When you think of all the x-factors that come into play when sizing up WBA/IBF light heavyweight title holder Bernard Hopkins 55-6-2 (32) and WBO title holder Sergey Kovalev 25-0-1 (23), who meet in Atlantic City this Saturday night, it’s mind boggling. I can’t remember the last time I’ve conversed with and exchanged thoughts with those whose boxing acumen I value most, who are so much on the fence when it comes to picking the winner of Hopkins-Kovalev without trepidation.
Maybe the thing that’s most amazing is, we know everything we could ever want or need to know about Hopkins as a fighter. Conversely, all we really know about Kovalev is that he’s a physically big light heavyweight, he can punch and he doesn’t lose his head or get wild when he has his opponent hurt and is looking to finish them. Also, Kovalev is not terribly fast, which is a plus for Hopkins.
If there is one thing we can say with impunity it’s this: Kovalev has never even sparred a fighter as smart, cunning, versatile or as tough as Hopkins, because none other exist. Sergey also probably figures Bernard can’t move laterally like he used to, but he can still probably slip and strike in and out of pocket. Most likely Kovalev’s trainer John David Jackson will likely instruct Sergey to counter to Bernard’s body because his head is so tough to tag cleanly, and then look for high percentage shots upstairs when opportunities arise. This leaves the following option for Hopkins: Back Kovalev up and smother him so he’s out of his comfort zone and can’t get leverage/extension on his punches. This is a position Kovalev has never been in before fighting as a pro.
As for Hopkins, a lot depends on how much he is bothered by Sergey’s power and punch. If he is bothered by it, and that’s entirely plausible, then he has to back Kovalev up or give him a reason to be slightly more hesitant in his aggression. If Hopkins can’t get Kovalev’s attention with his rights and counter-rights, he’ll have no choice but to become an octopus and back him up and peck away at him when he can. If Sergey can make Hopkins uncomfortable from outside, there’s less of a chance Hopkins can mess with him emotionally and use every trick in the book inside.
I know that Hopkins will expertly move outside the rule book at every available opportunity. This is something that John David Jackson surely has forewarned Kovalev about. What I don’t know is whether Kovalev’s composure will crack when he’s hit low, elbowed, or butted. And you can bet the farm that Hopkins already has plan “b” and “C” mapped out in his mind if what he thought he saw as a flaw in Kovalev stylistically can’t be exploited. In regards to Kovalev, he’s admitted to not trying to figure out what Hopkins is going to do, so if “catch n’ kill” doesn’t work, then what? The one thing that does set Kovalev apart from other punchers that Hopkins has faced is, Kovalev can hurt you outside to the head and body. Most of the power on Kovalev’s punches seem to be at the end of them. Which means he won’t be vulnerable to Hopkins’ inside traps and holding because he can make his presence felt with his jabs and crosses. Then again Hopkins has a great chin and will not fold or come undone from one big shot. Conversely, Kovalev knows Hopkins probably can’t knock him out nor will he try to.
We can count on Bernard not to set a blistering pace so going 12-rounds shouldn’t be much of a problem for a fighter who has never gone past eight rounds in his career. We also know that Hopkins can roll out of bed and go 12 hard rounds if he has to. And don’t forget, Bernard hasn’t been out of fighting at the championship level shape in two decades, whereas Kovalev has only been fighting pro for slightly more than five years.
Since moving up to light heavyweight, Hopkins has been most annoyed by fighters who possess quick hands and feet, something that shouldn’t be an issue for him in this fight. It’s a certified fact that Hopkins has a great chin and is extremely resilient. However, we have no idea how great of a punch Kovalev can take or how he’ll recover. We can surmise, but we don’t know for certain.
Hopkins is 9-2-1 (1 NC) fighting above middleweight since losing to Jermain Taylor. He looked great against Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik, who tried to force the fight and back him up. This is something that most agree Kovalev will have to do more successfully than they did.
We can look at the style clash and X’s and O’s all we want. The template for the fight is known to most boxing observers. For Hopkins, he has to slow the pace of the fight, win a few exchanges a round and when he can, grab, tie up, shove and whatever else it takes to keep Kovalev stuck in the mud. As for Kovalev, he must try and make Hopkins rush and fight him off, hopefully leading to more flat-footed exchanges. Sergey must not head hunt, especially early, and he must ignore and not succumb to whatever unconventional ring tactics and theatrics Hopkins has in his psychology bag. But like most big fights, physicality will play a big part and most likely dictate which fighter will be able to best implement what they need to do in order for them to win.
When you take in the totality of everything we know about Hopkins and Kovalev, it should be easy to handicap the bout and pick the winner. If only that were the case. Because as much as we do know, it’s what we don’t know regarding how Hopkins’ age and Kovalev’s lack of experience will play out once the bell rings and they touch hands.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com