by David P. Greisman
Time can be defied but never defeated. It is unceasing and impersonal, as consistent as it is constant.
Age, though a function of time, is a peculiar phenomenon. Its existence, too, cannot be interrupted, but its effects can be delayed.
Every athlete comes to terms with time, even as old age in sports comes sooner and more suddenly than in life. Nearly every boxer ultimately will be counted out of contention when the numbers add up against him, when the referee reaches 10 or the judges’ scorecards find the other fighter in favor.
Bernard Hopkins has defied time longer and better than all, a 46-year-old who in May became the oldest man to win a legitimate championship, defeating Jean Pascal, an opponent 18 years his junior.
Hopkins has been counted out again and again, though the numbers that added up against him were never significantly higher than the numbers for him. He has lost three times in 18 years, twice by split decision, once by unanimous decision. Each loss was close. Each loss was controversial.
One fight can alter the course of a career. Other sports have long seasons; losses are easier to bounce back from, wins easier to build upon. Boxing matches are made based on business; boxers who wish to remain in business most often must rely on results. You are only as good as your last fight.
And so after each loss Hopkins has pulled himself away from that precipice. He has endured as a fighter of consequence, remaining in contention and reemerging as champion. He has delayed the effects of time, a necessity to maintain his position, made possible only by his disposition and discipline.
He has resurrected his career by reinventing himself. Yet as he reminds us with the music that plays him out to the ring, Bernard Hopkins has done it his way. Each reinvention is not so much an alteration as it is an adjustment, recognition of what will work and what has not.
He has long known how to control what happens between the ropes. That has never left him. In defiance of his age, he has never been beaten up, never been knocked out. He has never been out-classed, only out-worked.
Jermain Taylor only landed 86 punches on Hopkins in their first fight, with just 50 being power shots. Hopkins landed 96 total and 78 power punches, but more than half of those did not come until the final three rounds.
Taylor only landed 124 punches on Hopkins in their rematch, with just 60 being power shots. Hopkins landed 130 total and 101 power punches, but again a significant majority of those came in the latter half of the fight.
Hopkins made Joe Calzaghe miss with 475 of his 707 punches. Hopkins only threw 468 total, though, and landed 100 fewer.
As Bernard Hopkins aged, he no longer would fight for a full three minutes of a round if he didn’t have to, and he didn’t have to if he wasn’t in danger of being hit. He was too effective on defense and too efficient on offense, however. He held off on expending energy to better close out the fight, but that came at his expense – the fights were too close.
Each time, we counted him out. Each time, we should’ve known better.
This was a man who had emerged from nearly five years in prison and never fell into recidivism, but rather began his first resurrection. He became a pro boxer, lost his first fight, then didn’t return to the ring for another 16 months. Once he did return, he didn’t lose for another five years. That defeat, in 1993 against Roy Jones Jr., was his first attempt at a world title. His second, in 1994 against Segundo Mercado, ended in a draw. His third, a rematch with Mercado four months later, never made it to the scorecards; Hopkins won by technical knockout.
Hopkins wouldn’t lose the title until 10 years – 21 fights – later. He had been middleweight champion for four years by then, and he would become champion again. After the Taylor losses, Hopkins moved up to light heavyweight and dethroned Antonio Tarver.
We thought he was done after the Calzaghe loss, too. Few favored him in his following fight, in 2008 against Kelly Pavlik. After another brilliant performance, Hopkins famously glared out at his doubters among the ringside press. He had won, and easily.
He had proven others wrong and himself right. But when his next two wins were easy but ugly – decisions over Enrique Ornelas and Roy Jones Jr. (the latter in a long-discussed rematch) – the thought was that he was finally showing signs of slipping.
The light heavyweight division was finally getting younger. The procession of aging champions – Jones, Tarver, Glen Johnson, Tarver again, then Hopkins and Calzaghe – had given way to a youth movement, to those who had waited for the big fights with the big names but had been told they were too young, had accomplished too little.
After Calzaghe retired, Chad Dawson earned recognition as No. 1 at 175. Then Jean Pascal defeated Dawson.
And then Pascal defended against Hopkins.
Against Taylor and Calzaghe – against younger and faster – Hopkins’ intent was to make his opponents miss. Against the powerful Pascal – and after getting knocked down twice in the opening rounds – Hopkins intimidated his foe. He not only made Pascal miss, but would then make Pascal pay. Pascal learned to respect Hopkins, which only offered Hopkins more opportunities for offense. Now it was Hopkins throwing 150 more punches than Pascal. Now it was Hopkins landing 67 more punches, including 62 more power shots.
It was still a close fight. The judges ruled it a draw.
He righted what he saw as a wrong in the rematch, defeating Pascal by unanimous decision.
Bernard Hopkins, resurrection man, was champion for the third time, this time at 46 years old.
Time is a linear entity, though it has a way of coming full circle. Chad Dawson is again the challenger out to prove he still belongs. Hopkins is again the old guard Dawson is seeking to displace.
Dawson has vowed volume, to be active and aggressive. Hopkins has heard it all, seen it all and done it all.
He says he’ll do it again, defying time, delaying the inevitable – despite his age. Age is a peculiar phenomenon. So, too, is Bernard Hopkins.
The 10 Count will return next week.
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. His weekly column, “Fighting Words,” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com.
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