By Lyle Fitzsimmons
Tavoris Cloud has seen the movie.
He recognizes the part where the brash young stud – a role most recently played by guys named Pavlik and Pascal – loudly proclaims to be the new bully on the block, and promises he’ll be the one to finally humble the neighborhood’s tough guy emeritus, Bernard Hopkins.
And Cloud, who was all of 6 years old when Hopkins first stepped into a professional boxing ring, is just as familiar with the rest of the story; especially the part where the old man takes the kid’s best shot and slaps him around with the precision of a worldly teacher schooling a green pupil.
It’s the last scene that Cloud, the IBF’s reigning light heavyweight kingpin, is determined to rewrite when he gets his shot at Hopkins – now two months past his 48th birthday – while making a fifth title defense Saturday night at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.
For Hopkins, it’s the 31st time he’ll emerge from a dressing room with a belt on the line since 1993.
For Cloud, it’s just the 25th overall fight in a career that didn’t begin until nearly 11 years later.
Hence, a very real challenge – even as a consensus betting favorite – to avoid the missteps of youth.
“I'm going to avoid being the next Pascal or Pavlik because I'm not them,” he said. “Tavoris Cloud comes to fight. I'm not letting Hopkins in my head. I'm coming in there to have him fight my fight, so I don't end up like the other guys.”
We caught up with Cloud at the tail end of preparations to discuss his mental approach, his perception of Hopkins as an opponent and where he sees himself in comparison with his 175-pound colleagues.
Fitzbitz: We’re in the final few days before a fight. I assume the conditioning level is where it needs to be, but talk to me about where your head is at when you get to this stage. Are you thinking of the fight 24/7? Do you try to think of anything else but the fight? What works best mentally for you?
Cloud: Well, I try to relax and not think about the fight 24/7. I try to be calm and conserve my energy for the fight. What's going through my mind right now is that this is going to be one hell of a fight. I just try to hone in on focusing my mind and skills and making sure that I'm sharp with nothing cluttering my mind.
Fitzbitz: In terms of physically preparing, are you a guy who watches a lot of video of your opponent, or are you a guy who ignores film and plans to make the other guy adjust to you?
Cloud: I make the other guy adjust to me. I never watch a lot of film of my opponents. If we have to adjust to the opponent, we're not doing something right on our end. My new trainer, Abel Sanchez, stresses that, and my previous trainer felt that way, too.
Fitzbitz: Everyone has seen Hopkins fight a bunch of times. As an opponent, what’s the first thing you notice about him in terms of his strengths? Is there one particular thing that he does well, compared to the other guys at 175 and elsewhere?
Cloud: Hopkins is more sneaky. He tries to be clever but, really, sometimes it's just dirty. I don't look at him as being physically formidable. He's all skills, mind games and trickery. You can't play into that. He's not what you look for in a fighter, not what you think a fighter should be. That's why I'm trying to keep my mind smart because he's a thinking man's fighter.
Fitzbitz: He’s made a lot of his money taking on guys younger than him, and he’s usually done well. In your view, how has he been able, in his 40s, to beat guys in their 20s and 30s? How much is mental? How much is physical? And how do you avoid being the next Pascal or Pavlik?
Cloud: I'm going to avoid being the next Pascal or Pavlik because I'm not them. Tavoris Cloud comes to fight. I'm not letting Hopkins in my head. I'm coming in there to have him fight my fight, so I don't end up like the other guys.
Fitzbitz: Is this a fight that you’re only concerned about winning, or is there a mandate on your end to look good while beating him? Is a knockout win the only result that’ll make you satisfied?
Cloud: The thing is, you can't knock everyone out, and Bernard Hopkins has never been knocked out. I'm going in there to win the fight in impressive fashion. I always try to do that, but there is a heightened sense of urgency for me to perform well in this fight.
Fitzbitz: You’ve been a world champion for a little more than three years and have defended the title four times. Can you assess your performances since then? Are you pleased with how you’ve fought? Are you one of those guys who’ve gotten better since they became a champion?
Cloud: I definitely think I have gotten better since I've become light heavyweight world champion. It's different when you have a target on your back. I always feel I can do more, so I'm never satisfied. I would have liked to have won all my defenses by breaking my opponents’ jaws and ribs, but that's coming soon.
Fitzbitz: Speaking of 175 and of the champions there, who is the best light heavyweight in the world? Is it you? If so, why? If not, who is and why? What fight out there do you feel you most need in order to stamp 175 as “Tavoris Cloud Territory”? Will this be the one that does it?
Cloud: I feel I am the best light heavyweight in the world. I am totally biased. The light heavyweight super-fight for the fans would be me and Jean Pascal. I really wanted that one because fans would have loved it, but I guess he got hurt in training. It would have been good international exposure for me, and I think our styles would make for a great fight.
Fitzbitz: In your view, is it a good thing that you’ve gone 12 rounds in four of the last five fights? Has it helped you adjust to the demands of championship-level fights? Or is it disappointing? How tough is it to adjust to 12 rounds once you make the jump from shorter fights?
Cloud: It's a good think that I have gone 12 rounds in my most recent fights. The rounds create experience under my belt. You can knock people out and it can be a bad thing because you need the experience as well as power. You need to know what a hard round 12 feels like when you get into a tough fight. You need to have been there before, so in that sense it has helped me.
Fitzbitz: Who is the best fighter you’ve been in a ring with? Who’s given you the most trouble in the ring, or at least more trouble than you might have been expecting from him going in?
