Photo: Will Hart
By Eric Raskin
Bernard Hopkins’ accomplishments in the middleweight division were extraordinary. He set records for length of reign and title defenses, he unified every possible belt, and he dominated the division into his 40s. By most metrics, he secured himself a spot in the division’s all-time top five, joining names like Robinson, Greb, Hagler, and Monzon. Just as Brett Favre will always be remembered first as a Packer, and Greg Maddux went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in a Braves hat, Hopkins’ legacy is rooted in what he did in his prime as a 160-pounder.
But what he’s doing at light heavyweight ain’t exactly Favre on the Jets or Maddux on the Padres. What Hopkins has done in eight years as a light heavy is almost starting to rival what he pulled off at middleweight.
He’s held the legit world championship twice, is in the midst of a third reign as an alphabet titlist, and handed an undefeated champion on pound-for-pound lists his first loss. And he’s done it all between the ages of 41 and 49. Now, two months before his 50th birthday, “The Alien” has a chance to score possibly the most meaningful win of his entire light heavyweight run. All he has to do is add undefeated knockout artist Sergey Kovalev to the list of vanquished opponents young enough to be his sons.
Hopkins vs. Kovalev is a fascinating matchup on countless levels, and a fight with seismic ramifications for the rest of the 175-pound division. Either a new star will be born at the expense of a future Hall of Famer, or a ridiculous run will become more ridiculous at the expense of one of boxing’s brightest potential stars. Here’s a look at who’s who at light heavyweight before either Hopkins shakes up the world (again) or Kovalev shakes up Hopkins.
The Lineal Champ: Adonis Stevenson
By knocking out Chad Dawson, who outpointed Hopkins, who schooled Jean Pascal, who upset Dawson in a battle of the top two contenders after Joe Calzaghe retired as champion, Quebec-based Haitian Stevenson has a clear claim to the lineal crown. What the 37-year-old puncher doesn’t have is the support of the public, after running from a fight with Kovalev and then surprisingly sidestepping a fight with Hopkins. He even reportedly priced himself out of a fight with Pascal, leaving “Superman” with about as much respect as Jimmy Olsen. Still, he’s a southpaw who can box a bit and crack more than a bit and his record of 24-1 (20 KOs) includes a one-round, one-punch wipeout of Dawson (back when that still meant something) and a dominant win over Tavoris Cloud (back when that still meant something). He is the ideal opponent for the Kovalev-Hopkins winner, provided Stevenson can remember how to put his name on a dotted line.
The Living Legend: Bernard Hopkins
Most of what needs to be said about B-Hop and his remarkable 55-6-2 (32 KOs) career has already been chronicled. Anything else would happily be said by the man himself if you dare put a microphone in his face. His ring IQ is unsurpassed, he does things at 49 that most fighters couldn’t do at 29, and, importantly for Saturday’s fight, he has historically feasted on straight-ahead punchers. On the other hand, he hasn’t scored a knockout in more than a decade and is slightly easier to hit now than he used to be. Kovalev is either the perfect opponent for him or the absolute worst opponent imaginable.
The Wrecking Ball: Sergey Kovalev
He spells “Krusher” with a “K” and he spells defeat for nearly all of his opponents with a “KO.” Ignoring a meaningless two-round technical draw, 23 of Kovalev’s 25 fights have ended inside the distance, and only once has the 31-year-old Russian been extended past the seventh round. However, it must be noted that Kovalev hasn’t yet faced a top-tier opponent; the closest he’s come has been to then-undefeated Nathan Cleverly and former titlist Gabriel Campillo. All that we have to go on with Kovalev is the eyeball test—which he passes with flying pelvic thrusts. He can wipe opponents out with a single punch with either hand, is as aggressive a finisher as anyone in boxing, and slows runners with exceptional bodypunching. A willingness to dig to the body could prove critical if he’s going to make Hopkins look (within 15 years of) his age.
The Lurking Veteran: Jean Pascal
The second Canadian-based Haitian on this rundown, the athletic Pascal has had some stops and starts in recent years but remains competitive at the elite level. His lineal championship reign was brief and undistinguished—after claiming the title against Dawson, he eked by Hopkins on a draw in his first defense and lost the rematch—but Pascal has since put three more marks in the win column, including a major showdown with Lucian Bute to bring his record to 29-2-1 (17 KOs). With idol Roy Jones in his corner, the 32-year-old Pascal is a heavy favorite to beat Donovan George in December, then we’ll see if he can secure another shot at the lineal strap in a Montreal mega-fight with Stevenson.
The Feisty Underdog: Andrzej Fonfara
When Fonfara got a shot at Stevenson shortly after Kovalev fought Cedric Agnew, most figured it was a similar sort of mismatch. It wasn’t, which suggests either Kovalev is better than Stevenson, Fonfara is better than Agnew, or perhaps a bit of both. Whatever the case, the 6’2” Fonfara recovered from two early knockdowns, dropped Stevenson in the ninth, and pushed the champion to the limit en route to losing a unanimous decision. In combination with solid wins over former titlists Glen Johnson, Gabriel Campillo, and Byron Mitchell, there’s now evidence to suggest the Chicago-based Pole is a credible light heavyweight contender. He’s 26-3 (15 KOs) and, at age 27, probably just now entering his prime.
The Captivating Newcomer: Artur Beterbiev
Why is a six-fight “novice” cracking our list of the top light heavyweights? A skeptic would say it’s because any new fighter from a former USSR country is automatically a person of interest in 2014. A fan who’s been paying close attention would say it’s because Beterbiev had an exceptional amateur career and, through just six pro fights (all knockout wins), already has the look of a finished product and a threat to anyone in the weight class. The only name you’d recognize on the 29-year-old Beterbiev’s record is Tavoris Cloud, who he thumped in two rounds in September. There’s much still to be proven, but it’s reasonable to assume that more thumpings for more recognizable names await.
In the conversation:
Juergen Braehmer, Beibut Shumenov, Isaac Chilemba, Eleider Alvarez, Gabriel Campillo, Karo Murat, Edwin Rodriguez