It’s fight week, and Bernard Hopkins has been here 65 times before. However, Saturday night’s world light heavyweight championship showdown with Sergey Kovalev, the hardest punching 175-pounder on the scene today, is perhaps his most anticipated fight in ten years. Not since Hopkins, 55-6-2, 2 NC, 32 KOs, faced Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, has the boxing world been so geared up for a fight involving Bernard Hopkins.
“This fight has a lot of politics and a lot of historic things wrapped up around it that I really haven’t had in any fight in a long time,” Hopkins said.
On Saturday night, Hopkins and Kovalev, 25-0-1, 23 KOs, will face off at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall in an HBO 12-rounder to merge the WBA, IBF and WBO titles. But this fight is about much more than championship belts. This is a match between the two best fighters in the light heavyweight division, and one that very well could pass the torch from one generation to the next.
“This man is a threat to anybody,” Hopkins said about Kovalev. “This won’t be an easy fight. He’s a dangerous puncher. He has over 90% knockouts. Anybody that fights this guy has the opportunity to not be the same. That’s real.”
On paper, Kovalev looks like he may be the challenge that the 49 year old Hopkins, no matter how battle-tested and brilliant, cannot get past – even with his 26 years of professional ring experience and almost five decades’ worth of life lessons behind him. But then again, we’ve all thought this before, and were just dead wrong.
After all, they fight on canvas, not paper.
“The question is, ‘how is Kovalev going to react to an alien?’” said Oscar De La Hoya, promoter of the fight and a former Hopkins opponent. “He’s never fought an athlete like Hopkins before. So, the question is, ‘how is he going to react once they hit the 4th, 5th, 6th round?’ It will be very interesting, but obviously we’re with Hopkins 100%.”
In the ring, Hopkins has done it all, including shock numerous young champions who thought that the feisty Philadelphian was just too old to compete at the elite level. It was a mistake that even De La Hoya made.
“For Hopkins, it starts outside the ring,” De La Hoya said. “Psychologically he breaks you. He doesn’t fully break you (before), he waits for fight night. He’s calculated. He knows when to get under your skin. He studies you. He puts a little dent in your armor right before, whether it’s the press conference, or a couple months before training camp starts.”
“He didn’t talk trash, he didn’t get in my face,” De La Hoya recalled of their pre-fight build up. “(I was) speaking to Hopkins, and… one of his teeth fell out! He was like, ‘oh, it’s old age’. I think about it now and (I realize) that guy made me think I was fighting this old man. It made me over confident. I was twenty-something back then, ten, fifteen years younger than him. He made me just kind of cruise by in training camp. I don’t have to do extra. I don’t have to run extra miles or train harder, and I can (still) take this guy on. He’s older than me. So psychologically he made me complacent.”
There’s no evidence that Hopkins tried the old falling tooth trick with Kovalev, but Bernard has had a knack for hypnotizing recent opponents. More than a few times, Hopkins has tamed aggressive, active punchers like Kovalev and turned them into compliant and passive followers, willing to take their lumps and hand over their belts.
Exactly how he does this is a real mystery.
“I prepare to do what I know how to do,” Hopkins said. “And for twenty plus years, going on three decades, that rule of code never betrayed me. I don’t get caught up in what another guy might, or can do. I train. I study. I know me. There’s no fighter in the world that I wouldn’t put my record up against on any given day – in this era, in any class. That’s how I feel, and that’s not being cocky. That’s being confident. And to be confident you have to have a track record and put that work in to be taken seriously. You can talk about it, but to be about it is a whole different concept.”
Hopkins has definitely walked the walk, especially of late.
“He’ll sit down and watch videos for hours,” De La Hoya said of Hopkins. “He’ll study every single move you make. He’ll watch you during the press conference. He’ll do research on you, and that all comes into play. Once you step inside the ring with him, he knows you inside out. He knows what step you’re going to make. He knows what he has to do to offset whatever you’re going to bring to the table. I don’t believe Hopkins focuses on what he’s going to do physically. I think he focuses on what he can do to get his opponent out of his comfort zone, out of his game plan. He just knows how to offset you. He’s a master.”
“They either going to watch me win, or they going to watch me lose,” Hopkins said. “And that game, I don’t mind playing. Because I understand me, and I know me. I don’t believe in luck. I don’t believe in this is your time, this ain’t your time. I believe whoever brings the best of themselves, and understands that they have to sacrifice and do everything they have to do to be victorious. That’s plain and simple, and that’s how I feel.”
