Hopkins Makes History

By Adam Berlin on May 22, 2011
Hopkins Makes History
Foreman and Bernard Hopkins were never similar, not in their weights, not in their styles

Bernard Hopkins had taken the opportunity to argue his case a second time and he argued beautifully…

May 21 was about second chances. It was Rapture Day, the day the world was supposed to end, but surprise, surprise, a new morning broke, the sun shone, and spring started its second month, pushing toward summer. On Rapture Night, in Montreal’s Bell Centre, Bernard Hopkins got a second chance to become the oldest man in boxing history to win a world title.

Leading up to the Hopkins/Pascal rematch, record-holder George Foreman had chimed in on Hopkins’ historic quest, hedging his bet about whether or not the 46-year-old would win and whether or not a win by decision would eclipse Foreman’s feat in 1994. History was linking these two men for the second time in five months, but as fighters George Foreman and Bernard Hopkins were never similar, not in their weights, not in their styles, not in their journeys to win the title at an age when most men are content to glorify past acts of prowess instead of reliving them. George Foreman retired and came back. Bernard Hopkins never left. George Foreman was one of the hardest hitters in heavyweight history. Bernard Hopkins was not a one-punch danger even as a middleweight. George Foreman had aged kinder and gentler. Bernard Hopkins had grown more surly. 

But one trait did connect Foreman and Hopkins, as older fighters, in their respective title bouts. Both men had shocked their opponents. Teddy Atlas may have warned his charge Michael Moorer to watch out for Big George’s right hand—the veteran trainer had read Foreman correctly, had seen Foreman’s thought process, had understood that the big man, who’d become a wiser man since getting outwitted by Muhammad Ali in Zaire, was distracting Moorer, was waiting until the time was right to deliver his historically concussive blow—but Moorer didn’t heed Atlas’ sage advice and down he went. Ass to the canvas, looking up at the lights, Moorer’s mouth bloody and his eyes blinking in shock, is a top-ten image of defeat for many boxing fans. Bernard Hopkins never had Foreman’s punch, not even close. If he did, and if you subscribe to the theory that power is indeed the last thing that leaves an aging fighter, Hopkins would have taken out a visibly demoralized Pascal before Round 10 in their first fight. Instead of raw power, Hopkins built his career on being crafty and resilient, two traits that seemed to shock Pascal last December. After some rough early patches, including two knockdowns, Hopkins quickly recovered.  or the rest of the fight, Hopkins was the busier, more effective fighter and used his slick skills to nullify Pascal’s main strength, an explosive aggression that had allowed the younger man to rack up points against lesser opponents. When the fight was over, most people, including myself, thought Hopkins had squeaked out a victory, but the scorecards that counted made it a majority draw. Pascal retained his title. Foreman’s record remained intact.

Leading up to this second fight, Hopkins was not just all business, but all animosity. Angry at Jean Pascal’s accusations that Hopkins’ youthful physique was as much drug-induced as exercise-induced, Hopkins and Pascal yelled and cursed and scuffled through the pre-fight hype, right up to the weigh-in. Then things became more controlled. Hopkins needed an extra hour to make weight, a sign that perhaps he wasn’t in full control before he stepped on the scale. And during the pre-fight stare-down, a photo op that is really a violence op, tempers remained under wraps. 

As custom decrees, the challenger entered the ring first. Hopkins wore his usual executioner’s mask, an emblematic echo of his pre-fight words, “Don’t be surprised if I kill him.” Jean Pascal, the champion, entered second, ski cap on his head as he’d done for his first fight against The Executioner. Each man’s eyes looked ready and that readiness was apparent as both fighters champed at the bit to start fighting, inching toward the center of the ring. When the bell did sound, Pascal stepped back, Hopkins stepped forward and the night’s big dance began. 

Round 1 was all feeling out. Hopkins pressed. Pascal retreated. Pascal landed two punches at round’s end to win the first. Round 2 was slightly more active. Pascal burst forth with a few quick flurries while Hopkins landed a few probing punches. Not much action, but Pascal stole the round. While Hopkins was the aggressor, he wasn’t pulling the trigger and the notoriously slow starter had made another slow start.

Things changed in Round 3. The Executioner pulled out his first real weapon, a stiff jab that snapped back Pascal’s head, then, later in the round, pushed back Pascal’s body. The Canadian tried to steal the round with a final flurry, but it was too little too late. Hopkins said before the fight that he would pick up where he left off in December, that the first round of the rematch would really be the 13th round.  It took three rounds to get back on track, but finally Hopkins was fighting the way he’d last fought Pascal.

Round 4 turned rough. The fight moved inside, the clutching and wrestling began. Pascal landed some rabbit punches, punches Hopkins complained about in their first fight. And the referee started exerting his authority, breaking the fighters, pushing them back. Hopkins pressed the action and, feeling cocky, stuck out his tongue. That was the motivation Pascal needed. He landed a hard combination that stunned Hopkins and for a moment the old man looked his age.

Between rounds, trainer Naazim Richardson asked his fighter to tie up Pascal as soon as Pascal started throwing his wild, explosive flurries. The trainer worried that old Hopkins would get sucked into a young man’s energetic game. Hopkins is a wise veteran, wise enough to listen to another wise man’s words. From Round 5 to Round 11, Hopkins heeded Richardson’s advice, controlled the ring’s geography, controlled the young man in front of him with an array of punches, and fought with the composure of someone who has spent nearly a quarter century in the ring.

In Round 7, when the referee called a quick time-out, Hopkins started doing push-ups in his corner. He continued to show off his full tank by taking the round big. He’d land a left hook, then get out of the pocket, his eyes surveying everything in front of him. A big right bent Pascal over. In Round 8, Hopkins dominated with his right hand. Toward round’s end, I counted four crisp, clean shots and then a left for good measure against Pascal’s two clean shots. As if saving for retirement, Hopkins was putting rounds in the bank.

