Bernard Hopkins has had two careers, one as a middleweight, where he dominated for years and had a lengthy run as champion of the division, and a second as a light heavyweight. He started that second career at age 41, against all advice and conventional wisdom, and has become the most accomplished and consistent 175-pound fighter of the last decade.
Today for FYC, we'll look at strictly the second career of Hopkins, his light heavyweight run that started in '06 and continues on eight and a half years later. Hopkins, of course, faces Sergey Kovalev in a unification bout this Saturday night on HBO.
- Antonio Tarver (2006-06-10)
- Jean Pascal (2011-05-21)
- Kelly Pavlik (2008-10-18)
- Winky Wright (2007-07-21)
- Tavoris Cloud (2013-03-09)
I'll go with the light heavyweight debut win over Tarver as still being Hopkins' best at the weight. Tarver had been just 3-2 in his previous five fights, three against Roy Jones Jr and two against Glen Johnson, but it was better than the three out of five win ratio makes it seem, too. For one thing, his loss to Jones in their first bout was controversial, and he avenged it six months later by knocking Jones out in the second round. Another year and a half later, he beat Jones convincingly in a rubber match, after Tarver's two fights with Johnson. Tarver lost the first to "The Road Warrior," then got it back six months later.
When he faced Hopkins, three things were agreed upon by almost everyone in boxing:
- Tarver was the true light heavyweight champion of the world, and had earned the distinction.
- Hopkins was past his prime, and making a big mistake going up two weight classes to face the top guy in the division immediately.
- Tarver would win. Maybe it wouldn't be pretty, but Tarver would beat the old, undersized Hopkins.
Nope! Hopkins put on a clinic, beating Tarver 118-109 across the board. The fight wasn't even close. And though Tarver would go on to win another belt at 175 and is still fighting as a heavyweight (after a brief stint at cruiserweight), "The Magic Man" was never really the same. Hopkins took something from him that night.
The only real argument here, I think, is Hopkins' 2011 win over Pascal, where he once again took the lineal light heavyweight championship, doing it at age 46. He'd gone to a draw with Pascal six months prior, but learned from that fight. If there's one thing you don't want to do, it's give Bernard Hopkins further information. Hopkins was in Pascal's head before the fight, and it showed up in the ring.
The 170-pound catchweight win over Kelly Pavlik in 2008 was another one Bernard was supposed to lose. Pavlik had become a wrecking ball at middleweight, knocking out Jermain Taylor to win the title in 2007, and he was the man who beat the man (Taylor) who beat the man (Hopkins). A meeting with the former king was a natural, and was one of the Top Rank-Golden Boy co-promotions of their brief ceasefire in 2007-09. As with Tarver and Trinidad in the past, Hopkins took the favored man to school. Pavlik was completely out of his depth against B-Hop, and the differences in schooling and dedication were enormous. After the fight, Hopkins encouraged Pavlik to get back in the gym and work hard. He seemed to have respect for Pavlik. But like Tarver, Pavlik was never the same. His career all but dissolved after Hopkins was through with him.
Wright was another 170-pound catchweight fight for Bernard, 13 months after the win over Tarver, and Hopkins' first fight back. Wright, like Hopkins, was a tough and crafty guy, an old school fighter who knew the tricks of the trade. And Winky gave Hopkins a fight, too, though Bernard clearly won the bout and deservingly got the nod. More oddly than anything, that was also just about it for Winky Wright, who would return in 2009 to lose handily to Paul Williams, and was then blown out by Peter Quillin in a 2012 comeback bid. Wright hadn't lost for seven and a half years, and he never won again after 2006.
I took Cloud in the fifth spot, but there are good arguments that it should instead be Karo Murat or Beibut Shumenov. Hopkins' other wins over this time period came against Enrique Ornelas (2009) and Roy Jones Jr (2010), one of which was a tune-up, the other a comedy.
Hopkins has not been perfect during his light heavyweight days, as a pair of southpaws presented bad stylistic matchups for him and were able to get the decision duke. In 2008, unbeaten super middleweight king Joe Calzaghe moved up to 175 to face Hopkins, and came away with a split decision win in Las Vegas. Calzaghe and Hopkins flustered one another in an ugly fight, with Calzaghe getting the scores. The fight could have gone to Hopkins, though I thought Calzaghe definitely won the fight. It's one Hopkins probably wishes he had a chance to avenge, but Calzaghe retired after a win over shot Roy Jones Jr later that year.
In October 2011, Hopkins was matched with Chad Dawson in a fight that echoed the Calzaghe bout, but with Dawson a bigger, stronger, and younger man than Calzaghe had been. (And not quite as crafty or good, to be fair.) Dawson was initially given a TKO-2 win over Hopkins when Bernard went down with a disputed injury, but it was properly changed to a no-contest later on. The rematch in April 2012 saw Dawson get a convincing victory, though judge Luis Rivera managed to score it 114-114, giving Dawson just a majority decision win.
Hopkins also had significant early trouble in his first fight with Pascal in December 2010, but took over that fight down the stretch, and Pascal was lucky to get out with a draw.
Up Next and Beyond
Sergey Kovalev is a beast of a fighter. He's extremely powerful, he's got good technique, he works hard, and he's right in the sweet spot for what should be his prime. The 31-year-old Russian emerged in 2013, when he thrashed former titleholder Gabriel Campillo in three rounds on NBC Sports. Seven months later, he did the same thing to Nathan Cleverly on Cleverly's turf in Cardiff, winning the WBO belt inside of four rounds.
In his last eight fights, nobody's really been able to stand up to him. Back in 2010, Darnell Boone, a rugged veteran opponent, gave him all he could handle over eight rounds, with Kovalev winning a split decision. But in 2012, Kovalev got some closure on that. Main Events wanted to take a look at him, and they matched him with Boone. The fight lasted a round and a half. Kovalev had matured, learned, and started to put the pieces together.
Now, without any question, Bernard Hopkins is a pretty enormous step up from Campillo, Cornelius White, Cleverly, Ismayl Sillakh, Cedric Agnew, and Blake Caparello. If anything, Kovalev decimating those fighters may hurt him -- no matter how much he prepares for 12 rounds, or can be told or tell himself that Bernard Hopkins isn't going to fold at the first sign of trouble, he's used to guys crumbling against his punches. Even if he does hurt Hopkins early, Bernard is far more likely to grab on and survive, then make some adjustments and try to flip the script.
It's intriguing and easy to pick Kovalev to beat Hopkins. Look, he's 49. I don't care how good his physical conditioning is. He's 49 years old. He's turning 50 in two months. 50. Fifty. You do realize that in January, Bernard Hopkins can join the AARP?
If Hopkins beats Kovalev, there's only one current name out there really worth his time, and that's Adonis Stevenson. That could work for next year. If he doesn't beat Kovalev, he's probably going to retire. Not that he really needs to, but, you know. Age. Faculties. Beyond nothing left to prove. He's got money. He's got a spot at Golden Boy Promotions as long as he wants it. He'll be in demand as a commentator if he wants to do that.
Other than the number, though, there doesn't seem to be anything actually stopping him from fighting on and on if he wants to do so. He's never looked his age. His skill set and the reasons that he's a great fighter are the type that age well, obviously.
We'll see in five short days if he's got one more stunner left in him. Not a stunner because he's being counted out -- Kovalev is listed as a slight favorite, but nobody's going to be surprised if Hopkins does it yet again -- but because it really shouldn't be happening. He's a legend no matter what happens on Saturday. But if he impressively beats Sergey Kovalev, he's truly otherworldly.