Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City touching the Atlantic Ocean. Bernard Hopkins vs. Sergey Kovalev, November 8, 2014. Given the dominant role that Hopkins’s age played in the promotion, one might have thought of the event as “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Hopkins’s accomplishments are different from those of any fighter who has come before him. His hairline has receded. There’s a lot of gray in his beard. Two months shy of his fiftieth birthday, he still moves like an elite athlete in and out of the ring. No fighter has performed as well at such at advanced age.
Hopkins is passionate about Hopkins and one of the best self-promoters in boxing. During an October 21 media conference call, he declared, “I just want to make sure that, when there is debate about Bernard Hopkins’s legacy, people will be up all hours of the night debating arguments on trying to figure out where we put this. Or do we start this new label with Bernard at the top and anybody else that comes after that underneath. To me, the best fighter ever is Sugar Ray Robinson. The best fighter after that is Muhammad Ali. Then the debate starts.”
If one is ranking fighters on the basis of how they performed in their mid-to-late forties, Hopkins is on the short list above George Foreman and Archie Moore. He’s a master of psychological warfare. “Psychological warfare, you will never win against me,” Bernard says. But he’s quick to add, “I don’t look at my victories as getting in somebody’s head. I look at it as being the better fighter, better plan, better preparation, and I took care of my business.”
Taking care of business results from superb genetic gifts (“God-given physical ability”), dedicated preparation (“I’ve never gotten bored with boxing”), a great boxing mind (“No one studies his opponent and understands his opponent more than I do”), and an understanding of one’s limitations (“Everybody has weakness; even I. There is no perfect fighter, and there will never be”).
Also, while Hopkins fights by the rules, the only rule for a prizefight in his world is that there are no rules unless the referee enforces them. In that regard, he has been known to push the envelope.
“In most of Bernard’s fights,” Paulie Malignaggi notes, “Bernard ends up being the referee.”
Not everyone appreciates Hopkins’s style of fighting, which involves shutting down an opponent’s offense through tactics that are aesthetically unpleasing to many fans. Jimmy Tobin expressed that dissatisfaction, writing, “Hopkins’s fights have become a chore to watch, though saying as much is liable to have you branded a simpleton for failing to appreciate the nuance of noogies.”
Meanwhile, Hopkins has compensated for the perceived lack of action in his fights by marketing himself as “The Executioner” . . . “B-Hop” . . . and most recently . . . “The Alien.” Perhaps in his next incarnation, he’ll call himself “The Easter Bunny.”
The evaluation and marketing of Hopkins always comes back to his age. “This doesn’t happen the way it’s happening for me at this particular time in my life,” he said recently. “Just enjoy it, understand it, and realize that you might not be alive to see it again.”
The other side of the coin is the nagging question of what Bernard’s success says about the current state of boxing.
“What if Michael Jordan came back tomorrow,” Bart Barry wrote, “and won an NBA championship? It would be a massive event, an orgy of media celebration, as one of the world’s most famous athletes returned to a field of glory and dominated at an age that was absurd. But once the orgy got tired and broke up, what would it say about professional basketball that a man in his sixth decade [Jordan is 51] was able to dominate the best professionals in their twenties? Were Michael Jordan still able to ply his craftsmanship and win titles outclassing LeBron James and friends in championship games, the NBA would know there was something dreadfully wrong with its product.”
Friend and foe alike realize that there’s something dreadfully wrong now with boxing. The best rarely fight the best. Boxers sometimes win “world championships” without championship skills and without ever having fought a world-class fighter.
Thus, on the plus side of the ledger for Bernard, Barry continues, “Hopkins is an embarrassment for most of his prizefighting countrymen, showing at age 49 a willingness to fail that few of today’s best American fighters have shown since their bouts got computer-matched in the amateurs. The fight that best represents our sport in 2014 is one in which a man nearing his fiftieth birthday is challenging and imperiling himself more than any of our standard bearers in their primes.”
The man Hopkins chose to fight to solidify his legacy was Sergey Kovalev.
Kovalev came out of the Russian amateur boxing system. It has been said that he had a working relationship with some of the less savory elements in Russian society at an earlier time in his life. Of course, Hopkins wasn’t a choirboy when he was young either.
At the start of his pro career, Kovalev relocated to the United States under the guidance of manager Egis Klimas. He now lives in Florida with his wife and newly-born son. His English is rapidly improving but is constricted by a limited vocabulary.
Sergey enjoys basic pleasures. “I like nice cars,” he says. “I like to travel. I like action. Fishing is too slow for me; too much waiting. I love to drive fast, but I don’t love speeding tickets for driving too fast. Friendship is important to me. I love my family. I miss my family and friends who are still in Russia.”
