By Tyson Bruce
Every time the forty-nine year old Bernard Hopkins now enters a boxing ring, history is being made to one degree or another.
That’s why it came as a shock to most experts when Hopkins voluntarily pursued a fight against one of the most feared and avoided punchers in the sport, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev. When negotiations stalled with lineal champion Adonis Stevenson at Showtime (Hopkins balked at the Stevenson camp’s drug testing demands, among other things), Hopkins, 55-6-2-(32 KO’s) didn’t waste any time jumping across the street to HBO.
The fact that Hopkins-—a shareholder at Golden Boy Promotions—-is fighting on HBO, which had banished the company in 2012, makes the bout arguably the most important of the year for the long-term health of boxing. Apart from that, however, the fight doesn’t really affect Hopkins’s legacy. No lineal title is at stake, so Hopkins won’t be able to break his own record for being the oldest man to win a title; nor will the significance of his hall of fame career be determined with a win or loss on Saturday night. In that sense, Hopkins, ironically, is the fighter going into this bout with nothing to lose.
A win against the dangerous Kovalev in Atlantic City means that Hopkins’ career will almost surely continue into his fifties, and almost guarantees one more challenge for the lineal light heavyweight title that he has already won twice in his forties. Where the victory would stand on his overall list of conquests depends a lot on how things play out Saturday. If Hopkins mauls and fouls his way to a debatable decision, which is a distinct possibility, then the victory probably ranks somewhere between Beibut Shumenov and Kelly Pavlik in terms of significance.
If he were to give Kovalev a boxing lesson, however, then it could become one of the greatest scalps of his already legendary victories.
The stakes are perhaps even more drastic for Sergey Kovalev, 25-0-1-(23 KO’s), who just a few months ago looked like boxing’s forgotten man. After Adonis “Superman” Stevenson jumped ship into the sinister tentacles of Al Haymon and Showtime, it looked like Kovalev would be stuck fighting the Blake Caparello types forever. In a stroke of poetic justice, however, Stevenson’s path of least resistance blew up in his face when Hopkins blew him off to take the fight with Kovalev. Now Stevenson is the guy stuck fighting the foreign boxers with more vowels in their names than credible wins on their record, and Kovalev is making well over a million dollars to fight a legend of the sport.
Despite Hopkins being old enough to be Kovalev’s father, the fight is by no means an easy challenge for the Russian superstar. Although not as offensively dangerous as Stevenson, Hopkins presents a great deal more technical challenges and much less vulnerabilities. It’s important to note that Kovalev had beaten just two world-class light heavyweights, Nathan Cleverly and Gabriel Campillo, both of whom he smashed in less than six combined rounds.
In other words, Hopkin’s represents a quantum leap in class for Kovalev.
The match has created an interesting polarization in that the vast majority of boxing writers and experts seem to favor Hopkins, but the betting public has Kovalev a 5-2 favorite at the bookies. Those who favor Kovalev do so because of an intuition about the Russian’s quality and ability to handle a big fight atmosphere. After all, who has Hopkins beat the last five years that even comes close to being as dangerous as Kovalev?
It that sense, it’s possible that people may be overrating what Hopkins has done since his historic victory over Jean Pascal in 2011. It’s easy to become lost in the fact that Hopkins is still competing in the top ten of a reasonably good division at his age. The best opponent he fought in that stretch was undoubtedly Chad Dawson, who used his advantage in speed and strength to outbox and outwork Hopkins in what could kindly be labeled an ugly fight. Although Kovalev is not the pure boxer that Dawson is, he brings a level of pressure and sheer power that Hopkin’s hasn’t faced in sometime.
After all, would anyone in their right mind think that Karo Murat, Beibut Shumenov or Tavoris Cloud would even last three rounds with the “Krusher”?
Although Hopkins won all three of those fights handily, it’s important to note that all three had some legitimate moments of success against B-Hop. Kovalev, despite his inexperience at top level, brings assets into the ring that Hopkins isn’t used to dealing with, which is a huge reason why this fight is so fascinating and hard to predict.
Hopkins’ game is based around slowing the action and using his still superior accuracy and counter-punching to frustrate and bewilder his opponents. This also comes with a great deal of rule bending tactics, such as leading with his head like a ram, low blows, excessive holding and a great deal of Oscar worthy play-acting. We all remember the first Chad Dawson fight, right? It will be up to Kovalev to not let his punch count dip when Hopkins starts to apply his tricks in the middle rounds.
One technical asset that Kovalev possesses is that he’s a ruthless body puncher. Most fighters have very little success trying to get at Hopkin’s body because he’s do adept at nullifying a guy on the inside; however, Kovalev throws straight shots to the body from the outside—most notably a fight ending power jab to the ribs. Kovalev’s been pretty much derided as a one-dimensional puncher throughout the build-up to this fight because he’s an aggressive fighter who looks for knockouts. Most people feel that if Kovalev doesn’t score an early knockout, then its Hopkins’ fight to lose.
Yet, Kovalev is as technically sound a fight that can be found in the division outside of the man he’s fighting: a point trainer Freddie Roach noted in Kovalev’s NBC Sports fight against Cornelius White, when he labeled Kovalev “[his] favorite prospect in the sport” because of his ability to throw combinations from a variety of angles, guile in cutting off the ring and the fact that everything he does on offense is built off an effective jab. In other words, Kovalev is not simply some brute looking for one big swing. It will be paramount for Kovalev to not become predictable against Hopkins and to retain a steady work rate over the course of a potentially longer fight than he has ever experienced.
The hardest thing about this fight will be the sheer pressure on Kovalev to win the fight. It’s hard to go around calling yourself “the Krusher” when you can’t manage to crush a nearly fifty-year old man. Even if he were to just scrape by Hopkins, it would still hurt his reputation as the division’s boogieman.
If he were to physically thrash or dominate Hopkins, however, it would instantly make Kovalev one of the most feared and highly esteemed fighters in the world. That is certainly plenty worth fighting for.
What makes this fight so interesting is that you can make such a credible argument over favoring either fighter. Hopkins has the skill, experience and mental edge and Kovalev has the youth, punching power and momentum. It’s almost impossible to visualize what this fight will look like in the ring.
The winner of the bout, despite not being the lineal champion, will make an excellent case for being the best fighter at 175 pounds. There will never be another fighter like Bernard Hopkins and very few true punchers come along like Kovalev, so enjoy this fight, because there are too few of them like it in today’s complicated boxing era.