When I think about Bernard Hopkins, I think about one of the toughest guys in the sport, a man who will do anything to stay on top. A 43-year old pugilist with his Hall of Fame ticket punched long ago, who has rebounded from losses his entire career to shove them back down everyone's throat.
He lost his first pro fight, to a guy named Clinton Mitchell. He lost in a big showdown at RFK Stadium against Roy Jones, Jr. And he lost two times in disputed, hotly-contested decisions against Jermain Taylor.
Every time, he's come back hard. After losing to Mitchell, he won 22 straight fights. After losing to Jones, he went 24-0-1. And since losing twice to Taylor, he's 2-0, stepping up 15 pounds to beat the living hell out of light heavyweight king Antonio Tarver, and then outgutting Winky Wright last year.
Bernard Hopkins is also a guy that excels when he fights angry. There's always been a theatrical side to "The Executioner"; while he appears to have lived much of his life as the quintessential "Angry Young Man," a lot of that has been for show. Then again, a lot of it hasn't. Hopkins' temper is pretty volatile. It doesn't make him a dangerous human being in everyday life, but it makes a dangerous man to fight in the squared circle, no matter who you are.
And is there a boxer in recent times that adjusts mid-fight as well as he does? Maybe only one.
When I think about Joe Calzaghe, the word "unorthodox" is usually the first to spring to mind, followed by "unique" and "inimitable."
I was among those that doubted the popular Welsh champion for a long time. "He only fights in arenas he can drive to," I'd say. "And he never fights Americans. Why doesn't he fight Americans?"
So he fought an American. Jeff Lacy was supposed to be a 168-pound Mike Tyson. Chiseled physique, big, booming punches, and a killer's demeanor in the ring.
But Tyson was never the unfazeable commodity he was billed as being early in his career. Once he ran into guys that fought back, Tyson began to struggle. But even "Iron" Mike on his worst days didn't look as overmatched, helpless, and flat-out bad in the ring as Calzaghe made Lacy look. For a fight without a knockout, Calzaghe's win over Lacy is as one-sided as it gets. It was 12 rounds of pure destruction.
I started changing my stance a little bit. When it looked like Calzaghe would duck unbeaten titlist Mikkel Kessler, the thoughts came back. "Why won't he fight this guy? What's he scared of?"
Then he fought him. Kessler fared as well as anyone ever has against Calzaghe. And it was a clear decision win for Joe Cool. The doubts are gone. Joe Calzaghe is the greatest super middleweight of all-time, a peerless fighter in the 168-pound ranks, and there's just no real matchup of concern for him left.
So, enter Hopkins, the former middleweight ruler and current 175-pound chief.
Hopkins won't let a "white boy" beat him. Calzaghe doesn't think Hopkins is much of a legend at all.
For a guy who lets his fists do the talking, Calzaghe has been more than willing to talk jive with Bernard in the build-up to this fight. Perhaps he feels the pressure. After all, Joe's not getting any younger, and not a single fight of his has made him a major star in the United States. I'm not one of those that thinks he needs to be, but unless Joe wanted that for himself, would he even be in America for the first time ever? I doubt it.
Calzaghe-Lacy and Calzaghe-Kessler were superb wins for Joe Calzaghe. But it's a little bit like what Jim Lampley said about Miguel Cotto before his third big win of 2007: "Beating Zab Judah was good. Beating Shane Mosley would be great."
If Calzaghe beats Hopkins, even a 43-year old Hopkins, then that's great. It would have to silence even the few remaining Calzaghe doubting thomases out there.
So Who's Gonna Win?
Betting odds currently favor Calzaghe, the younger man who is naturally bigger than Hopkins despite the idea that Hopkins is heavier, having fought at 175 before. Joe's power could be better adding the seven pounds, though he's never reported having any real trouble making 168 in his career.
Has Joe Calzaghe ever fought anyone as good as Hopkins? No, he has not. Has Hopkins ever fought anyone quite like Calzaghe? No. He has not. And anyone that thinks he has is underestimating Joe Calzaghe.
The only things that have given Hopkins real trouble over his career have been hand speed and athleticism. Jermain Taylor and Roy Jones, Jr., are really the only two fights that have beaten Bernard Hopkins. Both very athletic, very determined, very skilled fighters with fast hands.
Hopkins isn't slow, but he's not upper echelon quick, either. He punches with power, but it's not great power. And Calzaghe has a set of steel whiskers.
I know it's always foolish to count Bernard Hopkins out. And I do think he'll be the best he can be on Saturday, having done his usual insane training with Mackie Shilstone, and working with cornerman Freddie Roach, who has publicly taken the stance that he's just there to keep Bernard sharp, not really teach an old dog any new tricks.
But Joe Calzaghe is a different animal. And this is the fight of Calzaghe's life. Don't expect a Clinton Woods thing. Woods looked completely lost in America against Antonio Tarver last weekend, though it's worth noting that there may have been everyday life, contributing factors involved there.
The Vegas lights won't stun Calzaghe. A portion of the crowd booing won't bother him, and I don't expect it'll be that big a portion, anyway. Bernard has diehard fans, but he's a Philly fighter and has never been terribly popular away from the East Coast. This fight would have been much better off in New York, really.
Hopkins will test Calzaghe, take him to the limit, and lose. Joe Calzaghe will go to 45-0, look around, and wonder what's next. He won't retire, though. Too much money to be made for the man that just might retire "The Executioner."