By Cliff Rold
After various stops and starts over the last five-plus years, the best Middleweight and best Super Middleweight of their time are only days away from each other.
43-year old Bernard Hopkins of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania was the middleweight, posting 20 defenses of the IBF title from 1995 to 2005 and unifying along the way. He enters the ring this Saturday recognized popularly, and by Ring Magazine, as the Light Heavyweight champ.
36-year old Joe Calzaghe of Wales is still the Super Middleweight. He’s held the WBO belt since 1997, defended it 21 times, and also unified along the way.
It’s the first fight ever between titlists who were able to post 20 or more consecutive title defenses in a single weight class. It’s a showdown between men universally hailed as top ten pound-for-pound elites. It’s two guaranteed Hall of Fame entrants jockeying for bragging rights.
Bernard Hopkins (48-4-1, 32 KO) vs. Joe Calzaghe (44-0, 32 KO)
Let’s go to the report card
Speed: This, more than just the age gap, will be Calzaghe’s biggest advantage in the fight. Hopkins looked visibly slower than he ever has last July against Winky Wright. Were Hopkins a few years younger, the speed gap would be closer but still favor Calzaghe. It’s an advantage he’s had since birth and will be the largest deficit in speed Hopkins has faced, against a man naturally his size, since Roy Jones in 1993. Calzaghe’s speed isn’t just of hand; he’s got quick feet and defensive reflexes as well. Many worry that Hopkins will mug Calzaghe to mitigate the advantage, but to do so he has to lock Joe up tight. Calzaghe throws effective short combinations on the inside and is able to step out while continuing his barrages. None of this means Hopkins can’t be effective. His ring intellect is bar none. Calzaghe throws tons of punches; Hopkins throws the right punches when he needs to. The triple threat shot Hopkins relies on, a combination looping right-head thrust-shoulder bump, allows him to fall into controllable clinches. In those clinches, his left hand can go to work on the body, as a short head hook, or as an uppercut. So, yes, Calzaghe is faster of hand but the test might be speed of thought. Pre-Fight Grades: Calzaghe A; Hopkins B
Power: Pick up an early 90s Boxing magazine and you’ll see early notice of Hopkins as a rising puncher. He altered his game over the years, became cerebral, but don’t think he still can’t crack. While it came via accumulated punishment, he’s the only man to stop the iron-chinned Glen Johnson. He’s also the only man to stop Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya. Calzaghe has been dropped twice, both times off of right hands. Considering that the right is still Hopkins money shot, Calzaghe will have to be wary of it all night. Calzaghe too was considered a puncher in his youth, but assorted hand problems have meant more rounds and decision victories. In 1997, when he defeated Chris Eubank, he dropped the veteran with a left hook that turned over clean. He doesn’t do that anymore, instead saving his mitts and allowing them to rack up points and discourage the incoming. He hits hard enough to demand honest awareness, but rarely hard enough to end the night all at once. Both have proven chins so power won’t be the difference as much as punctuation in a fight that should go deep. Pre-Fight Grades: Hopkins B+; Calzaghe B
Defense: Another category that favors Hopkins, not only because of his tight fundamentals but because of what he is willing to do beyond them. Hopkins is the best idea most modern fans will ever have of what the legends of microfilm news stories looked like. Winning ugly isn’t ugly to Hopkins because it’s still winning. Educated elbows, grinding with the point of the head, shoulders that seem to aim for the throat…if it’s a magical trick of the trade, Hopkins can pull the sleight of hand. Along with that repertoire, Hopkins knows how to gauge ring distance, able to fight off his back foot to block and slip incoming shots before they’re airborne. Calzaghe is underrated defensively, with excellent head and upper body movement. Against Mikkel Kessler last November, he timed the younger man, taking away his right hand and finding the angles Kessler couldn’t see. Techniques aside, his best defense is still an offenses that so overwhelms foes that they can’t properly counter. Still, in terms of hit and don’t get hit, Calzaghe gets hit more than Hopkins. Pre-Fight Grades: Hopkins A; Calzaghe B+
Intangibles: Calzaghe needs this fight. Badly. Lose, and some American pundits who have always questioned his overseas bona fides will take a loss as an answer. That’s a plus for Boxing fans because, when Calzaghe feels truly pressured, when the spotlight burns brightest, he turns in mesmerizing stuff. Against Eubank, Jeff Lacy, and Kessler, Calzaghe played the part of great fighter. None of those foes were Hopkins though, and for the first time he meets a man also renowned for his ability to rise to the emotion of the moment. If these guys turn in a total turkey, it’s usually against one. There’s also the issue of turf. Will Calzaghe feel comfortable fighting on the American stage for the first time? This one should already be answered; if Calzaghe can handle the pressure of massive media and 50+ thousand fans in Wales, I think he’ll be okay in front of 10,000 or so in Vegas for a fight getting average mainstream coverage. These men are both winners and both mentally as strong as the bodies that carry them. Pre Fight Grades: Hopkins A; Calzaghe A
Overall Report Card: Hopkins A; Calzaghe A
The Pick: Were they each at least five years younger, this could be an overall A+ on both sides physically, but it took this long for Calzaghe to make the fight inevitable. He couldn’t have timed his opportunity better. Hopkins can hire Mackie Shilstone, Freddie Roach the ghosts of Charles Atlas and Ray Arcel. He’ll still be 43 when the bell rings. As he has aged, Hopkins has become a master at conserving himself for the later rounds, saving his legs until his opponent slows.
Calzaghe doesn’t slow down.
While he’s no spring poultry, Joe’s not far past his peak. The over-abundance of soft opposition he faced during his best years conserved him for a night like what Saturday could be. Hopkins will make it rough in the early going in his attempts to frustrate Joe, but it’s not likely to work. The way to beat a defense-first fighter is to overwhelm that defense. Jermain Taylor sort of did it against Hopkins, and Taylor is nowhere near the offensive fighter Calzaghe is. He wasn’t as quick, schooled, fluid or accurate. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Hopkins’ wins after Taylor, against Antonio Tarver and Wright, were a fortune of good timing as well as the timing in Hopkins blows.
Both of these men are legitimately great fighters already. Everyone hasn’t accepted that about Calzaghe and he knows it. There will be an early set of thinking man’s rounds but don’t be surprised if this gets one sided, in Joe’s favor, sooner than later. In a bout that exceeds expectations, Calzaghe will capture a unanimous decision over Hopkins in the best performance of his career.
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]