One could make the argument that no professional boxer over 40 years old has accepted a tougher assignment and challenge in the last 60 years than what 49 year old Bernard Hopkins will confront when he meets Sergey Kovalev, 31, for the WBA/WBO/IBF light heavyweight titles on November 8th.
Think about that, two months shy of his 50th birthday, Hopkins 55-6-2 (32) is taking on the most feared fighter in the division in Kovalev, who holds a 25-0-1 (23) mark.
Over the years there have been plenty of bouts where an old established champion or former champ took on a much younger champion or new title-holder. Archie Moore was 40 when he challenged 21 year old Floyd Patterson for the heavyweight title that was vacated when Rocky Marciano retired in 1955. Moore was 46 when he became 20 year old Cassius Clay's first real test as a pro. George Foreman was 42 when he challenged 29 year old Evander Holyfield for the undisputed title after returning to the ring from a 10 year retirement. And three years after losing a unanimous decision to Holyfield, Foreman, 45, knocked out Michael Moorer, 26, for the WBA/IBF title.
However, the fight that is most analogous to Hopkins-Kovalev is the one between former WBC heavyweight champ Larry Holmes, 42, and undefeated Ray Mercer, 30, who relinquished his WBO title to accept the fight with Holmes. And the winner between the Holmes-Mercer bout would next meet Evander Holyfield for the undisputed heavyweight championship.
Holmes 53-3 (37) and Mercer 18-0 (13) fought on February 7, 1992 in Atlantic City New Jersey. And like Hopkins, Holmes was an all-time great fighter and boxer and was a 4-1 underdog against Mercer. At the time Mercer, the former Olympic gold medalist, who went 85-6 as an amateur and won every bout at the 1988 Olympics by knockout, was coming off his three most impressive showings as a pro. And the same can be said about Sergey Kovalev. In three consecutive fights Mercer won a decision over Bert Cooper (22-5), knocked out Francisco Damiani (27-0) to win the WBO heavyweight title, and then in his first defense knocked out the hard hitting Tommy Morrison (28-0) in the fifth round.
I'm not trying to compare Hopkins-Kovalev to Holmes-Mercer in style, although there are similarities. It's more of a matter of public perception of the fighters involved at the time that each fight took place. In 1992, Mercer was seen as a beast and a very serious threat to Evander Holyfield's title. Ray possessed a concrete chin and was thought of as being a big puncher. He was fearless and brought the heat against everybody he fought. In his fight prior to Holmes, Tommy Morrison worked Mercer over real good and caught him with shots that would've knocked out an elephant. But Morrison couldn't finish Mercer and when Tommy needed a breather, Mercer exploded on his chin and registered one of the most brutal knockouts ever seen in heavyweight history.
Like Mercer, Kovalev is viewed as a big puncher and in his last few bouts stopped his opponents with jabs to the body. Also like Mercer, Kovalev is hungry for his just due and the fame and fortune that accompany it. Although, I must say, Mercer actually beat more credible opponents than Kovalev has at the same age.
Then there's Hopkins and Holmes, who were two of the greatest middleweight and heavyweight champions in history during their title reign. Hopkins held the middleweight title 10 consecutive years, longer than any other middleweight in history, and Holmes' title reign of seven years is only second to Joe Louis,' circa 1937-49.
Hopkins and Holmes stylistically were boxers/technicians. Hopkins is more of a technician and Holmes was more boxer. Another thing that Bernard and Larry had in common was their attitude towards the media, in that they believed the press never understood or appreciated them for what they accomplished in the ring.
Hopkins was the next great middleweight champ after Marvin Hagler, and Holmes was the dominant heavyweight after Muhammad Ali. Whether they were a contender or a defending champion, Bernard and Larry entered the ring with the mindset that they weren't accepted by the boxing establishment and had something to prove. And that type of disposition and outlook led them both to thrive as reigning champions.
Maybe the biggest similarity between Hopkins and Holmes is how they grew as fighters and learned how to fight smarter and pace themselves at a very advanced age, as their multitude of physical skills began to wane. They knew when to work and when to coast. They always knew where they were in the round and knew how to buy time and steal exchanges. On top of that they were both physically and mentally tough and both took a great punch. Neither ducked any fighter during their era and when the pressure was at its greatest, Bernard and Larry usually seized the moment.
All that being said, like it was before Holmes faced Mercer, most fans and a lot of the media believe Kovalev will be the fighter to finally send Hopkins into retirement. The perception of many is that Kovalev is just too young, strong, fearless and determined for Hopkins to hold off with his unconventional ring tactics and off-the-chart boxing acumen. The belief of many is that Kovalev is going to be too much for Hopkins physically and there won't be anything Bernard will be able to do about it. But as Lee Corso on College Gameday often says, “not so fast!”
Back in the day it was very scary picking and betting against Larry Holmes, like many did before he faced Mercer. Well, that also applies to Bernard Hopkins… and maybe even more so.
On February 7, 1992, Larry Holmes, 42, took Ray Mercer, 30, to boxing school. The course lasted 12-rounds. During those rounds Holmes showed Mercer just how much he hadn't learned about fighting at the highest level in the sport. Holmes moved when he had to, held his ground when he needed to, tied Mercer up and shut him down when the time was right, and showed how dangerous and ill-fated it was to pressure him while being straight up and in the path of his jab, cross and right leads. It really did look like a house cat toying with a church mouse. Holmes won the fight going away on all three judges’ cards, 117-112, 117-111 and 115-113. It was one of the rare fights in which the older great took apart the up- -and-coming next guy with a ton of potential.
The lesson from the Holmes-Mercer fight is, not all old greats are the same. You never know when they have that one last great moment in them. And Bernard Hopkins has taken that boxing axiom to an even higher level than Holmes did. Hopkins is a one-of-kind athlete, not just boxer. Some day time has got to run out for him, but when remembering the way Holmes dismantled Mercer 22 years ago, it's extremely hard to predict Hopkins’ demise before the fight like so many predicted Holmes.’
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com