By Ivan G. Goldman
It’s not likely, but if Bernard Hopkins, at age 49, soundly defeats cement-fisted Sergey Kovalev this Saturday night in Atlantic City, he could arguably catapult to the top of the pound-for-pound list as the best fighter in the world, period.
About a dozen years back, Hopkins used to be accused of selecting tomato can opponents, but these days he routinely plunges into kamikaze matches with the best of the best. He figures his legacy is secure anyway, so why not shoot the dice? After all, he’s playing with house money.
This time he’ll be up against the most feared light heavyweight in the business, a beast of a puncher who caused Adonis Stevenson to flee to Showtime to get away from him. Stevenson waits there with his tightly held WBC title hoping that maybe Hopkins, 55-6-2 (32 KOs), can pull it out and make Kovalev, 25-0-1 (23 KOs), go away.
It’s a testament to Hopkins’ amazing durability that he’s only a 3-1 underdog against the WBO titlist. Hopkins turned pro 26 years ago, when Kovalev, a Russian who fights out of Fort Lauderdale, was five years old. Hopkins, who holds the WBA and IBF belts, has beaten the odds before. He destroyed steamrolling Kelly Pavlik and stopped fierce Tito Trinidad, for example. Amazingly, he’s still giving opponents plenty of trouble.
Hopkins, now calling himself “The Alien” instead of “The Executioner,” recently told ESPN that he doesn’t get sufficient respect or acclaim because of his race. “I’d never let a white boy beat me,” he famously said about white Joe Calzaghe before Calzaghe beat him in 2008.
In the recent ESPN interview, he declared, “What do you think if my name was Augustine, Herzenstein, Stern? Cappello? Marciano? . . . If I was any of those names of any other background, I’d be on every billboard and every milk carton and every place to be.”
He is, he declared, the American Dream come to life. He served nearly five years for armed robbery back in the eighties, after which he turned pro. He set an all-time middleweight record with 20 title defenses.
Hopkins, who’s had tremendous success and good fortune since turning his life around, still feels sorry for himself. One thing champions have in common is they’re never satisfied. They keep trying to improve. In his case, a touch of paranoia may have helped him too.
But the survival methods Hopkins learned on the streets of North Philadelphia and in Graterford Prison didn’t turn him into a lovely human being. His longtime trainer Bouie Fisher, now deceased, sued him twice over money he didn’t get. His former promoter Lou DiBella said Hopkins “has turned on anyone he has ever worked with, generally over money. I have tremendous respect for him inside the ring. I have no respect for him outside the ring.”
Hopkins has changed his style many times over the years, adjusting to opponents and his aging body. For many years he was a relatively boring fighter. He’s never had one-punch knockout power and elbows and head butts have been major weapons in his arsenal, usually administered when the referee isn’t in position to spot them.
In his first fight against Chad Dawson, three years ago, Hopkins claimed he was too injured to continue after Dawson lifted him up and he fell to the canvas. But Hopkins refused to let the ring physician examine him so referee Pat Russell correctly ruled a technical knockout for Dawson. The California commission later overruled that decision and called it a no-contest, allowing Hopkins to retain his WBC title. Dawson walked away with the title in the rematch six months later, winning by majority decision.
The first Dawson fight is the sort of event that could lead you to conclude Hopkins has played too many ugly cards to deserve the pound-for-pound top spot and that welterweight Floyd Mayweather still holds the best hand.
Many of Hopkins’s fights have been difficult to score, but as he’s grown older he’s more likely to stand and fight. Which is probably the worst thing to do against Kovalev, who not only can hit with sledgehammer force, but sets up big shots with an effective jab and can call on good balance and ring savvy.
Probably neither man can be intimidated, but Hopkins has much to gain and not much to lose in terms of his legacy. The winner will walk away with three of the four major belts. If improbable events come to pass the victor could also, at age 49, make a case for himself as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.
New York Times best-selling author Ivan G. Goldman’s Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag was released in 2013 by Potomac Books. Watch for The Debtor Class: A Novel from Permanent Press in spring, 2015. More information here.