Boxing writers are only human, so members of our curious fraternity perhaps can be excused for repeating certain mistakes, if for no other reason than force of habit. A lot of us appear ready to trudge down that potentially crooked path again as Saturday night’s HBO-televised light heavyweight unification bout between IBF/WBA champion Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) and WBO titlist Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) in Atlantic City Boardwalk Hall nears.
Consider the poll of fight scribes taken by our veteran colleague, Jack Obermayer. Of 23 media types asked to predict the outcome of Hopkins-Kovalev, a slight majority, 12, went with ageless wonder Hopkins, who turns 50 on Jan. 15, to 11 votes for the much-younger (31), much harder-hitting Russian.
Among those who grappled with the improbable notion that B-Hop might again bridge the Grand Canyonesque age gap was yours truly. This is how I called it for KOJO: “Can’t believe I’m going to the well again. Hopkins has a history of success against big punchers who come forward and try to take his head off. Will Kovalev be the guy who finally hands it to him? No. Hopkins by decision.”
Hopkins has made me appear smart more often than not. Oh, sure, I whiffed badly in going with Kelly Pavlik in 2008, but I was spot-on (and definitely in the minority) when I picked Hopkins to not only defeat, but to stop Felix Trinidad in 2001. I also correctly predicted B-Hop victories against Joe Lipsey, Oscar De La Hoya, Winky Wright, Jean Pascal, Karo Murat and Beibut Shumenov. But, in addition to the miscall on his scrap with Pavlik, I stubbed my toe in going against Hopkins in his matchups with Chad Dawson, Antonio Tarver and Joe Calzaghe. Still, I figure my perhaps excessive confidence in the Philadelphia boxing master has me mostly on the plus side of the ledger.
Face it: Boxing writers, and quite a few fight fans, are enthralled by anyone who wears a robe of greatness, even when that robe begins to get a bit threadbare. There is a hesitancy to let go of the idea that a surefire Hall of Famer has regressed to the point where he no longer can routinely dial up past glories as if he were ordering takeout pizza. But that most relentless of opponents, Father Time, doesn’t always rush onto the scene while blaring a trumpet. He frequently sneaks up on even the best of the best on little cat’s paws, stealing bits and pieces of reflexes, mobility and punching power until even the most celebrated of fighters reveals that he is, finally, past the point of no return.
Not that it’s certain, or even likely, that a still-very-capable Hopkins will suddenly fall into that familiar trap, but it has begun to occur to me that Hopkins-Kovalev could turn out to be a repeat of the Feb. 9, 1991, pairing in Madison Square Garden of 23-year-old WBC super welterweight champion Terry Norris and the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard. The Sugar man was three months shy of his 35th birthday and hadn’t fought since scoring a unanimous decision over the even older Roberto Duran in their rubber match on Dec. 7, 1989.
The public, and the press, had grown accustomed to seeing Leonard – who had already retired and unretired three times – pick right back where he had left off, the most stirring example being his shocking split-decision nod over the heavily favored Marvelous Marvin Hagler on April 6, 1987. Few people expected Leonard to fare so well; he had not fought in three years and had answered an opening bell only twice in the preceding five years. Still, that Leonard was only 30, and a comparatively low-mileage 30, in terms of professional wear and tear.
An ascending Norris figured to be a different and maybe even tougher test at that stage of Leonard’s career, but, hey, there was a widespread school of thought that this was still Sugar Ray Leonard. And so those inclined to bet with their hearts instead of their heads sent the five-time former world champion off as a 12-5 favorite. I sort of rolled with the prevailing tide, predicting a Leonard victory via ninth-round technical knockout.
I wasn’t the only one to figure Leonard’s glorious past again would serve as prologue to future triumphs. Before the fight, Thomas Hearns said, “Ray wouldn’t have picked anyone he wasn’t certain he could beat. This kid Norris has no chance.”
Norris, for his part, felt he had a very good chance. In fact, he was absolutely convinced that the ghost of the Sugar Ray that had been wouldn’t be glimpsed that evening.
“Ray is a great fighter, or at least he was a great fighter,” Norris judged. “I know he has a big edge in experience in big fights, but you know what they say about youth being served.
“No matter what he does, no matter what he says, he can’t do anything about the difference in our ages. I’ve seen the tapes of Ray when he was at his best, and I’ve seen tapes of his last few fights. It should be obvious to anyone that the Ray Leonard of today is not the same fighter as the Ray Leonard of five, six years ago. I’m stronger than him. I’m faster. My endurance is greater. I can outbox him and I can outpunch him. Really, I don’t see any way how he can beat me.”
The bout, as it turned out, went exactly as Norris had imagined. He floored Leonard in the second and seventh rounds en route to a rout on the official scorecards, which read 120-104, 119-103 and 116-110.
At the postfight press conference, Norris was almost apologetic at having won so emphatically. “It’s a sad victory because of the way the fight ended,” he said. “Ray took a pretty bad beating, and that was sad for me. Ray was my idol … still is my idol. That’ll never change.”
During his turn at the podium, Leonard announced his fourth retirement from the ring. But it would not be the one that stuck.
