Choosing His Chariot: Hopkins Takes on Kovalev
Separate emotions from violence and you have the essence of what makes a prize fighter a prize fighter. That’s Bernard Hopkins…
Even before last Saturday’s fight between Sergey Kovalev and 15-to-1 underdog Blake Caparello began, the news hit that Bernard Hopkins wasn’t just blustering about wanting to fight the roughest light-heavies. He had signed to a mano a mano with the man called Krusher.
Good for him.
The Executioner’s exit from boxing is the big story whenever stories are written about Hopkins, who’s five months shy of fifty. Unlike many fighters twenty years his junior, who are punchy and broken from too many wars, Hopkins has proved himself the master of avoiding ring damage. He’s more than just a young 49. He’s an unscathed 49. A head’s bone structure is basically a helmet, protecting that all-important gray matter inside. Crack a motorcycle helmet once, it’s done. Crack a bike helmet once, it’s not quite the same. Crack a man’s head enough times, he’s a different man—his reflexes become a little slower, his capacity for punishment a little smaller, his will a little weaker, which, in boxing, spells the decline if not the end of a career. Bernard Hopkins, after 63 fights, 42 of which were scheduled for 12 rounds, has never been counted out. His formula for longevity is twofold.
First, he’s the personification of boxing’s most important warning: protect-yourself-at-all-times. Tucking his head into his shoulder is not Hopkins’ patented move, but he might as well own exclusive rights. Hopkins’ discipline to keep his shoulder in harm’s way instead of his head, his discipline to refrain from opening up and thereby leave himself open, is the intense discipline of a true professional. Hopkins has no concerns about how he looks except in a vain, look-at-my-fifty-year-old-body way. He ignores the boos that often fill the arena when he fights, fans lusting for violent action. He ignores the primal need to punch with abandon, to fulfill whatever heart-of-darkness urges he may feel for his opponent. (One of the famous stories from Hopkins’ past is how, when first entering prison at seventeen, he chose the biggest man in the joint and punched him in the face; this wildness, even if it was a conscious wildness to establish territory, is absent when Hopkins enters the ring.) Separate emotions from violence and you have the essence of what makes a prize fighter a prize fighter. That’s Bernard Hopkins.
Hopkins’ second ingredient of success: he’s the ultimate control freak, using his mind and body to manipulate opponents into fighting his fight. Powerful punchers are rendered impotent. High volume punchers are reduced to pot-shotters. Hopkins dictates each fight’s psychology, best exemplified when he stamped on the Puerto Rican flag and subsequently stamped out Felix Trinidad. And Hopkins dictates ring geography, gauging, measuring, engaging only when he knows (and he does know) tepid fire will come back. Inevitably, at the end of his fights, which usually go the distance (it’s been A DECADE since Hopkins scored a knockout), the fighters who have shared the ring with Bernard Hopkins for twelve strategic rounds have been taken to school.
Enter Sergey Kovalev.
If Hopkins is cast as teacher, then Kovalev should be cast as the unruly student. Some classroom troublemakers are clowns. Some troublemakers are bullies. Then there are the genuine bad boys, kids just too hard to handle. Krusher Kovalev has earned his nickname with an 89 percent knockout ratio that rivals Gennady Golovkin’s, the man getting most of boxing’s recent KO attention. Golovkin’s punches are brutal because of their torque—they often travel whipping distances before doing their damage. Kovalev’s punches are different; even punches that don’t seem brutal have brutal consequences. His hands are the epitome of heavy hands. The thuds they produce reverberate and go to deep places, well below the surface where hurt resides. A review of Kovalev’s beat-down of Nathan Cleverly shows this in painful detail. If meat could yell while getting tenderized, that steady mallet breaking down muscle and sinew, it would sound like Cleverly looked. Kovalev’s methodical, steady punches turned the then-undefeated champ soft. Cleverly’s hard features softened. His taut stomach softened. His limber legs softened. Nathan Cleverly crumpled and crumpled again, slow-motion crumplings that suggested a broken mind as much as a broken body, before Kovalev had his heavy hand raised.
Hopkins has beaten a slew of fighters, younger fighters, he wasn’t supposed to beat, but in most of those fights, as the rounds progressed, we realized these men were indeed in need of schooling. When talking about Kovalev, before he signed the dotted line, Hopkins brought up Kelly Pavlik, the man he sees as closest to Kovalev in prowess.