“Discipline,” De La Hoya said. “Everything he consumes, everything he does is calculated. It’s clean living, for a very long time. There’s more to it, but that has a lot to do with it. He’s fighting… I want to say he’s fighting with no pressure. At this point, I believe, Hopkins is already in the Hall of Fame when he retires. He’s already going to be talked about as one of the greats in any generation. So he doesn’t have that added pressure of trying to prove himself, at this point in his career.”
Even with all of his success, through the years Hopkins has always managed to find the necessary edge for a fight, when titles, money, and time would have softened a typical fighter. But Hopkins is far from typical. He never lets down. He finds issues and grievances, real or imagined, which keep him in the fighting mood.
“I can make pressure for myself for every fight,” Hopkins said. “I used problems when it was time to use them, and now that those problems are not there, you have to reinvent yourself and work on things that you know you can still be successful as you were back then. To understand never to underestimate, or take anyone lightly. Whether it was Sergey or the last two or three opponents. So I am really mentally, physically ready for this challenge, come November 8th.”
The other piece of the Hopkins puzzle is the never-ending care he takes of his body.
“When you look at me, when you look at that time, when you look at the lifestyle, when you look at the discipline, you’ll say (I’m) preserved,” Hopkins said. “You will say (I’m) well kept. You will say it’s 1965 – clean in the garage, but the engine and the mechanics are brand new. Because he took care of them. Old to you is a number, but it’s not in person. And that’s your biggest mistake.”
“I wasted a lot of time,” Hopkins said about the first portion of his career. “But those things you have to go through. And that’s why we are young before we are old. When I look back at my last five years of my career, I spend less hours in the gym compared to when I was younger. I’m fighting 10-round fights, 12-round fights, three (minutes) times twelve. Why am I training for four hours? See these are the things you do when you’re young and you’re dumb and you got all this energy. If I was training the way I was training 15 or 20 years ago, I would be burned out. I’d be over trained.”
Since his pro debut, Hopkins has followed his own drummer. He navigated through the Don King years, unified the middleweight title, persevered through twenty title defenses, added a couple of light heavyweight crowns, and stands on the brink of unifying that division’s championship (if he defeats Kovalev, just the WBC belt will be missing). Hopkins answers only to himself and doesn’t even care if fans root for him or against him.
“It doesn’t really bother me one way or the other whether somebody roots for me or they don’t,” Hopkins said. “I’m not controlled by people’s opinions about me. If you are motivated or dictated by that part, it will never stop. Because no matter who you beat, no matter how many people you upset, you are always going to have something else. So when you’re dealing with that, you’re wasting your time. But I didn’t always think that way. I’ve grown.”
“I think people already have the utmost respect for him, no matter who he fights, when he fights, where he fights,” De La Hoya said. “People respect the fact that at 49 years old, he’s still going strong. There’s no sign of him slowing down. He’s getting faster, he’s getting stronger; he has more energy. He’s basically toying with young fighters half his age.”
If Hopkins can toy with the dangerous Kovalev and come away with another victory, he’ll have trumped anything he’s done in at least ten years. His recent wins have been impressive, but Kovalev is by far the most formidable foe he’s faced in quite a while. This was a fight that few believed Hopkins would agree to take, let alone initiate the match himself.
“No one expected me to not only become what I became, but they thought I’d be gone ten, fifteen years ago,” Hopkins said. “I became their worst nightmare. And what is (even) more threatening is that I still got my scruples, and I still got my senses, and I still got my intellect. I still got my swag, as you would say, to be able to articulate and communicate, and that I become a bigger force.”
“Over 60% of the population is over 50,” Hopkins said. “I’m two and a half months to 50 years old. I know that’s a statement that’s going to make a brand, and a movement that’s going to be way beyond what I do in the ring. 50 is the halftime. Can you imagine being in the second half with the same respect and dignity, just like the first half?”
If he can do this, it surely will be a feat. Not just because he’s almost 50, but because he’s fighting the best opponent possible at light heavyweight. That is the distinction in this fight, and that is what boxing is all about.
Hopkins’ other fights were a threat, but not like this one. Kovalev has the power to put an end to the Hopkins story in the same way that most old champs’ careers tend to end – on their backs and out on their shield. The question is whether Kovalev can avoid being hypnotized by the old master. If he can, this might be a tough night for Hopkins.
“I don’t worry about things that I don’t know about,” Hopkins said. “I feel that you should not worry about things you cannot change.”
Obviously this is true, or Bernard Hopkins would have called it quits a long time ago. But as he said, Hopkins doesn’t care what anyone else thinks.
He’s always going to do it his way.