In the Black Book of Boxing Secrets, there exists an explanation for how confident boxers, filled with machismo and a license to inflict pain, suddenly resort to passive spectators in their own demise. The Book's volumes contain rich treasures in how to neutralize and nullify younger and fresher opposition. The mysteries of optimum hand positioning, foot spacing and feinting are presented as Kabbalistic teachings. The Book focuses on various psychological aspects of the sport. It features bold chapter titles like, "Your Opponent's Strength is his Weakness," "He Fights your Fight," and "Instilling Doubt."
The information contained in the Book provides enlightenment to its adherents. Boxing mythology and mysticism are broken down into their elemental truths. But one cannot find the Book on retail shelves or on Amazon. No, this book is hidden from the general boxing public and the overwhelming majority of active fighters. Only the special ones are granted an opportunity to learn from the Book, and only a few fighters within this exclusive club are able to process its secrets and absorb its mysteries. The Book is passed down from generation to generation, from trainers and fighters to their protégés in out-of-the-way sweatbox gyms in select locations throughout the world. Only those who have the patience, discipline and athletic gifts can begin to incorporate its marvels.
Bernard Hopkins has not only mastered the Book, but he co-authored the last edition, with the hermetic guru of pugilism, Red Basil (what a name!), rumored to be living in a Himalayan monastery. On his most recent book tour, which occurred in mostly obscure boxing outposts throughout North America, Hopkins didn't read from a text; it was all rote. One five-hour lecture on the shoulder feint was particularly well received in Mexico City.
This past Saturday, Hopkins, perhaps the most famous active practitioner of the Black Book of Boxing Secrets along with Floyd Mayweather and Juan Manuel Marquez, demonstrated yet again his mastery of the mysteries of the sport.
Within three minutes, Hopkins transformed titleholder Tavoris Cloud, a physical and aggressive pugilist, into a tentative figure. Instead of throwing his typical 60-70 punches a round, Cloud finished the first frame with just 24 punches recorded. In one respect, the battle was already won; Cloud had given up his two greatest advantages: activity and pressure.
Against Cloud, Guru Hopkins demonstrated a command and richness of boxing dimensions that mere mortals could only admire with disbelief: jabbing off the back foot, pinpoint right-hand counters, shoulder rolling off the ropes, feints, blocking and rolling with punches, stick-and-moving, triple jabs starting a combination, lead left hooks to start exchanges, lead uppercuts to dissuade forward movement.
Perhaps most impressive was his acute understanding of the opponent in front of him. Realizing that Cloud moved in straight lines and was only able to fire with his feet planted, Hopkins moved throughout the night. Featuring subtle side-to-side movement at times and leaving the pocket entirely on other occasions, Hopkins ensured that Cloud felt uncomfortable in the ring. The nasty cut he opened up with a left hook also added to Cloud's unease.
Interestingly, Hopkins left behind his long, looping lead right hand, his best weapon of the last decade. Usually, Hopkins would lunge in with this shot and fire off some hooks on the inside before a clinch. Against Cloud, Hopkins wisely chose to limit his exposure on the inside. Thus, he resorted to movement and quick combinations from mid-range. Certainly, Cloud was expecting that lead right hand. He must have been all the more shocked when Hopkins landed with the lead left hook and jab.
The sagacious one didn't dominate and it wasn't his best performance; it was essentially workmanlike. Per usual, his conditioning was superb. He got crushed with some body shots in the second round and while he was less inclined to trade immediately after that exchange, it didn't stop him from having a solid third round. After Cloud teed off along the ropes in the 8th round and landed a vicious right hand, Hopkins essentially shut him down the rest of the fight by masterfully picking his spots and being first and last in exchanges. His legs still looked fresh in the 12th round and he didn't seem to be working hard as the fight reached its conclusion.
Scores were 116-112, 116-112 and 117-111 (this writer scored it 115-113). There were a number of close rounds, but Hopkins outlanded Cloud and scored with more of the memorable punches.
The 48-year-old did something else very notable on Saturday; he avoided imparting his knowledge of the Appendices of the Black Book of Boxing Secrets, the chapters that highlight the dark arts of the sport. Hopkins instead just fought. There were no elbows, low blows, wrestling maneuvers or melodramatic claims of phantom fouls. No, he left his bag of illicit tricks back in the dressing room. As a result, the fight actually had a flow to it. The crowd was entertained and riveted by the master's ring craft.
As the final bell sounded, the fans stood and applauded. New York may not be known for its sentimental audiences, but on Saturday, they roared with approval and gave the old warrior a fitting sendoff into the night.
I have watched, studied and observed Bernard Hopkins more than any other fighter in my time as a boxing observer. He has been a source of constant enrichment. As familiar as I believe I might be with him, Saturday's performance reinforced my lack of exposure to the Black Book of Boxing Secrets.
In an ex post facto examination of Saturday's performance, surely I could point to his feints, movement or timing as what set him on a path to victory. But that level of analysis barely scratches the surface of Hopkins' performance. Lots of fighters feint. Many boxers use the ring.
What I haven't been able to fully comprehend about Hopkins is how he regularly controls fights psychologically from the moment the opening bell rings. How can someone make a confident champion (whether it is Trinidad, Tarver, Pavlik or Cloud) so tentative so quickly? Saturday wasn't an instance of a Hopkins slowly breaking a guy down with hard shots; as in several other occasions in his career, it was an example of an immediate imposition of his style. Ultimately, I don't know what Hopkins' opponents see or don't see that forces them out of their game plans almost instantaneously.
It's even more than imposing his will. Hopkins forces fighters to make bad decisions, to commit self-nullifying acts. Why wouldn't Tarver let his hands go? The man had no chance to win without activity. Why did Pavlik refuse to throw his jab after the first three rounds? It's not that Hopkins was the hardest puncher he had ever faced. He had absorbed huge shots from Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor in past fights; yet he would then come on to win them. However, against Hopkins, he suddenly couldn't pull the trigger. Why did Cloud spend so much time staring at Hopkins from the outside, an area of the ring that assured his defeat?
And it's not just Hopkins who has this gift. Why did Ortiz resort to head butting against Mayweather? Why did Pacquiao become a pocket fighter against Marquez in their third fight? Why did Foreman punch himself out against Ali? These are examples of fighters performing in the ring with uncertainty or fear. They are under extreme duress and abandon their game plans.
This subject fascinates me and there aren't easy answers. Again, these are decorated champions, confident in all of their abilities, who lose themselves in the ring. It's Zab Judah swinging wildly in a Las Vegas ring riot while Floyd Mayweather stands peacefully in a corner. There is an added psychological dimension with some fighters that would not be accurate to describe as an intangible. These edges show up repeatedly throughout their careers and expressly help them achieve victory after victory.
Bernard Hopkins has won more big fights as an underdog than any other modern boxer. He's made his career off of this mark. It's a lofty accomplishment and it's no mere footnote. Opponents who are well-trained professionals seem woefully unprepared for him once they enter the ring. Boxing handicappers have downplayed his skills for over a decade. Media members have picked against him in favor of lesser, younger fighters quite often. Yet this pattern of Hopkins overcoming the odds has repeated throughout the last 12 years. Logically, this shouldn't happen.
But Hopkins' career has defied normal patterns or facile categorization. His rarified achievements merit their own chapter in the Black Book of Boxing Secrets. However, these secrets are not for my eyes or ears. I have only picked up some of its content from anonymous second-hand sources. Hopkins is the president of the Club within the Club. Although he has performed his public rituals with exquisite craft in front of tens of thousands, his mastery of the precise technical and psychological aspects of the sport happened far out of the public view.
Bernard Hopkins knows more about boxing than I ever will. He is the gold standard. He is where I aspire to be; I will never get there. This isn't a realization that leads to bitterness. Hopkins's career has been extraordinary and I have been here to witness it. Maybe one day his various dimensions will all coalesce into some unifying principle of his greatness. For now, I will enjoy the ride, admire his achievements, revel in his career's mystery and continue to learn.
Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of saturdaynightboxing.com.
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
Contact Adam at email@example.com
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