When Bernard Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) faces Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs) on Saturday, November 8, at the Boardwalk Hall, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, it will be the latest extraordinary episode of a career that started with little fanfare back in 1988, but in the ensuring 26 years, developed into something almost otherworldly.
Although three ‘world’ title belts are up for grabs in this World light-heavyweight championship unification match, what these two men are fighting for goes much deeper than that. Whoever wins this fight will be making history.
That Bernard Hopkins is still able to box competitively just two months shy of his 50th birthday, is an extraordinary achievement. The scope of what Hopkins has already achieved in the course of his career, can be marked out by the fact that no one is up in arms about this almost 50 year old pugilist taking on an unbeaten 31 year old, who is considered to be pound-for-pound, one of the most destructive punchers in boxing today. Indeed, there are even those who are picking “The Alien” to out-box, out-fox, and dismantle “The Krusher“, such is the general respect (albeit grudging in some quarters) for The Alien, formerly known as “The Executioner”
That two out of the three ‘world’ title belts which will be up for grabs in Saturday’s unification fight are held by Hopkins, the IBF and WBA titles, while Kovalev holds just one, the WBO title, illustrates that this is not the usual age vs. youth confrontation, so often seen in boxing.
A look at the respective careers of Hopkins and Kovalev, shows why some feel that this is not a step too far for boxing’s oldest world champion. Hopkins is a boxing professor, who as the saying goes, has forgotten more than Kovalev’s generation of fighters will ever know, except, Hopkins has not forgotten. He has remembered and learned, from every one of his 65 fights, from every one of his 33 world title fights. It is this knowledge that has helped him tweak his style over the years to accommodate the demands of father time, while still keeping one step ahead of both him, and a long series of upstart challengers, who are young enough to be his sons.
To the untrained eye there is little difference physically between the Hopkins of today and the Hopkins of 10 or 20 years ago. In fact, Hopkins has changed his style quite a lot from his early years as World middleweight champion. In those days, Hopkins was The Executioner and fought with a much more aggressive and energetic style. However, as his record-breaking reign as World middleweight champion wore on, Hopkins slowly developed into a crafty counter-puncher, and a master of pace. It seems almost silly now, but by his late 30s, Hopkins was being already admired for his battle with father time.
At 49, Hopkins is a master of the ring. He is an old school technician who does nothing flashy, everything is measured and understated, every step, and every punch, has a meaning and reason behind it. He is a master of pace and space within the ring. Yet, behind the minimalism there is still substance, Hopkins is not a flabby veteran getting by on guile alone. He is a quite exceptional athlete whose hunger and dedication has helped him preserve his body and his skills to an almost unprecedented degree. Hopkins speed and reflexes are still those of a young man, and his legs, the wheels that start to fail most fighters by the time they enter their 30s, are still strong and nimble.
Hopkins has over the last few years taken to calling himself “The Alien,”
and with good reason, because much of what he has accomplished over the past few years has been increasingly otherworldly. Even taking into account Hopkins’ obsessive discipline of keeping his body as well preserved as is seemingly possible; what he is doing is still almost unprecedented. Other than heavyweight George Foreman and light heavyweight Archie Moore, there have been no other fighters who have won or defended genuine world titles at a comparable age to The Alien.
Saturday’s clash represents a huge chance to rewrite the record books yet again for Hopkins.
Victory on Saturday will put Hopkins in a special place in the boxing pantheon. For all of his victories in recent years, Kovalev represents an especially dangerous looking assignment.
The Russian isn’t called The Krusher for nothing. In his unbeaten career, Kovalev has exhibited a punching power, which quite simply, has at times been quite frightening. The Krusher has only been as far as 8 once in his professional career, and has gone more than 4 rounds a mere handful of times. Like many lethal punchers, Kovalev’s punches make his opponents do funny things when they connect.
Kovalev certainly looks to be the most dangerous fighter that Hopkins has fought since his 2001 encounter with the then unbeaten Felix Trinidad. The match with Trinidad was also a world championship unification fight, and Trinidad was an unbeaten knockout artist with a 40-0 record. Hopkins, however, dismantled the Puerto Rican and scored a decisive 12th round stoppage, for what was one of the high point wins of his career.
When he fought Trinidad in 2001, Hopkins was already judged to have age going against him, at the age of 36. Now, 13 years later, Hopkins faces another knockout machine.
Kovalev comes into this fight with all of the physical advantages of youth, strength and power, while Hopkins advantages are in his knowledge and experience. For all of his power, and indeed because of it, Kovalev is yet to be truly tested as a professional at an elite level. What will happen if the fight goes past the middle rounds and starts to enter territory where The Krusher has not trod upon before?
Throughout his seemingly never-ending career, Hopkins has had an almost eerie success rate when facing sluggers and big punchers. Hopkins’ masterful counter-punching skills and defensive work are never more impressive than when he is pitted against an aggressive puncher. In recent years, The Alien has dismantled Kelly Pavlik, Jean Pascal, Tavoris Cloud, and most recently Beibut Shumenov, all aggressive come-forward fighters whom many thought would have too much for Hopkins.
Hopkins has a masterful way of negating the attacks of an opponent and leaving them after a few rounds feeling frustrated and confused by the puzzles he is setting for them. One of the biggest puzzles with The Alien is how to hit him cleanly more than once. Hopkins always seems within reach, but teases his opponents with subtle half moves, and changes of distance at crucial times, which keeps his opponent from setting himself for big attacks.
Many of Hopkins opponents end up looking mesmerized as they follow him in vain, waiting for an opening that never comes.
One of the choices that Kovalev will have to make is whether he will go after Hopkins early, and try for an early knockout, or whether he will attempt to box with Hopkins and bide his time. Both strategies have their risks, if he goes for an early stoppage, Kovalev risks perhaps punching himself out if the fight goes into the later rounds, on the other hand, should Kovalev box with Hopkins he will run the risk of being simply and subtly out-boxed.
One extra weapon in the Kovalev arsenal is his trainer John David Jackson, who fought Hopkins for his Middleweight title in 1997 and then acted as part of his corner team in the mid to late 2000s. Jackson knows more than most the kind of boxer and man, that Hopkins is in and out of the ring. Jackson is an extra weapon that may prove to be crucial to Kovalev on Saturday night.
There remains the question of whether at just 2 months shy of his 50th birthday Bernard Hopkins can withstand the kind of punching power that Kovalev brings into the ring with him. For all of his defensive powers and ring guile and experience, at some point, Kovalev will connect with Hopkins, and when he does many questions will be answered.
One of the intriguing aspects of this contest is that it pits two such stark opposites against one another, it is youth against age and guile, knockout puncher against defensive counter puncher. It is possible that Kovalev will manage to catch the slow-starting Hopkins early, before he has had time to get himself going into his minimalist groove, and if that happens we could see an early violent exit for the Alien. It is also possible that Hopkins will weather an early storm, by virtue of his defensive wizardry and guile, and then as the fight proceeds, drag Kovalev
into the kind of stop and start boxing match that he can never win against Hopkins.
However, in the end, it is hard to see even the otherworldly Bernard Hopkins side-stepping father time and nature itself forever.
This time, The Alien might have met his match. The result of this fight may well hinge upon just how good Sergey Kovalev is as a fighter. This is the big fight that The Krusher has craved, and the chance to show that he is not simply a fighter with a big punch, but something much more, a special fighter in his own right.
If Kovalev is as good as some believe then all the experience and tricks, which Bernard Hopkins has gathered together over the years, may not be enough to get him through this time.
But then again, who can bet against an Alien?