He is 50 years old and lost virtually every round in his most recent bout, a light heavyweight unification matchup with Sergey Kovalev on Nov. 8. Not only that, but his normally superb defense, while still effective, is not exactly fan-friendly and calls to mind the displeasure many fight fans voiced after another hard-to-hit technician, Floyd Mayweather Jr., turned his recent “Fight of the Century” against Manny Pacquiao into a 12-round tutorial on the pugilistic equivalent of dodgeball. He might set records every time he laces up the gloves, but even Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins isn’t apt to brag on this statistic: he hasn’t knocked anyone out since he floored Oscar De La Hoya with a body shot for the full count in the ninth round on Sept. 18, 2004. That’s a KO-less streak of 17 bouts spread over nearly 11 years, during which time he posted a good but hardly invincible 10-5-1 mark with one no-decision.
Then again, the normal standards for assessing a fighter haven’t applied to Hopkins since he moved past Archie Moore and George Foreman to become the oldest individual not only to win a widely recognized world championship, but to perform at a level at or near his long-ago entrance into a prime that, like the Energizer bunny, has kept going and going and going.
Now, as he eyes what he insists will (likely) be his final appearance as an active fighter, a highly motivated Hopkins seems primed to again confound and defeat Father Time, the one opponent that no one can indefinitely outlast. There are a couple more indelible entries he expects to add to a legacy unlike any his sport has seen, and even now, after the worst defeat of his 27-year professional ring career, it would be foolish to assume that the most age-defying fighter of all time doesn’t have another miracle somewhere in his bag of tricks.
Although contracts have not been signed and nothing is definite until they are, Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) is pushing for a challenge of newly crowned IBF super middleweight champion James DeGale (21-1, 14 KOs), a fight that would be televised by HBO and likely would be staged in October in DeGale’s hometown of London.
“This probably will be my last fight, win, lose or draw,” said Hopkins, who has periodically hinted at retirement in the past but always returned to the one thing he knows and loves best. “I’m interested in beating a guy up – the same guy that beat up (Andre) Dirrell.” That would be the 29-year-old DeGale, who scored two second-round knockdowns of Dirrell en route to a unanimous-decision victory when they squared off for the vacant IBF 168-pound title on May 23 in Boston.
“They (HBO officials) love the idea,” Hopkins continued. “It would be another feather in my historic cap. I jumped over a division (from middleweight to light heavyweight) to do something that even the great Sugar Ray Robinson couldn’t do because of heat exhaustion (when middleweight king Robinson, leading on points, had to retire on his stool after the 13th round against light heavy champ Joey Maxim in a sweltering (104 degrees!) Yankee Stadium on June 25, 1952). I can make 168 pounds, no problem. I never considered myself a full-fledged light heavyweight until I got together with (strength-and-conditioning guru) Mackie Shilstone. But that doesn’t mean I was a natural light heavyweight. Now I want the chance to backtrack to the division I jumped over. It’s something I’m really excited about doing if the fight can be made, and I think it can.”
Hopkins refers to history often, which shouldn’t come as a surprise since he is a native of Philadelphia, a city where the Declaration of Independence was signed, the U.S. Constitution ratified and Benjamin Franklin remains the most cherished civic icon. Make no mistake, it would mean plenty to B-Hop to go out by winning a world championship in a third weight class and to do it against a very capable opponent who is 21 years, 19 days younger than himself – the widest age differential ever for Hopkins, who has burnished his reputation by knocking off several men young enough to be his son.
Then again, DeGale figures to also be keen on the historic aspects of the proposed fight. He is the first British fighter to win an Olympic gold medal in boxing (in Beijing, China, in 2008) and also win a professional world title. That is something 16 previous gold medalists from across the pond failed to accomplish. And, while Hopkins seeks to defeat the tag team of DeGale and the calendar, the younger man no doubt would relish the notoriety of being the fighter to usher boxing’s most elder statesman off the sideline for keeps and on a losing note.
Strangely enough – or maybe not so strangely – Kovalev’s promoter, Kathy Duva, thinks Hopkins can and will rebound from his wide points loss to her fighter should the DeGale bout be made.
“Bernard is like a freak of nature,” Duva said. “I can’t explain it. I think he’d be very competitive with DeGale. Honestly, I’d pick him to win.
“If it was anybody other than Bernard Hopkins, I’d say a fight like this was crazy. But Bernard is amazing. Even though he lost to Sergey, he didn’t take a real beating. One thing’s for sure. It would be a huge fight in England. In Europe, when they bring these legendary American fighters over, regardless of their age, they’re warmly received. It’s a big, big deal. So I understand why they’re talking. I know HBO’s deal with Hopkins for the Sergey fight was for him to have the option of fighting one more time, if he so chose.”
