by Cliff Rold
Just a week ago, the rumors became signatures . The deal is done. The newly crowned leader of the Light Heavyweight division, 27-year old Jean Pascal (16-1, 16 KO) will attempt to follow a career best win over Chad Dawson by accepting the challenge of one of his leading contenders.
That he is still a leading contender is incredible in it’s own right. That he will be seen as having a very real shot at winning his second Ring Magazine belt at 175 lbs. is as well. After all, at 45, fighters who are not retired are usually being begged to head towards the gates.
Not every 45-year old is Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins.
It does not look like the sort of potential war capable of forcing every fan to the edge of their seats at the opening bell, but as part of the ongoing story of a master of the fistic craft, Pascal-Hopkins is fascinating. Is this the moment, the fight, when Hopkins finally gets old?
It is not the first time the question has been uttered. Almost a decade ago, Hopkins was an already long reigning beltholder at Middleweight who the oddsmakers expected to be too old to hold off a streaking Felix Trinidad. The oddsmakers were wrong.
A little over four years ago, fresh off two narrow losses to Jermain Taylor for the undisputed Middleweight crown, Hopkins was again the oddsmakers underdog against Light Heavyweight leader Antonio Tarver. The oddsmakers were even more wrong.
This time, they appear to be hedging their bets. Hopkins has earned that respect. Many of the reasons why are apparent as the question is asked:
How good is Hopkins, measured against all-time.
In answering the question, five categories will be examined:
2) Competition Faced
3) Competition Not Faced
4) Reaction to Adversity
5) What’s Left to Prove
It begins with…
The Tale of the Tape
Hailed From: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Turned Professional: October 11, 1988 (L4 Clinton Mitchell)
Record: 51-5-1, 32 KO
Record in Title Fights: 21-4-1, 13 KO, 1 No Contest
Lineal World Titles: World Middleweight (2001-2005, 6 Defenses)
Other Major Titles: IBF Middleweight (1995-2005, 20 Defenses); WBC Middleweight (2001-05, 7 Defenses); WBA & Ring Magazine Middleweight (2001-05, 6 Defenses); WBO Middleweight (2004-05, 1 Defense); Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight (2006-08, 1 Defense)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Defeated: 5 (Simon Brown TKO6; Felix Trinidad TKO12; Oscar De La Hoya TKO9; Ronald “Winky” Wright UD12; Kelly Pavlik UD12)
Current/Former Lineal World Champions Faced in Defeat: 2
(Jermain Taylor L12, L12; Joe Calzaghe L12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Defeated: 8 (Lupe Aquino UD12; John David Jackson TKO7; Glen Johnson TKO11; Keith Holmes UD12; Carl Daniels TKO10; William Joppy UD12; Antonio Tarver UD12; Roy Jones Jr. UD12)
Current/Former Alphabet Titlists Faced in Defeat: 1 (Roy Jones Jr. L12)
It took three tries for Hopkins to win the IBF Middleweight title after rising near the top of the organizations ratings. The first shot came in a May 1993 decision defeat for the belt, vacated by James Toney, against Roy Jones Jr. Shot number two came when Jones vacated the belt, Hopkins settling for a draw in December 1994 against Segundo Mercado. Hopkins would wait only about four more months to finally snare the diadem, stopping Mercado in the seventh round of their rematch.
It wasn’t known at the time but from the Mercado rematch forward, every ring outing for more than a decade would be a part of an accomplishment that largely defines Hopkins. Hopkins would defend the IBF belt 12 times, including a “No Contest” in the first of three defenses against Robert Allen, before engaging in his first unification contest. As part of a Don King/HBO organized Middleweight tournament, Hopkins added the WBC belt with a lopsided decision over Keith Holmes in April 2001. One fight later, he stopped Felix Trinidad in the final round in September 2001 to add the WBA and Ring Magazine straps along with universal recognition as the true Middleweight king. Ultimately, he would defend the lineal crown six times.
Hopkins was not done adding to his trophy case, winning the WBO belt in September 2004 with a ninth-round stop of Oscar De La Hoya. Hopkins made one defense of his full haul of belts before suffering a hotly debated decision defeat to 2000 U.S. Olympic Bronze Medalist Jermain Taylor in July 2005. Hopkins failed to regain the title in December of the same year in another contested decision and ended his tenure at 160 lbs.
