Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Executioner Thrives, even in Winter

After Bernard Hopkins defeated Antonio Tarver in June of 2006, he announced his retirement.  He had promised his late mother that he wouldn't fight past his 40th birthday.  He stretched a little bit to take on Tarver; he was 41 when he dominated the acknowledged number-one light heavyweight in the world.  In the weeks after the fight, HBO threw Hopkins a retirement party and the fighter opted to take on a larger role in Golden Boy Promotions, where he was a partner in the promotional company.
To paraphrase an old boxing adage: "Fighters don't retire, the ring retires fighters." This phrase means that the opposition lets a boxer know when it's time to hang up the gloves: not age or any other factor. Hopkins didn't take too well to retirement. He remained in the gym and continued to rise at his unconscionable hours to maintain his conditioning.  Hopkins, long accustomed to a Spartan lifestyle of discipline, sacrifice and pugilism, grew itchy to return to boxing.  After almost a year out of sport, he felt that he still had more to accomplish in the ring.
At 42, after only a little more than a year away, he was back.  Since his return, he has fought seven times, winning five, losing one and recording a draw.  With the exception of Enrique Ornelas and a grudge rematch with Roy Jones Jr., every opponent has been a top, high-profile foe, including tough middleweight Winky Wright, super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik and light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal.
Throughout his comeback, the professional prognosticators have written him off on numerous occasions.  He was the underdog in five of his seven fights, often a significant one.  During his recent run, boxing observers and even members of his own promotional company suggested that he should again retire.
Yet Hopkins has been very productive in his 40s.  Always one to incorporate slights (either real or perceived) as motivation during training, Hopkins continues to use negative attention to further fuel his desire to defeat his opponents and naysayers.  Those who believed that Hopkins was washed up have had to eat their share of crow during the Executioner's return; he is currently the light heavyweight champion, having defeated Jean Pascal in their rematch, and he almost won the super middleweight crown as well, losing a razor-thin split decision to Joe Calzaghe.
This week, Hopkins fights Chad Dawson, a former light heavyweight titlist who is 17 years younger than the graying Philadelphian.  Dawson possesses many advantages, including hand and foot speed and athleticism.  Nevertheless, despite Dawson's accomplishments in the ring and relative youth, he is only a slight favorite in the fight. Professional odds makers, who have been burned numerous times on Hopkins, have factored in the older champion's mental toughness, perseverance and recent fighting history to arrive at their betting lines.  Most boxing experts are siding with Hopkins.
At a basic level, consider how astounding it is that a 46-year-old fighter, who no longer possesses knockout power, is even considered a credible opponent for a 29-year old light heavyweight who is one of the best in the division.  Now, realize that the younger fighter is the one who is trying to win the title!  In a vacuum, this story would be completely improbable.  Hopkins isn't George Foreman, landing a thudding combination to become champion.  No, he can only win by outmaneuvering, outthinking and outlasting his opponents.  Hopkins has always been known for his supreme work ethic, ring generalship and dedication to the sport, but still, his current status within boxing would be imaginable only to Hollywood screenwriters.  Lots of fighters have had great work ethics and ring intelligence; their careers usually ended in their 30s.
The Dawson fight is Hopkins' second in a three-bout contract signed with HBO prior to the Pascal rematch.  That a 46-year-old fighter can secure a multi-fight commitment from a U.S. premium cable network is nothing short of remarkable.  Additionally, it's not as if this current contract is some glorified retirement tour; his first two fights as part of the contract have been against the top-two opponents in the light heavyweight division.
Interestingly, should Hopkins get by Dawson, there isn't an obvious opponent for him to face for his third fight under the HBO contract.  He previously discussed fighting Canadian super middleweight champion Lucian Bute, but Bute has demonstrated no willingness to fight even the best in his own division, let alone a tough opponent at light heavyweight.  Perhaps Hopkins will fight Pascal for a third time.  It may also be likely that the Hopkins-Dawson result will be close and/or controversial, warranting a rematch.  Nevertheless, in his mid '40s, Hopkins has pretty much cleaned out the big names in nearby weight classes. Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson don't warrant rematches with Hopkins because of their uncompetitive performances in their first fights with the Executioner.  It's also doubtful that Andre Ward's people would place their fighter in with Hopkins while Ward still has unfinished business at super middleweight.
So, Hopkins soldiers on waiting for the ring to retire him.  Although his reflexes have diminished slightly, he still possesses several weapons that make him very difficult to defeat.  No opponent has figured out how to defend his lead right hand.  It's almost as unstoppable as Kareem Abdul Jabbar's sky hook.  He winds the shot back almost like a rubber band.  Varying its trajectory, he can throw it straight down the pike or he can loop it to the right side.  The result is somehow the same: an opponent's head snapping back.  Immediately after landing the punch, he moves in cunningly with hooks to the body and head and more right hands.  These brief but memorable flurries illustrate the best of Hopkins in the ring.
Hopkins' infighting remains special.  His combinations of grappling, kidney punches, hooks and uppercuts cause significant discomfort for his opponents.  He positions his body expertly on the inside, landing shots that straddle the border of legality, yet the referees are never in position to see the questionable punches.  His defense, while not impenetrable, is still better than 98% of the fighters in the sport.  Perhaps only Floyd Mayweather blocks or parries more shots than Hopkins does.
Pascal exposed some chinks in the armor though.  Hopkins couldn't get out of punching range as fast as he used to and he would predictably step to his right after throwing combinations from the ropes.  Pascal would throw a cleanup left hook after exchanges, and landed a few each fight that were devastating.  Additionally, Pascal scored two knockdowns in the first fight.  Even though one of them was probably the result of an illegal punch, the knockdowns demonstrated some deterioration of Hopkins' chin and/or legs.  Furthermore, Pascal rallied in the finals rounds of their second fight.  Vintage Hopkins would never let any fighter dominate him in the championship rounds, yet there Pascal was in the 11th and 12th rounds of the second fight looking like the fresher and hungrier fighter.
Maybe Dawson is finally the guy to beat Hopkins decisively, although Hopkins' career record wouldn't necessarily support that proposition.  His three losses over the last decade could all have gone his way with different judges.
Whatever happens with Dawson, Hopkins' legacy and status in the sport is secure. He will be elected as a first ballot Hall of Famer whenever he retires from the ring.  He almost singlehandedly has carried the Philadelphia boxing tradition with him over the last decade.  He has also become one of the most recognizable figures in all of boxing.  Perhaps most surprisingly, he has become an in-demand inspirational speaker, imparting  wisdom onto state legislatures, convicts, sports fans and inner city youth.  His life story, from criminal to champion to boxing ambassador is part of sports, not just boxing, folklore.
Perhaps Hopkins is now the "Executer" instead of the "Executioner."  The name still has a deadly ring to it in the right context.  Hopkins wins because he has superior ring intelligence, fundamentals, technique and desire, not power.  His 40s have including some of his most memorable efforts, including dominating wins over Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik.  He has provided the boxing public with a fascinating and captivating coda to a career that won't be soon forgotten.
Now fighting in his fourth decade, Hopkins continues to tempt fate, waiting for that incontrovertible sign indicating that he has succumbed to Father Time.  But Hopkins has been the most pious of boxing's recent disciples; his devotion to the sport and his own body has afforded him additional time on the Fighting Earth, beating back the devil who takes away legs, chins, reflexes and endurance.

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