By Keith Idec
NEW YORK — Bernard Hopkins remains convinced Sergey Kovalev won’t fight him, even after Kovalev annihilated Nathan Cleverly to win the WBO light heavyweight title.
A unification fight between the 48-year-old Hopkins (53-6-2, 32 KOs, 2 NC) and the undefeated Kovalev (22-0-1, 20 KOs) would generate plenty of interest. But Hopkins expects John David Jackson, who trains Kovalev and once trained Hopkins, to advise against the Russian knockout artist fighting Hopkins.
“John David Jackson, who worked with me, and who also was one of my [middleweight title] defenses in my division, you know what John David Jackson said?,” Hopkins said following FOX Sports 1’s broadcast Monday night from Best Buy Theater in Times Square. “John David Jackson said, ‘Don’t fight Hopkins, because Hopkins will ruin your fighter’s career.’ And that’s why Kovalev and Main Events, Kathy Duva, bypassed the mandatory with me and fought Cleverly.”
Kovalev knocked down the previously unbeaten Cleverly twice in the third round before their title fight was stopped early in the fourth round Saturday in Cardiff, Wales. Hopkins wasn’t overly impressed because he considered Wales’ Cleverly “a paper champion.”
“Cleverly was brought to me many, many times. ‘Would I go over there to fight him?,’ ” Hopkins said. “I said, ‘Listen, I’m Bernard Hopkins. I’m a living legend. Why would I go to another man’s country to fight him? That’s a desperate move.’ He hasn’t done anything.
“And as you saw Saturday, getting knocked out in the fourth round, it proves my point, that I’m smarter than those who tried to get me to think I should do that. I out-smarted them again, without trying to out-smart them.”
Philadelphia’s Hopkins is beyond certain a fight against Kovalev wouldn’t resemble any of the 30-year-old power puncher’s first 23 professional fights.
“Kovalev is a threat to anybody if he can do what he did to Cleverly the other day,” Hopkins said. “But I’m Bernard Hopkins and I’ve proven many times that if you come to a gun battle just because you can punch, then you’re a damn fool. Because I’m going to take that gun from you and you’re going to run.
“Now you become the rabbit and I become the hunter. How do you adjust to that style in the fifth and sixth and seventh rounds, when you’re used to knocking people out in less than four rounds? But now you’re in deep water, when you haven’t learned to swim.”
Only two of Kovalev’s 23 fights have gone past six rounds since he turned pro in July 2009. He has never boxed beyond eight rounds, either.
That’s among the reasons Hopkins suspects Main Events, Kovalev’s promoter, opted to face Cleverly even after the IBF briefly installed Kovalev as its mandatory challenger for Hopkins two months ago. Frank Warren, Cleverly’s promoter, did offer Main Events a Cleverly-Kovalev bout before Hopkins-Kovalev became a real possibility, though.
Hopkins-Kovalev wasn’t on the table until later, once the IBF moved Kovalev into its top spot at 175 pounds because Germany’s Karo Murat had difficulty securing a visa to enter the United States for a July 13 fight against Hopkins at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. A Hopkins-Cleverly clash also was discussed between Warren and Golden Boy Promotions around that time, but Cleverly went with Kovalev in what amounted to an enormous mistake in a less lucrative fight.
Once Kovalev quickly secured a deal to challenge Cleverly and Murat’s visa issue was resolved in the aftermath of the IBF’s ratings change, the IBF moved Murat back into the No. 1 position in its rankings. The Hopkins-Murat match eventually was rescheduled for Oct. 26 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City.
Regardless, picking Cleverly clearly amounted to masterful matchmaking by Main Events, something Hopkins even in acknowledged while offering a backhanded compliment.
“I would like to say congratulations to Main Events and Kovalev for taking the easiest and the safest way out in the light heavyweight division,” Hopkins said, “by passing up on a mandatory that they were giving by the IBF, when Karo Murat couldn’t get his visa, and they chose the least of the light heavyweight champions of the world. And that was Cleverly. That was great management by Kathy Duva and Main Events.”
Cleverly (26-1, 12 KOs) stopped Murat (25-1-1, 15 KOs) in the 10th round of their September 2010 fight in Birmingham, England, a fact that won’t exactly excite fans disinterested in the Hopkins-Murat fight. Hopkins took the Murat fight only because he would’ve been stripped of the IBF title had he refused, and he needs at least one of the four recognized light heavyweight titles for “leverage.”
“What happened for the mandatory when [Kovalev] was supposed to fight me?,” Hopkins asked. “When Karo Murat was not able to get a visa to come over to fight me at the Barclays Center on July 13, the IBF said to me, ‘You’ve got to fight Kovalev.’ I don’t know if they thought I was going to say no. I said yes.
“Next thing I know, they were fighting Cleverly and not me. So does that tell you that he wanted to fight a 48-year-old man? Or he wanted to fight the guy that was less talented, but just had a belt? It’s called a paper champion in my era. There’s a lot of paper champions in a lot of divisions that are hustling, whose managers are hustling paper champions until they get a big payday.”
The cable battle between HBO and Showtime also is a complication when it comes to making Hopkins-Kovalev.
Hopkins is a partner in Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, with which HBO Sports has publicly declared it won’t conduct business anytime soon. Showtime will televise the Hopkins-Murat bout, despite that Stephen Espinoza, president and general manager for Showtime Sports, said in June he wasn’t interested in televising a much more intriguing Hopkins-Kovalev fight.
HBO televised Kovalev-Cleverly and the network’s executives would like to air his next fight later this year.
WBC light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson (21-1, 18 KOs), a potential foe for Kovalev, also will fight on HBO again Sept. 28 in Montreal.
Stevenson is set to defend his title against Tavoris Cloud (24-1, 19 KOs), whom Hopkins defeated with relative ease to win the IBF 175-pound crown March 9 at Barclays Center. The Hopkins-Cloud fight was broadcast by HBO, but that deal was made before HBO Sports announced it would stop working with Golden Boy Promotions.
“I believe in the light heavyweight division, and the fans can back it up for me, I am the most feared fighter of the last 20 years, in any weight division,” Hopkins said. “Being close to 50 and feared, shame on the light heavyweights that are carrying the titles right now.”
Keith Idec covers boxing for The Record and Herald News, of Woodland Park, N.J., and BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.