Sergey Kovalev was newly arrived in these United States, hoping to make his mark in the country in which his boxing heroes lived and worked. Then the 27-year-old Russian spotted one of those heroes, up close and personal.
Well, sort of.
“One day, when I had just come to America, 4½ years ago in L.A., Hopkins was to me, like big legend. Famous guy,” the WBO light heavyweight champion was saying Tuesday morning at a press gathering in Philadelphia, the first stop in a multi-city media tour to hype the Nov. 8 unification matchup between Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) and Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs), the WBA/IBF 175-pound titlist. “I had just come from Russia and I never seen before any famous boxers, like (Oscar) De La Hoya or Hopkins or Mike Tyson.
“I was surprised when I saw Hopkins at show, (Sergio) Mora against Shane Mosley. I called Hopkins, like, three times. `Bernard! Bernard! Bernard!,’ to take a picture with him. But he didn’t turn to me. I did not get his attention. So I was, like, `OK. See you one day.’”
If this sounds like the familiar tale of one fighter’s bruised feelings nursed over time into a revenge mode until some payback can be achieved inside the ring, think again. Oh, sure, it’s a reasonable scenario, and certainly one that would have some validity had Hopkins been the aggrieved party, inadvertently or otherwise. A component of B-Hop’s enduring success is his ability to employ any perceived slight as reason to work up a frothy rage against virtually every opponent. But Kovalev is a big teddy bear at all times except fight night, quick with a smile and a distinctively Eastern European blend of self-deprecating humor and modesty. He comes across in interviews like Mr. Rogers with an Ivan Drago accent.
So, does Kovalev – an opening-line 4-to-11 favorite over Hopkins, who turns 50 on Jan. 15, just 66 days after he swaps punches with the “Krusher from Russia” in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall – believe he can become the first man ever to knock out boxing’s ageless wonder, or to at least beat him bloody?
“I think nothing,” Kovalev said. “Just go to the ring and do my work, my job. As usual.” Except, of course, that this is not really a matchup that can be described as anything usual. It can’t be. As much as he might try to make Nov. 8 sound like just another day at the pugilistic office, Kovalev surely understands that boxing history – one way or the other – is going to be made.
“Is the most important, the most interesting fight, in my career,” he allowed. “When I was a child and I watch some fights on TV, Hopkins was who I saw. I never thought that I could get to fight with Hopkins. But dreams come true in America. Day by day, step by step, I come to this goal. Am very happy to get this fight.”
When Kovalev was a child, how could he have imagined he might someday fight Hopkins? “The Alien,” as the Philadelphian now likes to call himself, was considered an old man, by boxing standards, when he dominated and then stopped the favored Felix Trinidad in the 12th round of their Sept. 29, 2001, middleweight unification showdown in Madison Square Garden. He was then 36 years old, in some ways just about to enter his prime instead of receding from it.
“They started calling me old when I was 35, remember?” Hopkins said during another of the stream-of-consciousness media sessions in which he holds court by teasing and toying with reporters as if they were so many Morrade Hakkars. “You add five more years to that and now I’m 40. `Well, he got to be slowing up now.’ Add five more years to that and I’m 45, and still going strong. Now I’m almost 50 and still here.
“I’m very, very up on history. I take it seriously. I’m no gatekeeper for no one. People say (to his prospective opponents), `You beat Bernard Hopkins, you’ll be the first to do this or that.’ OK, I understand.
“Look, anybody at the right time and at the right place can get knocked out or severely beaten. It’s (Kovalev’s) job to do what others tried to do and couldn’t. It’s my job to do what I do. I know Kovalev can punch. His record shows he can punch. His (knockout) percentage, I think, is over 90 percent. Have I been in this situation before? Well, yeah. Absolutely. I got 26 years in this business.”
Hopkins – who already holds the record for being the oldest fighter to win a widely established world championship, cites his victories over Joe Lipsey, Trinidad and Kelly Pavlik as proof that he is at his best, and most motivated, when the man in the other corner is undefeated. He said there are few things he enjoys more than erasing the `0’ from someone’s line in the loss column.
“I love fighting guys with undefeated records,” Hopkins continued. “I love it when that fighter no longer can be called a virgin. He’s been had. I have a history of taking those` 0’s’ away.”
So, what does think of Hopkins’ bold talk?
“He is `Alien,’” Kovalev said, cracking another smile. “He is not 49 like regular man.”
Nor is Kovalev apt to fall into the sort of verbal traps that Hopkins has so frequently set so many regular men, good fighters all. He caused Trinidad to fight mad, to his detriment, by twice throwing down the Puerto Rican flag during the prefight buildup to their much-anticipated showdown. Perhaps no fighter since Muhammad Ali has proven so adept at using the well-timed putdown to get under an opponent’s skin, to make him crazy enough to get away from whatever fight plan his trainer might have mapped out. But those sort of mind games work only if the other guy is susceptible to falling for them.
Asked if Kovalev will make the same mistake other straight-ahead, big-punching younger fighters have tried against him, which is to rush forward and try to whack the old guy into the ringside seats, Hopkins said he is prepared to utilize all the tricks at his disposal – and that no one- or limited-trick pony has a repertoire varied enough to match his ring smarts and versatility.
“Last I heard, he can box,” Hopkins said. “He’s shown he can do some things I don’t hear people talking about. People say Bernard do great when guys come to him. But there’s guys I fought who ran and tried to box, and I outboxed them. When you’re dealing with an all-around fighter, a complete fighter, you go to go back to something called `old school.’ To me, `old-school’ is not just about being old. It’s not about age.
“It’s meaningless to me to fight someone that I don’t believe is a threat. I even pondered going up to heavyweight to fight (then WBA champion) David Haye. I talked about fighting James Toney at cruiserweight. They had The Ring magazine cover all ready to go. Couldn’t get the deal done.
“I want to fight the best. (Marvin) Hagler fought the best. Ray Leonard fought the best. (Muhammad) Ali fought the best. And I fight the best. That’s important to me. `The Alien’ likes to walk on a tightrope 50 or 100 feet in the air with no safety net. So let’s go.”
This time, that tightrope is even higher and there’s a strong breeze blowing. At some point, an ancient Hopkins has to start showing signs of decline. And Kovalev, who hits like a mule can kick, at 31 looks like he just might be a big enough hitter to finally put Hopkins down and out, especially if he can keep his emotions in check.
Hopkins’ trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson, said he’s heard tales of his fighter’s imminent demise for so long, he’s not surprised that the picture being painted is again that of Hopkins entering a danger zone from which there can be no escape.
“I respect Kovalev,” Richardson said. “He’s a monster. But he’s more of a monster to other young guys, not this old dude. What’s he going to think when round after round goes by and he can’t get to Bernard? What’s his corner going to be saying? Punch harder? He’ll be thinking, `Man, I’m punching as hard as I can. What’ll I do now?’”
Main Events president Kathy Duva, who promotes Kovalev, thinks her guy will find whatever answer he needs when and if that question arises. In any case, she said the sport of boxing benefits from this fight being made at a time when so many other attractive matchups never get past the discussion stage because of the sport’s numerous internecine conflicts.
“All good things must come to an end, and obviously Main Events believes it’s time for a new era, for the torch to be passed, so to speak,” Duva said. “Bernard clearly disagrees. That’s what makes a great fight, when you have two very different points of view and (people can) walk into the fight saying, `Gee, I really don’t know who’s going to win.’
“That’s what we need – two great fighters putting their titles and their legacies on the line. These guys have already enhanced their legacies by agreeing to this fight.”
Who will win? Wladimir Klitschko or Tyson Fury?