Thursday, February 16, 2012

How Hopkins Makes It Ugly

Bernard Hopkins can engage in ugly fights.  That’s not a secret.  But how does he get opponents to fight in his style?  What makes a volume puncher like Joe Calzaghe unable to throw his customary number of shots?  Why does Jermain Taylor refuse to utilize his jab, which is one of his best weapons?  Why does Winky Wright refrain from throwing very many punches at all?  Clearly, Hopkins has established a formula for dictating the pace of his fights and neutralizing the weapons of his opponents.  This article will examine Bernard Hopkins’ fight with Joe Calzaghe to illustrate how the veteran Philadelphian boxer imposes his style and creates "Bernard Hopkins fights." 

Hopkins and Calzaghe entered the 2008 fight as top-five pound-for-pound fighters.  The contest was contracted as a light heavyweight fight; both boxers came in to the fight at 173 pounds.  Interestingly, Calzaghe was installed as the favorite. 
Hopkins had shocked the boxing world in 2006 by dethroning Antonio Tarver in a one-sided drubbing to become the number-one light heavyweight in the world.  In his fight directly preceding the Calzaghe bout, Hopkins defeated Winky Wright in yet another instance where he overcame the odds to pull out a victory over a top fighter. 

After a long career defending his WBO title against second and third-rate fighters in the U.K., Calzaghe garnered substantial international acclaim with his domination of the favored Jeff Lacy.  In 2007, Calzaghe became the undisputed super middleweight champion by decisively beating Mikkel Kessler. 

                                         “You’re being a bit too cautious.”
                                              – Enzo Calzaghe after the third round
                                     (Joe’s dad and trainer)
Joe Calzaghe typically threw 70-80 punches per round.  A southpaw and a volume puncher, Calzaghe defeated opponents with unconventional punches, angles and movement.  He was often referred to as a “rhythm fighter,” and that moniker was valid.  Calzaghe was one of the rare fighters who could beat opponents going forward and backward.  He moved in for quick flurries and ducked out before trouble came his way.  His best punch was a straight left hand, although he also threw a solid right jab and a good left uppercut.  He also shoeshined his opponents with chopping left and right hooks in close quarters.  His best defensive attribute was his elusiveness, never staying in one place for too long. 

However, Hopkins was immediately able to stymie Calzaghe's speed, rhythm and timing in the opening rounds of their fight.  Calzaghe started the fight extremely tentative and seemed frustrated by Hopkins’ feints and disengagement.  Additionally, Calzaghe showed Hopkins too much respect in the early rounds, unwilling to take too many risks.  Hopkins dropped Calzaghe in the first round with a counter right hand that was more the product of perfect punch placement than a menacing power shot.  According to CompuBox, Calzaghe threw only 35 punches in the first round and landed only 7.  Not that Hopkins set the world on fire himself; he only connecting with 4 out of 16 shots.  However, Hopkins’ path to victory relied far less on the volume of shots than the quality of them.  Even with just a few landed blows in the first round, he had accomplished his mission. 

Nevertheless, the relative punch outputs of the two fighters would be a key theme throughout the match.  Rounds two and three were swing rounds that established the tenor of the fight.  Hopkins landed the shots of better quality,
most often with his lead or counter right hand.  Even though Calzaghe's punches didn't seem to carry much steam behind them, he was the busier fighter, throwing and landing more than Hopkins.

                                            “What happened to the speed?”
                                                  – Enzo Calzaghe after the fourth round

To slow Calzaghe down, Hopkins went into his veteran bag of tricks.  In the first part of the fight, he employed three tactics in particular which created confusion for Calzaghe.  An avid watcher of videotape, Hopkins realized that Calzaghe’s mastery relied on his in-and-out movements.  It was never clear when or where, for that matter, Calzaghe would engage his opponents.  He would move in and land three of four punches in a quick exchange and then would continue to hit his opponents as he moved away.  Back-and-forth, side-to-side, Calzaghe was about timing and surprise.

Thwarting Calzaghe’s movement, Hopkins locked Calzaghe with his left arm, hooking Calzaghe so that the fighter couldn’t get out after an exchange.  Hopkins then would counter with straight right hands and right uppercuts with his free arm. 

Additionally, Hopkins would lead exchanges with his head down, trying to connect with either his straight right hand or his head.  This tactic made Calzaghe react with caution, for he had already been dropped once and was aware of Hopkins’ history of cutting his opponents.

Hopkins also showed his craft with his movement along the ropes.  He circled to his left and right – and never in predictable patterns.  Usually, an orthodox fighter circles to his left against a southpaw to avoid the left hand, but Hopkins would go left and right, further disrupting Calzaghe’s timing.

Calzaghe worked his way into the fight after his own tactical changes.  Realizing that his typical style of rhythm and movement was not going to carry the day against Hopkins, Calzaghe resorted to a much more basic strategy – simply outworking Hopkins.  Instead of four and five-punch flurries, Calzaghe was content to land two, and he gradually was able to increase his punch output.  At no point did he ever hurt Hopkins, but he was content to use his superior hand speed and willingness to let his hands go to start winning rounds. 

                                             “You need to win these final four rounds big.”
                                                  – Enzo Calzaghe after the eighth round

Many of the middle rounds of the fight were Calzaghe’s, but Hopkins almost dropped him again at the end of the seventh round.  Calzaghe squared up a little too much during an exchange and Hopkins caught him with another counter right hand. 

Calzaghe aimed almost exclusively at the head throughout the entire fight and didn’t throw his uppercut at all.  He kept his punches short and threw them from closer range than he typically did in his previous fights.  His best punch against Hopkins was his straight left hand.  He also scored at times with left and right hooks during his flurries.  He used his jab, which had been a weapon for him in past fights, only intermittently and without great success. 

Hopkins was reduced to one punch at a time, almost always his straight right hand, either as a lead or a counter.  In the moments where he would let his hands go, he did mix in an occasional left hook and a right uppercut.  

                                                “You must stop him.”
                                                     – Enzo Calzaghe after the eleventh round

The pace of the fight was getting away from Hopkins, but the bout was still very close.  A low blow by Calzaghe in the tenth round dropped Hopkins to the ground.  Referee Joe Cortez gave Hopkins the customary five minutes to recover, and Hopkins, unlike most fighters, took advantage of this permitted break.  The low blow didn’t seem particularly damaging but Hopkins milked his allotted time. 

When action resumed, Hopkins was the fresher fighter.  He let his hands go in combinations.  Instead of waiting off of the ropes to counter Calzaghe, he brought the fight to him at the center of the ring.  Hopkins’ punches were crisp and he stemmed the tide of Calzaghe’s momentum.

The last two rounds of the fight featured more low blows that gave Hopkins some additional seconds of recovery time.  The 11th was a pretty decisive round for Calzaghe, who was more aggressive and landed consistently throughout the frame.  The final round saw Hopkins flurry in spots.  Calzaghe let his hands go during the first half of the 12th, yet he remained oddly passive during the last 90 seconds of the match. 

By the end of the bout, Hopkins was using every tactic imaginable to try and slow the fight down.  In the 12th, he even pushed Cortez between him and Calzaghe to buy some valuable seconds.  In addition to his recovery from the low blows, there was his clinching and grappling.  Cortez repeatedly warned both fighters for excessive holding and illegal tactics on the inside. 

The fight went to the scorecards, and as Emanuel Steward pointed out during the HBO broadcast, American judges, and Las Vegas judges in particular, like to award rounds to the more aggressive boxer.  This Las Vegas predilection for the aggressor had previously harmed Hopkins; he had lost two close fights to Jermain Taylor in the jurisdiction.  In both Taylor fights, like the Calzaghe bout, Hopkins threw and landed fewer punches, but he connected with the more memorable shots.

Ultimately, Hopkins lost a split decision against Calzaghe, with veteran Las Vegas judge Chuck Giampa giving Calzaghe a seemingly wide 116-111 victory.  (Giampa was also one of the judges who scored in favor of Taylor against Hopkins.)  Similar to the recent third fight between Manny Pacquiao-Juan Manuel Marquez, the aggressor was rewarded while the counterpuncher was not given proper kudos for his ring generalship and clean, effective punching.

In 2008, when I watched Hopkins-Calzaghe live, I scored it 115-112 for Hopkins.  Having watched the fight many times over the years, I have often changed my scoring.  Prior to this article, I gave Hopkins the win by just one point, 114-113. 

By and large, Hopkins-Calzaghe was a Hopkins-style fight.  Despite being busier, Calzaghe didn't consistently establish his tempo or his mixture of flash and unconventionality.  In terms of real estate, the action occurred in tight quarters, which is where Hopkins wanted the fight.  

Hopkins-Calzaghe was a very “ugly” fight, and one which was difficult to score.  Ultimately, Hopkins’ game plan was to slow the fight down enough, reduce Calzaghe's punch output and movement and land a few solid punches per round.  On many fronts Hopkins succeeded.  Nevertheless, Calzaghe was able to win rounds by landing and throwing more punches.

It was not one tactic that Hopkins employed to slow the fight down, but literally 20 or 30 different maneuvers.  I’ll name some: clinching, hooking, scoring with his lead and counter right hands, feinting, circling in both directions, hitting low during clinches, hitting behind the head, taking excessive time to recover after low blows, faking getting hit low, moving between the referee and Calzaghe, pushing Cortez between him and Calzaghe, hitting during the break and leading with his head.

It should be added that Hopkins was not penalized for any of these infractions (as he so rarely is).  It’s not the mere deployment of these tactics which differentiates him from other fighters; it’s his ability to engage in boxing’s “dark arts” without it counting against him.  He is the master of hitting a fighter low or behind the head while the ref is on the opposite side.  These sly maneuvers are often imperceptible in real time, yet cause damage to his opponents or shift momentum in his favor during his fights. 

Calzaghe will always be able to hold his head up high with the knowledge that he defeated one of the masters of boxing; nevertheless, Hopkins made it a “Hopkins fight,” with his clever use of legal and illegal machinations.  Hopkins’ performance, however, was not flawless.  In a 2011 interview with ESPN’s Brian Campbell, Hopkins regretted his inability to let his hands go more frequently against Calzaghe.  Much of that credit should go to Calzaghe, who forced Hopkins to worry so much about conditioning and defense that he couldn’t properly mount a more sustained offense.   

Ultimately, Hopkins was never outclassed against Calzaghe and put himself in position to win the fight.  He banked on winning ugly; he thought it was his best chance for the victory.  From an aesthetic point of view, Hopkins was triumphant – that was one ugly fight.  However, with the understanding of Hopkins’ game plan and his execution of it during the match, the fight was beautiful in its own way.  Prior to the last round of the fight, Hopkins' corner was relatively serene and satisfied, while Enzo Calzaghe, screaming and shouting, thought his son needed a knockout to win.    

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1 comment:

  1. Don't give too much credence to the hype of cornerman. Enzo may well have been admonishing Calzaghe to motivate him meanwhile internally believing his son to be ahead on the cards. It is much preferable to tell your charge he needs a knockout than to do what Nacho Baristain did with Juan Manuel Marquez, which may have lost Marquez that fight. I scored the Hopkins/Calzaghe fight for Calzaghe and thought many rounds Calzaghe's volume befuddled Hopkins' craft. However, it was a close fight and neither outclassed the other.