"One thing reporters can’t say about me and my abilities is that I’m flawless in the ring. When I get into the Hall of Fame it’s based on my achievements and my goals and my status as an athlete and as a fighter. ... When I’m judged in the boxing world as an athlete, I’m going to be judged on my ability alone and my accomplishments alone."
Bernard Hopkins is now 47 years old and reigns still as the light heavyweight champion of the world, and we're not talking about some guy holding an alphabet soup trinket -- this is the man who beat the man, or at least the man who won a legitimate vacant championship, since the man before that retired with the title. He's the real champion, the oldest man to ever win a major boxing title in the history of the sport.
Twice now Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KO) has been world light heavyweight champion. The first time came when he stunned many and totally routed Antonio Tarver back in June 2006, just six months after he lost his second straight fight to the rising Jermain Taylor, who ended Bernard's historic run at middleweight, where he dominated a division that didn't always have a lot to offer him by way of legitimate challenges.
Whenever a name fighter tested him, though, he delivered. From the day he won the IBF title from Segundo Mercado on April 29, 1995, to the day he controversially lost the undisputed crown he'd assembled to Jermain Taylor on July 16, 2005, Bernard Hopkins built a legend that seemed unlikely then and frankly still does. Hopkins is right: He's never been flawless in the ring, and often his dominant performances didn't even seem to add up. Bernard Hopkins has never been seemed truly great physically. But his will to win is unmatched over his generation, except perhaps by Floyd Mayweather Jr, who has the physical gifts Hopkins never has.
Last year when Hopkins outclassed Jean Pascal to lift the WBC belt and the real world's championship in Montreal, I wrote a post-fight piece, somewhat still in awe of how easy he'd made it look -- between-rounds push-ups and all -- and this is how I ended it:
"I'll probably forget in a few months just how great Bernard Hopkins really is once the bell sounds. I'll try to remember, but it's never stuck before. Neither Bernard nor myself are getting any younger, and it's easy to forget things. He keeps forgetting he's an old man. I keep forgetting he's really not."
I always forget just how good Bernard Hopkins really is in the ring. I think it's because it doesn't really seem like he's anywhere near as good as he is. These days, he has average speed, below average power, and is really nothing special physically in any way. He's a small light heavyweight, and did look small compared to Dawson in October.
But I'm not forgetting what happens when he laces them up and gets down to business. When he faced Dawson last time around, it was almost the forgotten fight of the season. Sandwiched in October between Mayweather vs Ortiz in September and Pacquiao vs Marquez III in November and Cotto vs Margarito II in December, the fight never had a prayer with people feeling the pinch boxing was putting on their wallets due to so much pay-per-view. Plus, the fight didn't belong on PPV in the first place, and was only there because HBO simply did not have enough money in the budget to buy the fight for World Championship Boxing, where it belonged.
Was Hopkins truly up for that fight? I have my doubts. My gut feeling has always been that Bernard, who is not stupid, knows that Chad Dawson is stylistically bad news for him. Hopkins isn't delusional, and Dawson isn't clumsy, mistake-prone Jean Pascal, or a one-dimensional and ultimately wildly overhyped Kelly Pavlik of 2008. Chad Dawson is a terrific boxer, a southpaw who knows how to get behind the jab and work away. Like Hopkins (but totally different), Dawson knows how to win fights mentally. While Hopkins preys on fighters who foolishly underestimate him, Dawson simply has the natural gifts to wear guys out and make them stop trying so hard.
This rematch, though, is a big deal for Bernard. He couldn't turn it down, because it would have made him look scared, and while I'm convinced Hopkins knows the problems he has on paper with the Connecticut challenger, I would never dare say that Hopkins is scared of anyone or any fight.
One thing I think is important to note is that Hopkins' history doesn't matter when looking at this fight. His time as a middleweight is completely irrelevant. Frankly, anything further back than his first fight with Jean Pascal in December 2010 is irrelevant, I believe, because that's the sort of borrowed time "The Executioner" is living on in his current role as boxing's elder statesman.
He's 47 years old and nobody should be picking him to win fights against world class opponents. The current Hopkins is in stage six or so of his career, with the last stage peaking with the Pavlik destruction in 2008. But today's Bernard isn't the guy who beat Pavlik down. He's lost more steps in the ring. Even in drawing with and defeating Pascal, genuine examination of his performances reveals true greatness, yes, but also the obvious wearing down of a man who's closing in on 50 and still operating as a professional boxer, and not some novelty version of one, either.
How on earth can Hopkins combat Dawson's advantages? What will Hopkins try to do on Saturday night?
Dawson (31-1, 17 KO) has flaws, and I don't think anyone would dispute that. They're also the type of flaws that, on the right night (and at this point, maybe the perfect night is necessary), a fighter like Hopkins can exploit.
