Choosing His Chariot: Hopkins Takes on Kovalev

By Adam Berlin on August 3, 2014
Choosing His Chariot: Hopkins Takes on Kovalev
Hopkins personifies boxing’s most important warning: protect-yourself-at-all-times.

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

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Bernard Hopkins Speaks to Ringside Media Regarding Kovalev Showdown

Sergey Kovalev defeated Caparello, and now will fight Hopkins in November.

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  1. Eric 02:32pm, 08/06/2014

    Igor… Ezzard Charles, Wilfred Sycpion, Ray Mancini, Max Baer, Lupe Pintor, and others have killed other boxers in the ring. The Krusher has awesome power but taking a sustained beating is much more dangerous than getting knocked out early. Hopkins might get hurt, but the odds of him getting seriously hurt or getting “killed” are as about as likely as me winning the Powerball Jackpot tonight. However, Hopkins or any boxer risk serious injury or death every time they enter the ring, no matter who the opponent is or how hard they hit. I’ve heard of a case where two teenage girls got into a fist fight and one girl later died. A Nolan Ryan 100mph “heater” back in the day had the potential to seriously hurt or even kill someone if they were hit flush in the right place.

  2. tuxtucis 11:36pm, 08/05/2014

    @Igor: so ? Ali clearly lost to Frazier and Norton, Foreman destroyed Norton and Frazier in two rounds so Ali could have lost to Foreman in 1 round…But he won…So the same could be for Hopkins-Kovalev…and Stevenson never met and never lost to Kovalev, even if you think he ducked him..

  3. Jim Crue 02:44pm, 08/05/2014

    Igor, you should not worry about Hopkins getting hurt. As I have written if he cannot shuck and jive and waltz this guy he will look for a way out and collect his big pay check.

  4. Igor 02:07pm, 08/05/2014

    My point is very simple, guys: remember B-Hop losing to Dawson whom Adonis ducking Sergey Kovalev knocked out so fast? To Dawson who has no punching power as compared to this man from the Urals (Siberia) who has already killed one boxer in the ring! So how many chances does this 50-year-old long-liver in the ring, who is not a natural light heavyweight to boot, may have against this Russian killing machine? I pray Hopkins stays alive after this bout and I join those guys who opined that Hop has enough wisdom to quit early enough to avoid bad injuries and get his purse. And I hope they won’t appoint a woman referee for this fight!

  5. Mohummad Humza Elahi 01:23am, 08/05/2014

    All sense points to Krusher just laying into B-Hop with reckless abandon, disguised as patient and devastating punching.  But Hopkins doesn’t strike me as a guy without a plan and I’m intrigued to see what that plan is, just for the lulz.  I’m a B-Hop fan, no-one understands the business and the brutality better than him and he might make Kovalev look like Cloud.  Either way, someone’s going to end their night wondering just what the hell happened.

  6. Jim Crue 03:36pm, 08/04/2014

    if Hopkins can shuck and jive him he will win. If he cannot, which I doubt, he’ll quit early on. Remember the fight where he fell down, claimed he got thrown down and said his shoulder was damaged? The fight was stopped. He claimed he needed surgery. Where was the tepid boxing press when he had the surgery? He did NOT have surgery and the press just let it go. He has been shucking and jiving for years. He’s a good fighter but a better con man. He won’t take punishment so my bet is if he starts to get beat up he will quit and walk away with millions. And he’s smiling about it. He’s good businessman. Nothing wrong with that

  7. Koolz 03:15pm, 08/04/2014

    I think Hopkin’s is making the mistake of thinking that Kovalev has to be back a bit to hit him.  Kovalev like Golovkin can hit up close and still have great power. 
    Kovalev also seems to be a patient fighter.  He never got angry or rushed himself in his last fight.
    I think a lot of people out there are going to assume B-hop can out box and fox Kovalev.  Yea this is true but for 12 rounds….no….no way.  It’s like saying Mayweather could out box GGG for 12 rounds, sooner or later your going to get hit.  When the Krusher hits you you will more then just feel it.