He loves animals. In 2011, Kovalev adopted a three-month old Yorkshire terrier named Picasso. One year later, Picasso jumped out of a moving car and was killed on the road. Sergey still carries a photo of himself with Picasso on his smart phone.
Kovalev has a direct matter-of-fact approach to boxing. Answering a question on a media conference call, he acknowledged the possibility that he could lose to Hopkins. When pressed by a reporter who followed up with, “Are you not one hundred percent certain that you’re going to beat Hopkins?” Sergey answered, “This is boxing. I can repeat for you, special for you, this is boxing and everything in boxing can happen. This is not swimming. This is not cycling. This is not running. This is boxing.”
In private, Kovalev was more expansive, saying, “The fans, the media; they don’t know what it is to be a fighter because they have never been punched in the face by a fighter. I feel fear. I am not a target. I don’t like to get hit. In boxing, any punch from your opponent can be the last for you. It is very dangerous. I knew Magomed Abdusalamov from the national team in Russia. He was a friend; not my best friend, but a friend. I don’t ever want to be like he is today. “
Atlantic City has fallen on hard times in recent years. Gambling revenue has dropped by roughly fifty percent since peaking at $5.2 billion in 2006. Trump Plaza, Revel, and Showboat closed their doors in 2014. Trump Taj Mahal might follow suit in the near future.
Still, there was a nice buzz for Hopkins-Kovalev with Bernard carrying much of the promotional load.
“I am fighter,” Kovalev had said at the kick-off press conference in New York. “My English is poor. But I am sure that Bernard will talk enough to promote the fight for both of us.” Thereafter, Sergey informed the media, “Bernard talks and fights. I just fight. Say and do are two different things.” Kovalev also indicated that, given his limited English, he understood only about ten percent of what Hopkins said.
“None of Bernard’s talk will bother Sergey,” Don Turner (Kovalev’s first trainer in the United States and now a fight-week assistant to trainer John David Jackson) said. “If I had a fighter and talk was bothering him, I’d tell my fighter to find another job.”
One thing that did bother Team Kovalev though, was Hopkins’s penchant for skirting the rules, conning referees, and fouling during fights.
“He can cut you from the head, from the elbow, from any part of his body,” Sergey noted. “I hope and I wish that this fight will be very clean and fair. But any way I need to get a victory, dirty fight or clean fight, for me it doesn’t matter. I am going to fight a clean fight, but I will fight dirty if Hopkins will fight dirty.”
“Sergey says he wants a fair fight,” Hopkins responded at the final pre-fight press conference. “You’re the Krusher. Make your own fair fight.”
The oddsmakers thought that Kovalev would do just that; a belief based in large measure on his high knockout percentage. Hopkins acknowledged his adversary’s power, saying, “I have the same thoughts on Kovalev that most people do. He’s a dangerous puncher. He has a ninety percent knockout rate. If he can punch like everyone says he can punch, there might not be a second chance.”
Still, Bernard voiced confidence in the outcome of the fight, declaring, “Kovalev only had to be one-dimensional because the guys he fought he knocked out. But now you’re stepping up to a different level. You’re stepping up to the professor, the teacher. You’re stepping up into a different neighborhood. The other neighborhoods, you understood. But this neighborhood is kind of strange.”
One day before the fight, Oscar De La Hoya (now Hopkins’s promoter) offered his thoughts on the upcoming bout. “I fought Pernell Whitaker,” Oscar said. “I fought Mayweather. I could hit them. But not one punch I threw against Hopkins landed the way I wanted it to land.”
“This is one of those fights where the energy level before is crazy and everyone is saying either guy can win,” Naazim Richardson (Hopkins’s trainer) added. “And when it’s over, people will be sitting around saying, ‘Is that all Kovalev has?’”
“Kovalev has a good amateur background,” Richardson continued. “He knows how to box. He’s not just a puncher. But Kovalev has never been past eight rounds, and now he’s fighting the master of twelve. How does Kovalev handle that? What happens if Kovalev can’t hit Bernard the way he wants? What happens if Kovalev hits Bernard with his best shot and nothing happens? Kovalev punches hard. We know that. His power is real. But so was Tarver’s power and Pavlik’s power. And Tarver and Pavlik had knockouts over legitimate champions. Kovalev doesn’t have that.”
“I need to do what I do and do it very well,” Kovalev said of his date with Hopkins.
“The sweet science is not based on only one thing you can do particularly well,” Bernard countered.
Main Events and Golden Boy (which co-promoted the fight) had hoped for a crowd of ten thousand. The announced attendance of 8,545 fell short of that goal. There was a horrible two-hour stretch in the middle of the card that consisted of 114 minutes of waiting and six minutes of boxing. But anticipation ran high when Hopkins and Kovalev entered the ring.
