#51 Bernard Hopkins (53-6-2)
“The Clock has worked in my favor.”
If you have time, watch this. It is footage of Bernard Hopkins’ unique 1997 stoppage of Glen Johnson. The first thing you will hear the commentator say is “Hopkins, relentless in attack.” For readers of a certain age, hearing this may come as something of a surprise. Sure, Hopkins burst into the mainstream with that brilliant knockout defeat over a favored Felix Trinidad in 2001 when he was still riding the coattails of this style, but it was his 2004 knockout of Oscar De La Hoya that really made him famous. By this time, Hopkins was training to master lions rather than to fight like one.
The defeat of Johnson represents the perfection of Bernard’s first stylings, namely those of an aggressively stalking box-puncher. On his toes on the outside, Hopkins flashes in fast hard punches and when he falls in, it is not to neutralize or stall but to flesh out his offense with infighting ability all but unequaled for his era. See him, on the bell for the ninth, make room for his own shots without giving up space for Johnson to retaliate. Hopkins is a hurting, points-gathering machine that is using physical and technical advantages to defeat his opponent. Look closely however, and you will see the genesis of the thinking style that would take him into the next decade and then the one after making him one of the few professionals to box in four. His control of range and his uncanny ability to read the machinations that control the ebb and flow of offense and defense are already at work. At 2:40 of the next he stands at range, hands up, flat-footed, he has dominated the round so far with stiff jabs and that is what Johnson expects, so Hopkins surprises him with a lead left hook to the body. Then he goes on walkabout, dancing on his toes, lashing out with a wide variety of punches against an unbeaten opponent that would one day be the champion at 175 lbs. Listen to the great Gil Clancy wax lyrical:
“Hopkins is just enjoying himself in there now. Doing anything he wants to do…just about anything you’ve seen a fighter do, Hopkins is doing in this fight…look at that feint…he feinted a right hand. His balance is so good Jim. That’s why he can do these things.”
Doesn’t that sound to you a little more like something a commentator would say about Roy Jones? Hopkins had an offense in those days that in no way compromised his defense because he was able to move back into the defensive envelope as fast as any fighter I have ever seen. If he felt something he didn’t like in the opponents offense, he would make a move, in or out, that would stymie that offense and this was the essence of his defining win over Felix Trinidad, crystalized in the one-handed parry and knockout punch he lands in the twelfth round to become the first man to stop Trinidad, too.
In an irony not infrequently seen in boxing, Hopkins in 2001 and 2004 won fights that brought him the fame he craved just as his body was beginning to let him down. Unlike, say, Ivan Calderon, he birthed a solution, a solution that had its genesis in the fights that immediately followed his one-sided loss to Roy Jones back in 1993, that bore fruit even as he moved into his forties. By this point, he had amassed twenty defenses of his IBF strap and unified the titles, unquestionably a lock for both the Hall of Fame and your average top ten middleweight list.
After dual losses—the second, very questionable—to the athletic but limited Jermain Taylor, Hopkins used his incredible skills at reverse engineering based on existing qualities that did not dominate his style to buy him victories over middleweight champion and pound-for-pounder Kelly Pavlik, 3-1 favorite and light-heavyweight supremo Antonio Tarver, thoroughly intimidated pound-for-pounder Winky Wright, the seventeen years younger Jean Pascal and very nearly pound-for-pounder Joe Calzaghe. The Calzaghe fight, in my opinion, represented the beginnings of a new genesis in Hopkins, one that relied upon absolute control of footwork, yes, partly his own in terms of economy, but more than that, the opponent’s. That saw its final resolution against Tavoris Cloud earlier this month. What is terrifying is that this latest incarnation may allow Hopkins to remain relevant into his fifties—and that would be amongst the most astonishing achievements in boxing history.
Of course, we have Archie Moore, rightly and inarguably lurking somewhere above Hopkins on this list but I think it must now be agreed that Hopkins is the man who has done the most to keep Time at bay in the boxing ring. When he says “the clock has worked in my favor,” what Hopkins means is that he has had the opportunity to gather information about the nature of himself and of boxing whilst iron discipline keeps total disintegration of his physical assets at bay; the result is as astonishing a career as has been seen in the modern era. Whilst losses to Dawson and Taylor, the best athletes he has faced in a boxing ring, is concerning, it is also true that Hopkins has continued to bounce back. He might continue to bounce back well into this decade.