  8. Darrell 02:33pm, 08/04/2014

    Staying in the pocket against a fouling knockout puncher like Maidana at the age of 38 isn’t exactly the work of a coward lads…....Hah!

    Hopkins gets destroyed, let’s be real here.  Kovalev is one of the most composed, and settled, fighters I’ve seen in a long time.  He won’t come to lose to an old man.  He’s a more vicious, powerful & clinical finisher than Pavlik too.  This is an easy one to pick.

    Hopkins has chosen to go out on his shield like a true Spartan, in a blaze of glory.  I tip my hat to his courage, or if he really does think he can win this, shake my head at his stupidity.

  9. Jim Crue 01:26pm, 08/04/2014

    The Russian can’t let Hopkins shuck and jive him into fighting his fight. Hopkins could not shuck and jive his way through Roy Jones. If Hopkins gets knocked cold, although he will quit if he’s getting hurt, I’ll be as happy as when Marco Antonio Barrera beat that loudmouth Brit Naseem Hamed a few years back. But I still won’t pay a cent to watch it.

  10. Koolz 11:50am, 08/04/2014

    B-hop Truly amazing with Great Skill and Great Boxing IQ and….I am looking at him being TKO’d in this.
    He will out box outfox Kovalev until he get’s hit with punch in the side of the head. 
    B-hop could fight backing up and making Kovalev miss and can he not get his for 12 rounds?  No he cannot this is why I am calling it a TKO.
    This is going to be a Huge FIGHT!

  11. Eric 10:42am, 08/04/2014

    @The Nonpareil….I was thinking the same thing. Hopkins, whether you like him or not, is at least stepping up to the plate, and doing it while 50 years old. Hard not to admire that. More than you can say for the much younger Floyd Mayweather Jr.

  12. The Nonpareil 10:29am, 08/04/2014

    This is a courageous move that Floyd Mayweather has NEVER done or would do. Mr. Hopkins would close a great career if he could pull it off. It’s conceivable because Mr. Kovalev is still green in many areas. Of course I’m not counting out Serg’s power but that can he handled through Wisdom. We’ll see.

  13. tuxtucis 01:06am, 08/04/2014

    Kovalev is very easy to counter, he never foght some experienced and solid as Hopkins is. I think the executioner has the great ability to lower his foes to the match he want. I see Hopkins win a clumsy and ugly decision, although I would be not upset to see him knocked in 2 rounds by the Russian.

  14. Darrell 08:53pm, 08/03/2014

    Hopkins will be counted out in this one.

  15. Sam Young 06:40pm, 08/03/2014

    I think Hopkins has 2 chances to win this fight, NONE and ABSOLUTELY NONE !!! Hopkins will hug and clinch and fake like he got hit with low blows when Sergey goes to the body, but I can’t see Hopkins winning this fight at all, unless he doing steroids.

  16. Galvar 05:29pm, 08/03/2014

    Here’s my prediction.  B-Hop turns from alien to octopus and holds Krusher all night.  He’ll punch a lil while on the inside probably even rabid punches where ref can’t see.  Krusher will try to gauge distance but B-Hop will just keep hugging and holding so Krusher can’t get a punch off.  If Krusher gets frustrated B-Hop will tag him with scoring punches.  I still think Krusher wins but B-Hop is going to make it an ugly fight.

  17. andrew 04:57pm, 08/03/2014

    He should have stuck with Stevenson, who could only knock him out with his left. At least it will be fun to guess which hand will send the Alien into orbit.

  18. GlennR 03:07pm, 08/03/2014

    Yep, youve got to give it to the old man…....... you can never count the guy out as you put it Eric

  19. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:33am, 08/03/2014

    Spearing jab downstairs finishes Agnew…..long right to the mid-section for all practical purposes does the same for IL Capo.

  20. Eric 07:10am, 08/03/2014

    I have to give Hopkins his due, what he has done will probably be never duplicated. I don’t really like Hopkins, but I do admire his accomplishments and his grit. You can never count the guy out.

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