Dawson really is a standout pro boxer, a guy who could be great in a slightly different life. At one point, Floyd Mayweather said that Dawson was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, which came during one of Floyd's brief "retirements" from the sport, and given that Floyd and his father aren't always on speaking terms, it wasn't just smoke up the ass of a guy who was at one time trained by Big Floyd.
Chad Dawson has struggled to find an audience and always will unless something drastically changes about his approach to boxing. Few fighters as good as he is treat the sport more as a job than he does. Dawson is not someone likely to be remembered as a passionate guy in love with boxing. He is pure business beyond the tools he brings to the ring. He's well-schooled, well-trained, smart, and talented. But he's got no X-factor, no hook that makes people stand up and pay attention.
That's fine, too. There are likely to be a lot more fighters like Dawson the longer boxing is run the way it currently is, because it's a totally logical way to view the sport. Maybe someone would argue this entire thought, but I just don't think anyone can really cycle through trainers the way Chad Dawson has over the last couple of years if they're consistently locked in on the task at hand.
New SMU basketball coach Larry Brown has been described in the past as a coach who would like to have a new set of players every day, a man who is never content with what he's got at hand, always wanting to switch things up. I think Dawson is the reverse -- he's an athlete with no attachment to coaches. He's on his second go-round with John Scully right now, and they seem a good fit.
Most noteworthy of Dawson's trainer carousel was Emanuel Steward, I believe, or perhaps not most noteworthy, but most revealing. Dawson and Steward talked a big game last year for their lone fight together, when Dawson outclassed Adrian Diaconu in a mundane 12-round fight on the Pascal-Hopkins II undercard. Steward appeared a wonderful fit for Dawson, a trainer who works excellently with tall guys who know how to jab, and can find the aggression in them when it needs to come.
But no matter how much Steward pleaded with Dawson to pick up the pace and impress the audience, Dawson just didn't care. He did nothing differently in the fight. He was the same old Chad Dawson, and his occasional moments of aggression seemed forced and uncharacteristic of him -- like he truly just does not buy into aggression as an important part of a fighter's arsenal.
To put it very, very simply, Dawson doesn't like to fight. If Bernard Hopkins is going to take away Dawson's advantages, he's going to have to bring the fight to him, and hope that once again, Dawson's promises of aggression turn out to be nothing more than promises. Hopkins has to throw Dawson off course and grind him down. Dawson isn't unflappable; he can be flapped.
That said, Dawson looked genuinely motivated in that 5 minutes and 48 seconds of ring time on October 15, and it wasn't Hopkins' speed, at least as far as one could tell. If Dawson's aggressive, there may be little that Bernard Hopkins can do with him. He can't beat him physically. Dawson will have to contribute to beating himself, and we've seen him do that before against Jean Pascal. Hopkins is as good as anyone at throwing flurries of punches, with true intent or not, and making opponents uncomfortable, then tying them up and neutering their offense. Pascal famously mocked the tactic in the HBO Face Off before their rematch:
It was a funny impression. Once the fight happened, Pascal couldn't do anything about Bernard's tactics, as he was clearly defeated by an old man.
The old man is now even older, and Chad Dawson isn't Jean Pascal. Styles make fights, and Dawson is just an awful style matchup for Bernard Hopkins, and would have been really tough for Bernard even at the peak of his powers.
I'm picking Chad Dawson here, and think the fight will go one of two ways: Dawson wins an ugly decision where Hopkins survives but is obviously defeated for the first time since 1993, or Dawson actually does stop him. The latter only happens if Dawson forces it. Whether he truly believes it will just "come to him" or not, it's not going to present itself. Bernard Hopkins won't go out on his shield with some foolish attempt to make some enormous offensive burst. Either Dawson comes at Bernard or he doesn't, and that's what will determine any chance of a stoppage that isn't injury-related.
I can't see Bernard Hopkins pulling it out again, and it's not really because Bernard is too old to beat good fighters. It's because I think Bernard is too far past his best to basically throw another no-hitter. How many great two-strike curveballs does he have left? While he's never been flawless, but he's had nights that came close. This isn't the guy to do it against, though. So many things would have to break Hopkins' way for him to defy the odds yet again that it's a fool's bet to gamble on the guy who's made many a fool's bet pay off in the past.
One of these times, this repetitive prediction will actually come true. If it isn't this night, and Hopkins wins again, he should retire from the sport and stop making total asses of those of us who take a stab at picking the fights. What more could he ever prove? Dawson UD-12.
The HBO co-feature is a heavyweight bout between Seth "Mayhem" Mitchell and Chazz Witherspoon. I said before that I had thoughts on that fight, but I really don't. Mitchell (24-0-1, 18 KO) is being groomed as America's breakout heavyweight by Golden Boy, Al Haymon, and the TV networks, and he should win this one. Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KO) is a decent fighter, but his best wins have come against guys like Kendrick Releford, Swamp Donkey Richards, and Livin Castillo. Mitchell is blasting through guys on raw physical ability for now, and I suspect he's able to do the same with Witherspoon. Mitchell TKO-5.