By Thomas Hauser
The November 8 title-unification bout between Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev is shaping up as the most intriguing fight of the year.
Boxing is a young man’s sport. Hopkins, now 49, has redefined the age at which a fighter can perform at an elite level. The only parallels that come to mind are hockey great Gordie Howe (who played in all eighty games of the 1979 National Hockey League season at age 51) and George Blanda (who played in every game for the 1975 Oakland Raiders, including the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, at age 48). Several jockeys have also excelled at an advanced age, most notably Willie Shoemaker (who won the Kentucky Derby at age 54).
When Hopkins enters the ring to face Kovalev, he’ll be two months shy of his fiftieth birthday. Each step that he takes now is into uncharted territory.
“There are seasons in sports for an athlete’s career,” Bernard says. “I bloomed late. The candle burns out for all of us. I know that. The question is when. I’m forty-nine years old, and you still don’t hear anybody saying, ‘Bernard, get out of the game before you hurt yourself.’ What does that tell you?”
“Let’s talk about Father Time,” Hopkins continues. “He’s a son of a bitch. Father Time is undefeated. That’s a fight I can’t win and nobody on this earth can win. But I’ll have to get beat up to know that it’s time to go. Why should I talk about when I‘ll quit? That’s like talking about dying when you’re not sick.”
Hopkins has remarkable genetic gifts. But the key to his success is that he has kept his discipline and focus for more than two decades. He’s always in shape and rarely walks around at more than a few pounds above his fighting weight.
“You talk boxing. I live boxing,” Bernard told the media at a press conference earlier this year. “I pay a price to be great. I’ve never just gone through the motions; not in training and not in a fight. Especially not just in a fight. If a fighter is just going through the motions in the ring, even if it’s just for a second, he’s at risk. It’s like, if you’re driving a car and not paying attention; one second is all it takes. One thing we know about boxing is, one punch can knock you out.”
Sergey Kovalev, age 31, was born in Russia. He started boxing at age eleven and compiled a 195-and-18 amateur record. His professional ledger stands at 25 wins and 1 draw with 23 knockouts. The draw is deceiving. It came three years ago against a fleeing Grover Young, who stopped long enough to instigate what the referee called an accidental clash of heads. Young then claimed that he was unable to continue and, under California rules, the contest went into the record book as a two-round technical draw.
In Kovalev’s next fight, on December 5, 2011, he knocked out Roman Simakov. Three days later, Simakov died from a brain injury suffered during the bout. Since then, Sergey has had eight fights and won them all by knockout. When asked about Simakov’s death by Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated, Kovalev responded, “I am professional fighter. I cannot be concerned about these things.”
When Kovalev smiles, he looks like a great white shark.
Hopkins holds the WBA and IBF 175-pound titles. Kovalev is the reigning WBO light-heavyweight champion. Sergey was tentatively slated to fight Adonis Stevenson (the WBC 175-pound beltholder) this autumn. But Stevenson ran like Usain Bolt from that fight and, later, from a proposed match-up against Hopkins. Thus, Hopkins and Kovalev signed to fight each other.
“You will agree that this caught a lot of people off-guard, wouldn't you?” Hopkins asked Rick Reeno of BoxingScene one day after the fight was signed.
It certainly did. Among the surprised was Kovalev, who declared, “It is a big fight, interesting fight. I was surprised he said yes. It is one of my dreams to fight him.”
Give Hopkins credit. At age 49, he’s doing what Floyd Mayweather has refused to do. He’s seeking out the most dangerous, fan-friendly opponent he can find. That says a lot about Bernard’s championship pedigree. Indeed, looking back over the course of his career, it’s hard to find a legitimate challenger who he has ducked.
“If you call yourself the best,” Hopkins says, “then fight the best opponent that’s out there. I don’t run away from the fire. I run to it.”
Signing to fight Kovalev shows how serious Hopkins is about wanting to pile more bricks onto the building that is his legacy. Hopkins-Kovalev has the potential to be a historically significant fight. If Bernard wins, it will burnish his record in a remarkable way. And if Kovalev wins, it could mark his emergence as an elite fighter.
The betting line opened with Kovalev as a 2-to-1 favorite.
“Hopkins is very smart. He is very sneaky. He is very experienced,” Sergey said. “But I have power in me like a gun.”
John David Jackson, who has trained Kovalev for two years, knows Hopkins well. Jackson served in Bernard’s camp as an assistant trainer for four years. Less pleasing for him to remember is the night of April 19, 1997, when Hopkins successfully defended his IBF middleweight crown in Shreveport, Louisiana, by knocking out John David in the seventh round.
