At the beginning of this year I wrote an article for another website in which I commended Bernard Hopkins for his longevity, but stated that no-one with humanitarian inclinations should want to watch him fight Sergey Kovalev. The thought of a near fifty-year-old man taking headshots from the fists of the awesome Russian filled me with dread. My inner eye played cinematic flashbacks of Apollo Creed v Ivan Drago.
Despite that, I knew it would probably be a marketable spectacle, but I thought its audience would likely be made up of morbidly fascinated people who enjoy watching sharks devour seals on the Discovery channel or VW Polos being crushed by monster trucks. At the time, I didn’t expect the fight would ever be made.
Then, when Kovalev summarily dispatched Blake Capparello in the second round of his third defence in August, his sixth consecutive win by KO or TKO over a fighter considered world class, the unthinkable happened. Displaying that curious mix of raw courage and self-delusion that fighters call pride, Hopkins signed a contract with Krusher’s promoter, Kathy Duva. My immediate reaction was one of disbelief and foreboding. He couldn’t possibly win. The whole thing was madness. At an age when most men are worrying about erectile dysfunction and nursing sore backs, Hopkins had just formally committed himself to march willingly towards the sound of the guns.
At first, general opinion seemed to agree with me. After all, on paper the Russian held every conceivable advantage – younger, bigger, stronger and with supernatural KO ability in both hands. What makes Krusher such a frightening force is that he doesn’t generate his punch power through ferocity or wildness. He has a tidy, relaxed style, with very competent footwork and head movement – his boxing skill is greatly underrated. He pushes his shots out smoothly, economically and accurately and without particularly seeming to try, he just leaves guys twitching on the floor. It perhaps has not been publicised enough that in 2011 fellow Russian, Roman Simakov died after suffering a TKO defeat to Kovalev. Krusher literally punched the life out of him.
Of course however, HBO and Main Events had a fight to sell. They had to manipulate opinion and convince the world that this was a 50 / 50 pick ‘em. Bernard, ever the consummate pro, played his part, telling us all again how he “takes guys souls”, that he was an Alien, not subject to the laws of nature like ordinary humans. HBO did their regular 24/7 show in which Hopkins deftly played the wise old sage preparing to take the young roughneck to school. He exuded menace at press conferences and employed the chilling thousand-yard-stare he learnt in the prison yard. It was all great theatre of course and served its purpose. Many bought into it. By fight time common sense had been abandoned and large numbers picked B-Hop to grind out another win. Among fans, pundits, even fighters, opinion seemed genuinely evenly split.
In the end Hopkins survived, just, although I had to watch the last round through my fingers while Kovalev bounced the old fella’s head around like a rubber ball. The referee should have stepped in 30 seconds before the final bell. It was if Hopkins record of never being stopped was somehow too precious to break. We can only hope that the final avalanche of punches he somehow withstood won’t take their toll in years to come.
B-Hop has garnered many sympathetic plaudits in defeat and ultimately it is testament to his remarkable resilience that he survived – but lets be clear, that’s all he did. Hopkins ran, ducked and covered up all night long. There were a number of rounds in which he hardly landed a punch. The truth is, having tasted the natural Light Heavyweight’s power with an early knockdown, the over-the hill Middleweight master then fought like he was afraid. Understandable – Kovalev is one scary dude and there is little doubt that had B-Hop engaged with him before round twelve, the fight would not have lasted long.
Despite the deserved admiration he has received for having taken the fight in the first place at 49 – guts are not in question – in the cold light of day, for a defending 2 belt world champion, it was a pretty abject defence. In fact it wasn’t really a fight at all, because a fight requires both men to be fighting. What we witnessed was simply a display of complete dominance on one side versus a man so concerned about being caught clean that he wouldn’t come out of his shell.
From here, Stevenson and Bebertiev are the only names conceivably standing between Kovalev and legendary status in Light Heavyweight history. If he or either of them can unify the division, bringing a little sanity amidst the confusion of multiple belts, that’s something for all of us to applaud.
Finally, and on a similar note, the hype train leaves Atlantic City behind and crosses the Atlantic to continue its tour of England as I write. Just as Main Events and HBO invested heavily in making the world believe Hopkins could beat Kovalev, Eddie Hearn and Sky are in full flow telling us that Bellew v Cleverly, with a tepid undercard is worth a £16.99 pay-per-view fee, on top of the regular Sky subscription. It makes for awkward comparison that during the same month, viewers can watch Billy-Joe Saunders v Chris Eubank Jr, a far more interesting domestic fight, supporting the unfailingly entertaining Tyson Fury, for far less money elsewhere. Insulting viewers’ intelligence with WWE style mouthing off and posturing is one thing, hastily signing up George Groves and co in a series of nothing fights is another. Being honest, I do hope this PPV fails in its tawdry attempt to squeeze extra money from the pockets of hard-up fans. If not, it opens the way for more of the same in the future.
What real boxing people want is very simple : real fighters, in real fights, for real titles. If any promoter, anywhere, delivers that, fans will be prepared to pay. It may be a tough lesson to learn for businessmen who believe their own hype and think everything they touch turns to gold, but although we live in an age of buzzwords, marketing tricks and key demographics, hype on its own is not worth a damn. For it to be effective, you need to have something worth hyping. Some boxing people would do well to remember that.