SMITH SPOILS B-HOP’S FINALE — INGLEWOOD, Calif. – A few years ago, when Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins was in one of his periodic periods of extended inactivity that wasn’t quite a retirement, boxing’s ultimate oldie but goodie said he would be more than willing to lace up the gloves again, but only if it was a “meaningful fight” and not against “some Joe the plumber.”
Let it be stipulated here that the opponent for Hopkins’ farewell bout, Joe Smith Jr., is not a plumber. He’s a 27-year-old construction worker from Long Island, N.Y., a card-carrying member of Laborers’ Union Local 66 who is quick to identify himself as just a regular guy from a blue-collar community trying to make a better life for himself. But he’s a regular guy who is beginning to demonstrate he is just as capable of disassembling big-name foes in the ring as he is of putting stuff together outside of it.
Smith (23-1, 19 KOs) spoiled Hopkins’ sentiment-drenched, HBO-televised farewell to boxing here Saturday night at the Forum, unfurling a barrage of loaded-up punches that sent the nearly 52-year-old legend sailing through the ropes and on to the cold, hard floor. Although by rule Hopkins (55-8-2, 32 KOs) had 20 seconds to climb back into action and continue his seemingly futile quest to give his finale a happy ending, Smith wasn’t inclined to wait for the outcome to be officially certified. He leaped onto the ropes in the blue (his) corner, his arms upraised in triumph, as the grand old man pondered the viability of even attempting, as damaged goods, to continue a fight that already must have seemed a hopeless cause to 6,513 spectators, most of whom clearly wanted Hopkins to yet again tweak Father Time’s nose.
It was a decision that moments later was taken out of the Philadelphian’s hands as referee Jack Reiss dutifully counted to 20, then awarded Smith a knockout victory, the first loss inside the distance of Hopkins’ 28-year professional career that spanned all or part of five U.S. Presidencies and came within 34 days of adding a sixth.
“I counted to 20,” Reiss confirmed. “(Hopkins) got punched in the ring, fell back and snapped his ankle in the ring. Was it (Smith’s) fault? No. (Hopkins) got hit hard enough (to sustain the injury in a conventional boxing sense).”
Not that Hopkins is particularly conversant with the works of Dylan Thomas, but his defiant rebuttal to Reiss’ harsh but accurate assessment called to mind the late Welsh poet’s take on the effects of the aging process, which for some fighters can arrive in a rush, and for others by creeping up on a little cat’s paws.
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
As might be expected, Hopkins raged, raged against the dying of his long-bright light as an active boxer. Of his eight losses as a pro, he has admitted defeat in only two of those, in the first of his two meetings with Roy Jones Jr. on May 22, 1993, and in his most recent outing prior facing Smith, against Sergey Kovalev on Nov. 8, 2014. He has maintained that all the other losses or draws on his record – vs. Clinton Mitchell, Jermain Taylor (twice), Joe Calzaghe, Chad Dawson and Jean Pascal (in their first fight) – could have and probably should have gone in his favor. In several cases, that may well have been the case. He has not always gotten the benefit of the doubt on close calls.
Limping back to the ring for a post-fight press conference, Hopkins again forwarded the notion that he was just beginning to gather momentum and would soon have taken control had not he been “pushed” out of the ring by Smith. And maybe he truly believes that, although his words indicate they were uttered in a state of denial, not California.
“I think the momentum was clearly playing into my hands,” he said. “Look at the scorecards up to the eighth round. One judge had it for me, one had it for him and one had it a draw, I believe. That doesn’t sound like (Smith) was blowing a 51-year-old guy out. Everybody knows that I’m not a guy that wins the first four or five rounds of a fight. That’s not how my style has been.
“I didn’t want the fight to end the way it did. I’d rather be beaten where it was clear to everybody. But it seems like there’s been spots in my career where there’s controversy or whatever. I could talk about this or that in my career and we’d be here for two days. I am probably the only fighter in history who’s been pushed out of the ring by two fighters.”
That was a reference to the first of Hopkins’ two bouts with Robert Allen, on Aug. 28, 1998, in Las Vegas, which was ruled a no-contest. But Hopkins, who also injured his ankle in the fourth round of that one, wasn’t pushed by Allen; it was by referee Mills Lane, who was a tad overzealous in trying to separate the fighters as they were tangled up in a clinch. Hopkins led on two of the three scorecards then, and his subsequent 10th-round stoppage of Allen in their rematch 5½ months later affirmed his contention that he was always the better fighter.
The numbers against Smith, however, tell a different story. For one thing, it wasn’t a 1-1-1 standoff entering the climactic eighth round; Smith led 69-64 on the card of judge Thomas Taylor, which seemed about right, and by 67-66 on Tim Cheatham’s, but Pat Russell’s 67-66 edge for Hopkins was at least questionable. Punch statistics compiled by CompuBox showed Smith, who defended his fringe WBC International light heavyweight title in the scheduled 12-rounder, out-working and out-landing Hopkins, connecting on 86 of 405 (an admittedly tepid 21.2 percent) to B-Hop’s 54-185 (29.2 percent). But Smith was the aggressor throughout, and it was clear that his blows were more hurtful than those landed by Hopkins, who closes his career not having won in abbreviated fashion since he knocked out Oscar De La Hoya in nine rounds on Sept. 18, 2004 — a span of 17 fights spread over 12 years, three months.
Make no mistake, the final sequence of punches – punctuated by a jolting overhand right followed by two left hooks that landed flush – would have put away a bunch of very good light heavyweights, and were reminiscent of the exclamation-point victory that had brought Smith to public attention, when he stopped world-rated Andrzej Fonfara in one round on June 18 of this year. The lettering on the front of Smith’s waistband (The Future) for the Hopkins fight now seem a harbinger of promising things to come for the Irish-American bomber.
“It’s the best feeling in the world to accomplish something I set out for and wanted to do,” said Smith, who was paid $400,000 for his night’s work compared to the $800,000 earned by B-Hop. “I kept hitting him until I saw him go out (of the ring). I landed that (final) left hook and he went out. I hit him four or five clean shots and they were good shots on the button.
“I came here to win tonight and move forward in my career, and I did it. I said I’d be the first one to stop him in his career and I was. (But) I have a lot of respect for Bernard. Lots of people love Bernard and still will because he’s a true champion.”
Hopkins’ recollection was that he was “grazed” by a left hook and “the next thing I know (Smith) was throwing me out of the ring.” But when his bruised pride subsides and he looks at the tape with a cooler head, chances are he’ll be more accepting of his failed attempt to go a bridge too far in his boxing life, or two, if you include Kovalev.
But nothing can or should detract from who and what the remarkable Bernard Hopkins has been to a sport that never has witnessed anyone even close to his advanced years maintain such a high level of excellence. The clock now begins ticking on the mandatory five-year waiting period until he is inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y. A division-record 20 middleweight title defenses is only one of a slew of accomplishments for the reformed ex-con, which include his being the oldest man ever to win or retain a widely recognized world title (at 49 years, 111 days) and having logged the third-most world championship rounds ever, behind only Hall of Famers Emile Griffith and Abe Attell.
Hopkins, who will continue to be a presence in boxing as an executive with Golden Boy Promotions and commentator for HBO, should be given ample credit for always seeking out what he described as the “toughest, baddest opponents,” and giving fight fans the satisfaction of knowing he “went out as a soldier.”
It will be a long time, if ever, before the fight game sees his likes again.
Photo credit: Al Applerose
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