Altogether, he had made 20 consecutive defenses of the IBF belt, a record for any recognized title in the division (though Carlos Monzon still holds the record for consecutive lineal title defenses at 14). He was, since the birth of the WBO in 1988, the first fighter to have held all of the four most notable sanctioning bodies titles simultaneously.
Hopkins was far from done. Six months after the second Taylor loss, aged 41, Hopkins skipped over the Super Middleweight class to challenge Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight titlist Antonio Tarver. While not strictly the lineal title of the division (see: Dariusz Michalczewski), the Ring’s line of champions ran from a Roy Jones who unified the WBC, WBA and IBF belts and later included Tarver and Glen Johnson. It was representative to most of the best Light Heavyweights in the world when they reigned. Hopkins earned a unanimous decision over Tarver and made a single defense before losing a competitive split decision to Joe Calzaghe in April 2008.
Hopkins has not challenged for a notable title since. That will change in December. It remains to be seen if he will add yet another accomplishment to a laudable list.
Among outside the ring honors, Hopkins was named in, or as, the:
• Ring Magazine Fighter of the Year: 2001
• BWAA Fighter of the Year: 2001
• Ring Magazine Round of the Year: 2001
• Ring Magazine Upset of the Year: 2008
• #50 of the best 80 Fighters of the Last 80 Years by Ring Magazine, 2002
• #2 All-Time Title Reign by Ring Magazine, 2005
• #16 All-Time Middleweight by Ring Magazine, 2001
• #7 All-Time Middleweight by BoxingScene, 2009
Hopkins arguably answered more about the quality of his career competition after the age of 40 than he did before it, something that may never be seen again. For years, Hopkins was open for criticism. Despite impressive numbers, the case could be made Hopkins had been defeated by the best fighter he’d faced (the young Jones Jr.) without enough quality wins to compensate for it.
The young Jones may still be the best fighter he’s ever faced, but Hopkins wins post-40 added tremendously to his resume. What Hopkins did before 40 in terms of competition can be underrated, especially when one considers the ease with which he won for most of a decade.
Jones, despite the defeat, was a phenomenal talent and Hopkins comported himself well in winning a solid four rounds on all three judges cards. A win over former Jr. Middleweight titlist Lupe Aquino three fights later was a place for growth. Mercado was not, before or after Hopkins, a notable foe but he had to get through him to win a belt and one could make a case the beating Hopkins dished out the second time ruined Mercado. Of his early title defense victims, Joe Lipsey had shown promise but chose retirement after a fourth round bomb; John David Jackson was faded but capable; and Glen Johnson, while far from the peak form he’d reach at Light Heavyweight, was undefeated in 32 contests to then. Hopkins is still the only man ever to stop Johnson, the product of a sustained beating.
Among other foes prior to his unification run was former Welterweight champion Simon Brown who was admittedly a shell of his once fearsome self along with big punching Antwun Echols, all of it standard fare for a titlist in a split title era where interesting contenders can be made rare by sharing among beltholders. A sizable tick up came in 2001 with a Holmes who was in his second WBC reign and, of course, Felix Trinidad. Contested at a Madison Square Garden rich with the emotion and shadow of 9/11, Hopkins schooled a Trinidad who had been arguably the hottest fighter in the sport. The loss all but marked the end for Trinidad as a significant player in boxing’s upper echelon and allowed Hopkins to tie Monzon’s overall consecutive title defense record.
Hopkins moved to IBF defense number 15 in his first defense of the undisputed crown with a stoppage for former Jr. Middleweight titlist Carl Daniels. The less said about a ‘fight’ against Morrade Hakar the better but Hopkins followed in December 2003 with a shellacking of multiple-time WBA Middleweight titlist Williams Joppy. His September 2004 win over De La Hoya came as a sizable favorite and De La Hoya was lucky to be there after a debated win against Felix Sturm months earlier. Hopkins last successful defense came against the rugged Howard Eastman before a pair of fights where the decisions could well have gone to Hopkins against the then-undefeated Taylor.
It wasn’t a murderer’s row for most of his title reign but, as evidenced, it wasn’t a field easily handled by just anyone. Trinidad, a bona fide Hall of Famer based on his tenures at Welterweight and Jr. Middleweight, was at the peak of his powers and the win deserved all the credit it earned. Then came the second act.
