By Tim Smith
Bernard Hopkins has carved out one of the most remarkable careers in the history of boxing. He is a physical marvel, operating at the championship level of the sport at the age of 49. But it is not just the fact that he is the oldest world boxing world champion of all time that makes Hopkins stand out. It is the fact that throughout his illustrious 26-year career he has been able to re-invent himself at every stage.
As that career is winding down (at least we think it is), Hopkins will face what might be the toughest challenge of his career when he takes on Sergey Kovalev, a hard-punching, undefeated Russian champion, in a light heavyweight unification fight at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City on HBO World Championship Boxing, Saturday night at 10:45 PM.
When ranking the top boxing matches of Hopkins career, this bout with Kovalev has the potential to be near the top. Hopkins has never faced a natural puncher with Kovalev's poise and patience. While Hopkins has developed a limitless bag of tricks over the course of a career that started when Ronald Reagan was still president, Kovalev is not easily flustered in the ring.
Both fighters have their work cut out for them, and fight fans could witness something historic. Here are some of the other most notable matches of Hopkins extensive career:
CLINTON MITCHELL, Oct. 11, 1988: This was Hopkins' pro debut – a 4-round decision loss to Mitchell at light heavyweight. Hopkins admitted that he lacked focus and discipline in preparing for this fight. But this is also the fight that set him on the path that led him to where he is today. Afterwards, he dropped down to middleweight, picked up his legendary rigor and committed himself to always being in top condition before stepping into the ring.
SEGUNDO MERCADO, Dec. 17, 1994: This was Hopkins' second title match; he lost to Roy Jones Jr. in a middleweight championship fight the year before. He had to travel to Quito, Ecuador – Mercado’s home country – for the opportunity. Mercado dropped him twice in the fight and Hopkins had to battle back for a draw. It's difficult to get knocked down twice in a fight in the other guy's backyard and come away with a draw, but this is where Hopkins proved his resilience. He beat Mercado in the rematch.
FELIX TRINIDAD, Sept. 29, 2001: The timing of this match couldn’t have been worse. It was two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and New York was still in shock. The fight was supposed to take place at Madison Square Garden on Saturday, the week of the attack. Hopkins left NYC and headed home to Philadelphia as soon as the Lincoln Tunnel opened for travel the week of the attack. Promoter Don King would not let Trinidad get on a plane and go back to Puerto Rico, because he knew Trinidad wouldn’t return for the fight. This was the culmination of a middleweight championship tournament that King had set up for Trinidad to win. But he made the oft-repeated mistake of counting out Hopkins. Noted boxing writer Michael Katz had dubbed Trinidad "Creeping Death"’ because of the way that he slowly stalked opponents before taking them out. Hopkins noted that Trinidad had to set his feet before he threw and he timed him and took him apart, stopping the Puerto Rican in the 12th round. It set the stage for Hopkins pulling off a string of stunning upsets in fights no one gave him a chance of winning, and it put him on a major stage.
OSCAR DE LA HOYA, Sept. 18, 2004: This fight was a major boxing event – the kind that Hopkins hadn’t been a part of during much of his career. De La Hoya was challenging Hopkins in the middleweight division, which Hopkins had owned for 11 years at that point. Hopkins showed it in the ring, dominating De La Hoya over the first eight rounds before stopping him with a liver shot in the ninth. It was the only time that De La Hoya was stopped in his career. And it’s the last time that Hopkins has knocked out an opponent.
JERMAIN TAYLOR, July 16, 2005: Hopkins was 40 years old and Taylor 27. Hopkins entered the fight with 20 consecutive successful defenses of his middleweight title over a span of 12 years. Taylor was still in high school when Hopkins first became middleweight champion. The clock had been ticking on Hopkins for some time. Though many thought Hopkins won the fight, two of the judges didn't. Taylor was awarded the undisputed middleweight title and Hopkins' long reign at 160 pounds was officially over. It just meant that Hopkins would have to re-invent himself in another division, which he did at 175 pounds.
ANTONIO TARVER, June 10, 2006: Tarver had knocked out Roy Jones Jr. and was considered a formidable light heavyweight champion. Hopkins was moving up to light heavyweight and trying to do something that even the great Sugar Ray Robinson couldn’t do – win a light heavyweight title after being a middleweight champion. He entered the fight as a 3-to-1 underdog to Tarver, but quickly made the oddsmakers look foolish. Hopkins completely outclassed Tarver and won a lopsided decision to make the successful move to 175 pounds.
JEAN PASCAL, May 21, 2011: The first match, which was fought in Pascal’s home country of Canada, had ended in an unsatisfying majority draw and had stymied Hopkins' return to the championship ranks. Hopkins went back to Canada for the rematch in Pascal's hometown of Montreal. He had frustrated Pascal in that first match, but still left the door open for the draw. He closed that door in the rematch, hammering Pascal and winning a clear decision. With that victory Hopkins surpassed George Foreman to become the oldest world champion ever at 46 years, four months, and 10 days old.
You can list other fights in Hopkins’ career – Kelly Pavlik, Joe Calzaghe, Roy Jones Jr. (twice) – as important. But none were as pivotal as the ones listed above.