This Saturday night in Montreal, Bernard Hopkins attempts at age 46 to become the oldest man in boxing history to win a major title, when he challenges legit light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal. This is the second chance for Philly's "Executioner" to make this history, after a majority draw in December where the old man rallied after a fast start by Pascal.
Let's take a look back at Bernard Hopkins' five most recent fights, in a search for clues about Saturday's bout. Ready, gumshoes?
April 19, 2008 - Joe Calzaghe - L-SD-12
Hopkins had won the light heavyweight championship in June 2006, dominating Antonio Tarver, and defended it once in 2007 against Winky Wright. In 2008, he put up the crown against super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe in Las Vegas.
The undefeated Calzaghe and Hopkins engaged in a battle more of wits and savvy than of great boxing, despite the fact that both were top-of-the-line fighters. For years, each man had dominated mostly mentally, lacking some of the physical gifts that many pound-for-pound type contenders possess. Hopkins knocked Calzaghe down on a well-timed right hand early in the fight, but after that both dirtied and uglied the fight up substantially. Calzaghe walked out with a still-debated split decision victory.
October 18, 2008 - Kelly Pavlik - W-UD-12
Instead of licking his wounds and taking another lengthy break between fights, the 43-year-old Hopkins climbed back into the ring six months later at a 170-pound catchweight to face undefeated middleweight world champion Kelly Pavlik. Pavlik's simple but deadly 1-2 combos, combined with his youth, had him as a pretty heavy favorite in the minds of most.
But instead of looking old and weakened, Hopkins looked like he was 30 years old again. He destroyed Kelly Pavlik, taking advantage of every even mild mistake that "The Ghost" made. By the end of the fight, Pavlik was so confused that he looked like he flat-out didn't know what to do anymore. After the fight, Hopkins stared down press row at ringside (a visual I'll never forget), and gave a great post-fight interview with Larry Merchant that sort of sums up the admirable aspects of Hopkins' personality.
Kelly Pavlik just never got going in this fight, and to date, has never really been the same. That could still change, but for now, Bernard Hopkins simply changed Kelly Pavlik.
December 2, 2009 - Enrique Ornelas - W-UD-12
Here's the fight where Bernard finally, truly started looking his age. Don't get me wrong, he dominated Ornelas, who is a game but limited opponent. But Bernard looked old in there, and the small crowd in Philly that turned out was treated mainly to Hopkins' jaw-dropping entrance (more on that with the next fight). Bernard didn't appear in peak shape, and the fight, meant to set up a long-overdue Hopkins vs Roy Jones Jr rematch, was basically a routine where a weathered but vastly superior fighter was still just too good for a C+ fighter who himself wasn't having his best night. The chinks in the armor showed here. They came to light in a big way next time out.
April 3, 2010 - Roy Jones Jr - W-UD-12
These two set up a bonus system where a knockout winner would get more money. Then they fought and it was clear that nobody was going to knock anybody out, and for most of the fight, you'd be forgiven for assuming there was some kind of gentleman's agreement to not really try. Here's what I said in our original recap:
Bernard Hopkins got his revenge tonight, beating Roy Jones Jr. by wide unanimous decision in an awful, ugly, and bizarre fight that lived down to the mostly-dreadful expectations of the public, and frankly was probably even worse than anyone really expected.
Official scores were 118-109, 117-110 and 117-110. Bad Left Hook scored it 118-109.
Hopkins (51-5-1, 32 KO) and Jones (54-7, 40 KO) never stepped on the gas much, except for one point when Hopkins came back from a rabbit punch with a bit of fire in his belly. After that, they nearly brawled to a double disqualification, but then that spirit never returned.
Hopkins -- who landed a blatant low blow that Tony Weeks didn't see and a rabbit punch that Weeks also missed -- would later complain and roll around on the mat again after another rabbit punch, and went into the whole spiel once again after a low blow.
I don't want to sound like I have no respect for these two fighters. I do. But neither of them looked like they had anything left tonight, the fight was hideous, and the tiny violin-worthy actions of Hopkins were despicable. The fight was truly bad in every single way. Neither fighter landed much by way of significant punches (Jones may not have landed one truly good shot all night), Hopkins flopped three times, Jones later called time on a second Hopkins low blow, and overall the whole thing just felt farcical and embarrassing.
The race for absolute worst televised fight of 2010 had this as a front-runner. I still can't decide whether this debacle was truly worse than Mosley vs Mora, but that's a discussion for another time. Or a discussion for hell. One of the two.
December 18, 2010 - Jean Pascal - D-12
From our recap:
It was a classic Bernard Hopkins performance. In the third round, when Hopkins was legitimately knocked down on a good left hook, I thought Bernard's face was saying, "Well, I think I'm finally too old."
But it wasn't. Bernard came out in the fourth and took full control of the fight. In a few rounds, Pascal looked clearly defeated mentally, laying off the gas pedal entirely and just fighting so tentatively that it made you wonder if he was even trying to win anymore. Hopkins ate some leather along the way, and maybe a couple of those last nine rounds that I gave to Hopkins could have gone Pascal's way. I didn't see it that way, but I'm sure a couple of them could have gone Jean's way. But it was Bernard Hopkins' fight from the start of round four on through the end, including a 12th round mini-war where both guys threw, though nobody was landing a ton.
Trying to describe Bernard Hopkins performances isn't easy. When you've seen them, you know what they are. Not pretty. Not exciting. Not fun. Not even overly dominant, usually. But they're awe-inspiring in the way he controls every square inch of the canvas like a master. In the second half of the fight against Pascal, he delivered one of those performances.
The lingering doubt about his age will never go away, though, and it shouldn't be counted out on Saturday. A smart Jean Pascal has the tools in his arsenal to beat Hopkins and put him out to pasture, if Bernard were to choose retirement. But is Pascal really smart? There have been few fights where the man in the ring was on Bernard's level mentally -- Calzaghe, Winky Wright, a few others from "back in the day," but when he's able to out-think a fighter, he usually outclasses them. The lone exception to that might be Jermain Taylor, who was experiencing his short supernova peak of ability, and even those fights were tightly-contested and the decisions controversial.
Still, I also said in the Pascal recap that every time Bernard does what he did that night, it's one less time he is going to be able to do it. He's not younger. He's not better. It's all on Jean Pascal. Hopkins has shown vulnerabilities for a few years now. The question is whether Pascal can exploit those enough to convince the judges and the public that he really beat Hopkins -- and really beating Hopkins is something that only the 1993 version of Roy Jones Jr has ever done.