This past Saturday night boxing fans saw a changing of the guard in the light heavyweight division. With three titles on the line (WBA/IBF/WBO), Sergey Kovalev 26-0-1 (23) won 12-consecutive rounds against Bernard Hopkins 55-7-2 (32) and left the ring with all three belts via a unanimous decision victory. Kovalev dropped Hopkins in the first round and then proceeded to fight his fight from outside and totally nullified everything Hopkins tried for the last 11 rounds.
Boxing fans have witnessed Hopkins shave things a little close and lose a decision before. But this was different. Hopkins had a legitimate beef with every decision he’s lost with the exception of his first fight with Roy Jones, yet he did to win four rounds against Roy. That wasn’t the case on November 8th in Atlantic City versus Kovalev because Hopkins didn’t win a round.
Let’s be perfectly clear, Hopkins is two months shy of turning 50 years old. He’s not the same fighter who schooled Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik in 2006 and 2008. And make no mistake about it, Hopkins looked a lot like Joe Louis did when he fought Rocky Marciano in his last fight. Like Louis, Hopkins couldn’t get off. However, don’t let anyone tell you that Hopkins age was his total undoing, because it wasn’t. Kovalev, and his ability to fight and hit with power from mid-range and outside, as it was stated here before the fight, had much to do with Hopkins looking like the old fighter he is.
Kovalev fought a smart and efficient fight. He didn’t risk anything, really, and in fact he actually may have shown Hopkins a little too much respect during some of the middle rounds because he’d never gone past eight rounds before. There were no heroics with Kovalev, just his typical contained and methodical fight. And that was to jab Hopkins to the head and body, thus keeping Bernard at the end of his punches. Kovalev did his best work from outside, and that not only added up the points for him, it kept Hopkins on the defense and nullified his traps and counters. Hopkins, realizing that the fight was slipping away, had no choice but to take some chances. And every time he attempted to go on the offensive and bring the fight to Kovalev, he paid for it because Kovalev was waiting for him.
After the fight Hopkins admitted that every time he was about to go on the offensive or attempt to, Kovalev forced him to reset. What a luxury it was for Kovalev to be able to score and somewhat make Hopkins uncomfortable with his long game and power. What that did was paint Hopkins into a corner to where he needed the reflexes and speed of a young fighter to score, but it wasn’t there. Kovalev kept Hopkins to the point to where he needed to cut loose but couldn’t pull the trigger. And while he was waiting for what he thought was the right time to go, Kovalev kept giving him something else to think about, and the more he did that, the less open the window became in Hopkins’ mind and eyes.
Sure, Hopkins aged during the bout. But Kovalev had a lot to do with it. Some may look at the fight and say, “that’s how you beat Hopkins,” using the strategy that Kovalev did. And in the cookbook analyst world that sounds plausible, but it’s wrong. What Sergey did was fight his fight. He doesn’t have much of an uppercut and slaps with his hook. Kovalev’s strength isn’t fighting on the inside, and that’s where Hopkins is very dangerous with his tactics and short counter right hands. Kovalev stayed within who he is as a fighter and landed power shots from the outside, which prevented Hopkins from getting his hands on Kovalev and doing his thing inside. It just so happened to be that what Kovalev does every day as a fighter was something that hamstrung an older Hopkins. It’s not a strategy that many others could employ against Hopkins and be nearly as successful as Kovalev was.
Everything we saw from Kovalev looks good. He’s an outstanding puncher, not a great one punch life-taker. He’s a good boxer and is also very measured and patient. He takes what his opponent gives him and doesn’t veer away from who he is. He needs to work on his ability to fight on the inside but that can be learned. He’s not fast, but he’s fast enough. The one area of concern that I saw was his chin. I’m not saying it’ll be his undoing, but he was hurt a couple times during the fight in the later rounds by what appeared to be throw away punches from Hopkins. And lastly, he’s likeable and seems willing to fight whoever is the supposed best in the division. Hopkins is probably right when he said after the bout that Kovalev could be around for a long time.
As for Hopkins, I hope he retires. There’s nothing for him to prove. To hardcore boxing fans, Hopkins has a better resume than Floyd Mayweather. Hopkins fought everybody, even those who presented a style conundrum for him, and he did it when he was in his forties. Mayweather retired to avoid Paul Williams and Antonio Margarito, both had the style to be a nightmare for him and Mayweather acted as if they didn’t exist. Being undefeated, in Floyd’s case, means he picked his spots better than Hopkins because that’s what he thinks is most important to his lasting legacy. However, nobody will ever call Hopkins a cherry picker.
Hopkins showing against Kovalev will hurt his chances in future fights now that fans have seen him get beaten up for 12 full rounds. It detracts from the “Alien” thing. Now future opponents see that it can be done, and thus a lot of Hopkins’ psychic weaponry falls by the wayside.
The take-away from Hopkins-Kovalev is this: Hopkins became an old man during the fight, but Sergey Kovalev had much to do with his acceleration in aging during the bout. Hopkins is no doubt one of the all-time greatest and most unique fighters ever, and that wasn’t washed away by Kovalev. Let’s hope Sergey respects the sport and fights the best of the best like Hopkins did for 20 consecutive years.
Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com