Hopkins has history against him – wouldn’t that be a change? – should a pairing with DeGale be arranged. Even though he insists he can make 168 pounds without putting an undue strain on a body that should be preserved for scientific research, fighters who have to come down in weight seem to fare less well than those who go up. Three cases in point: After easily outboxing WBA heavyweight champ John Ruiz to claim that title, Roy Jones Jr., who had bulked up from light heavyweight, depleted himself in taking off the extra pounds of muscle he had added for his brief and successful foray; he lost three of his next four bouts, two by knockout. Two-time former heavyweight titlist Chris Byrd also tried to drop two weight classes and was clearly drained in being stopped in nine rounds by Shaun George, and heavyweight contender “Fast” Eddie Chambers appeared to lose the advantage in quickness he previously held against larger foes when he was easily outpointed by cruiserweight Thabiso Mchunu.
“I want to energize the 50-and-up club around the world that ain’t boxing or playing football or basketball,” pronounced Hopkins, ever the optimist. “You don’t have to curl up and die once you reach a certain age.
“I’m getting ready to invade and take over the 168-pound division, and do it by taking out one of the top guys (DeGale) in that division.”
Longtime HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley understands the hunger that fuels Hopkins’ desire to do things that no boxer has ever done and, in fact, no late-40s athlete has achieved with the possible exception of baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and hockey legend Gordie Howe.
“In spending time with him, I know that he wakes up with a curious mind every day,” Lampley said. “He’s energized by his own natural drive. Among the things he’s curious about is, `Could I do this? Could I do that? Could I beat James DeGale?’ That’s not easily going to go way in him. He’s not finished learning about the horizons that Bernard Hopkins can conquer. It’s just that we’re getting to the point where those horizons no longer will be carved out in the ring, but at ringside (as a new addition to the HBO broadcast team as a color commentator).”
So, what does Lampley – who isn’t inclined to blow smoke up anyone’s backside, even those belonging to the fighter/analysts working alongside him – think of a possible Hopkins-DeGale bout?
“I think it would add something to Bernard’s legacy, in terms of the statistical anomaly of winning a title bout past his 50th birthday,” Lampley said. “That’s probably the main reason why he’s considering it. He wants to put that on his resume.
“DeGale is a real talent, with a legitimate pedigree as an Olympic gold medalist. He scored a terrific win (over Dirrell). It’s be youth against antiquity. There’s a lot of appeal there.”
And if the fight doesn’t happen?
“I don’t think the world tilts on its axis one way or another,” Lampley said with his trademark honesty.
More so than other elite fighters who are obliged by time or circumstances to take their leave from the arena, often the worse for wear, Hopkins has been transitioning himself for the next phase of a career that figures to keep him close to the action. He scored high marks for his commentating during HBO’s telecast of the Kovalev-Jean Pascal fight on March 14 in Montreal, and he spent the entire week leading up to Mayweather-Pacquiao offering insight into that super-hyped matchup for ESPN.
“I’m still at a relatively young age in the business of boxing, maybe not in a physical sense,” said Hopkins, who remains an executive with Golden Boy Promotions. “The physical part ends for everybody, at some point. But the business side can continue, as long as you keep your health and keep your mind sharp. You can make that transition from athlete to the next phase of your life, as Michael Strahan (the former New York Giants defense end-turned-“Live! With Kelly and Michael” co-host) has. Michael is a good friend of mine. We talk or get together nearly every month.
“Really, it’s not that big a change. You got to smile and have fun, and I’ve been doing that.”
Lampley, for one, wasn’t certain Hopkins, as boxing-savvy as he is, could pare down the 10-minute, stream-of-consciousness soliloquys he delivered upon being asked even the simplest of questions into the easily digestible 10-second sound bites required in his new role.
“He has extraordinary expertise and understanding of how to fight,” Lampley said. “I had been concerned, based on past experience, that there might be a problem in his editing himself as to how long it takes to make a point for TV. But, bottom line, he was more disciplined (during the Kovalev-Pascal fight) than he needed to be in terms of keeping his comments short and concise.
“Really, the sky’s the limit for him. Very much like Roy (Jones Jr.), he sees the fight in his uniquely knowledgable way. And very much like Roy, he’s not political and not fearful of offending another fighter. He’s secure enough to say what he thinks, and that’s what you’re looking for in a commentator.”
If there is anything that’s absolutely certain, it’s that Hopkins the color analyst won’t eat his way out of the tailored wardrobe that showcases that sculpted physique that has less body fat than skim milk. Don’t expect him to show up any time soon doing commercials for NutriSystem.
“That whole week (leading up to Mayweather-Pacquiao) I had people coming up to me and saying, `You dress so well. Who dresses you?’” said Hopkins, as proud of his 30-inch waistline as he is of some of his signature victories inside the ropes. “I’d tell them `GQ’ magazine and a men’s fashion app that I have on my smartphone. Man, technology is beautiful.”