"Bernard Hopkins stood right here the other day and told me: black, he's too predictable," said one of the trainers at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn, where Hopkins had held his media workout last week. "He's too, too predictable."
"He" in this case was Sergey "Krusher" Kovalev, the Russian light heavyweight knockout king Hopkins was preparing to fight on Saturday night. It was a big, big fight. There are three premier light heavyweights in the world: these two guys and Adonis Stevenson, a Canadian. None of the three had fought each other, until now. Kovalev, who was 25-0 and had knocked out his last nine opponents in comically easy fashion, was the most feared of the three, and Hopkins, who is still fighting at a world class level at an age when most men can't even run a mile, is the most legendary of the three. It was a big fight.
Sergey Kovalev is 31 years old. Bernard Hopkins is 49 years old. Over the last four years, Hopkins has defeated a string of the best fighters in his division in increasingly unlikely victories, each of which boggles the mind further because you're always sure that this time is the time that he will fold, and age will catch up with him, and all of a sudden he'll go from world class fighter to pitiful old man being beaten on to the horror of the crowd. Yet it didn't happen. With the exception of a thorough ass whipping by the younger, stronger, bigger Chad Dawson in 2012, Hopkins has gone undefeated since 2008. With every win, his legend grew larger. He's not a huge puncher, or extraordinarily fast, but he is smart, and he has settled into a style free of any unnecessary movement, in which he throws just the right punches at just the right times to win rounds, and spends the balance of his energy sticking his tongue out at his opponent and pushing his head down and complaining to the referee and ostentatiously doing pushups between rounds and various other things designed to make his opponents enraged and stupid, all of which work spectacularly well. He has more experience than any active fighter and possesses one of the most evolved minds in boxing.
The continual success of Bernard Hopkins has made him something of a talisman to the boxing intelligentsia. He represents the primacy of the sweet science over brute force and spry young athleticism. Every time Bernard Hopkins beats another one of those young guys, the status of boxing as a mental game is reaffirmed. The crafty veteran teaches lessons. He knows every trick in the book, and he uses them well. Age ain't nothing but a number. Knowledge over power.
All the trainers at Gleason's picked Hopkins to win. Why not? He is a trainer's dream—the same age as most of them, and living proof that all of the boxing wisdom they've accumulated can still be put to good ends in world title fights. It is nice to imagine Bernard Hopkins going on and on winning fights forever, with each passing year's physical decline offset by a matching increase in guile. It is only natural for lifelong aficionados of the world's most brutal sport to long for examples of intellect beating out force. It makes the blood and bruises more palatable. It is proof that boxing grows more civilized as its quality increases.
Hopkins said Kovalev was predictable. He was right. Kovalev is athletic, and strong, and reasonably fast, and a devastating puncher, but he is not tricky. He advances, and jabs, and throws a right, and a hook. He jabs, and he looks for his power shots. One, two, three. He is predictable. Almost as predictable as Bernard Hopkins' demise.
Lots of guys can punch hard, but there are only a few members of that rare and exciting class of boxers who make people fall down when they touch them. Sergey Kovalev is a puncher like that. He knocks guys down with jabs. He sends guys tumbling with hooks. He hurts people. He has the power you can't teach. In his last fight, he knocked down the (not good) Blake Caparello with a straight right to the belly about which Kovalev later shrugged in his broken English "I just reach out and touch, and... oh, okay!"
Sergey Kovalev and the 2014 version of Bernard Hopkins could fight one thousand times and Hopkins would never win, because there is a limit to the sweetness of the science. That limit is raw power and pain. It is the physical inability to stand up to someone stronger than you. All of the craft and cunning and trickery in the world will not allow the 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins to shrug off Sergey Kovalev's punching power. It is the same reason that Hopkins lost to Chad Dawson two years ago: Dawson put him on the end of his punches, and poured them on, and it was all Hopkins could do to keep himself from being knocked out. Sergey Kovalev has the luxury of not having to be unpredictable. He is so dangerous that the onus for being unpredictable will always be on his opponent. Yes, Hopkins knew that Kovalev would come forward, and jab, and throw the right, and throw the hook. That is exactly what he did. And he beat the hell out of Bernard Hopkins.
Hopkins is not a strong enough puncher to keep Kovalev back, so Kovalev advanced on him all night. Hopkins is not fleet enough of foot to flee Kovalev, so Kovalev was able to close in and land punches all night. Hopkins is great at slipping and blocking punches, but Kovalev is so strong that even blocked punches do damage, and Hopkins eventually found himself crouching on his back foot, trying in vain to protect himself with his front shoulder as Kovalev stood over him like an abusive father, shooting straight right hands directly down onto the crown of his head.
To Hopkins' infinite credit, he was only knocked down once, despite several slicing right hands to his face that had his knees wobbling side to side like a skyscraper in an earthquake. Also to Hopkins' credit, he never lost his pride.
After 11 rounds of being pounded upon, he still managed to stick his tongue out at Sergey Kovalev. (This prompted Kovalev to step up his attack and land an extra 10 punches on a crouching Hopkins that he probably would not have had to endure otherwise, making it one of the most ill-advised taunts in Hopkins' entire career. Still, he has his pride.) He survived 12 full rounds with Sergey Kovalev—something no man has done before. This is a more impressive feat, in some ways, than winning against someone slightly more average.
Bernard Hopkins, at the age of 49, is still one of the world's best boxers. But it doesn't matter if you're fighting one of the guys better than you.