“The key to beating Bernard is to make him fight the whole fight,” Jackson says. “Take advantage of his age. Wear him down. Guys say that, and then they don’t do it because, when they hit Bernard, he hits them back and they figure they’ll wait a while longer before they go after him. But when Bernard hits you back is when he’s most vulnerable. That’s when you have the opportunity to trade punches with him.”
In recent years, there has been a tendency to give Hopkins more credit for being old than for being good. That sells Bernard short. The foundation of his success is technique. Yes, his reflexes have slowed a bit. His legs aren’t what they once were. And Hopkins himself acknowledges, “The body absorbs punches differently at age forty-nine that it does at thirty-five. When you get older, the punches hurt more and last longer.”
But Hopkins has made up for these deficits with an ever-increasing mastery of timing, spacing, and angles. He has never been cut. His chin ranks with the best in the business. And in the ring, he controls his emotions as well as any fighter ever.
There’s a report, confirmed by Abel Sanchez (who was present) and others who have seen a video, that Gennady Golovkin put Kovalev on the canvas with a body shot when the two men sparred with each other in Big Bear several years ago. Kovalev threw a right hand that was harder than Golovkin thought it should have been, and Gennady went after him. Sergey went down hard.
Hopkins has been known to hook hard to the body.
The fighters who have given Hopkins the most trouble over the years – Roy Jones, Jermain Taylor, Joe Calzaghe, and Chad Dawson – did it with speed. Kovalev is a relatively slow fighter.
And perhaps most significantly, Hopkins has gone twelve rounds in fifteen of his last sixteen fights. Kovalev has gone eight rounds once. In his entire career, Sergey has fought a full three rounds or more on only five occasions.
“I’m not worried about twelve rounds,” Kovalev says. “I will prepare for it. I will be in physical shape. And more important, my head will be ready.”
It sounds odd for a man just shy of his fiftieth birthday to key his strategy to coming on strong late in a fight. But against Kovalev, Hopkins might do just that. To boxing insiders, this is an even-money fight.
Hopkins will be the toughest opponent that Kovalev has faced to date. Nathan Cleverly and Ismayl Sillah (the previous “names” on Sergey’s ledger) are hardly the second coming of Bob Foster and Archie Moore. Indeed, some insiders who have hailed Kovalev as the future of the light-heavyweight division are now hedging their bets, saying that, despite Sergey’s power, he might be “tailor-made for Hopkins.”
If Kovalev is tailor-made for Hopkins, what does that say about Hopkins? Sergey certainly doesn’t seem to be “tailor-made” for any other light-heavyweight.
“Kovalev is coming to the fight with one bullet, and that’s his punching power,” Hopkins says. “Let him take his shot. I’m not going to run from the gun. I’m going to disarm him. I’m going to take away his big punch. This fight will be as easy for me as beating Kelly Pavlik. On November 8 on HBO, you’re gonna watch artwork.”
How will Hopkins-Kovalev play out? For now, let’s give the final word to Don Turner.
Turner came to New York in 1959 and, the following year, was hired as a 20-year-old sparring partner for Sugar Ray Robinson. Later, he became a trainer.
Turner was in Evander Holyfield’s corner for both Holyfield-Tyson fights and with Larry Holmes when Holmes conquered Ray Mercer. He was also Kovalev’s trainer for a brief period of time and will be in Sergey’s corner for Hopkins-Kovalev.
“It’s going to be a tough fight,” Turner says. “But Sergey is up for it. He really wants it. And Bernard has never fought anyone who hits as hard as Sergey hits. If Sergey throws one punch at a time, he’ll have a problem. But if Sergey throws punches in combination like he can, it will be Bernard that has the problem.”
“When Sergey gets hit,” Turner continues, “he comes right back at you. He’s as hungry as Bernard is. He just doesn’t talk about it like Bernard does. And Sergey is mean. He’s the meanest fighter inside the ring that I’ve seen since Carlos Monzon. He’s a vicious puncher. He’s not scared of anyone. And I’ll tell you something else. When Bernard looks into Sergey’s eyes just before they start the fight, he’ll see a man that’s just as hard as he is. Sergey killed a guy in a fight. Most fighters, if they’re involved in something like that, they come back and maybe they take a little off their punches. Sergey came back meaner than before. Sergey has knocked out every guy he’s fought since then. Think about that. Bernard will. Don’t you think it will be on Bernard’s mind when they get in the ring that Sergey killed a guy in a fight?”
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.