Once upon a time, boxers fought within the framework of the sport. Even with the corrupt sanctioning bodies getting involved and mucking up the narrative, the real professionals found a way to still do things the correct way.
They fought their mandatories, took their money fights, and still had time to fight the meaningful bouts that satisfied hardcore fans. They played off against the sanctioning bodies’ contenders, often using them as the tune-ups between tougher, more lucrative contests.
That era of peaceful, symbiotic co-existence between the needs of the public and the hungers of the sanctioning bodies died in July of 2005 when Jermain Taylor dethroned long-time middleweight champ, Bernard Hopkins.
The last real champion fell that night and, with him, the last vestige of boxing as an actual, workable sport.
Anybody who calls themselves a boxing fan is familiar with Bernard Hopkins and his twenty-six years (and counting) in the sport.
After a failed attempt to win the IBF middleweight crown against Roy Jones Jr. in 1993 and a controversy-ridden draw with Segundo Mercado for that same belt nineteen months later in Ecuador, Hopkins would finally capture the world title in April of 1995 in a rematch with Mercado. Ten years and twenty title defenses later, Hopkins would finally succumb to a younger, fresher face in Taylor.
During his reign, he would add the WBA, WBC, WBO, and Ring Magazine titles while holding on to his original IBF belt. He was the first (and only) fighter to ever simultaneously defend all four recognized world titles and Ring Magazine’s title in the same bout.
Along the way, he took on all comers in a fairly solid middleweight class, answering all challenges and surpassing all obstacles. You’ll never hear a disgruntled challenger from the “B-Hop” era complain about being ducked or avoided…Hopkins simply beat every top challenger who was even remotely qualified for a shot.
He would keep the sanctioning bodies in check and still manage to take the legacy fights that now define his legend. There was no talk of paper champions or need for interim title holders– Hopkins was the man and had proven it to such a degree that not even the money-hungry alphabet soup boys could find the nerve to challenge his domain.
Ask the fans on the street who the middleweight champ was in 2005 and 100% of all respondents would say, Bernard Hopkins. There was no need for in-depth explanations about the difference between champions and belt holders, super champions and silver champions…Hopkins was it…and the division, as it should with every champion, revolved around him. Even the designation, “lineal champ,” was irrelevant in the era of “The Executioner.”
He would go on to capture the lineal light heavyweight title from Antonio Tarver in 2006, after his 40th birthday, and set about making a separate, but not necessarily secondary legend in the 175 lb. division. But Hopkins’ greatness was established at 160 and the lessons learned about professionalism in the business of boxing were written in that very same middleweight division.
Boxing, as a “real,” legitimate sport needs the structure provided by some sort of governing body. And, in the absence of a fair sanctioning organization, the scum-sucking sleaze of the WBC/WBA/WBO/IBF served that purpose, even if in name alone.
But, as said previously, the real professionals like Hopkins found a way to work around the alphabet BS and still give the fans what they needed. They found a way to engage in elite-level boxing while still treating it like an actual sport with a real narrative and structural logic.
Now, the attitude among the top fighters is to work with the sanctioning bodies until it no longer serves their purposes to do so. Then, when they’ve built their names into something valuable enough to sell, they jump around, hand-picking the biggest fights available for the most short-term cash.
Unfortunately, the biggest fights are not always the best fights and in the understandable, but short-sighted goal of making as much money as feasible in as short a time as possible, the sport has suffered.
Titles vacated by established stars who want to chase after fights on the “celebrity boxing circuit,” get passed off to undeserving fringe contenders and young prospects who are not ready to compete at the elite level. Meanwhile the fringe guys, with nobody to eliminate them from the mix, hang around forever as perpetual cannon-fodder for those looking for an easy win against a “name.”
The end result is even more confusion as new champions come out of the woodwork and the sanctioning bodies, desperate to make their quota, issue more and more bogus titles to make up for the fact that each title now means less and less.
And while the visceral reaction among fight fans is to cheer the undermining of the sanctioning bodies, the fact of the matter is that boxing, thrown into the utter chaos of no governing structure, can’t survive as anything other than a fringe, niche sport. It would be like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs being allowed to make their own schedules and veto any games they deemed too risky for too little reward.
Boxing needs champions who will find a way to function within the existing framework, exposing the pretenders, fighting the contenders, and then working to unify the titles within the logical, reasonable boundaries of the weight class and the sport. That’s when the fighters re-seize control from the sanctioning bodies and that’s when the sport could reasonably eliminate the alphabet soup organizations once and for all.
And that takes us back to Bernard Hopkins, the last fighter to actually go through the hard road of unifying an entire division.
After making his impact at light heavyweight by beating Antonio Tarver and then Winky Wright, a close loss to Joe Calzaghe in 2008 seemed to tell us that it was finally over for the future first ballot Hall of Famer. Even a shockingly dominant upset over Jermain Taylor’s conqueror, Kelly Pavlik, six months after the Calzaghe loss seemed more like a final burst of glory against a stylistically perfect foe than any sort of rebirth .