Tarver had all but cleaned out Light Heavyweight and, while he won’t go down as a great fighter he proved very good. Hopkins defeated him in an almost toying fashion, including a knockdown. His only Light Heavyweight defense came in a catchweight affair with former Jr. Middleweight champion Winky Wright on a 12-0-1 hot streak which included a heated draw with Jermain Taylor for the Middleweight crown, a schooling decision win over Trinidad, and two decisions over Shane Mosley.
While defeated, Hopkins gets credit for accepting the challenge of then-reigning and undefeated Super Middleweight king Joe Calzaghe, scoring a knockdown in the first and building an early lead before flagging late. In his most memorable recent win, Hopkins went into a catchweight fight at 170 lbs. just months after Calzaghe in October 2008, taking on then-reigning and undefeated Middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik. The bout was no contest, Hopkins finding a fountain of youth and whipping Pavlik from bell to bell.
Since that win, Hopkins took off over a year before returning in late 2009 with a pair of stay busy wins, one of them a long sought piece of revenge. Longtime Middleweight journeyman Enrique Ornelas was a tune-up, followed by an April 2010 decision over a long faded Jones Jr. coming off a first round stoppage defeat. It was enough to wonder if Hopkins was circling the track farewell but then he signed for the reigning, recognized Light Heavyweight champion of the world. He’ll give up approximately eighteen years in the challenge. Assuming the fight comes off as scheduled, win or lose, it will be an extra point in his favor in terms of the level of foe Hopkins has faced.
Competition Not Faced
As always, this section is concerned with what did not occur more than why.
Between title shots at Jones and Mercado, Hopkins shared the same division as a younger John David Jackson, Reggie Johnson, and Gerald McClellan, Julian Jackson, and Steve Collins and any one of those fights would certainly have been intriguing.
The long reign of Hopkins at Middleweight allowed him to face most of who mattered during those years but there are still fighters who could be argued as misses. The most prominent of them, and the man who may have posed Hopkins the most problems, was 1990’s WBO Middleweight titlist Lonnie Bradley. Bradley was undefeated and defended that strap six times from 1995-97, possessing both height and pop only to be untracked by eye injuries.
Another WBO titlist, Harry Simon, looked like an emerging threat in the early 2000’s and had a crowd-pleasing style. A win over Winky Wright at Jr. Middleweight in 1998 spoke to his promise but a car accident and legal troubles in his native Namibia ruined his career. Interestingly, Simon-Hopkins almost came about in 2002, part of a Showtime deal that would also have seen a showdown with Calzaghe, but Hopkins turned the deal down in a bid to finish and get out of a contract with promoter Don King.
Among others who held belts during the reign of Hopkins were rugged Jorge Castro, an aging Jackson, Quincy Taylor, Japan’s Shinji Takehara, Hasine Cherifi, Julio Cesar Green, Otis Grant, Bert Schenk, Hector Velazco, and Felix Sturm. In parallel to Heavyweight Larry Holmes, most of the beltholders around Hopkins were there for short spurts and few defenses before moving along in musical chair fashion. They still merit notice.
Since he never officially fought at Super Middleweight, there isn’t a fighter or fights that can fairly be addressed but it would have been interesting to see Hopkins with a Frankie Liles or even Sven Ottke. At Light Heavyweight, Hopkins went straight at the man at the time. He did not, however, show much interest later on in challenges from a rising Chad Dawson.
Reaction to Adversity
For Hopkins, adversity came in many forms. The earliest narratives were about adversity outside the ring. His youthful prison stint became a starting point for more rather than less, a rebuttal to recidivist statistics that did not favor him. He lost his first professional fight and, with the aid of trainer Bouie Fisher, employed the discipline to take eighteen months off and start over.
Hopkins has been a prominent boxing star for so long now that the time when he wasn’t seems distant. It lasted a good long while though. There was a time when Hopkins, despite a growing record of title defenses, struggled to be more than just another guy with a belt and, stingingly, just another guy Roy Jones beat. His issues with promoters and managers, wounds both real and self imposed, could have derailed another but Hopkins always kept his ring work focused despite the potential for distractions. In a measurement of his fistic exploits, that matters.
