Saturday night in a ring surrounded by the crumbling Boardwalk Empire of Atlantic City, the Master Craftsman of Boxing Bernard Hopkins met his Waterloo like so many greats before him. As Rocky Marciano did to Joe Louis, Terry Norris to Sugar Ray Leonard, and Larry Holmes to Muhammad Ali, Sergey Kovalev battered Hopkins in an extraordinarily one-sided 12-round fight.
Boxing is an unforgiving sport, and the greats typically learn that firsthand the hard way, in their final moments in the ring. For Hopkins, it just took him an extra decade or so to get there.
Hopkins had no answer for the measured and accurate barrage from the sharp-punching and determined Kovalev. In the run-up to fight night, Hopkins had compared Kovalev to Kelly Pavlik who he dismantled in a similar underdog role. But Kovalev proved not to be the “lead foot” slow-handed fighter that Hopkins had characterized him to be. Hopkins had miscalculated badly.
The fight was over in the first round when Kovalev dropped Bernard with a clubbing right hand. While only Bernard knows his plan for the fight, Hopkins had not KO’d an opponent in 10 years so as a practical matter he had to be thinking a twelve round decision. Kovalev had never gone more than eight rounds in his career so his stamina in the later rounds was an open question. Kovalev also has the tendency to cut around the eyes, and Hopkins knows how to exploit this advantage, so while this is a less predictable opportunity the wily Hopkins had this fact tucked into his plan.
I think it is safe to assume that Hopkins’ overall plan was to weather the first half of the fight, steal a few rounds, and get Kovalev into deep waters where he would hope to come on and finish strong against a tiring fighter. In order to make this plan work, Hopkins would have to make it a defensive fight where Kovalev would expend energy trying to walk Hopkins down and Hopkins could roll, counterpunch, and rally whenever the opportunity presented itself. A lot of things can go wrong with this kind of strategy but Hopkins was fully invested in it because it was clearly his best, and perhaps only, path to victory.
When Hopkins went down in the first round he found himself two points down in the fight. Besides the fact that he was hurt by that right hand, any margin of error for him was now gone. Kovalev stayed within himself and did not come out in the 2nd round looking for the quick knockout.
He demonstrated good craft, skill, and the boxing acumen that came from a long and successful amateur career. He cut off the ring on Bernard and forced him into an even lower than usual punch output. Hopkins could not steal any rounds, and even if Kovalev tired in the later rounds there was not enough time to steal a decision. Game over.
Make no mistake about it, the greatness of Hopkins is assured. He bravely carried the mantle of the truly special warriors in boxing who take on all comers. The fact that he was 49 years old when he challenged a fighter with a devastating knockout record is so extraordinary that it defies characterization.
There are a lot of talented fighters today. Let’s hope that the Kovalev’s, Gennady Golovkin’s, and Andre Ward’s of the boxing world continue in the Hopkins tradition of accepting the challenges and making the fights that elevate boxing to the truly special sport it can be.