by David P. Greisman
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ -- All good things truly do come to an end.
For year after year after year, long after he left prison as an ex-con and vowed never to return, Bernard Hopkins defied expectations, defied his advancing age and the rigors on the body and mind typically associated with the passage of time.
He defied his doubters who thought that he was done after losing his middleweight championship to Jermain Taylor in 2005, thought that he was too small to move up from 160 all the way to 175. He upset Antonio Tarver in 2006 to become the new champion in this second division
He defied his doubters who thought he was done after losing this championship to Joe Calzaghe in 2008, dominating a younger power-puncher in Kelly Pavlik and then staring with disdain at row after row of ringside media members who had predicted his demise.
By 2011 he was champion again, at the unheard age of 46 years old, winning an easy decision over Jean Pascal.
And he defied his doubters even after he lost his championship one last time to Chad Dawson in 2012. By 2013, at 48 years old, he had begun one more campaign at ruling a division where many of the opponents were naturally heavier and all of his opponents would, naturally, be younger. He won a world title against Tavoris Cloud, defended it against Karo Murat, captured a second title from Beibut Shumenov and then set himself up, at 49 years old and just months from his 50th birthday, for a big fight — either against champion Adonis Stevenson or undefeated titleholder Sergey Kovalev.
Bernard Hopkins’ run came to an end against Kovalev.
He was not too smart, too experienced and too tricky for Kovalev. Rather, Kovalev was the proper mix of powerful and patient, scoring a knockdown in the first round, winning every single one of the 12 rounds and becoming the first person since Roy Jones in 1993 to dominate the legend and leaving Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City with three world titles to his name.
Kovalev’s vaunted heavy hands were evident early on, but so too was his preparation for Hopkins. Against a mobile target who likes to change up positioning and distance, Kovalev sent single jabs and crosses to the body, which would be easier to hit. And when Hopkins came out of a corner in the first round, ducking down and attempting to throw a left hook, Kovalev took a step back and countered with a right hand over the shot.
That blow put Hopkins on the canvas, just as he had been in the first round of his first fight with Pascal. It was only the third bout out of 66 appearances in the ring in which Hopkins would be floored. It was a flash knockdown — Hopkins would get up quickly and on sturdy legs — but an early message had been sent.
Kovalev picked his spots as trainer John David Jackson had said he would, yet he also was not slowing down in the way that Hopkins often gets his opponents to do as they search frustratingly for opportunities and openings. Kovalev made contact even when those openings weren’t there, hitting the body, hitting arms, and hitting the head when available. And when Hopkins made Kovalev miss, Kovalev kept at it, determined instead of frustrated.
Kovalev soon was on the canvas himself in the third round, the result of a push. Hopkins landed a good left hook in the round, and not too long after Kovalev was made to miss a right hand by about a foot. Still, Hopkins’ moments were rare.
That would remain the theme throughout the night.
Hopkins was facing a fighter who, despite his reputation as someone who had knocked out nearly everyone he’d faced and had only once fought into the eighth round of a bout, was technically proficient and tactical in the ring. Kovalev’s punches were compact; he didn’t overextend himself. He moved away well when Hopkins wanted to go on the attack. He countered Hopkins on occasion. And he took Hopkins’ clean punches well.
This was not the Hopkins who had beaten Cloud, Murat and Shumenov. When he moved, he wasn’t setting traps that Kovalev would fall into. Then again, Kovalev wasn’t Cloud, Murat nor Shumenov.
Usually, Hopkins will fight at a slower pace early and then take over down the stretch. Kovalev was winning all of the early rounds, and nothing Hopkins was doing seemed like it would change that in the second half of the fight, not unless Kovalev got tired later.
In the eighth, Kovalev landed a right hand that made Hopkins look as if he was almost about to go down. He didn’t. Kovalev landed another decent right hand later. Hopkins seemed as if he was about to resort to dirty tactics with a head butt or two, though he also had a good right hand upstairs toward the end of the round.
Kovalev landed a few right hands in the early portion of the 10th, and Hopkins soon responded with a left hook of his own, then a right hand later that Kovalev visually registered.
Kovalev continued to outwork, outland and outbox Hopkins.
Going into the last round, Hopkins needed a knockout to win. That miracle hadn’t come before. It wouldn’t come then either.
It seemed for a moment as if it might, though. Early in the 12th, Hopkins appeared to have Kovalev hurt. Kovalev was fine, however, and he soon landed a big right hand that had an effect on Hopkins. Hopkins confirmed this by sticking his tongue out, and Kovalev responded with a barrage of shots. Hopkins battled back bravely and ate up more hard punches in return, somehow still remaining stable on his feet until the final bell.
All that was left was the reading of scorecards that presumably would confirm what had just been seen.
Judges Carlos Ortiz and Clark Sammartino had it 120-107 for Kovalev, taking an additional point from Hopkins for the first-round knockdown. Lawrence Layton had it 120-106, docking one point for the knockdown and a second point from Hopkins for the beating he took in the final round. Kovalev improved to 26-0-1 with 23 knockouts. Hopkins fell to 55-7-2 with 32 KOs and no contests.
“He’s a tough opponent, very good at keeping the distance. He’s a great in the boxing world,” Kovalev was quoted as saying afterwards. “I wanted to show my fans that I could box, and I did it. He touched me with some good punches. He has good form. I tried to knock him out in the 12th round. He has good defense.”
Kovalev out-landed Hopkins by more than 100 punches, going 166 of 585 (28 percent) while Hopkins was just 65 out of 195 (33 percent). In terms of power punches, Kovalev tripled Hopkins, going 121 out of 341 (35 percent) while Hopkins was 40 of 111 (36 percent). He even landed more jabs than Hopkins.
“He had a really good game plan,” Hopkins said afterward. “When he got hit with some of my shots, he would sit back and wait, but he used his reach and his distance and that was his key. He has very good mechanics and patience, and because after I hit him he sat back, that would cause me to have to reset. It was hard that he stayed patient. He had a really good game plan. … He also countered his right hand over my jab. I give him a lot of respect.”
Hopkins wasn’t certain afterward whether his career would continue, whether he would attempt one more comeback, or even come out for but one more bout to show what this old man could still do.
“It’s 50-50 right now,” Hopkins said, probably not intending to relate the odds to his coming birthday. “I don’t really want to say anything. Everyone will have a long time to talk about my career. It’s 50-50 right now. It’s been 50-50 for the last nine years I’ve done what I have to do.”
His career began in 1988 with a loss. He held a middleweight world title for a decade, making 20 defenses with 19 wins and a no contest. He was the undisputed champion at 160, twice was the king at 175, broke all sorts of records and made young men look foolish against this old man’s wisdom and skills.
All good things truly do come to an end.
“I’m fine,” Hopkins said afterward, as if consoling those who may have sought to console him. “Really, I’m fine.”
Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide . Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]