There is nothing wrong with being a one-trick pony, if that trick is truly unique and so exceptional that other ponies being put on public display can’t hope to duplicate it. If that were the case, people would continue to flock to see the pony do its very special thing, even if they had seen it done before because, well, greatness in a limited sense is still greatness. No one ever complained because the magnificent racehorse, Secretariat, wasn’t required to rear up on his hind legs and dance to calliope music, like a circus animal. The Triple Crown champion’s only requirement was to run very fast and cross the finish line ahead of his pursuers, which he did with astounding regularity.
Oct. 18 marks the six-year anniversary of old warhorse Bernard Hopkins’ thorough thrashing of a frisky colt named Kelly Pavlik. A couple of weeks from now, on Nov. 8 – and at the same venue, Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall – Hopkins, even longer past the age when elite prizefighters, in a manner of speaking, should have been put out to pasture, goes to the post once more against another much-younger opponent, Sergey Kovalev, whose charge-forward, big-banging style has been likened to that of … Kelly Pavlik.
Pavlik, a 5-1 favorite who was exposed as much too limited a thoroughbred by the cagey Hopkins, stands as Exhibit A – OK, maybe more as Exhibit B, C or even D – of the kind of knockout-dependent slugger who made the mistake of believing that the geezer in the other corner was on his last legs, lacking the will or endurance to stay the course. Can the same result be in the offing when Hopkins, who turns 50 on Jan. 15, again steps into the starting gate against a younger, supposedly devastating puncher who, like Pavlik, figures to go off as roughly a 3-1 oddsmaker’s choice?
Spanish philosopher/poet George Santayana once observed that “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” which is true enough given certain circumstances. But there is another saying that also has been proven correct time and again, and that is that nothing lasts forever. Maybe not even Bernard Hopkins, whose history of disassembling fighters whose singular trick, even if they are spectacularly good at performing it, may be about to be put to the ultimate test.
As the countdown continues to Hopkins-Kovalev – the HBO-televised showdown is for the further unification of the light heavyweight championship, with B-Hop (55-6-2, 32 KOs) putting his IBF and WBA 175-pound titles on the line against the WBO belt held by the 31-year-old Kovalev (25-0-1, 32 KOs) – the questions that have yet to be answered are simple. Will past form be an indicator of what the immediate future holds, or will there be a variation of the familiar plot? For whatever it’s worth, Hopkins and Kovalev are spicing things up a bit by suggesting that there might even be a bit of role reversal when the opening bell rings, with Hopkins boldly trying for his first win inside the distance since he stopped Oscar De La Hoya in nine rounds on Sept. 18, 2004 – that’s a stretch of 16 bouts, if you include his no-contest pairing with Chad Dawson on Oct. 15, 2011 – while Kovalev, who has won his last nine fights by knockout, and last 13 if you don’t count his two-round technical draw with Grover Young on Aug. 27, 2011, tries to outbox the boxing master.
“That would be eye-opening to a lot of people,” Hopkins said, teasingly, when asked if he might somehow alter the script by putting “Krusher” Kovalev down and out. “I’m in a knockout drought. But I did break a knockdown drought in my last fight (a one-sided points nod over then-WBA champ Beibut Shumenov on April 19).
“If I see an opening, I’m gonna attack. When I go in that ring, I use all my alphabetical skills, from A to Z, and systematically give a boxing lesson. Remember, I get paid the same whether it goes one or 12 rounds. But if a guy looks like he can be had, I’m gonna get him.”
Kovalev, whose boxing skills might actually be underrated because he so seldom has had to call upon any skill other than his ability to batter opponents into unconsciousness or abject submission, isn’t going the Kelly Pavlik route by predicting he will become the first fighter to take out Hopkins before the fight goes to the scorecards.
“I think nothing,” Kovalev said when asked if he thought he’d make short work of Hopkins, as he has of so many recent rivals. “Just go to the ring and do my work, my job, as usual. Is boxing. How many rounds will we fight? When you go to the ring, anything can happen. Like I say, is boxing. Every punch is dangerous, for each of us.
“Really, I would like to show to people my boxing. Is not interesting, quick kills. Is interesting to me what I can do against big master boxer.”
But words are easier to fling around than scoring blows, and the likelihood is that this very intriguing matchup will hew closely to the established strategies that almost everyone expects the combatants to follow. You don’t enter plow horses in the Kentucky Derby, and you don’t ask Secretariat to pull a beer wagon as if he were a Clydesdale.
Prior Hopkins’ impressive unanimous decision over Winky Wright, another defensive genius best known for his penchant for hitting and not getting hit much in return, ESPN2 boxing analyst Teddy Atlas said it is crazy to think a leopard can change its spots on a whim because it suddenly decides it likes stripes better.
“They have styles that obviously work for them,” Atlas said of the mirror images Hopkins and Wright presumably projected. “Those styles call for them to cover up, to counter, to stay out of danger whenever possible, to take what the other guy gives them and not necessarily force the issue. Those are qualities that have made them highly productive. Do they care about changing to make the fight more fan-friendly? I don’t think they do. They’re at a point in their careers where their priorities are pretty much established. They are who they are. Their styles, I think, are an extension of their mentality. If you have a guy who thinks carefully, he’s going to box carefully. If you have a guy who thinks aggressively, he’s going to fight that way.”
Which brings us back to the parallels between what happened in Hopkins-Pavlik and what might happen in Hopkins-Kovalev, unless Hopkins has ceded too much ground to the inevitable ravages of Father Time, and/or Kovalev is a much improved version of Pavlik, whose favoritism the night he got schooled by B-Hop owed largely to the fact he had twice defeated Jermain Taylor, who had twice defeated Hopkins.
