Photos: Will Hart
By Kieran Mulvaney
There is an air of irreversible decline in Atlantic City; the empty boardwalk, shuttered casinos and closed shops all contribute to a sense of fin de siècle, of an era that has passed and may likely never return. Inside Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night, the end of another age slowly unfolded in front of a crowd of 8,545, as Bernard Hopkins – for so long a defeater of younger challengers and a resister of age – finally succumbed to both, losing all twelve rounds on all three scorecards to Russian Sergey Kovalev, who handed him a beating of the sort he had never experienced in his long and illustrious career.
But make no mistake: there was a pride and class to Hopkins’ demise. Even in defeat, he posed at age 49 a greater challenge than Kovalev had yet seen in the ring, and his determined resistance in the 12th round, as the knockout artist pounded him with right hands, had at least one ostensibly objective observer rooting for him to have the honor of surviving to the final bell.
When Kovalev, who had knocked out 23 of his previous 25 opponents, put Hopkins down in the very first round, it felt as if the night might not last long and that Hopkins’ career would come racing towards its conclusion. But although the Russian launched an attack for the rest of that round, Hopkins’ seasoned defensive skills ensured that few blows landed with maximum effect. Kovalev came out for the second round confident and aggressive, but also boxed smartly, not loading up on punches but taking something off them, looking not necessarily to land haymakers but simply to land. In particular, he focused on hitting Hopkins’ nearly 50-year-old body with jabs and stiff right hands. The result of that strategy was not only that he was able to pile up points with his own aggression but also that he reduced Hopkins’ own offense to the verge of non-existence.
“He had a really good game plan,” Hopkins admitted afterward. “He used his reach and his distance; that was the key to his victory tonight. He had very good mechanics and patience. When I hit him, he would step back and that would cause me to reset. He also pounded his right hand over my jab. He’s a good technical fighter. I give him a lot of respect.”
There were several occasions when those right hands landed with real authority on the side of Hopkins’ head and the old man appeared to buckle. A long right hand in the eighth landed with particular effect, momentarily freezing him; but after several rounds in which he had given the impression of trying to lure Kovalev into counters, there came a point – the exact timing of which is hard to define – when the sense from ringside was that even Hopkins had acknowledged that the goal was to survive, to reach the end with dignity. Perhaps it was as early as the end of the fourth, when the Philadelphian, in a rare sign of in-fight respect, nodded to Kovalev as the two went to their respective corners. Or perhaps it was as late as the tenth when, after being cracked with a left hook, Hopkins held tightly to Kovalev’s arm, preventing him from punching and eating up precious seconds on the clock. Either way, by the championship rounds, a reporter’s ringside notebook contained the words, “both men happy to make it to the end of the 12th” – Kovalev because, round after round, he had built up a comprehensive lead, and Hopkins for the moral victory it would entail.
But then the 12th round arrived.
Kovalev hit Hopkins with a right hand. Hopkins stuck out his tongue. Kovalev hit him again. And again. Once more, Hopkins was rooted to the spot. He rocked against the ropes. He tried to escape, but instead was struck by yet more incoming missiles. Kovalev kept throwing, landing 38 of his total 166 connects in that final frame – the most any opponent has landed on Hopkins in a single round – but the old man somehow stayed upright, defiantly lasting until the final bell. Even so, the result was a formality, and the three scores of 120-107, 120-107 and 120-106 accurately reflected the Russian’s domination.
“I’m very happy,” said Kovalev. “This victory was for my [newborn] son Alexander. I was very excited [Hopkins] didn’t get into my head. It was a good fight and I’m so happy. He’s a tough opponent. He’s very good at keeping the distance. He’s a great in the boxing world. I wanted to show my fans that I can box, and I did it. He touched me with some good punches and he has good form. I tried to knock him out in the 12th round, but he has good defense.”
Asked why he didn’t just try to hold on tight during that frenetic final frame, Hopkins joked that it was, “because I’m crazy.” More seriously, he continued, “That’s what the fans want. They want to see good fights. I was trying to land something.”
If this is the coda to a boxing odyssey that began when Ronald Reagan was president, then Hopkins gave the impression of finally being a man at peace with the world and his place in it.
“Everybody will have a long time to talk about my career,” he said. “I’ve done what I had to do. I’m fine, really, I’m fine.”