Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
INGLEWOOD, Calif. -- As much as Bernard Hopkins protested that was not what he wanted, the build-up to Saturday’s main event inevitably was largely a celebration of an extraordinary career that began when Ronald Reagan was president. The event was even billed “Final 1” in recognition of this being not just the 67th bout of that career, but the last. Hopkins’ opponent, Joe Smith Jr., was almost an afterthought, a bit player brought in to play the role of antagonist but expected to do no more than provide stout resistance before our hero disappeared over the horizon into the sunset and retirement.
Smith, however, had other ideas, and so too did Hopkins’ nearly 52-year-old body. For the better part of a decade or more now – arguably even since the Philadelphian’s signature victory over Felix Trinidad in 2001, when he was 36 – the principal narrative surrounding his professional boxing life has been its longevity and, by extension, his age. Hopkins has seemed to defy time in a way few athletes have ever been able to do, adapting to his slowing and aging by becoming a cagier, craftier combatant, slowing down his opponents to his pace and using his guile and experience to overcome them. When he lost his previous contest, to Sergey Kovalev two years ago, it was a testament more to the brilliance of his conqueror rather than to any physical decline.
Yet even Hopkins eventually had to yield to the inevitable; in true Hopkins style, however, he did so in somewhat bizarre and contentious fashion. And much as the focus will inevitably be on the fact that this was the night when Hopkins finally looked old, credit must be given to Smith, the man who landed the punches that made him look that way, that literally sent him flying out of the ring, and that condemned the veteran, for the first time since he turned professional in 1988, to a stoppage defeat.
As expected, the younger, stronger Smith (23-1, 19 KOs) launched himself across the ring at the start, swinging and just missing with a big right hand, at which point Hopkins immediately tied him up. Later in the round, a short right clearly hurt Hopkins (55-8-2, 32 KOs), who sagged backward slightly and took a thumping left hook from Smith as he did so. He recovered, but for the first two frames, Hopkins looked, frankly, old. His punches were slow and few in number, while Smith smartly attacked with an almost continuous fusillade of blows.
In the third, Hopkins began landing some sneakily effective lead right hands, and although the Long Islander may have taken all three of the opening rounds, he was for the first time showing signs of hesitation as he suddenly found himself needing to be aware of the danger of incoming artillery. In the fourth and fifth, he both hesitated and missed more still; Hopkins now was dialed in with his shots and starting to open up. A left hook, followed by another left and a right off the ropes, caught Smith hard on the jaw in the fourth; in the fifth, a pair of booming lead rights was followed by another right and then a hook, as the old master steadily took control. The sixth saw the signs of a Smith recovery, but also a sequence in which the 27-year-old threw punch after punch and the 51-year-old slipped them all. A big lead right hand just before the bell may have snatched Hopkins the round and evened up the contest; but if it did, it was surely the last round that he won.
Smith came out for the seventh with a second wind in his sails. All at once, he no longer seemed to care about what Hopkins might do to him, and as he attacked with renewed purpose, it was the turn of The Executioner to look hesitant.
The end, however, was shocking, sudden and bizarre. A Smith right hand hurt Hopkins and left him open for a left hook. Another hook, and then another, and a right hand had Hopkins buckled against the ropes. Then another left hook landed hard and just like that the Philadelphian was no longer in the ring, but had plummeted on to his back on the floor.
Smith leaped on to the corner turnbuckle in celebration, but initially there was confusion. Hopkins, claiming incorrectly that he was pushed, was protesting that he had hurt his ankle on his way out, that he wanted to get back into the ring but didn’t think he would be able to accomplish anything if he did so. Eventually, referee Jack Reiss announced that because Hopkins was unable to continue because of an injury caused by a legal blow, the result was a TKO victory for Smith.
“Every time I threw the right, he dropped his left,” said Smith, “so I paused my jab out there, threw the right, seen it hurt, then kept hitting him.”
Predictably, Hopkins, even in defeat, had far more to say.
“I was throwing a right or a combo and using the rope as offense and defense … he got frustrated … I might have got hit with a right hook,” he said afterward to HBO’s Max Kellerman. “Next thing I know he shoved me out of the ring. I hit my head first and my ankle got hurt when I hit the ground.” He was, he added, “still in shock knowing they’re going to give him the fight.”
In time, with the opportunity to reflect and review the replays a few more times, he may mellow in his interpretation. Or, being Hopkins, he may not. But he underlined that, notwithstanding the way it ended, this was categorically his last appearance in a boxing ring.
“I’m happy in my life of retirement. This was billed as ‘Final 1’ -- controversy, draw, split, whatever. I think fans know that I went out a soldier.”