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Speed Chess: The Strategic Mastery of Bernard Hopkins

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Bernard Hopkins is a master strategist and a living legend. BE's fight analyst Connor Ruebusch breaks down the gameplan he used to shut down Kelly Pavlik in 2008, elements of which may come in handy in his tilt with Sergey Kovalev this Saturday, November 8.

Alex Goodlett

The comparison's been made many times before--boxing is like chess. A boxer needs to move the right piece in the right way at the right time, and he needs to be cognizant of his opponent's attempts to do the same. Though unorthodoxy exists, for the most part every conceivable strategy has been layed out, played out, and rehashed a hundred times over. And, also like chess, boxing requires countless hours of planning, practice, and unwavering focus on the game.

There is one key difference, though: the pressure. Chess players have the luxury of time, and opponents willing to wait for them to plan and execute their next move. Therefore, I prefer the far better metaphor of speed chess.

Never seen speed chess? It looks like this:

Each player is allotted a certain amount of time, which expires during their turn. Quick play ensures that the time will not run out, which results in defeat, but it also means that decisions are less considered in the moment-to-moment play of the game, and mistakes far more likely. Speed chess is every bit as strategic as normal chess, but the players must adapt as their strategies permutate under pressure.

It is pressure that makes boxing such a fascinating sport. Not only is there a set allotted amount of time, but there is the added physical pressure of--you know, being punched in the face. Executing strategy takes incredible poise and wit, and the athletic ability to adapt with one's strategy as the winding course of the fight plays out.

When it comes to strategy, there is none greater than Bernard Hopkins, a man who has never been knocked out, and who continues to operate at the highest level of the sport at nearly 50 years old. It's sheer guile that allows Hopkins to fight at such a high level at this late stage in his life, and his is a style tailor-built to increase longevity. Hopkins is the epitome of a strategist: he will not challenge you where you are strongest, but rather where you are weakest, striking deftly at every visible chink in the armor and often creating a few new ones along the way. He finds ways to capitalize on his own strengths even while shutting down yours, working tirelessly to make you uncomfortable, unconfident, and unsuccessful.

Hopkins is set to face the surging Sergey Kovalev this Saturday, November 8th, and there is no doubt that the Russian puncher is Hopkins' toughest test since his ill-fated bouts with Chad Dawson two and a half years ago. Many doubt that Hopkins will be able to best Kovalev who, at 31 years old, is still in the prime of his life. After all, Hopkins isn't getting any younger, and the wheels are bound to fall off at some point.

But Hopkins has done it before. It's not impossible, or even unlikely that he'll do it again. Time will tell what his strategy for Kovalev is, but we can get an idea for his mental abilities by examining his past fights. One stands out in particular: Hopkins' 2008 win over Kelly Pavlik, a bout for which Hopkins was a 6-to-1 underdog. Despite those odds, the veteran boxer from Philly took the 26 year-old Pavlik to school for 12 rounds, all thanks to a positively brilliant strategy.

Let's take a look.

DEFUSING THE BOMB

There was a reason that Kelly Pavlik was a heavy favorite coming into this fight. In addition to Hopkins' age, Pavlik was well known for doing things like this:

And Hopkins knew that. Granted, he didn't agree with the conclusions of the boxing community at large, but Hopkins is never too self confident to acknowledge what his opponent does well--even if only in private before the fight. In Pavlik's case, what he did well was knock people down, out, and around with his heavy right hand. Coming into this fight, Pavlik was undefeated in 34 fights, and all but four of those were KO wins. Though Pavlik could throw a solid jab, his left hook was a mere afterthought compared to his devastating right. Like the jab, the hook only served to distract and corral Pavlik's opponents into his money punch.

So, ever the pure strategist, Hopkins first goal was to take Pavlik's right hand away from him. Normally a very slow and methodical starter, it didn't take Hopkins but thirty seconds to do this:

Flicking left jab, left uppercut to the body, double left hook upstairs. One after the other, Hopkins began throwing naked power shots at Pavlik, but only with his left hand. Pavlik, neither a very good counter puncher nor a savvy defensive fighter, reacted exactly as Hopkins wanted him to, by parrying and blocking with his right hand. In other words, using it, but not throwing it.

Coming forward, Hopkins would circle left to get around Pavlik's lead foot and attack his open center with the left hand. There was very little danger, because Pavlik rarely punched moving backward. Pressing forward, however, Pavlik was a different animal, and that's when his right hand became a real danger. So part two of Hopkins' plan to neutralize Pavlik's cross was to circle to his own right every time that Pavlik started to come forward.

Pavlik's footwork was serviceable, at best, and throughout the fight his corner only thought to tell him to jab, jab, jab. This was Pavlik's usual tactic, of course, to use long jabs to measure his killer right, as you saw in the Jose Luis Zertuche GIF above. But Zertuche, and all of Pavlik's other victims, had stood in front of him, or backed up in straight lines, making themselves easy targets. From the very first round of the fight, Hopkins was either retreating and moving away from Pavlik's right hand, or coming forward and forcing him to keep it holstered.

By the start of round two, it was starting to look like Hopkins was the young champion, and Pavlik the overmatched old man.

Hopkins boldly fired away with his hook to the head and body. You can see him switching between the two phases of his strategy above, circling to the right as Pavlik creeps forward and probes with his jab, and then suddenly jumping around to the left to sneak his left hook around Pavlik's ineffective guard--one which he nonetheless felt compelled to keep in place, lest the beating get even worse.

By the end of the second round, just five minutes into the fight, Pavlik had lost all confidence in his ability to throw and land his only consistently effective punch. Even when he came forward, he did it like this:

First you see Pavlik walking Hopkins down, but instead of throwing his right hand he keeps it in place an ineffectually swats at Hopkins' jabs. At this point, Hopkins is both retreating and circling left, something he has not done in the fight up to this point, and yet Pavlik cannot muster up the confidence to let his right hand go. Instead he stalks forward and, as Hopkins nears the ropes, sticks out a jab, feints the right hand, and tries for a long left uppercut. These are punches that Hopkins really has no cause to fear, and neither of them land. Then, when Hopkins slips inside to force a clinch, you can see Pavlik twitch his right hand quickly to cover his body and chin. Just over five minutes in, and Pavlik isn't just wary of Hopkins' hook, he's anxious about it.

Of course, the brilliance of Bernard Hopkins lies in his ability to adapt on the fly even while carrying out a long-term strategy. At times he began deliberately getting into the head of Pavlik, giving the Ohioan exactly what he wanted only to punish him for trying to take advantage.

Hopkins circled constantly throughout the fight, denying Pavlik the chance to get his feet set and fire off combinations. With this lateral movement, Hopkins turned the fearsome puncher into nothing more than a meek and meaningless jab. But here, in the fourth round, Hopkins suddenly ceases his endless pivoting and backs straight up toward the ropes. Pavlik, eager to jump on the opportunity, jabs Hopkins back a few steps, and then loads up on a left hook to the body.

Of course, Hopkins already knows it's coming, because by this point Pavlik has all but abandoned the right hand altogether. And so, right as Pavlik loads up his shot, Hopkins stops retreating, and barrels forward with his trademark overhand right, which smashes into Pavlik's jaw and forces a clinch from which Hopkins can go to work with his favorite dirty tactics.

At times, Pavlik worked up the courage to start throwing his right hand, and at those times Hopkins would quit all experimentation with the form and return to his basic strategy. Retreat going right, attack going left. Rinse and repeat. It was an amazing performance, and quite possibly the best of Hopkins' long and storied career.

This Saturday, Hopkins looks to best it when he faces Sergey Kovalev, a puncher every bit as dangerous as Pavlik, with a bit more technical savvy to boot. Logic would suggest that Kovalev will be more willing to throw whether his feet are set or not, and that his confidence won't be so easily shaken. But then, logic told us six years ago that Hopkins was too old to be fighting Kelly Pavlik at all, let alone taking him to school for twelve exhilarating rounds.

Hopkins-Kovalev is a nebulous matchup, and I'm not bold enough to make any kind of prediction. But I wouldn't be surprised if this fight ends the same way as the Pavlik bout, with Hopkins mounting the ropes, staring into press row, and shaming all those who counted him out before his time.

For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode features a discussion with Sherdog.com's Patrick Wyman on the place of styles in fighting, and examines this weekend's big UFC matchups through that lens.