“I don’t listen to anyone but myself, so I had to find out for myself,” he said of his decision to test himself against the hot young kid whose attributes closely mirrored that his decade-younger self. “I’ve always been a risk-taker, and tonight I took a risk that didn’t pan out for me. This fight showed me it’s time to move on.”
Sugar Ray moved on from boxing all right, but the incessant itch to test himself required another scratch on March 1, 1997. After a ring absence of six years, Leonard, 40, came back against 34-year-old Hector “Macho” Camacho in Boardwalk Hall. As had been the case when he took on Norris, Leonard was viewed as somehow being immune to the natural laws of diminishing returns, or maybe his legion of admirers were still hesitant to let go of their fondest memories.
“Ray is an athlete,” said Leonard’s former trainer, Angelo Dundee. “Ray’s always doing something. Basketball, tennis. I understand he’s into golf now. I haven’t seen him play, but I bet he’s shooting pretty good scores. Any kind of sport, Ray picks up right away, like he’s been doing it his whole life.
“I think Ray will beat Camacho. I strongly believe that. I know what Ray can do. Macho’s thing was his speed, his quickness. Grabbing on to you. He won’t be able to do that with Ray.”
As might be expected, Leonard – who by then had become a grandfather – retained traces of a confidence that verged on arrogance. Asked if he still considered himself one of the top 10 middleweights in the world, despite his age and inactivity, he said, “Hell, yes.”
Leonard said he was coming back, again, because “I need the attention that boxing brings. My ego is what made me who I am.” It was that ego that prompted Leonard to say that he could beat Camacho even if he was just 50 percent of his prime self, and that he would win “comfortably” at 75 percent of peak efficiency.
And if he somehow was able to reach back in time and make it to 100 percent?
“Annihilation,” he proclaimed.
His many acolytes bought into Leonard’s sales pitch, big time. Although Camacho opened as a 2-1 favorite, by fight night the line had moved so much that Leonard went off as a 7-5 favorite. He was, as always, the people’s choice.
But what happened that night was as jarring to the public’s sensibilities as had been the one-sided loss to Norris. Camacho, never noted for his punching power, had proclaimed “I ain’t running from no 40-year-old man,” and he didn’t, standing and trading in the center of the ring with no apparent fear of retaliation. And when referee Joe Cortez stepped in to stop the bout 68 seconds into the fifth round, after Leonard had been wobbled and then knocked down by two left uppercuts, it was time to bring down the curtain on a career that ranks among the grandest the fight game has ever seen. The fifth retirement announcement by Sugar Ray Leonard, the first man ever to have earned $100 million in purses, would be the one that was carved in granite, not written in wet sand.
“When I was knocked back and staggered, Joe Cortez said, `Ray, are you OK?’ And I was OK,’” Leonard said at the postfight media gathering. “Then when I went down, he asked, `Are you OK?’ I said yes again. But you know what? There was no sense pushing it. I was in trouble.”
Still reluctant to admit that his skills had faded, Leonard cited undisclosed injuries and other factors – to his right calf vs. Camacho, to his rib cage and the emotional turmoil of his divorce from his first wife, Juanita, vs. Norris – for those unsugary performances. But who could blame him for raging, raging against the dying of his once-luminescent light as a fighter?
“You always think of yourself as the best you ever were. That’s human nature,” Leonard, now 58, told me in March 2013 for a story I did for THE RING about fighters who keep saying goodbye, then hello again. “And that’s not just how highly successful people think. Everyone thinks that way.
“Most guys come back for money. They need another payday, and there are people around them feeding their egos, telling them how good they still are, because they want a piece of the action. Maybe they come back because they really don’t know anything but boxing, and they’re apprehensive about entering the next phase of their lives that doesn’t include it.
“But even if money is not an issue, and you have other options, you never lose that belief in yourself as a fighter, particularly if you’ve been to the very top of the mountain. (Being retired) eats at you. It’s hard to find anything else that can give you that high. Once you accomplish what I did against Marvin, you tell yourself, `I did it before, I can do it again.’ I felt that way about Muhammad Ali when he fought Larry Holmes. I had so much belief in Ali because of all the miraculous things he’d done, like going to Africa and beating George Foreman. But that Ali didn’t exist anymore by the time he fought Holmes.
“The reason I came back those last couple of times was because I was not happy. I was dying inside. The only place I felt truly comfortable and relaxed was in the ring. I needed that safety net. But at some point you have to face up to whatever problems you might have and deal with them. Nine times out of 10, it’s disastrous if you continue to push the envelope.”
One of these nights, if Hopkins continues to thumb his nose at Father Time while simultaneously offering it as a target for the fists of a lights-out puncher like Kovalev, he might know what it feels like to be have been Sugar Ray Leonard against Terry Norris or Hector Camacho. Will that night be this Saturday? I don’t think so, but then maybe that’s just the sentimentalist in me refusing to let go of the comfort zone B-Hop has made for me and so many others who are unwilling to turn away from yesterday in order to face tomorrow.
Photo Credit : Tom Hogan – Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions