HOPKINS AND JONES; THE TORTOISE AND THE HARE — This Saturday night, perhaps the most unique all-time great fighter in history will make his final ring walk. I say most unique because no other past great who came from the modest background Hopkins did, ended up self-managing his career so successfully. I know Bernard Hopkins 55-7-2 (32) has said this before about retiring, but at age 51 and with nothing left to prove, I believe him this time. When you take into account that Hopkins spent five years in prison, missed out on competing at the Olympic Trials, turned pro without much fanfare, didn’t have an aesthetically pleasing style and no real push or money behind him, what he’s accomplished is beyond comprehension. Who would’ve thought in October of 1988 when he turned pro as a light heavyweight and lost, that he’d set a record for middleweight title defenses, go on to win the light heavyweight title, self-manage himself into the biggest paydays of his career, and become the oldest to win a world title at age 47!
When he meets Joe Smith Jr. 22-1 (18) this weekend for the WBC International light heavyweight title, Hopkins will be 29 days shy of turning 52. Seven months after he turned pro, one of his career rivals, Roy Jones Jr. 64-9 (46) made his pro debut after taking home a silver medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics, having been cheated out of the gold.
Today, at age 47, Roy is still fighting. It’s amazing that two of the top pound-for-pound fighters over the last 25 years entered the professional ranks at nearly the same time and even competed in mainly the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. And they fought twice, the first time in May of 1993 for the vacant IBF middleweight title, when Jones won by unanimous decision. Back then Roy was so spectacular that Hopkins winning four of the 12 rounds they fought was actually considered a feat. Their second meeting took place in April of 2010 as light heavyweights, and Hopkins won a unanimous decision as a 3-1 favorite knotting them at 1-1.
Bernard and Roy are both all-time greats. The difference is that Hopkins wasn’t as flashy as Jones nor was he as physically gifted. However, Hopkins was a much better technician and fundamental fighter. Jones won his fights with speed and brilliance. He was just better than everybody he fought. His speed, movement and power made him dangerous and on top of that you couldn’t get close enough to even touch him. His problem was that he was like Muhammad Ali in that his speed often covered and outran his flaws and mistakes. Once their speed and athleticism was handcuffed by Father Time, it became apparent neither knew how to fundamentally block punches and make their opponents miss. In Roy’s case, his chin became his last line of defense and he started to lose by stoppage. Ali was different; his chin never betrayed him, but it led to him absorbing more punches as he slowed and ultimately affected his quality of life as he entered his mid-forties.
Hopkins is a boxing textbook. He seldom makes mistakes or gets clipped with punches he shouldn’t. He’s also a strategic genius and because of that, along with great physical genes, he was able to fight successfully into his late forties and (maybe) early fifties. Bernard learned how to block and hit without subjecting himself to physical punishment. He was never the fastest, most physically strong, or biggest puncher during any era of his 28-year career, but his extreme mental and physical toughness coupled with his understanding of what works in the ring sprinkled in with some fouling at the opportune time, enabled him to be a special fighter at middleweight and light heavyweight circa 1993-2013.
In 66 pro fights against the best boxing had to offer, Bernard never sustained a shellacking….opposed to Jones in 73 bouts as a pro who was stopped in dramatic fashion in five of his nine defeats. Sometimes when fighters are so blessed with physical talent and ability like Jones, they ignore boxing’s basics, simply because they don’t need them to thrive. Learning and practicing the basics is boring and rudimentary, but Hopkins understood that although he was very skilled and very tough, it wasn’t enough if he was going to be special. And that probably never sunk in more than after his first fight with Roy Jones.
Hopkins fought Roy more evenly than anybody else would for the next decade, but he saw what greatness looked like up close and personal and accepted that he had to close the gap. Conversely, Jones never experienced anything like that until he slowed down and the milliseconds he used to live by no longer carried him away from danger and he began to get clocked with brutal finishing shots. Jones (who never listened to anybody) learned nothing from his first defeat or from any subsequent defeats. Hopkins, on the other hand, never stopped learning and each of his defeats taught him a lesson that would make him a more difficult opponent in future fights. He almost always did better in rematches than the first time he fought someone.
In 2003 Jones, as the reigning light heavyweight champ, moved up and challenged WBA heavyweight titlist John Ruiz. At the time Ruiz just finished going 1-1-1 with a fading Evander Holyfield, and at worse was one of the top three or four heavyweights in the world. The fight wasn’t even close; Roy boxed rings around Ruiz and won the decision going away. Had Hopkins attempted to fight Ruiz, he would’ve been mauled and stopped inside of five rounds. Yet Roy couldn’t do a thing with Antonio Tarver once his speed and athleticism waned, whereas Bernard took Tarver to school, winning the title that Tarver had taken from Jones in their rubber match.
Hopkins and Jones first fought when they were near their prime. Sure, Hopkins was in the fight but he was never close to winning it. Then they fought when Hopkins was 45 and Jones was 41, and Jones couldn’t do a thing because his physical brilliance had diminished and it came down to fundamental fighting and basics. When they were reduced to fighting on the same level with neither having a big enough punch to stop the other, it was Hopkins who nullified Roy’s attempted flurries and what was once his elite boxing skill. Actually, because Roy was very predictable, Hopkins was seldom tagged with anything substantive during the duration of the fight — whereas 17 years earlier, even though Hopkins knew what was coming his way, he couldn’t avoid it because of Roy’s warp speed.
Make no mistake about it; Hopkins and Jones are both certified all-time great fighters. Roy was faster, punched harder, and was more athletic, but Hopkins was the better boxer and more fundamentally sound. Had Jones retired after beating Ruiz and never fought again, he’d be on the short list of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in boxing history, and he still may be. However, he fought too long and we learned that without his overload of physical skill and speed, he knew little about fundamental defense. On the other hand, Hopkins know-how when it came to protecting himself using basic boxing structure enabled him to fight at a higher level than Jones for a much longer time.
When you think about it, Floyd Mayweather lasted a long time because he had some of Hopkins and some of Roy Jones in him. He wasn’t nearly as gifted as Jones athletically, nor was he as fundamentally good or as smart as Hopkins, but he was better athletically than Bernard and his boxing IQ, although not quite as high as Bernard’s, was higher than Jones.
Personally, I’m more impressed by what Hopkins accomplished than Jones because Bernard’s greatness was acquired through hard work, whereas Roy, although no doubt a hard worker, was blessed at birth with once in a lifetime talent. Jones blazed to greatness much faster than Hopkins…but Bernard made up the ground and maybe even surpassed Roy in the eyes of history.
Hopkins says he’ll retire, win or lose, after fighting Joe Smith Jr. this Saturday night. It’s been some career and the further away we get from it, it will look even more monumental. As for Roy Jones, I hope he has his fill of boxing soon before we forget how great he was during his prime. He was special when he was at the top of his game – just ask Bernard Hopkins.
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Frank Lotierzo can be contacted at GlovedFist@Gmail.com