Whoever said boxing is a young man’s game was sorely mistaken.
Golden oldies Bernard Hopkins, 43, and Joe Calzaghe, 36, will clash tonight in a matchup that will pit two of this era’s best fighters against each other. This spring has been a dream season so far for fight fans, and Hopkins-Calzaghe will be another significant fight to add to the mix.
For Calzaghe, (44-0, 32 KO), this is an opportunity for him to add a legendary name to his growing campaign for greatness. A champion for the past eleven years, acceptance among the American mainstream eluded Calzaghe until March 2006, when he dismantled then undefeated Jeff Lacy, the favorite to end Calzaghe’s reign. Subsequent performances have proven equally dominant, particularly in Calzaghe’s last outing against highly regarded Mikkel Kessler. As was the case against Lacy, Calzaghe silenced his critics by taking his Danish opponent to school during their twelve-round encounter.
Against Hopkins, Calzaghe will have to employ many of the same tactics that brought him success against Lacy and Kessler. The most important of these will be maintaining a busy work rate. Calzaghe has the ability to work at a frenetic pace, one that belies his size and age. Calzaghe’s activity gradually withered both Lacy and Kessler, who were younger and supposedly stronger opponents. In recent fights, Hopkins has been an extremely economical fighter, wisely choosing his moments in order to make them count. A busy pace by Calzaghe will give Hopkins few spots to exploit. This would leave Hopkins with three options: fight ugly, counterpunch, or match Calzaghe’s work rate. Neither Lacy nor Kessler were able to do any of these three.
Calzaghe can also utilize movement and footwork to keep Hopkins off balance. Footwork has never been a strong suit for B-Hop, especially in his most recent fights. Calzaghe, on the other hand, has used his speed and mobility to the utmost against his slower opponents. If he can make use of every square inch within the ring, Hopkins will be forced to cut off the ring or risk having Calzaghe box circles around him.
For the seemingly ageless Hopkins, (48-4, 32 KO), his winning gameplan is paradoxically simple and complex: make this fight as rough and ugly as possible. Conceding the advantages of youth and speed to Calzaghe, Hopkins must win this fight on guile and grit. Against Felix Trinidad, another fighter who seemed to possess all the physical advantages, Hopkins fought the most intelligent fight of his career. He won the fight using effective counters, mugging tactics, and indomitable will. He’ll have to use these same strategies to a higher level against Calzaghe, who is far more versatile than Trinidad. Hopkins needs to make it a back alley dogfight, one in which his toughness is more significant than Calzaghe’s immaculate skill. He needs to work his way inside and push Calzaghe around in an effort to stifle the Welshman’s machine gun offense. And when he finds himself on the inside, Hopkins will need to let his hands go more freely than he has in recent fights. All his hard work outmuscling Calzaghe will be for naught if he can’t put some hurt on him, too.
Predicting fights all comes down to the subjective idea of likelihood. Between the aforementioned fight plans, which is more likely to take place?
Based on recent performances, it looks like an uphill battle for B-Hop. His recent resurgence to the top of the sport is more a product of shrewd matchmaking than a visit to the fountain of youth. In his two most recent outings, Hopkins bested a lethargic Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright, a fighter who is defined by his defensive skills. Neither fighter was a particularly dynamic offensive fighter when they met Hopkins.
An examination of Hopkins’ losses to Jermain Taylor reveals his Achilles heel at this point in his career. In the rounds that clearly belonged to Taylor, the younger man outworked his older foe. By the time Hopkins was able to disrupt Taylor’s attack with his roughing tactics, it was not enough to undo the deficit that had accumulated. The truth is Hopkins cannot fight every second of every round like he used to. He showed that in his losses to Taylor, and even in his wins over Tarver and Wright.
Calzaghe is a far more fluid and sophisticated offensive fighter than Taylor. His punches are numerous enough to make an opponent feel surrounded and authoritative enough to earn their respect. Taylor was able to make the most of opportunities given to him by Hopkins; Calzaghe can make his own openings.
At this point, Hopkins will fare best against fighters who allow him to methodically pick and choose when he wishes to attack and when he will lie dormant (a la Tarver and Wright). Calzaghe will not give him that luxury. Also, with Hopkins not being a particularly big hitter, he does not have much of a puncher’s chance. The end result is bad news for The Executioner.
This is meant as no disrespect to Hopkins. The man is a physical wonder. At age 43, it is a significant accomplishment for a man to touch his toes; Hopkins still finds himself among the elite in a sport that involves administering physical beatings. There are few fighters who can match the discipline, toughness, and determination of Bernard Hopkins.
It is that deep-rooted toughness which will keep Hopkins competitive throughout. He will do his best to cut Joe Calzaghe down to size, but it ultimately comes down to the fact that Calzaghe has too many tools at his disposal for a compromised Bernard Hopkins. B-Hop’s time in the sun had to end sometime; the guess is that sometime will be April 19.
The Pick: Calzaghe by unanimous decision