Hopkins’ Intensity Meets Kovalev’s Smiles

Photos: Will Hart

By Kieran Mulvaney

Far too often, those of us who watch boxing on a regular basis use the build-up to a fight as an opportunity to engage in pop psychology. “How is Fighter A’s body language? Why did he say this and not that? Is he intimidated? Overconfident?” One problem with indulging in such pursuits, especially when one is not actually a psychologist, is that the odds are high of being horrifically wrong; another is that it doesn’t necessarily matter how confident a boxer is if the other guy is a better fighter.

Which brings us to this Saturday’s light-heavyweight fight between Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev. It’s the classic 50-50 fight, two fighters at divergent stages of their careers and lives and with contrasting styles; there is a compelling case to be made for either man emerging as the victor. And so, in an attempt to feel confident in our otherwise uncertain predictions, we fall back on external factors, on who is winning the psychological battle – which, given his predilection for engaging in the dark arts, is almost invariably Hopkins.

“Why is Sergey Kovalev so quiet?” we wonder. “Why is he just chuckling when Hopkins is throwing barbs? Why is he acknowledging Hopkins’ expertise? Is Bernard in his head? Has he broken him already?”

And then, after spending parts of fight week talking with both combatants, we realize: actually, that’s just the kind of person Kovalev is. He’s a laid-back, cheerful guy who doesn’t feel the need to beat his chest to proclaim his confidence. Far from being intimidated by Hopkins’ mind games, he seems amused by them, laughing that, “I have been at war with Hopkins two months already.”

He showed as much at Friday’s weigh-in, as Hopkins attempted to stare him down and Kovalev, smiling, ducked and weaved, deliberately avoiding his gaze before agreeing to meet it and even then smirking in response to Hopkins’ taunts. Hopkins pointed to his head to indicate that his superior ring intelligence would win the day. Kovalev responded by drawing his finger in a circle next to Hopkins’ temple, indicating that his opponent is just flat-out crazy.

And so the temptation, recognizing that we have gravely misread Kovalev’s mental state, is to reset, to hedge our bets and cover our bases, to think that maybe Kovalev has the upper hand after all, simply by not having been overawed by the occasion.

Maybe he does have the upper hand. But if he does emerge victorious on Saturday night, it will have less to do with Hopkins’ inability to affect his psyche than on the impact of his punches on Hopkins’ body and head, and the fact that he is a phenomenally strong puncher at the peak of his powers. If Hopkins wins – well, there’ll likely be a psychological factor, for sure, but mostly in the sense that he will have been able to use his vast experience to neutralize Kovalev’s assault and cause the Russian to hold back in confusion.

It’s unlikely that either fighter is truly without doubt. But ultimately, the Jedi mind tricks, the body language, the statements of intent … they mean nothing. In the end, despite all the prognostications and profiling, it remains a 50-50 fight, just as it was at the beginning.