There was also adversity in the ring. In his second IBF title shot, he traveled to Mercado’s turf in the high altitude of Ecuador. Dropped twice in the fight, it was Hopkins dishing out the leather late and earning the draw in a corner turning performance.
Hopkins would overcome some nasty moments in both bouts with Echols. In the first, a foul right hand when the referee was breaking the fighters dropped and rocked Hopkins. He cleared his head and boxed masterfully against the dangerous puncher. In the rematch, an Echols body slam left Hopkins with at least a nasty shoulder stinger and he fought one handed for a while and laid a whooping while doing so.
These were positives. There are also some negatives. Hopkins has shown, at times, what some might construe as a flair for the theatrical. Hopkins is the master of accentuating a foul. Back in the 1990’s, NBA center Vlade Divac was renowned for his mastery of the flop. Hopkins can be an equivalent in the squared circle. In the Calzaghe fight, replays showed body shots or belt line slaps but Hopkins was able to buy time with reactions that screamed vicious cup shot. In the Jones rematch earlier this year, Hopkins would hold and hit but, when fouled back, react in a way that made one wonder if he could continue. Perhaps he was hurt as he appeared. The possibility exists that Hopkins knew how to work the moments to ultimate advantage, roaring into offense after recovery.
Fouling used to be much more an issue in Hopkins fights generally. For instance, he lost points against Keith Holmes for his willingness to do whatever he felt he needed to do, rules be damned. Hopkins has also never been shy about holding and mauling on the inside. It is part of the old school mystique he carries, his knowledge of what is allowed and not allowed and how to do both towards desired ends. Bending of the rules was not always about overcoming adversity in that sense, but it could mentally defeat men and prevent adversity from cropping up.
What’s Left to Prove
Hopkins has nothing to prove but, at 45, can continue to add to his legend. A win over Pascal would be an astounding feat even if not an entirely shocking one. Pascal is a good fighter; Hopkins a great one. If he has greatness left in him, this is a winnable contest.
Hopkins place in Middleweight history will be debated for a long time and the body of work that will serve as evidence for and against him is settled. What is not settled is how he will rate amongst the handful of fighters who achieved great things at or around his current age. Archie Moore was in the midst of a decade as Light Heavyweight champion at 45. George Foreman regained the Heavyweight title at 45. The win over Pavlik at age 43 already drew Hopkins comparisons with those two. A win over Pascal would further them.
Measured Against History
George Foreman and Archie Moore in any positive context is heady company. So too are the likes of Carlos Monzon and Marvelous Marvin Hagler in terms of dominant Middleweight champions. Hopkins may or may not rate over any of those men on the ground where they are compared but he is part of their conversation.
The chatter will continue long after Hopkins makes his Hall of Fame induction speech at Canastota.
At Middleweight, it can be said he reigned longer and older than Hagler, who made 12 defenses and retired at 32, or Monzon, at 14 and retired at 35. What cannot be said is that his reign was as challenging nor was he proven as the outright, rightful champion (despite some sanctioning body shenanigans experienced by both) all along as those men were. It is right to say a fighter can only fight what is in front of them on the road to greatness but greatness comes in degrees. Those degrees are usually determined by who was across the ring.
The argument is made that the most distinctive wins for Hopkins at Middleweight (Johnson, Holmes, Trinidad, Joppy, De La Hoya) fall short in comparison with Hagler before and during his reign (Bobby Watts, Willie Munroe, Bennie Briscoe, Vito Antufermo, Alan Minter, Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns) and Monzon as champion (Nino Benvenuti, Emile Griffith, Jose Napoles, Bennie Briscoe, Rodrigo Valdez).
This doesn’t include other great Middleweights who might have had less consistency, defenses, or longevity as champions but faced remarkable depths of competition like Harry Greb (who reigned less than three years) and Sugar Ray Robinson (who made a habit of short reigns around winning and losing the title five times). Middleweight is one of the premiere weight classes of all time and its greatest champions don’t always include its greatest fighters.
Could Hopkins have done more? The answer is yes and no. The Middleweight division he came of age in was superior to the field he dominated but Hopkins was not yet the fighter he would become. Hopkins was a classic case of a fighter who got better as champion and timing kept him from early showdowns with the McClellan’s and Jackson’s; those fights simply weren’t realistic in 1993/94. Of other beltholders, can any credit be lost for not fighting a Jorge Castro? It would be a hard sell.