Another interesting sidelight to this figurative do-over is the presence of former WBA middleweight champion John David Jackson in Kovalev’s corner as chief second. Jackson, who was stopped in seven rounds by then-IBF middleweight titlist Hopkins on April 19, 1997, is a former assistant trainer of B-Hop who was part of the ageless wonder’s team the night he put so much distance between himself and Pavlik that the Philadelphian won by margins of 119-106, 118-108 and 117-109 on the official scorecards. You’d have to figure that if anyone knows the secret of solving the puzzle that is Hopkins, it would be Jackson. But then JD-Jax knows that some puzzles are forever puzzling.
“Bernard is a smart fighter,” Jackson said before Hopkins’ April 19, 2008, bout with Welsh southpaw Joe Calzaghe, who put enough of the jigsaw pieces together to win a close and somewhat controversial split decision. “He’s taken street smarts and made it work very well. He wears people down physically, and psychologically.”
The guess here is that Pavlik made the mistake of figuring that Hopkins, at 43, was too old and used-up to pose too much of a threat to a hot, young (then 26) and ascending star such as himself. His prefight confidence was such that he boasted he would “do boxing a favor” and “forever free” the world of the drudgery of watching B-Hop make good fighters look bad.
But Hopkins, who uses every tool at his disposal to motivate himself to give maximum effort every time out, was inspired by a pledge he had made to a partially blind, pain-wracked 18-year-old Hopkins fan named Shaun Negler, who died of brain cancer just five days after his hero had dominated Pavlik. Which begs another question: Just what is the emotional string within himself that Hopkins will try to pull against Kovalev, who has refrained from making the sort of derogatory remarks about his aged opponent that Pavlik and others have uttered and then been forced to retract. To this point, he has given Hopkins perhaps too much respect, at least in his public pronouncements.
“He is `Alien,’” a smiling Kovalev said of Hopkins, a reference to the recently adopted nickname Hopkins has assumed in place of the discarded “Executioner.” “He is not 49 like regular man.”
Forget about veiled suggestions that Kovalev will try to match Hopkins subtle trick for subtle trick, slick move for slick move. He is 18-plus years younger, he packs much the heavier artillery, he is the future (you can bet that the brass at HBO are hoping so) while Hopkin is a glorious relic of the past, his golden era relentlessly dipping toward its sunset. It will be up to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Russian to go to a place that Kelly Pavlik was unable to reach, or even approach, a destination other relative one-trick ponies such as Felix Trinidad and Antonio Tarver thought they had a map to when they agreed to enter the labyrinth of pitfalls where B-Hop awaits.
Hopkins doesn’t expect Kovalev to “show people my boxing”; he no doubt is anticipating that the WBO champ will mostly try to make history becoming the first fighter to knock him out, or at least to beat him bloody, and he is relying on his own past performance charts to demonstrate that no one-trick pony can successfully hang with so varied and adaptable a trickster such as he.
“Kelly Pavlik is the perfect opponent for me because he comes forward, he comes to fight and he wants to knock me out,” Hopkins said prior to that particular date with destiny. “But he’s going to find it difficult, and it’s going to change the fight. I guarantee, it’s going to change the fight. Tito (Trinidad) tried to walk me down. Tito had one bullet in the chamber and that was a left hook. If Kelly Pavlik thinks he’s going to beat Bernard Hopkins because he has a big right hand, he’s a damn fool.
“You’ve got an offensive guy and you’ve got a defensive guy. That’s the perfect match. You’ve got a guy that comes forward and you’ve got a guy that specializes in guys coming forward so he can let them punch, so he can counterpunch. That’s my game. This will be a fight where the Mack truck is coming, and can Bernard Hopkins crash the Mack truck? I say I will flatten the tires, the Mack truck will slow up and then it will conk out.”
But if Hopkins’ expectation of the outcome against Pavlik was indeed fulfilled, remember what else he has said as the sands in his professional hourglass began to very slowly empty. He was “only” 43 when he was asked before the Pavlik fight if he expected to continue to fighting until, oh, 48.
“No,” he insisted. “Reflexes are very important. To be able to move from left to right at the drop of a dime is very important. The first thing that goes on a fighter is his knees, then his reflexes. At 48 years old, I’ll be a sitting duck and I’ll be embarrassing my long list of achievements and my legacy.”
No fighter can have it both ways, even against a fairly predictable one-trick pony. Even if Kovalev has but one trick, it is a mighty good one and besides, he’ll be double-teaming Hopkins with that unseen but very real ally, the thief of reflexes. Father Time eventually calls on all fighters who stay too long at the fair, but to date Hopkins hasn’t answered the insistent knocking at his door. Maybe he really is impervious to the natural laws of diminishing returns.
Regardless of how this fight ends, though, there is a strong possibility that the winner is apt to be named Fighter of the Year because, well, just because. Kovalev will be the sport’s hottest growth property if he wins emphatically against a living legend, and a victorious Hopkins would continue to be its forever-blooming evergreen, with a chance to add a companion FOY award to the one he captured for 2001 when he dominated the great Felix Trinidad. He knew what he was getting into when he agreed to swap shots with Kovalev, and he did so eagerly.
“I was supposed to be done 15 years ago,” he said. “Fifteen from 49 leaves you what, 37? Thirty-four? OK, I never passed math.
“When this fight’s over and I’ve given another loss to an undefeated fighter … man, I love fighting guys with undefeated records. I love it when that fighter no longer can be called a virgin. He’s been had. I have a history of taking guys 0’s away.”
The guess here is that among those with an especially strong interest in the outcome will be Kelly Pavlik, who was never quite the same after his date with Hopkins, and who might or might not be coming out of retirement at some point. When you have been there and haven’t done that, there is always the nagging question of what you might have done differently, as well as wonder who the guy might be that comes along and does what you weren’t able to when it counted most.