Kovalev made his presence forcefully known two minutes into the bout when he maneuvered Hopkins into a corner and dropped him with a short straight right as Bernard was sliding out to his left. It was a flash knockdown. A clubbing right hand that landed high on Hopkins’s head later in the stanza probably did more damage. But Sergey knew now that he had a working game plan.
Thereafter, Kovalev fought a patient measured fight, controlling the distance between the fighters in a way that Hopkins was always under pressure yet unable to hold and maul. It wasn’t a fast pace. It never is for Hopkins, which usually benefits the older man. But here, the pace meant that Sergey (who had gone eight rounds only once in his career and fought a full three rounds only five times) was less likely to drown in the deep water of the late rounds.
A fighter’s game plan sometimes changes as a fight goes on. Kovalev’s didn’t. Unlike most Hopkins opponents, he was able to contest the battle on his own terms. He was faster that Hopkins had thought he’d be. Or maybe Bernard was slower. One way to beat Kovalev is to get off first, hit him just hard enough to keep him off balance, and force Sergey to reset. Hopkins knew that. But at age 49, he couldn’t do it.
Kovalev jabbed effectively to the body throughout the bout and landed some good chopping right hands up top. John David Jackson said afterward that he would have liked his charge to have thrown more body punches during exchanges on the inside. That said; Sergey did damage with the body shots that he threw and also with blows to the biceps and shoulder.
There were rounds when Hopkins set traps in the hope the Kovalev would blunder into one of them, and other times when survival seemed uppermost in his mind. “When Bernard got hurt,” Jackson noted, “he’d go into his shell, gather himself together for a few rounds, then try another attack.”
There was drama in the fight in large measure because one of the combatants was Bernard Hopkins.
Then, in round twelve, the drama escalated. Everyone in the arena (including Hopkins) knew that Bernard needed his first knockout in ten years to win. He went for it. And got rocked in return. That led to some big exchanges and ended with Kovalev battering Hopkins around the ring while Bernard struggled courageously to stay on his feet until the final bell.
One could make an argument for giving round seven to Hopkins. Kovalev didn’t do much in that stanza, and Bernard snapped Sergey’s head back with two good right hands. Other than that, it was all Kovalev. The judges’ scores were 120-107, 120-107, and 120-106. Kovalev outlanded Hopkins by a 166-to-65 margin. Bernard averaged a meager five punches landed per round.
After the fight, Hopkins handled his defeat with dignity and grace.
“Sergey is the real deal,” he acknowledged at the post-fight press conference. “I felt like a middleweight in there with a cruiserweight . . . I had some success here and there, but I never got him off his game . . . He was the better man tonight.”
There was also a bit of humor when a questioner asked if Hopkins would fight again.
“Asking me about fighting again now is like asking a woman who’s just out of nine hours labor about having another baby,” Bernard responded.
Three days later, Hopkins told Fox Sports that he planned on having at least one more fight, most likely at 168 pounds. That would take him past age fifty in the ring.
Kovalev has a bright future ahead of him. Prior to fighting Hopkins, Sergey had declared, “I want to get some lessons from the professor of boxing. I want to get some experience from this fight that can make me better for another fight.”
He achieved that goal and got the win. He’s an exciting action fighter and the best light-heavyweight in the world. But before one gets too carried away with superlatives, let’s not forget that the man Kovalev just beat is 49 years old. A remarkable 49-year-old, but 49 just the same.
In recent years, Hopkins has alluded to retirement. “When I leave, you all are going to miss me,” he told the media at a press conference last year. “Where else are you going to get these sound bites?” Then, on a more pensive note, Bernard added, “Boxing is always going to be here. That’s just the way it is. Boxing will be here way after me and everyone else in it now is gone.”
It’s impossible to know with certainty what Hopkins will do next. He likes to steer his own ship and will continue to confound. When he joined Golden Boy in 2004, one would have been hard-pressed to find an observer who thought that his tenure with the company would outlast Richard Schaefer’s. But here we are in 2014 and that eventuality has come to pass.
Prior to Hopkins-Kovalev, there was a lot of talk about Hopkins “punking out” if things went against him inside the ring. If Sergey was dominating, if Sergey was landing heavy blows, Bernard would fake an injury or instigate a disqualification rather than go out on his shield.
That didn’t happen. In round twelve, Hopkins was in extremis, unable to fully control his mind and body, facing the onslaught of a devastating puncher. In those perilous moments, Bernard didn’t look for a way out. He put everything on the line and fought with remarkable courage and heart; the courage and heart of a champion.
If round twelve of Hopkins-Kovalev turns out to have been the final round of the remarkable ring career of Bernard Hopkins, it would be a good round on which to end.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at email@example.com. His most recent book (The Final Recollections of Charles Dickens) has just been published by Counterpoint.