hardly of heavyweight pedigree.
By comparison, Hopkins has won three versions of the light heavyweight title (his victory over Tarver was for the Ring Magazine´s linear title), thrashed a fighter in Winky Wright who was unbeaten in eight years and regarded by some as the best boxer on the planet, and also dominated an outstanding world middleweight champion in Pavlik. And now to top it all comes his victory over Cloud.
The win over Cloud earned Hopkins his third reign as a regular world champ – twice as a light heavyweight, and one phenomenal stretch at middleweight, from 1995 to 2005, which saw him rack up 20 defenses. Both the duration of his reign and the number of title defenses are records for the middleweight division.
Hagler was the ultimate beast of the middleweight division, with 12 defenses against some of the toughest competition ever including Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran. Super fit and relentless with a bullet-proof chin and a KO punch, Hagler may not have had the moves of Robinson or the elegance of Monzon, but boy was he effective. Short at 5´9´´ but heavily muscled and with a long reach, Hagler turned his back on boxing forever following his controversial loss to Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987. Many boxing experts believe Hagler, not Robinson or Monzon, was the greatest ever middleweight.
A peak Hopkins would have been up against it in fights with any of these three, and most likely would have lost on points to all of them. But the middleweight division is rich in history.Would Hopkins´skills have seen him through against other legends of the division? This writer believes that Hopkins beats the likes of Mickey Walker, Charley Burley, Tony Zale and Jake LaMotta in close fights, but would have problems with Marcel Cerdan, and could have found the non-stop punching and rough-house tactics of Harry Greb too much.
Hopkins by-passed the super middleweights, so we can only speculate how good he would have been at 168 lbs, although I suspect he saw the division as just a little too competitive for him at that stage of his career.
As a light heavyweight, Hopkins has proved to be effective rather than great. His frame suits the weight, although he is not big at 175 lbs in the way that Dawson and Pascal are.
If he struggled against Dawson, one wonders how he would have fared against the likes of Moore, Bob Foster and Michael Spinks. Although his great chin and defensive skills would have made him hard to stop, I think he would struggle badly against all three.
Is Hopkins an all time great? As a middleweight, most definitely, and is certainly Top 5. Pound for pound? Although its open to debate, the twenty best fighters in history probably include the likes Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Roberto Duran, Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Harry Greb, Emile Griffith, Alexis Arguello, Salvador Sanchez, Sam Langford, Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Willie Pep, Julio Cesar Chavez, Pernell Whitaker, Oscar De La Hoya, and will soon be joined by Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr.
Does Bernard Hopkins deserve to sit among this level of company? Quite possibly.
Of course, there is one category that few would argue the Philadelphian tops – that of ring intelligence. And long may he reign.
Dan Hunter is the editor of The Boxing Post and the author of the weight training and fitness ebook Urban Muscle