“I would easily beat Kovalev. That would be the easiest fight. That fight, for me, would be just as easy as beating Kelly Pavlik. That fight would be real easy. Less than easy. If not, easier—and don’t forget to put that Er on the end of that word—than the Kelly Pavlik fight. I’m telling you.”
Er, can you say the lady doth protest too much, methinks? This time, despite his protests, all of Hopkins’ skills and experience and years at the head of pugilism’s classroom may not be enough. Kelly Pavlik was a perceived force before Hopkins dismantled the twenty-seven-year-old. He had a high knockout ratio. He had earned his stripes against tough guy Edison Miranda and A-list Jermain Taylor, twice. But Pavlik lacked the gravity Kovalev possesses.
Hopkins claims he’ll mix things up with Kovalev, but that’s talk. He’ll try to slow the pace. He’ll try to control Kovalev’s mind and, as usual, make it a boxing match, not a slugfest. This time Hopkins won’t succeed. Kovalev has a strong mind and his will to win is complete. Even after he killed a man in the ring, even after the tragic death of opponent Roman Simakov, Kovalev didn’t pull his punches the way fighters often do after a death fight. He went back to business in his brutal fashion. Eschewing feelings of guilt, understanding boxing’s hard consequences, Kovalev retained his hardness in the ring. And if personal impressions mean anything, during the few times I’ve met Sergey Kovalev I’ve been impressed with his out-of-ring demeanor, his relaxed, happy-go-lucky air that suggests inner peace, his smile that suggests he knows, without a doubt, he’s the strongest light heavyweight in the world, and his forearms that appear cast in rock. My uncle Manny, whose nickname “The Bull” was earned from Bronx street brawls, used to show me his forearm and tell me that’s where real strength lived. Forget the hyperbolic biceps, a weightlifter’s muscle-for-show. Kovalev’s forearms house the Krush in Krusher.
As for boxing skills, Kovalev knows how to cut off a ring. His pressure will be constant. His heavy hands may not touch Hopkins’ head at first, but they’ll touch his body, they’ll weaken his legs, and they’ll eventually tenderize that left shoulder. And if Hopkins opens up against Kovalev the way he opened up, earlier than expected, against his last two mediocre opponents, Murat and Shumenov, he’ll face trouble early. For a few rounds, Hopkins may retain some of his freak-of-nature youth, for a few rounds Hopkins may control the ring, but as the rounds progress, as the balance of power moves from smart dictator Hopkins to brutal dictator Kovalev, age will finally catch up with Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins would have been smarter dealing with Adonis Stevenson, whose power is devastating (though not as devastating as Kovalev’s), but whose mind is weaker (Stevenson is more the bully student, a man accused of pimping and abusing women, a man clearly ducking the dangerous threat of Kovalev), and whose skills have more holes. So kudos to Hopkins, who didn’t make the easy choice, the obvious choice, about which devastating puncher to face. He’s decided to try to school the roughest student in the light-heavy classroom.
Some will argue Bernard Hopkins chose Sergey Kovalev because he knows he can beat Kovalev. Perhaps Hopkins believes this is true. A fighter has to believe he’ll reign supreme before entering the ring or else he’s doomed. But perhaps there’s something more at work here, something more nuanced, more in keeping with Hopkins’ complex character. Perhaps, understanding that time’s winged chariot runs down everyone, Hopkins has decided his time has come. Perhaps he has decided that his final fight, which he will fight on the cusp of his half-century mark, unheard of in professional boxing, should be against a man worthy of beating him, a chariot worthy of running him down, of executing The Executioner. Bernard Hopkins’ final, very-conscious boxing choice may be his most impressive of all.
Adam Berlin is the author of the recently published boxing novel Both Members of the Club (Texas Review Press/winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize). His other novels are The Number of Missing (Spuyten Duyvil), Belmondo Style (St. Martin’s Press/winner of The Publishing Triangle’s Ferro-Grumley Award) and Headlock (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill). His stories and poetry have appeared in numerous journals. He teaches writing at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City and co-edits J Journal: New Writing on Justice. For more, please visit adamberlin.com.