I’ve used this slightly adjusted Bill Clinton quote a couple of times in the past to explain boxing and how it can get back on the right path, and I think it still applies:
“There is nothing wrong with boxing that cannot be cured by what is right with boxing.”
Our sport is facing a lot of issues and, historically, we’ve been unable and mostly unwilling to even address them. But at the core of it all, fans are fairly easy to please.
The fans would be happy with a sport that simply conducts itself in a reasonable, dignified manner and follows a logical, structural narrative.
Those of us with a frame of reference longer than thirty years can look back at a time when we fell in love with young heroes who captured world titles and then had our hearts broken as those heroes aged and were eliminated by the next crop of young lions. We learned to love the next champions until, again, they were dethroned by a sharper, better fighter.
The flow of boxing represented the brutally beautiful sport we loved. It was, indeed, merciless and cruel at times, but there was also a beauty to this circle of life model. To every fighter there was a time and place– and even the greatest of warriors would someday fall in battle.
These days, there is still some of that. But, far too often, not enough to evoke the type of sentiment Holmes beating Ali evoked or the rush that Duran’s “No Mas” generated.
Fighters jump from division to division, sanctioning body to sanctioning body, network to network– never setting down roots long enough for us to really care. There’s obviously something wrong with the sport when you can say that a world champion probably isn’t even among the ten best fighters in his division or hope aloud that a champion, with double-digit defenses, will someday soon fight a real, live contender.
The business of boxing has changed and much of this is to the benefit of the fighter, so it’s hard to complain too much. But it doesn’t have to be feast or famine, money grab or indentured servitude. There can be a happy medium for all involved.
On Saturday night at the Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, we got a glimpse of what boxing should be and could still be as Bernard Hopkins passed the torch to a younger, stronger, sharper Sergey Kovalev.
It wasn’t a “good” fight, but it was a decisive one with a clean and honest ending.
Despite the well-wishers and positive-minded analysts, this was an unwinnable fight for the 49-year-old Hopkins without Kovalev making some key tactical mistakes. But Kovalev proved himself to be as unflappable and as focused as he is heavy-handed, never allowing himself to be drawn into trench warfare, never over-investing in the knockout his instincts called for.
Instead, Kovalev boxed intelligently from the outside and used his two heavy fists as foolproof insurance policies against an offensive rally from the future Hall of Famer.
As expected, in a straight-up, man-to-man battle, Kovalev was simply too good for Hopkins on Saturday.
And that’s alright.
Actually, it’s the way things are supposed to be. It’s the circle of boxing life. In the old school tradition of the sport, the younger, sharper man beat the old pro and took with him, not only the WBA and IBF belts, but also a bit of the old timer’s magic. Kovalev is a bigger star today because Hopkins put himself into a position where the torch could be passed.
In today’s fight game there are many ways to avoid passing the torch when the natural order of things dictates that a fighter is nearing the end of his run. There are many back doors a fighter can travel where a mediocre existence takes the place of a graceful exit. Give Bernard Hopkins credit that, just two months shy of his fiftieth birthday, he could’ve taken the road of least resistance, but didn’t.
Having lived the hardest of lives before fighting his way to the highest levels in the cruelest of all sports, nobody should expect Hopkins to have the sunny disposition of Rebecca of Sonnybrook Farm. He’s a hard man, angry, sometimes bitter, and always on guard. But on Saturday, in defeat, there was none of that tension or anger in Hopkins’ voice.
He would go on to dissect the fight and why he lost, all the while giving full credit for the smart strategy that allowed for a relatively smooth path to victory.
“Tonight was a good night for the light heavyweight division and for boxing, I really mean that,” Hopkins said at the post-fight press conference.
The chip was off of Hopkins’ shoulder, at least that’s how it appeared. Maybe it reappears in a few days when the competitive juices start flowing again, but on Saturday “angry” B-Hop was replaced by sportsman B-Hop.
It’s always a bittersweet moment when an old legend is retired by a rising star and Hopkins, knowing the sport better than almost anyone else alive today and respecting its traditions, had to feel at least somewhat touched by this moment as the last of the old school breed went out in an entirely old school manner.
“He got the torch tonight,” Hopkins answered when asked about passing the torch to Kovalev. “Tonight, I can say that I’m not glad that I didn’t win, but I can say that it’s in good hands.”
The King is Dead, Long Live the King.
And if this Rant is Hopkins-heavy on a day where Kovalev should get his fair share of the spotlight, that’s alright. Kovalev will have plenty of time to push ahead and define his own legend above and beyond Saturday’s victory and there will be plenty of stories written about the man, his ability, and what the future may hold for him. (Actually, there will be such a piece posted on The Boxing Tribune main page, alongside this Rant).
But, for me, this is about one last round of applause for Bernard Hopkins and what that name means to all of those who truly appreciate the sport.
You can email Paul at firstname.lastname@example.org or listen to his weekly Boxing News/Zombie Preparedness podcast, “Left Hook to the Brain.” 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.