Fistic Dialectics: Louis Armstrong with Gloves On
“People are taught to believe what you hear, what you are told, not what you see. I want to show you something that you will never see again” - Bernard Hopkins
Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins faces Sergei “Krusher” Kovalev on November 8th for the unification of 3 light heavyweight titles. Fans watching will witness a precedent being defined before their very eyes as B-Hop, approaching his 50th birthday, will seek to surpass his own record of becoming the eldest boxer to win and defend a title. While other young baby boomers will be on couches, he will be fighting a powerful, devastating, puncher, Kovalev, who has not only won most of his fights via knockout, but has a death attributed to one. Unification is a rare occurance, reserved for the realm of hungry lions and all-time greats, but the more interesting aspect of this match is Hopkins' march against time and fandom's understanding of it.
B-Hop is a legitimate all time great and what is at stake is something altogether different, something that is truly historic on many levels; a grand defiance of providence, the past, and the futures sprint towards him. The key, hidden up his sleeve, is the seemingly inhuman ability to outlast the obstacles, to outlast precedence and to defy our own body's inevitable desire to slow down.
There is a pervasive doubt, planted in our collective history, that has thus far been made the jester over twelve rounds, over careers. Wisdom hides for many in age, but for B-Hop, the wisdom is disguised in the continuum. Mike Tyson, Roy Jones Jr, Ali, and Pacquiao met the stasis precisely because of their inability to shadow box it, to outlast it. When the stasis comes, it bears gifts of money, women, fame, accolades and history. It seeps into sparring sessions and media engagements, it seeps into the odds makers. This seepage belies that an upset is always in the cards, but its fangs grow very long with the Will of time.
Sergei Kovalev is a dangerous puncher, both on paper and on film. His game plan is a persistent search for nothing short of the most damaging shots, to the body, to the head. Through body blows and conscious piercing lead hands, the constant pressure Kovalev pushes within the first few rounds force his opponents to overcome or become overwhelmed. This pattern has worked enough to earn him a title shot against Hopkins, and though Hopkins has faced every type of fighter over his career, Kovalev is aiming to do something his other opponents could not - age Hopkins over the course of twelve rounds.
Hopkins knows this and has known this, back when his opponent had a different name, Kelly Pavlik or Felix Trinidad and considered too strong, too powerful. Wiley as a fox, Hopkins has mastered the art of mental rope-a-dope, and he will enact it by any means necessary. Whether it is to make a personal bet against his opponent ($250,000 against Antonio Tarver) or to incite the fury of a nation by throwing his opponents flag to the floor (Felix Trinidad). For his fight with Kovalev, he is attempting to plant the seeds of doubt by pointing to Kovalev's trainer, John David Jackson, whom Hopkins not only beat in the ring, but according to Hopkins, beat repeatedly in sparring.
Kovalev understands Hopkins style; where Ali never gave Foreman notice that he was in a game of attrition, Hopkins lets them know from the moment the fight is announced. Hopkins goal is to frustrate, to make his opponent carry through twelve rounds not only the dead weight of fatigue, but the dead weight of frustration. Hopkins wears his opponents down, physically taunting them with a clinch game and his Felix the Cat bag of tricks. Hopkins is a pure boxer, but with another added level. Where a traditional pure boxer seeks to hit but not get hit, Hopkins seeks to not get hit but frustrate his opponent, wear them down until the available shots reveal themselves to him.
Over a long enough time frame, in this case 12 rounds of boxing, this moment arrives eventually, as it did with Kelly Pavlik, Oscar De La Hoya, and Beibut Shumenov. We see Hopkin's CPU begin processing the data collected over the training camp and in the ring. Pot shots turn into counters, the clinch evolves into dirty boxing, and when toe to toe, youth and athleticism become neutralized somewhere after round 7, left behind with the oddsmakers in Vegas and our predictions.
Lately, he opens up in the later rounds, putting himself at increasingly greater risk than before, every round is a metaphor for the era's of his life, and each fight as much a metaphor for his career as anything. He wishes to not only make a statement, but to punctuate it as well.
Does Kovalev have a chance? Absolutely. But it is chance versus experience in this match as Hopkins will undoubtedly design his game plan around not granting Kovalev anything more than the chance to step into the ring with him, the chance for Kovalev to taste boxing history made manifest, to face pure experience.
I am hoping for a 12 round masterclass by Hopkins. His goal is to conquer the light heavyweight division and I am cheering him all the way. But he has thrown himselves to the lions. Kovalev is a greater test than Shumenov, Murat, Cloud and I believe Adonis Stevenson, a jab centric fighter with the gas tank of a V-8. To unify the belts at his age is to not only come full circle with boxing history, but to simultaneously expand that circle and in tandem, its possibilities.