It is to the credit of Hopkins that, before he lost the Middleweight crown, he had snared every belt that mattered and dominated the two most enduring co-titlists of his era in Joppy and Holmes. No, those two were not great Middleweights, but they were capable professionals. As a body of work, Hopkins clearly has the accomplishments to merit inclusion with the top ten of Middleweight history on the champion’s standard and, at his best, belonged in the ring with anyone who ever did it there. That some genuinely great Middleweights will likely always rate ahead of him is no shame.
His competition, across the totality of his career, was plenty good enough. Jones, Calzaghe, Trinidad, De La Hoya, and Wright are all future Hall of Famers. Some he was bigger than, some not, but such is the case for most notable battlers. Tarver may get his votes someday as well and against him Hopkins did something neither Monzon nor Hagler did in rising to topple the best at Light Heavyweight (though, to be fair, Tarver was no Bob Foster or Michael Spinks).
Then there are the comparisons to the aged marvels. What Hopkins has done past 40, and may continue to do, is remarkable. Could it be overstated at times in the emotion of the moments created? Activity level would be an argument against him. Hopkins has posted some good wins but, including the Tarver win in 2006, has gone to scratch only six times with number seven looming past 40.
Moore fought more than 20 times between the ages 40-45, including an epic win over Yvonne Durrelle...if one accepts Moore’s birthdate as coming in December 1916. That birthdate makes Moore 40 in 1956. If one accepts December 1913, Moore is 40 in 1953 and his accomplishments would include big wins over Joey Maxim, Harold Johnson, Nino Valdes, and Bobo Olson along with valiant Heavyweight title losses to Rocky Marciano and Floyd Patterson. Hopkins might have the edge at 1916; not so much at 1913.
Foreman fought almost 20 times from 1989-94, defeating some Heavyweight division regulars like Bert Cooper and Alex Stewart, losing decisions to Evander Holyfield and Tommy Morrison, and memorably knocking out Michael Moorer in the tenth round in 1994 to regain the crown he lost to Muhammad Ali in 1974. Add a win against Pascal and Hopkins, who already has Tarver, Wright, and Pavlik to his credit, strengthens a heck of a debate versus Foreman.
Pascal makes the point for less fights not being less at all. While Hopkins may only be getting to a seventh fight past 40, only two of those (Ornelas and Jones II) were against lesser opposition. Hopkins may be picky, but he picks from strong stock.
All this and the ongoing, ever to continue, big picture debate about Hopkins versus his top contemporary rival Jones is barely touched upon. Who was the better man? There is no clear answer. They fought twice but never when both could be viewed as at the peak of their powers. Jones was a little more advanced the first time, Hopkins had a lot more left the second.
They each achieved at incredible levels in between. They will always be closely tied and in some degree to their detriment. They had a chance, after Hopkins defeated Trinidad and before Jones rose briefly to Heavyweight, to make theirs a rivalry as interesting in the ring as it is in the barbershop. They chose not to; they didn’t show the burning desire to prove definitively who the better man was. They should have.
Hopkins may suffer in comparisons to other immortals based on aesthetics but only in the short term. He had some thrilling moments and performances, but Hopkins has also made for more than a few ugly fights. He did, and does, whatever it takes to win but not always to entertain. That will matter less when he is gone and left viewed as a whole. Aesthetics will be a complaint more relevant while it still costs money to observe Hopkins ply his trade. Given what he did just through the age of 43, that body of work will see him rank right with Jones and ahead of others who held wins over him like the flawed Taylor or a Calzaghe who, while great in his own regard, had slightly less depth in terms of challenges and whose best career work was compacted late in his run.
Consider this: when Hopkins won his first title, Pernell Whitaker was still regarded as the best fighter in the world. Hopkins has been at or near the top of the game while others like “Sweet Pea,” Jones, De La Hoya, Mayweather, and Pacquiao have come and gone and come. With the time elapsed since Pavlik, Hopkins has faded from the contemporary debates about the very best active fighters in the world. A win over Pascal and he could change that one more time.
Even without that win, even if time finally catches up to Hopkins in December, the verdict on Hopkins is settled.
Verdict on Bernard Hopkins: All-Time Great
Author’s Note: This is an occasional series which will examine the most accomplished of modern fighters in seeking to establish how their careers stack up with history’s finest.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]