Hopkins took a deep breath before Round 9, steeling himself to face the last third of the fight. This round featured Hopkins’ jab. He was in the zone, landing at will. A relatively light punch tipped Pascal off balance and the Canadian’s glove touched canvas. Technically a knockdown, the referee ruled the fall a slip. Perhaps it was somewhere in between. I suppose it will take a few more sprained ankles and some broken legs before boxing commissions start regulating advertisements painted onto the canvas. I counted nine advertisements on the Bell Centre’s ring, including a large rectangular add for Videotron, on which Pascal slid all night long. (The slipping had started earlier in the night when both Chad Dawson and Adrian Diaconu lost their balance a number of times and seemed unable to firmly plant their feet.)  Pascal was knocked off balance again in Round 10, and again what could have been technically ruled a knockdown was called a slip. Regardless, Pascal was beaten up during the tenth as Hopkins landed jabs, left hooks to both the head and body, and a left uppercut that snapped Pascal’s head. Hopkins continued his assault in Round 11, shooting a volley of jabs at Pascal’s face until a frustrated Pascal tried turning the fight into a brawl, clinching, wrestling, leading with his head, desperate to change the pattern that Hopkins had imposed.

The electricity of expectation carried into the final round. Could Pascal land a frenzied punch and hurt the old man? Could Hopkins keep fatigue at bay and hang on for one more round? Would history be made? The crowd was loud and even the referee was clapping before Round 12 began. And Round 12 lived up. Pascal stunned Hopkins early, but instead of retreating, the veteran engaged, and the two men fought hard for the full three minutes, trading punches, each breathing heavy when the final bell rang.

The fight went to the scorecards and the scorecards got it right. To ensure no hometown decision, the three judges were from Italy, the Philippines and Thailand; their scores read 115-113, 116-112, 115-114. I had the fight 116-112. Bernard Hopkins had taken the opportunity to argue his case a second time and he argued beautifully. He remained upright the entire fight. He dominated his less-experienced foe with a variety of punches. He found his rhythm, stayed in his rhythm, and won. Jean Pascal may not have been shocked by Bernard Hopkins this time around, but as the fight progressed Pascal clearly recognized that the man in front of him, the man with twice as many fights on his ledger, the man who has beaten some of boxing’s legends, was indeed the better man. The rematch left no doubts. 

After the fight, Bernard Hopkins was able to smile. “I felt like I’m not 46, but close to 36.” And he added, “I’ve been accused of being boring, but I’m going to finish last. I’m going to finish strong. Before I leave this game you’re going to see the best Bernard Hopkins fight.” Tonight Hopkins finished strong. Tonight no one could accuse Hopkins of being boring. Tonight, Bernard Hopkins became the oldest fighter to win a world title. 

Hopkins says he wants to fight until he’s 50. He probably can, but he has done all he needs to do in boxing. He’s a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame. He’s financially set. He’s had a very long and a very successful career. There comes a point of diminishing returns in every fighter’s life when the pursuit of victory and even history is not worth a damaged reputation, not to mention damaged brain cells. (On this day many time zones away, Hopkins’ decade-long nemesis Roy Jones once again fought and once again lost, this time to hungry contender Denis Lebedev. Fighting too many fights with diminished skills, Jones has tainted his legacy.) Bernard Hopkins has always been the master of his destiny and, hopefully, he’ll know when the time is right to retire.

May 21. A day of second chances. The day passed without an apocalypse and that’s good news for most of us. The world is still here. And Bernard Hopkins is still here, almost miraculously, fighting with the spirit of men half his age. His victory may not have shocked the world, as George Foreman’s punch did many years ago, but Bernard Hopkins’ historic night is more impressive because he never left the fight game and he never lost his discipline. When his second chance came, Bernard Hopkins was ready because he’d stayed ready. That’s the stuff of legend. That’s the stuff of history.

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  1. Lee 08:27pm, 05/29/2011

    Great article about a great champion and athlete. Hopkins is a marvel and an inspiration with his devotion and work ethic; He will continue to feast on younger, less experienced fighters as long as his body will let him. Joe Calzaghe was the only fighter to decisively beat him in my opinion. Why? Because at 36, Calzaghe was faster, had easily as much ringcraft and was immune to Hopkins’ head games. Everyone else, good luck.

  2. Guy Mortimer 06:47am, 05/29/2011

    Hopkins deserved the decision and is probably still the best light heavyweight in the world. Pascal tried hard but his inferior boxing skills and tentativeness were always going to get him beat by B-Hop. They say Hopkins wants to fight Lucien Bute and I hope it happens because I think Bute is the only guy around that can deal with ‘Old Man River’. But I don’t the Canadian will take that fight at 175 pds as he’s not a natural light heavy. Maybe at 170, but definitely not at 175. Anyway, I must say I don’t think that we’ll ever see the likes of Hopkins again. He’s a truly phenomenol athlete.

  3. Your Name Steve 04:54am, 05/29/2011

    Adam Berlin’s 5/22 article was one of the most well written pieces I have read in a long time. Thank you.

  4. Glen 02:40am, 05/29/2011

    I know everyone goes on about the right hand that put Moorer out but it wasn’t one shot. Foreman had him hurt earlier in the round from a signature left hook that stopped Moorer punching and let Foreman throw a few right hands that put him out. People talk about the right hand as if it came from no where. Larry Holmes mentions this on a top 10 DVD with Burt Sugar and George Chuvalo but they kept interrupting him and showing the wrong footage.

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