By Jake Donovan
There are endless storylines to help analyze the November 8 light heavyweight unification clash between Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev. Whether it’s experience versus youth, the mauling boxer versus the stalking puncher, you can go on for days with all of the ways in which they enter the ring from opposite ends of the spectrum.
Aside from both serving as light heavyweight titlists, there is another common bond to be found between the two – trainer John David Jackson.
Hopkins (55-6-2, 32KOs) has plenty of history with the former champ-turned-expert cornerman. The two fought more than two decades ago. Hopkins was two years into an eventual historic middleweight title reign; Jackson was a former champ on the wrong side of his prime, though never on Hopkins’ level even on his best day.
Roughly nine years later, Jackson was on board with his former ally, this time as an assistant trainer to Brother Naazim Richardson. The relationship began with Hopkins – at age 41 – upending Antonio Tarver in their June ’06 clash in Atlantic City to gain recognition as the top light heavyweight in the world.
Jackson remained as part of Hopkins’ team for another four years before moving on in 2010 to train other fighters. Among his stable of fighters these days, is none other than Kovalev, who has helped gain Jackson the credibility his career as a chief second has always deserved.
Now a veteran trainer, Jackson will be in the opposite corner from Hopkins on November 8. The scenario creates an interesting dynamic of how his experience with the legendary future Hall of Famer – both in the ring and as part of his team – will provide Kovalev any sort of edge.
For the moment, Hopkins doesn’t seem to be too worried about any secrets being given away.
“It’s not a personal challenge to me,” insists the record-breaking former middleweight king and current - and two-time - light heavyweight champ. “I have always said that John David Jackson is one of those elite trainers out there who has never really gotten that respect. On November 8, he wants to get that big boost so that he can get that respect.
“Maybe John David Jackson will show him the fight that we fought (April ’97, which Hopkins won by 7th round knockout), and realize that he didn’t have the code to beat ‘The Executioner,’ at the time, and now, it’s ‘The Alien.’ So maybe John realizes how he should have ducked or how he should have fought at that time.”
Whatever secrets Jackson may or may not have to offer, Kovalev isn’t ready to tip his hand.
“What’s been said is between me and him,” Kovalev (25-0-1, 23KOs) cryptically stated when asked if any such conversations have taken place. “It’s the keys for my victory. I understand everyone wants to see and hear what happened in my training camp with John David Jackson.
“Everything you want to see, you will see on November 8. Welcome to HBO in Atlantic City.”
The only game plan Kovalev is ready to share at present moment is to inflict as much pain as possible for however long the fight lasts.
“I don’t have a strategy for this fight,” Kovalev insists. “We will go into the ring and fight like it’s going to be a street fight. Yes, I’m going into the ring to kick his ass because he’s my opponent. If I don’t beat my opponent, then my opponent will beat me.”
As far as Hopkins is concerned, the unbeaten light heavyweight already revealed his plan, even if by not saying much of anything at all.
“That is a strategy. He gave it to you already,” Hopkins explains. “Having no strategy is a strategy. Kovalev feeds off how you react to him. If you show fear, he jumps on you. If not, he has to sharpen his knives.
“I can respect that. Your reaction feeds into his reaction. I understand what he means. He feeds off the energy of the fighters he fought in the amateurs, and who he’s fought in the pros. I’ve dug up tape on this guy. I want to know my enemy. I want to know how he sleeps. I want to know how he eats.”
Only by comparison between the two fighters, the book on Kovalev makes for a much easier case study, even if for the moment still a difficult riddle to solve.
The 31-year old from Russia – now living in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida – has just five years in the pro ranks, not entering the title picture until his 4th round knockout of Nathan Cleverly last August on the road in Cardiff, Wales.
Kovalev landed on the boxing radar a little more than two years ago. Upon signing with Kathy Duva’s Main Events, the feared knockout artist became a fixture on the NBC Sports Network Fight Night series, before graduating to HBO, where he has quickly emerged as a boxing staple of the premium cable network.
What those two-plus years in the public eye have revealed is that opponents don’t stand much of a chance once he’s able to lay hands upon them. He will enter the fight with Hopkins riding a nine-fight win streak, none lasting longer than seven rounds.
The stretch couldn’t be more opposite than what Hopkins has endured. Just one fight in the past 15 years of his incredible career has lasted fewer than seven rounds – his two-round No-Contest with Chad Dawson from their first fight in Los Angeles in Oct. ’11.
The bout ended on a foul, originally ruled a knockout loss for Hopkins, which – had the verdict stood – would’ve marked the only time he’d been stopped in 26 years as a pro. But most observers recognized it was the wrong call, something to which – upon further review – even referee Pat Russell admitted during the official hearing before the California State Athletic Commission in December.
It has otherwise been a series of grueling 12-round affairs. Hopkins has endured 15 distance fights from 2005 to present, and 20 dating back to 1999. Even the six knockouts he’s compiled – the last being a 9th round stoppage of Oscar de la Hoya in Sept. ’04, shortly before joining Golden Boy Promotions as a minor shareholder – over that stretch have all lasted seven rounds or longer.
The lesson learned over two decades worth of championship experience for Hopkins is that it takes a tremendous amount of discipline to hang with him in the ring. But is there anything to exploit, as far as Kovalev can see?
“I think this question is funny,” Kovalev laughed off when asked during a recent media conference call. “I never will say to you and everybody listening what I will do. This is my secret for the fight.”
Hopkins doesn’t mind revealing his game plan. The fighting pride of Philly has always prided himself on being an open book, to the point of daring you to not just try to figure out what he’ll do next, but how you will react once he does it.
All he has to do is last long enough to carry out his strategy. It’s been a lot easier said than done when it comes to facing Kovalev these days, a fact not at all lost on the soon-to-be 50-year old light heavyweight.
“If he can punch like everyone says he can punch, there might not be a second chance,” Hopkins fully acknowledges. “This is the thing: can Bernard Hopkins take the punch he has from other big punchers? Whatever game plan he has, I’m not going to run from the gun, I’m going to disarm him. I’m going to take away his big punch. If he has a Plan B, then buckle up because we have a fight.
“I am going to disarm him, and then let’s see your skills. Let’s see how you fight.”
This, many believe, is where Jackson will become a key factor in the fight for Kovaelv. Should Hopkins manage to drag the big puncher into deep waters, it will require his fighting instincts and sound corner advice to keep pace, if not pull ahead.
Hopkins doesn’t doubt that the other side is studying his every move, and that his past with Jackson is being discussed and analyzed. He just questions how they will manage to translate knowledge to tactic.
“John ain’t fighting. John ain’t in the ring,” Hopkins points out. “Look, you have to give the information to the athlete, and the athlete has to be able to take that information and be able to use it to the best of his abilities. So let’s see if he can do that, because John David Jackson definitely can’t fight for him.
John David Jackson had his chance. John David Jackson got knocked out. To me, how can the teacher teach the student, when the teacher flunked the test too?
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