By Jake Donovan
For 49-year old Bernard Hopkins, every fight could be the last. It makes his showdown with unbeaten Sergey Kovalev that much more significant, given that it takes place in Atlantic City, where his career began – with a loss - more than 26 years ago.
For Sergey Kovalev, the sky’s the limit. Unbeaten through 26 pro fights, the 31-year old knockout artist has quickly emerged as a fan favorite and one of the rising stars of the sport.
So picking a winner is a no-brainer, right?
If you believe that, you haven’t paid close enough attention to Hopkins’ incredible career.
Kovalev (25-0-1, 23KOs) has earned all of the accolades thrown his way, even if his competition level hadn’t fully caught up to his capabilities. It’s hardly any fault of his own; promoter Kathy Duva and her Main Events outfit have desperately tried to secure big fights for the reigning light heavyweight titlist, but have been left with a lengthy list of unreturned messages for their troubles.
The rise to fame for the crushing Russian began with a grassroots campaign, wowing audiences in Main Events’ NBC Sports Network Fight Night series. Kovalev graduated to HBO, becoming an overnight star after tearing through then-unbeaten Nathan Cleverly last August in Wales. The four-round destruction ignited a title reign that has seen three title defenses all end in knockout as he heads into the biggest fight of his career.
It wasn’t the superfight that Kovalev expected, however.
The bout that most were looking forward to heading into 2014 was a collision with World lineal light heavyweight king Adonis Stevenson. HBO did its part to drum up interest, pairing the two together in a doubleheader last November, where both fighters scored knockouts.
One more tune-up was promised to each fighter before moving towards their battle for divisional supremacy. Stevenson upset the apple cart, though, in signing with adviser Al Haymon and taking his business to Showtime.
The move left Kovalev without a major fight – and ironically provided the next great opportunity for Hopkins.
Nearly 21 years after his first title challenge – and 19 years after his first title win – Hopkins was still adding belts to his arsenal. The middle-aged wonder broke his own record last March, dethroning unbeaten Tavoris Cloud to become the oldest fighter in boxing history to win a major belt. Hopkins had set the mark two years prior with his lineal championship win over Jean Pascal in their May ’11 rematch.
Never one to cease finding ways to outdo himself, Hopkins extended that record by 13 months in unseating fellow titlist Beibut Shumenov in their unification bout this past April. The win set up what was believed to be a September clash with Stevenson, who outpointed Andrzej Fonfara in May to do his part to build towards a fight that was to serve as the centerpiece of Showtime’s fall boxing season.
Hopkins once again outdid himself, this time at the negotiating table. As the two sides inched towards a deal, Hopkins called an audible. His announced his intention to return to HBO in favor of a three-belt unification bout with Kovalev suddenly not only gave the feared Russian the fight that he coveted, but presented boxing with what has become the most anticipated fight of the year.
The oddsmakers have suggested Kovalev as a healthy favorite, but industry insiders know better, regarding their light heavyweight unification bout as a pick-‘em affair. After burning younger and heavily favored fighters like Felix Trinidad and Kelly Pavlik, in addition to logic-defying wins over Tarver, Pascal and Cloud, media members and fans alike are genuinely split in predicting the outcome of a bout in which many insist the winner – and not Stevenson – will be viewed as the best light heavyweight in the world.
Read on to see how the staff at Boxingscene.com believes Saturday’s light heavyweight action goes down in Atlantic City.
BOXINGSCENE.COM STAFF PREDICTIONS: BERNARD HOPKINS vs. SERGEY KOVALEV
Mitch Abramson (Hopkins UD): “I like Hopkins to win an ugly decision. What does Kovalev do when he realizes that he can’t knock out Hopkins? What’s his Plan B? I’m not sure if he has one, which is why I think Hopkins will win a unanimous decision. It will be boring and likely foul-filled but it will also be pretty impressive for a 49-year-old.”
Ryan Burton (Kovalev DQ): “I have a feeling Hopkins will feel Kovalev's power early on and if he can't make the adjustment he will look for a way out and I believe that is what is going to happen within 4-5 rounds.”
Jake Donovan (Kovalev Dec.): “Temptation all along has been to pick Hopkins by decision but I believe Kovalev recognizes what he’s up against. John David Jackson should have him well-prepared for any scenario. Wouldn’t bet any money on the outcome, though.”
Ernest Gabion (Hopkins UD): “While it is true for anyone facing Hopkins, I don’t think Kovalev has seen anything close to the boxing acumen Hopkins brings. Kovalev is going to do everything in his power to make this fight his but Hopkins ability to grind everything down to his pace is what has given his career the legs it has.”
Keith Idec (Hopkins UD): “Hopkins is approximately a 2-to-1 underdog because he is 49 and the 31-year-old Kovalev has knocked out 23 of his 26 professional opponents. But Hopkins took this difficult fight because he sees flaws in the heavily hyped Kovalev he knows he can exploit. Hopkins has never been stopped either and the smart veteran’s vast experience advantage over Kovalev in 12-round fights will serve him well enough to earn a decision and another remarkable victory.”
Steve Kim (Kovalev Dec): “I like Kovalev by decision. I think he's better from a technical standpoint and work enough outside to win a decision.”
Ryan Maquiñana (Hopkins Dec): “I think Hopkins will smother Kovalev's attack and dictate the pace in an ugly but tactically brilliant fight for the Philadelphian. Another stat that sticks out here is that Kovalev's power is potent, but he hasn't been past the eighth round before—something Hopkins does in his sleep, even at this stage of his career.”
Cliff Rold (Kovalev KO): “Eventually the sand runs out of the hourglass. Kovalev isn’t just a good puncher. He’s a smart boxer. With youth, that will be too much for the old man. This isn’t like Tavoris Cloud or Jean Pascal, where age was the deciding factor in wrong picks. This is more like Chad Dawson or Joe Calzaghe. Right style, right talent, right time to knock off ‘The Executioner’ (or now, ‘The Alien’).”
Reynaldo Sanchez (Kovalev TKO7): “I have a lot of respect for Hopkins and what he’s done at this stage of his career. Nevertheless, I believe that this fight will mark the end of his career.”
Alexey Sukachev (Kovalev TKO7): “There's always an end of the road as there are no limitless paths. The amazing road of Bernard Hopkins, for all its legendary longevity, is no exception. The difference in power and physical prowess will show early on. The Krusher will unleash his fury on the veteran, knock him down and beat him to the point when B-Hop chooses to surrender either via TKO or via self-inflicted DQ.”
Jake Donovan is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene.com, as well as a member of Transnational Boxing Ratings Board and the Boxing Writers Association of America. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox