Thursday, November 6, 2014

Hopkins-Kovalev: Keys to the Fight

One of the most anticipated fights of 2014 takes place on Saturday at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, the light heavyweight unification bout between Bernard Hopkins (55-6-2, 32 KOs) and Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1, 23 KOs). Three title belts will be on the line and both fighters enter the ring with a lot to prove. For Hopkins, Saturday's contest will be another opportunity to showcase how ring craft, intelligence and savvy can defeat power and youth. With a win, he will look to cap off an extraordinary career by attempting to become the undisputed light heavyweight champion; he was previously the undisputed middleweight king.

However, Kovalev isn't just a run-of-the-mill, heavy-handed fighter. He's the hardest hitter that Hopkins has faced in his career. Saturday's fight for Kovalev represents his first opportunity to defeat an elite-level opponent. With a decisive win over Hopkins, Kovalev will propel himself into the highest reaches of the sport. Overall, it's a fantastic matchup between the sport's preeminent technician and one of its most devastating destroyers. Read below for the keys to the fight. My prediction will be at the end of the article.

1. Can Hopkins take Kovalev's best punch?

All of Hopkins' experience, gamesmanship and ring generalship won't matter if he can't withstand Kovalev's power. Although Hopkins' chin has been one of his best attributes as a prizefighter, it can be dented. In 2010, Hopkins was dropped twice by Jean Pascal, a good fighter but one who is not necessarily feared for his power; Kovalev certainly hits much harder than Pascal does. In addition, Hopkins is 49 and at his advanced age it's conceivable that he could lose his reflexes and punch resistance at any time. Kovalev might be able to cause damage with the types of hard shots that Hopkins would have avoided only a few years ago.

Since Hopkins left middleweight in 2006, he has faced a variety of heavy-handed punchers, from Antonio Tarver to Kelly Pavlik to Roy Jones to Tavoris Cloud. In all of those fights, Hopkins' chin held up remarkably well. In particular, Hopkins absorbed some enormous blows against Cloud last year without any negative effects in the ring. Still, the memories of the first Pascal bout linger. And if Hopkins' chin or legs aren't what they used to be, he could have significant problems surviving against Kovalev.

2. Kovalev must jump on Hopkins early.

Hopkins can be a slow starter as he studies an opponent. In many of his competitive fights (for example Taylor I and II, Pascal I and Calzaghe), Hopkins trailed in the first half as he felt out his foes. During these bouts, Hopkins' early punch output was meager. Instead of throwing a lot of punches, he feinted, circled, clinched, grappled and fouled as a way of slowing down his opponents and looking for potential weaknesses to exploit in the later rounds. For these fighters, piling up early points was crucial to their success.

However, other foes get caught up in Hopkins' pace – such as Tarver and Pavlik – and quickly abandon their game plans. They refuse to move their hands and succumb to Hopkins' psychological warfare in the ring. Waiting on Hopkins is a death sentence for fighters and Kovalev must start the fight with a high activity level. He need not be overly concerned with missing punches and he can't let the stray Hopkins' counter disrupt his overall strategy.

Kovalev must establish his pace and power in the early rounds. This will force Hopkins into a more defensive mode and also test his older legs. Hopkins may not necessarily be concerned with winning the first part of the match but Kovalev must seize this portion of the fight. After four rounds, Kovalev needs to build up a working margin of rounds in the bank. Most likely, the vaunted second-half rally from Hopkins will come and if Kovalev isn't up by at least two points after four rounds, he may face real problems on the scorecards as the fight progresses.

3. Hopkins' lead right hand.

Perhaps Hopkins' signature punch is his arcing right hand that he throws from a distance. With an uncanny ability to change the trajectory of the shot during its flight, Hopkins seems to score with this punch at will. It usually lands with pinpoint accuracy and it surprises the opponent, who believes that he is comfortably out of range. As Hopkins throws this lead right, he falls in. After he connects with the first shot, he starts banging to the body with left hooks and right hands. These punch sequences are eye-catching to the judges and help to demoralize opponents, who start to question their defense and spacing in the ring, making them far less offensively oriented.

In order for Kovalev to avoid getting tagged too often by Hopkins' arcing right, he has to judge distance properly. He needs to get out of range when he is done his offensive sequences or be prepared to take a step back when not throwing, especially when Hopkins is against the ropes during a pause in the action. Hopkins has deceptive explosiveness and speed with this shot and Kovalev can't get caught in the pocket without properly preparing for this punch. Hopkins will only attempt this shot when there is a lull during a round; thus, Kovalev must keep his left hand in proper defensive position when he isn't throwing.

4. Make Kovalev a counterpuncher.

Kovalev is at his best when he is coming forward and initiating offense. Given space and room to operate, he is a deadly puncher who throws each shot in a sequence progressively harder; all the while, he retains his accuracy. I'm not sure that there is a fighter at light heavyweight who can withstand more than a handful of these combinations over 12 rounds.

But as a counterpuncher, Kovalev becomes more ordinary. He has a counter right hand and a left hook, but neither shot is as effective as when he punches in combinations. In addition, he's not nearly as accurate as a counterpuncher as he is when initiating offense at his preferred pace.

It's imperative for Hopkins to be first in this fight and make Kovalev beat him with timed counterpunches. Hopkins can use his lateral movement, large arsenal of punches and inside fighting skills to force Kovalev into defensive positions in the fight. I'm not sure that Hopkins should necessarily trade jabs with Kovalev, but initiating sequences with his left hook and right hand will immediately take away Kovalev's best offensive attributes. In addition, by forcing his way inside, Hopkins can work in the trenches and make Kovalev attempt to beat him while under duress; it's not clear if Kovalev has the skills or temperament to thrive in that setting.

5. Does Kovalev have a "Plan B?"

Kovalev has been past six rounds just three times. His last truly competitive fight occurred in 2010 against Darnell Boone (he subsequently knocked out Boone in 2012.) Kovalev's game plan throughout his career has been fairly basic but extremely effective – apply intelligent pressure early in bouts, win the battle of ring geography by forcing opponents back, establish the right hand and eventually work in combinations behind it.

However, almost all of Kovalev's success has come against overmatched opponents or ones who lacked the ring generalship expertise to take him out of his comfort zone. Agnew and Caparello almost immediately backed themselves into corners. Cleverly had hand and foot speed advantages but stood directly in front of Kovalev. Kovalev took away Campillo's legs almost instantaneously.

Now, Hopkins won't spend too much time admiring his work in the pocket or back straight up into countershots. And he uses the ropes strategically, not as a place to cover up for self-protection. Hopkins will move, frustrate and attempt to take away Kovalev's rhythm.

Facing a non-compliant opponent, how will Kovalev achieve victory? What happens if he can't land his power cleanly early in the fight? Can he chase Hopkins down if the veteran decides to be elusive in the ring? What can Kovalev accomplish in the trenches?

Ultimately, we don't know if Kovalev has a second gear as a fighter because he hasn't really been tested at the top level. Perhaps he has other facets of his game besides his knockout power that can neutralize Hopkins – Kovalev certainly might learn something from his trainer John David Jackson, who was a former opponent and co-trainer of Hopkins. Without being able to land a knockout blow, Kovalev will have to find a way to score points. What will his conditioning be over 12 rounds? Will he have enough left in the tank to remain a factor late in the fight?


I think that this fight will follow the pattern of many of Hopkins' bouts. I expect Kovalev to have a solid first four rounds, featuring the jab and right hand. I wouldn't be surprised if Kovalev scores an early knockdown. Hopkins will spend the fight's early portions searching for openings and finding ways to corral Kovalev's activity.

By the fifth or sixth round, the tide will turn. Hopkins' lead right hand, movement and inside fighting will start to frustrate Kovalev and gradually wear him down. By the end of the fight, Hopkins will be the fresher fighter and the one landing the scoring blows. The question will be if Hopkins started early enough offensively to get the decision – and I think that two of the judges will believe that he did.

Bernard Hopkins defeats Sergey Kovalev by split decision.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
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