by Cliff Rold
It’s hard not to watch Bernard Hopkins with a little bit of awe.
In the 1990s, Roberto Duran challenged William Joppy for Middleweight belt at the age of 47. It was a disgusting spectacle, Duran stopped in three. Evander Holyfield has been beaten multiple times past the age of 40, for titles and not, against Heavyweights who likely couldn’t have laced his shoes in his prime.
That’s the way it usually goes. A fighter ages, elects to keep fighting, and adds losses to their record that no one thinks the ‘real’ them would ever have had.
Every once in a while, a fighter hangs around and keeps winning. Hopkins has hung around and then some, winning titles at Light Heavyweight three times including a lineal championship win over Jean Pascal in 2011 to become the oldest legitimate world champion in boxing history.
There’s been much to celebrate about Hopkins run at Light Heavyweight and plenty to ponder about how much it elevates him in the pantheon of the greats. One question that doesn’t seem to come up much is this:
Has Bernard Hopkins faced tougher competition after 40 years of age than he did before?
The question is not to be confused with whether he was a better fighter after 40. Watching today’s Hopkins, in contrast to the fighter he was at Middleweight against Felix Trinidad, reveals some of the subtle adjustments age brings to bear. He’s not as offensive now, nor as quick.
It makes his perseverance all the more remarkable.
So does the consistency in opposition he’s faced. It’s a place where he can make a claim most of the other remarkable over 40-fighters cannot. Archie Moore and George Foreman, for instance, did great things after 40. Both fought their best opposition before that age.
There is a strong case to be made that Hopkins elevated his competition as his physical assets declined from peak.
Beginning with a defense against Howard Eastman and his two fights against then-undefeated former Olympian Jermain Taylor in 2005, Hopkins has posted a mark of 8-4-1 with 1 No Contest against eleven opponents. Only two of those 14 fights, Enrique Ornelas and Eastman, have come against fighters who were not current, former, or future titlists. Only one loss, to Chad Dawson, doesn’t have anyone making a case for Hopkins as the winner.
Digging further, most of the titlists he’s faced since 2005 were clear current, former, or future lineal World champions. Saturday’s latest conquest, Tavoris Cloud for the IBF belt, was an exception. Roy Jones and Antonio Tarver both held the Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight title and can also be counted as exceptions. That version of Ring’s belt was always fodder for debate as to whether or not it represented lineage.
Feel free to look it up and decide.
Taylor became the lineal Middleweight champion at Hopkins’ expense and to healthy debate. Joe Calzaghe was the reigning lineal World Champion at Super Middleweight when he moved up to defeat Hopkins for the Ring Magazine title at 175. Pascal won the vacant lineal crown (a matter cleared up when Zsolt Erdei vacated his claim to the Light Heavyweight crown in 2009) in his 2010 decision victory over Dawson; Dawson lifted that crown from Hopkins last year.
In the winner’s circle for Hopkins, Tarver was, if not strictly the lineal king, regarded as the very top of the class at 175. As noted above, Pascal was the leader of the pack when he suffered a disputed draw and decisive loss to the Executioner. Following the Tarver bout, former lineal World Jr. Middleweight champion Winky Wright, by then rated as the number one contender to Taylor at Middleweight, challenged Hopkins and fell short at a catchweight of 170 lbs.
The same catchweight, and fate, awaited then-reigning Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in the fight immediately following Hopkins’ loss to Calzaghe. Throughout the span of his career since 2005, the only real competitive lull would come during the stretch between Pavlik and the first Pascal fight. Ornelas, and a rematch with a Roy Jones who didn’t age anywhere near as well as Hopkins, occurred within five months of each other following a deserved layoff.
Taylor, Calzaghe, and Cloud were all undefeated opponents. Eastman, Pascal, and Dawson all entered their fights with Hopkins with but a single defeat.
Compare this stretch of 14 fights to the previous 49 for Hopkins.
It’s not hard to argue that the most talented fighter Hopkins ever faced came early on. The 1993 version of Roy Jones, while not quite at the peak he’d hit, was already quite impressive when he defeated Hopkins for the IBF Middleweight belt in 1993. Jones was undefeated.
After defeating Segundo Mercado for the vacant IBF belt in his third crack at the strap, Hopkins would hand first losses to challengers Joe Lipsey, Glen Johnson, and Felix Trinidad. Johnson, despite a glossy record, was still green at the time and a far cry from the fighter he would become years later at Light Heavyweight. The great Trinidad was at the height of his powers and, for many, remains the finest hour of Hopkins career.
Hopkins would unify titles at Middleweight against not just Trinidad but also William Joppy, Keith Holmes, and Oscar De La Hoya. Holmes and Joppy both entered their bouts against Hopkins with two losses, De La Hoya with three.
In total, of the 18 titlists Hopkins has faced in his 63-fight career to date, ten came before the age of 40 with Jones a presence in both periods.
Each side of the scale has its merits. For pre-40, an undefeated Jones and Trinidad in the flourish of youth makes a case.
For concentration of challenges, the Hopkins slate after 40 easily wins out. At a point where most fighters would get extra choosy, Hopkins really hasn’t. He left Middleweight facing the contender everyone wanted to see (Taylor) and, in what will soon be seven years at Light Heavyweight, has faced almost everyone in the division of consequence with some world class Middleweights thrown in for good measure.
And he’s not done yet.
Just imagine what he might try in his fifties.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]