Cloud: I still say Glen Johnson was the hardest fighter I've ever faced. He was a tough cookie to crack. I thought I broke both my hands on that dude, and he kept coming. That round 12 showed me that this is what it is all about. I was not expecting him to still be there, but there he was. Glen is a great fighter.
Fitzbitz: What is the Tavoris Cloud career plan? You’re 31 years old. Have you taken time to think about how long you want to be doing this as a career? Will you be one of those guys who fights into his late 30s and 40s, or do you have a timeline in mind?
Cloud: Boxing is all I think about when I'm not lucky enough to be hunting or fishing. My career is everything to me. When I get into real estate – get some subdivisions built and become a mogul – then I'll think about retiring. I want to be remembered as a great one, a Hall of Fame fighter, an undisputed champion, so I still have work to do in achieving those goals before I think about retirement.
Fitzbitz: You’ve already had a career that 99.9 percent of professionals would envy. Have you satisfied yourself? Are there other things you need to accomplish in order to be happy with your career?
Cloud: I've had a good career, but I'm not satisfied. There is so much more I want to accomplish. I want to burn my style and image into the fans and fighters who love the sport of boxing. I want to be remembered now and by future generations. I don't mean that in a bragging way. I have worked very hard on my craft and want to be as good as I know I can be, and I want people to witness it.
Fitzbitz: There’s been a lot of news lately about football and long-term issues with head injuries. Clearly, you’re in a business where getting punched in the head is a reality of life – both in training and in actual fights. Do you allow yourself to think about the long-term issues? Is it frightening at all, considering what’s happened to some of the football players? Can anything be done today to make boxing safer?
Cloud: Yes, I do. You've got to think about it because it's reality. If you look at the old-time fighters, some of them are having problems. You have to think about defense and keeping your hands up. You can't fight yourself into shape for fights, you need to train properly. Live your life like an athlete, a true fighter, and it will serve you better. This is a dangerous game, so you have to remember to protect yourself at all times and to the best of your ability.
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This week’s title-fight schedule:
IBO bantamweight title – Accra, Ghana
Joseph Agbeko (No. 8 contender) vs. Luis Melendez (No. 59 contender)
Agbeko (28-4, 22 KO): Eighth title fight (4-3); Two reigns as IBF champion (two defenses)
Melendez (34-8-1, 25 KO): Second title fight; Winless outside Colombia (0-7)
Fitzbitz says: “Agbeko isn’t on the highest level anymore, but the challenge of a foe with zero wins outside his home turf shouldn’t deter him here.” Agbeko in 9
IBF light heavyweight title – Brooklyn, N.Y.
Tavoris Cloud (champion) vs. Bernard Hopkins (No. 4 contender)
Cloud (24-0, 19 KO): Fifth title defense; One KO in five title fights (18 in first 19 fights)
Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KO): Thirty-first title fight (22-4-2, 2 NC); Fourth fight in New York (3-0)
Fitzbitz says: “Every youngster says he’ll be the one to finally handle the old-timer and make him fight. Cloud actually sounds convinced he’ll do it. Score one for youth.” Cloud in 6
IBF junior lightweight title – Costa Mesa, Calif.
Juan Carlos Salgado (champion) vs. Argenis Mendez (No. 1 contender)
Salgado (26-1-1, 16 KO): Fourth title defense; Defeated Mendez to win vacant title (UD 12)
Mendez (20-2, 10 KO): Second title fight; Second fight in California (1-0)
Fitzbitz says: “Second time in the ring together doesn’t seem to be a vast departure from the first go-round, which means a fourth straight defense for the champion.” Salgado by decision
WBC bantamweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Shinsuke Yamanaka (champion) vs. Malcolm Tunacao (No. 1 contender)
Yamanaka (17-0-2, 12 KO): Third title defense; Ten KOs in last 11 fights
Tunacao (32-2-3, 20 KO): Fourth title fight; Held WBC title at 112 (2000-01, one defense)
Fitzbitz says: “Streaking incumbent has become dominant on recent stoppage streak and has improved since winning championship.” Yamanaka in 10
WBC flyweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Toshiyuki Igarashi (champion) vs. Akira Yaegashi (No. 6 contender)
Igarashi (17-1-1, 10 KO): Second title defense; Unbeaten since 2008 (10-0)
Yaegashi (16-3, 9 KO): Fourth title fight; Held WBA title at 105 (2011-12, zero defenses)
Fitzbitz says: “Once-beaten flyweight has surged in last 10 fights and should handle capable veteran who’s fallen short at top level.” Igarashi by decision
WBC super featherweight title – Tokyo, Japan
Gamaliel Diaz (contender) vs. Takashi Miura (No. 13 contender)
Diaz (37-9-2, 17 KO): First title defense; Lost first two title fights at 126, 130
Miura (24-2-2, 18 KO): Second title fight; Third fight in March (2-0)
Fitzbitz says: “Younger southpaw appears ready for modest rise in competition, and should be helped by hometown advantage.” Miura by decision
NOTE: Fights previewed are only those involving a sanctioning body's full- fledged title-holder – no interim, diamond, silver, etc. Fights for WBA "world championships" are only included if no "super champion" exists in the weight class.
Last week’s picks: 2-2
2013 picks record: 8-5 (61.5 percent)
Overall picks record: 471-157 (75.0 percent)
Lyle Fitzsimmons has covered professional boxing since 1995 and written a weekly column for Boxing Scene since 2008. He is a full voting member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter – @fitzbitz.