Subsequent lackluster encounters against Enrique Ornelas and Roy Jones Jr. pretty much confirmed to us that the aged Executioner was drifting out into that boxing netherworld reserved for aged former greats no longer able to keep up with the elite where exhibitions against club fighters take the place of actual prizefights.
But then came the draw against then WBC-champ Jean Pascal (which many argue should’ve been a win). After the draw came the win and an unlikely, but brief, WBC title reign until defeated by Chad Dawson.
Now, for sure, a 47-year-old Hopkins would be shipped off to retirement or, at the very least, to low-profile sparring matches in Eastern Bloc countries ala Roy Jones.
Eleven months after the Dawson loss, however, Hopkins was beating Tavoris Cloud for the IBF belt. Then a defense against Karo Murat. Then a win over WBA champ, Beibut Shumenov, to become a two-belt champ—three months after his forty-ninth birthday.
Nobody with an understanding of the sport is under the delusion that Bernard Hopkins has done all of this post-40 work without the use of some sleight of hand. Hopkins hasn’t had what could be called an exemplary athletic performance since around 2005 or 2006. Losses to Calzaghe and Dawson show us what happens when he faces someone with true athleticism, fluidity and/or speed. And, despite the recent string of age-defying victories, the slowdown in both hand and foot speed is obvious.
But the lesson learned by Hopkins back in the Pavlik fight has informed the last six years of his career. He could still—at any age—nullify his opponent’s greatest weapons with simple, old school ring tricks and then do enough to win rounds. And offensive fighters, reliant upon their power and, therefore, lacking in other areas, were ripe for exploitation.
Forget PEDs and other lowdown tricks, Hopkins is beating these younger guys with things as simple as footwork and feints. He’s casually removing the teeth of the fearsome sharks and leaving them as little more than big, flopping fish looking to find a place to hide.
In other eras, when fighters were more seasoned and better-skilled before reaching the “world” level, this may not have been possible. Currently, though, Hopkins has found his groove and has thrived.
Now, the plan is to take his belts and his 10-2-1 record as a light heavyweight and step into the ring against heavy-handed WBO champ Sergey Kovalev this coming Saturday, November 8.
Kovalev is a beast unlike any other faced by Hopkins in his post-40 run. Yes, he’s a fearsome knockout machine—and that seems to be fine with Hopkins’ style of preference—but he’s also a fighter who shows great fluidity in his punching prowess and a great, relaxed confidence in the ring. Kovalev, with his mindset and style, seems capable of fighting fifty rounds without tiring, although his freakish punching power has ended all of his twenty-six career fights before the eighth round. At 31, he’s also eighteen years Hopkins’ junior—literally young enough to be Hopkins’ big, bad Russian son.
As recently as this summer, the talk was all about Hopkins fighting WBC champ Adonis Stevenson. Kovalev lucked into the Hopkins unification because of an alleged hustle Stevenson and adviser Al Haymon were trying to run on Hopkins that would’ve seen Hopkins stripped of his IBF belt. The street-smart Hopkins, though, saw the hustle from a distance and, alongside Golden Boy partner Oscar De la Hoya, reached out to HBO and Team Kovalev about this very different unification.
Realistically, Hopkins may have had an easier time against Stevenson because, while just as ferocious as Kovalev, the Haitian-Canadian is also heavy with technical/tactical flaws and, perhaps, a bit of a front-running bully mentality.
But business dictates Kovalev and Kovalev it is.
And the danger is real. For the first time in a long time, there is a real chance that Hopkins, now just two months shy of his fiftieth birthday, will not only be beaten, but beaten up.
A win likely sends Hopkins on to Stevenson for yet another stab at the apparently impossible. A loss will likely end the career of the fighter now known as the “Alien.”
No matter what happens, just keep in mind that when Bernard Hopkins finally retires, we will be losing the last fighter who actually treated boxing as a sport rather than a series of exhibitions.
Hopkins has made many enemies over the course of his twenty-six years in the business. One should never confuse his extreme guile and skill as a professional fighter with tact or diplomacy outside the ring. But there’s something to be said about the character of a man willing to spend the long, hard hours necessary to learn his craft in a world where that craft is not only rarely displayed, but more and more often, openly mocked as “boring” or “cowardly.”
Win, lose, or draw this Saturday, Bernard Hopkins is at the end of a legendary career. And when he goes, so does the old school work ethic and the absolute reverence for the sport shared by the old pros.
You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org with a question or comment or merely say catty things about him on social media. Oh yeah, and buy his book: Notes from the Boxing Underground! Paul is a full member of the Burger King Kids’ Club, a born iconoclast, and an ordained minister in the Universal Life Church.