By Billy Ellis
It’s been two years since Bernard Hopkins’ last fight, a unification bout against Sergey Kovalev. The then 49 year old fighter, an in ring veteran with several world titles to his name, was floored in the opening round by the Russian light heavyweight and didn’t fare any better over the remaining eleven. But despite him being thoroughly out-boxed, having lost every round, it was difficult not to feel admiration for Hopkins. Anyone willing to fight Kovalev, a knockout specialist who’d literally killed a man in the ring a couple of years earlier, deserves respect. But to do so at 49, and to go the distance, is nothing short of amazing. What’s even more incredible is how today, aged 51, Hopkins is preparing to fight again.
He’s no stranger to risky decisions. You would have been forgiven for thinking that losing his middleweight titles and the following rematch to Jermain Taylor was the beginning of the end for the 40-year-old Hopkins. But instead, after calling time on his historic career in that weight class, he found renewed success at light heavyweight. He beat Antonio Tarver at age 42 to win his first world title in the division. Three years later, his victory over Jean Pascal for the WBO and lineal Light Heavyweight titles made him the oldest world champion in the history of the sport, a record he went on to break several times himself. Even his split decision loss against Joe Calzaghe, marred by controversy over low blow claims, wasn’t enough to blight his on-going renaissance, with Hopkins putting up an impressive display against the younger fighter. But Calzaghe himself has since retired, as have several other greats active during that period who’d begun their careers long after Hopkins did, and despite his extraordinarily high skill level and impressive physical fitness for his age, it’s difficult not to feel uneasy about Hopkins continuing to soldier on, especially after how slow and outclassed he looked against Kovalev.
Hopkins, now nearing his 52nd birthday, will be stepping into the ring once again to face rising prospect Joe Smith Jr on December the 17th at The Forum in Los Angeles. It’s a fight that’s being billed as his last and it’s somewhat difficult to predict the outcome, not least because of the two-year layoff period Hopkins took following his loss to Kovalev. Hopkins already looked old and slow against Kovalev, and ring rust may well add to that against Smith. But Hopkins is a brilliant strategist and counterpuncher, his sheer technical ability is one of the reasons he remains a favourite of myself and many others. He’s promised his fans a great, tactical display, and Smith, a club brawler, is exactly the sort of fighter that Hopkins thrives in dismantling.
But this isn’t exactly a cherry picked fight. Smith is young and hungry, wanting nothing more than to score a victor that’ll propel him away from his day job as a New York construction worker and further towards a title fight with Adonis Stevenson. Ranked as a top ten fighter in his weight class by both the WBA and WBC, he rose to prominence this year after demonstrating his power with an
impressive first round technical knockout against Andrzej Fonfara in June. Hopkins has stated he wanted to go out against someone meaningful, but he still remains one of the shrewdest, cunning fighters in the sport. He wanted a credible final fight, but at the same time, it’s unlikely that he’d have picked Smith without having a game plan ready to neutralise him with. With that in mind Smith is the perfect final fight for him. Young, powerful, good enough to seem credible, but not to the extent where he’d be the odds-on favourite.
Smith’s trainer has stated that they’re going for a knockout. A wise move given that he’s unlikely to outbox him in the same way Kovalev did, but could still take a page from the Russian’s book by using his youth to bully Hopkins, by making use of his natural speed advantage and his power to put enough pressure on him at a distance to avoid being drawn into the older fighter’s game plan. But could Smith, a fairly unknown fighter until just a few months ago, do what even Kovalev couldn’t? Time isn’t on Hopkins’ side, but then again, when has it been. If there’s one thing to take from his career over the last eleven years, it’s to not count out the old dog yet.