by Cliff Rold
A significantly younger fighter of the highest quality, in his prime, should never lose to a 49-year old man.
Not even when that 49-year old is Bernard Hopkins.
Sergey Kovalev is clearly a good, dangerous professional. He has the appearance of a high quality Light Heavyweight. The tests of that quality are limited to date. Nathan Cleverly and Gabriel Campillo are the highlights so far.
Hopkins has proven a litmus test for younger men for years, more remarkably as he’s aged and fought a broad range of the best at Light Heavyweight in the last four years. Chad Dawson had a long run around the top of the division and passed the test. Jean Pascal, Beibut Shumenov, and Tavoris Cloud could not.
Kovalev looks like a bigger threat than those latter three, but enters less proven than Pascal was before Hopkins. The difference for Kovalev is legitimate knockout power and the eye test. For those sure Kovalev can win this weekend, they trust their eyes over the resume.
For those picking Hopkins, they’ve seen that folly before.
It’s one of the most fascinating fights of 2014.
Let’s go to the report card.
Current Title: IBF Light Heavyweight (2013-Present, 2 Defenses); WBA “Super” Light Heavyweight (2014-Present, 1st Attempted Defense)
Previous Titles: Lineal/Ring World Middleweight (2001-05, 6 Defenses); IBF Middleweight (1995-2005, 20 Defenses); WBC Middleweight (2001-05, 7 Defenses); Ring/WBA Middleweight (2001-05, 6 Defenses); WBO Middleweight (2004-05, 1 Defense); Ring Light Heavyweight (2006-08, 1 Defense) ; Lineal/Ring/WBC World Light Heavyweight (2011-12, 1 Defense)
Weight: 173.5 lbs.
Hails from: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Record: 55-6-2, 32 KO, 2 No Contests
Rankings: #1 (BoxingScene, TBRB, Ring); #3 (ESPN); #4 (BoxRec)
Record in Major Title Fights: 26-5-2, 13 KO, 2 No Contests (including Ring Mag. Title fights)
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 19 (Roy Jones L12, UD12; Lupe Aquino UD12; John David Jackson TKO7; Glen Johnson TKO11; Simon Brown TKO6; Keith Holmes UD12; Felix Trinidad TKO12; Carl Daniels RTD10; William Joppy UD12; Oscar De La Hoya KO9; Jermain Taylor L12, L12; Antonio Tarver UD12; Winky Wright UD12; Joe Calzaghe L12; Kelly Pavlik UD12; Jean Pascal D12, UD12; Chad Dawson NC2, L12; Tavoris Cloud UD12; Beibut Shumenov SD12)
Current Title: WBO Light Heavyweight (2013-Present, 3 Defenses)
Previous Titles: None
Weight: 174.5 lbs.
Hails from: Fort Lauderdale, Florida (Born in Russia)
Record: 25-0-1, 23 KO
Rankings: #2 (BoxingScene, TBRB, ESPN, Ring, BoxRec)
Record in Major Title Fights: 4-0, 4 KO
Current/Former World Champions/Titlists Faced: 2 (Gabriel Campillo TKO3; Nathan Cleverly TKO4)
Pre-Fight: Speed – Hopkins B; Kovalev B
Pre-Fight: Power – Hopkins B; Kovalev A
Pre-Fight: Defense – Hopkins A+; Kovalev B
Pre-Fight: Intangibles – Hopkins A+; Kovalev A
Hopkins is one of the great fighting minds in the history of boxing. He’s also one of its most model professionals. His devotion to his craft, and ability to stay in shape for 26-years as a professional, is something every young fighter should admire and learn from. The debate about the greatest post-40 fighter of all time is between he, Archie Moore, and George Foreman. With a win Saturday, Hopkins will be one belt away from a four-belt unification in his second weight class.
He was the first man to do it in any weight class.
Before he has a chance to try, a win Saturday will end the debate for many once and for all.
Part of the application of his fistic mind has been about using it before fights. Hopkins is a master psychologist. From throwing down the Puerto Rican flag against Felix Trinidad to the games he played with Beibut Shumenov, Hopkins has a knack for getting under the skin of foes.
When he can’t, it can make for tougher nights. Joe Calzaghe and Dawson didn’t bite on it the way others might have and found ways to win. Jean Pascal didn’t either the first time and got off to a great start in their first fight only to end up befuddled in the ring.
Kovalev doesn’t seem to care about Hopkins’ attempts at mind games at all. He fights with his own arrogance in the ring, taunting and hip thrusting at foes. Kovalev expects to win and carries himself like every bit the bad-ass destroyer he has been in the ring. For Hopkins to win, the pre-fight build won’t be a mental edge. He’s going to have to show the younger man in the ring.
Hopkins has proven effective at freezing opponents, forcing their punch output down and making them question when to let their hands go. Kovalev is an underrated boxer but he can’t be thinking he’ll just win on points off the jab with a few flashy combinations. Whether he wins early or after twelve, Kovalev will have to move his hands and put them on Hopkins in a meaningful way.
If he’s not moving those hands towards the body early on, he won’t be doing himself any favors.
Kovalev, against a more limited range of opposition, has proven adept at solving the styles of the men in front of him and, when he does, he’s lethal. Cleverly was undefeated and a solid guy. He went through him. Campillo, while sometimes vulnerable to punchers, was never anyone’s walkover. Kovalev made him look shot (and we since know, while faded, he isn’t that yet).
And yet no one is better at solving styles than Hopkins. Floyd Mayweather is his only peer in that regard over the last 10-15 years. Even when he doesn’t win, Hopkins negates the best weapons of foes. After a loss to Roy Jones in 1993 (21+ years ago), only one Hopkins loss is without any real debate (the Dawson rematch). Kovalev has some of the same length as Dawson, a quality jab, and more power. He doesn’t have Dawson’s speed or boxer’s mentality so there isn’t a ton to glean there.
Hopkins can’t win a firefight with Kovalev and no one should think he’ll try. Hopkins will use subtle feints, educated steps, clinches, sly fouls, some more clinches, perhaps a flop or two on phantom fouls, and spot offense to try to bank rounds. There have been some comparisons to the Kelly Pavlik fight heading in to this one but Hopkins won’t be as offensive here as he was with the then-Middleweight champion.
It’s not the smart play and Kovalev’s power and size are a greater danger than Pavlik provided. Kovalev can win by outfighting Bernard. Bernard can win by using that aggression against him and outfoxing him.
Making picks in Hopkins fights is always tricky. There are times where one might pick against him strictly on the ‘he’s got to get old eventually’ barometer. That happened in this corner against Pavlik, Pascal, and Cloud (wrong all around). There are the guys that simply could never, and still can’t, carry his jock (think Shumenov).
Then there are guys like Dawson and Calzaghe where it looked like, more than age, there were style and quality issues that worked for the eventual winners. Kovalev, before the fight, seems to fall into this category. Size, youth, power, some boxing IQ, and hunger…the ingredients are there for Kovalev to be the guy who finally ignores the magic of the game’s elder statesmen and just goes through him.
Kovalev is a fighter who has been desperate for an opportunity. Hopkins deserves praise for taking a fight many would have avoided in his positions. That combination of desperation and valor is going to be painful for Hopkins. The old man may have moments if he can get the fight deep, and some theatrics and dirty deeds would be no surprise. It won’t be enough. Kovalev will force the action and not let Hopkins fight the spot fight he needs.
Kovalev proves the eye test right and hands Hopkins the first stoppage defeat of his career.
Report Card Picks 2014: 50-20
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]