Photo Credit : David Spagnolo
When it comes to age, what is lost is lost forever, and cannot be gotten back. Bernard Hopkins, a proud but beaten man, learned that lesson on Saturday night in a boxing ring in Atlantic City, N.J. He learned it from a man who was 4½ years old when Hopkins had his first professional fight in October 1988.
Hopkins says not to blame his age for his title-losing defeat. He says he lost because Kovalev was the better man and executed his fight plan better than Hopkins executed his. That it very true. But it’s not only hard—it’s impossible—not to blame Hopkins’ age. He went into Saturday night’s fight at 49 years, 10 months and eight days of age. That’s 49 years, 10 months and eight days. No champion in boxing history ever climbed into a ring to defend a championship with that many years and that much mileage to show.
I’m a historian of this sport. I should have seen that. I should have known that. I should have realized that. Yet, I got caught up in Hopkins’ “Alien” act. I now realize he didn’t just do that for us. In reality, he did that more for himself than for us. He needed to convince himself that he was special, being able to fight at such a high level for so long at an age where nobody else could. That includes George Foreman, Roberto Duran, Willie Pep and other legendary pugilists.
Recently, I was reading a copy of a Ring Magazine. It was from 1948, and contained coverage from Louis’ title-retaining split decision win against Jersey Joe Walcott on December 5, 1947. In the coverage were words to the effect of “The aging champion seemed fortunate that his challenger was the same age, as they both battled Father Time as well as each other over the course of 15 rounds.” Both were 34. Louis was an “ancient” 37 when he faced 28-year-old Rocky Marciano in October, 1951. In comparison, Bernard Hopkins fought six times in 1992—the year he turned 37—and won all six of his bouts.
Willie Pep, one of history’s greatest fighters, was 43 when he took a six-round bout against 8-4 Calvin Woodland in 1966, hoping to win and keep his remarkable career going, one which saw him win 229 bouts. He never got that 230th win. Woodland out-boxed the master over six rounds to win the decision.
“I realize that 43 is very old for a fighter,” said Pep afterwards, “but I felt good and believed I could go on. It wasn’t there. It’s over.” He retired after the bout.
Muhammad Ali was 38, mustachioed and overweight when he went into training to face heavyweight champion Larry Holmes. A few weeks later, Ali wore a flat stomach and looked a lot like the Ali who had won his last fight two years earlier, regaining the heavyweight crown from Leon Spinks, who had beaten him in a major upset earlier in the year.
“I found the Fountain of Youth,” proclaimed Ali. We believed him. It was all a dietary façade. Ali, at 217½, took a dreadful pounding at the fists of Holmes, remaining on his stool for round 11. Sadly, “The Greatest” took one more fight–eight months later—and lost again, this time to Trevor Berbick.
After losing to Terry Norris in Madison Square Garden in 1991, Sugar Ray Leonard stood in his locker room, holding an ice pack to a swollen, bleeding lower lip.
“It’s over, Randy,” Leonard said to me in my capacity as Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission. “I had to take this fight to show me just how much I had left—or didn’t have left. I saw tonight that it just wasn’t there. I have fought for the last time.” He was three months away from his 35th birthday. Unfortunately, the lure of the spotlight and competition called Leonard again six years later. Two years shy of his 41st birthday, Leonard fought Hector Camacho. Fighting Camacho, age and an injured calf, Leonard was stopped in the fifth round.
Sugar Ray Robinson, who sits atop most lists as history’s finest fighter, believed he still had what it takes to be a world champion when he climbed into the ring in Pittsburgh on November 20, 1965, to face 27-year-old middleweight contender Joey Archer. He didn’t. He lost eight of the rounds on one scorecard, nine on another and all 10 on another, plus was dropped by the light-hitting Archer on the way to losing the decision.
“What can I say, I’m not a youngster anymore,” a proud but vanquished Sugar Ray said afterwards. “I’d only be fooling myself if I continued.” He lived up to his words. He was 44.
Then there was George Foreman, who, until Hopkins outdid him, had been the oldest man to ever win a world championship. When Foreman dropped a right hand on the chin of Michael Moore to regain the heavyweight title in November 1994, Big George was two months shy of his 46th birthday. He stayed competitive for two more years, but, after dropping a 12-round decision to Shannon Briggs (yes, THAT Shannon Briggs!), on November 22, 1997, 48-year-old Foreman hung up his gloves for the final time, saying, “I’m gonna’ walk away with my head held high. I am going to leave this competition stuff to all the young guys, now.”
The bottom line shows that, on November 8, 2014, Sergei Kovalev did to Bernard Hopkins what no other man did to him in 63 previous fights—he shut him out.
To me, though, that doesn’t matter. What Bernard Hopkins has done is nothing short of remarkable. He has lived a Spartan life and has ducked nobody. He took on Sergei Kovalev when other contenders—and even other champions—have looked the other way or run for cover. Hopkins’ attitude was “Let’s do it!”
So, he faced this formidable, unbeaten slugger and, as Rocky Balboa so badly wanted to do against Clubber Lang in their first fight, Hopkins went the distance with the man known as “The Krusher,” taking some hellacious punishment along the way, but showing the courage and willingness to take some more. Some may call it stupidity or stubbornness, but to me, it was the mark of a true warrior who wanted to go out on his shield, on his terms. I found myself yelling for Hopkins in that 12th round, not to launch some George Foremanesque-kind of right hand—though wouldn’t that have been something?!—but to go the distance.
“Stay up, Bernard! Stay up!” I yelled. He listened.
Bernard Hopkins should fight no more, though, that probably won’t be the case. Wouldn’t it be something to see him, at 50, beat Adonis Stevenson next year?
I think B-Hop knows—and has known for some time—that boxing is truly for the young, at least on the competitive side.
If he elects not to fight again, 2020 will be a big year for him. That will be the year he stands at the podium in Canastota, New York, and receives his induction into the International Hall of Fame. He’ll be 54.
Bernard Hopkins is youthful no more. He will soon receive his AARP card. He’ll be closer to 60 than he is to 40.
But, for many of us, watching him over the last 15 years, he has done more than win boxing matches and championships.
He was able to turn back the clock.
Thank you, Bernard.