The Executioner’s Greatest Victories

To state the obvious, fight fans have always been attracted to thunderous power punchers, the fighters who can decide a match with one big shot. The sheer violence of a sudden, dramatic knockout is a major part of boxing’s appeal. As harsh as that may sound to some, that’s why many flock to boxing, why Mike Tyson, for example, became a huge box office sensation. Simply put, explosive knockouts never fail to thrill. But while I enjoy a vicious KO or a violent toe-to-toe brawl as much as the next person, there is something especially admirable about the technique and intelligence involved in the finer aspects of “The Sweet Science.” Simply put, a dominant display of boxing skill is always more impressive and satisfying for me.

The great Willie Pep: a slick technician.

To neutralize a vaunted power puncher with defense and footwork for twelve rounds requires incredible discipline and ability. A slick technician, like Willie Pep or Pernell Whitaker, cannot afford to lose focus for even an instant because that could be all his rival needs to connect with a fight-ending blow. That type of virtuoso performance is what I love most about boxing, with the well-prepared pugilist executing an athletic feat that earns my utmost respect.

And for me there is one pugilist in particular who demonstrated repeatedly, and most memorably, that skill and guile can foil brute power. He defied the odds many times and proved that strategy and technique can overcome significant disadvantages, can even turn the tables when it comes to the expected outcome in a contest between youth vs age. Because the fact is, with age comes experience and if that experience is utilized correctly, it can teach youth some harsh lessons.

Thus, in my opinion, the most startling performances in the career of Bernard Hopkins did not take place during his physical prime, but later in his career, when he shocked fans with his upset wins over Felix “Tito” Trinidad, Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik. It was in those victories — not to mention his wins over Oscar De La Hoya, Tavoris Cloud and Jean Pascal — that B-Hop boldly demonstrated why boxing is indeed, a “sweet science.”

Hopkins: a wily professor of boxing.

As Larry Merchant put it: “Hopkins reminds me of the character in the movie, The Cooler, whose job it was to cool off the gamblers with the hot hand.” And indeed, Hopkins was perfectly comfortable in the extinguisher role, putting out the scorching flames his opponents had ignited during their torrid runs through their respective divisions. Trinidad, Tarver and Pavlik were indeed “hot hands,” all having a long line of big wins behind them, and all favored to prevail over the veteran from Philadelphia.

There was an army of naysayers for Bernard to silence in 2001 when he went up against Felix “Tito” Trinidad, the best of the aforementioned trio. The Puerto Rican is a deserving member of the Hall of Fame, a distinction neither Pavlik nor Tarver is likely to earn. While Hopkins was the naturally bigger man, he didn’t possess the vaunted, fight-ending power that had attracted so many to Tito. And although Trinidad had only recently moved up to middleweight, his devastating stoppage of William Joppy showed that he had carried his power up in weight. There was also the fact that Trinidad, at 28, was considered to be at his peak, while Hopkins was supposedly on the downside, a 36-year-old veteran.

Prior to the bout, the older man reminded everyone of the legacy-defining stakes of the match: “I’d be lying to you if I told you this was just another fight. This is a fight that could make me a part of the great middleweights of the last fifteen years. I fought my way here … I earned my way here, and I’m going to act like it.”

The rabid, pro-Trinidad crowd at Madison Square Garden was filled with thousands of Puerto Ricans, anxious to see their countryman triumph, wanting revenge on Hopkins for having disrespected their nation in the build-up to the fight. But the veteran from Philadelphia loved nothing more than disappointing the home crowd and proving the doubters wrong. Ever aware of Trinidad’s power, Hopkins stayed mobile in the early going, moving laterally and never letting Tito set himself to unload his power shots. Bernard’s most effective weapon was his jab as he kept it in Trinidad’s face all night, and even in the close rounds, it was “The Executioner” who got the better of the exchanges.

Underdog Hopkins trounces Trinidad.

It didn’t matter that Hopkins had less power because he was more active and consistent with his offense and it was his constant barrage that stifled Trinidad and cumulatively wore him down. He badly hurt Trinidad with a right hook-right uppercut combo to end round ten, before finishing the fight in style in the final stanza, landing a vicious right hand that sent Tito to the canvas. Although Trinidad beat the count, his father and trainer had seen enough and he stepped through the ropes to put an official end to the fight. Hopkins proved the doubters wrong and turned in his best performance to date, in the process tying Carlos Monzon’s record of fourteen consecutive middleweight title defences.

Bernard celebrates a career-defining victory.

When Hopkins took on Antonio Tarver in 2006, “The Magic Man” was firmly positioned as the top light heavyweight in the world. He had beaten the seemingly invincible Roy Jones Jr. twice, including a violent knockout in their rematch. On the other hand, Hopkins was coming off consecutive losses to Jermain Taylor. In addition to having the career momentum on his side, Tarver had all the physical advantages. Antonio was younger and longer, a southpaw, and, most notably, was the bigger man, having competed as a light heavyweight his entire career. Conversely, the Philly native was leap-frogging the super middleweight division to move up from 160 to 175.

However, prior to the Hopkins fight, Tarver had gained a significant amount of weight in order to play a fictional heavyweight champion, Mason “The Line” Dixon, opposite Sylvester Stallone in the sixth installment of the “Rocky” franchise. This meant Tarver had to shed roughly forty pounds to make weight for the match with Hopkins. Meanwhile, Bernad had hired the renowned strength and conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone to scientifically develop his body for peak performance at the higher weight. Shilstone had already proven his merits in the boxing world, having helped both Michael Spinks and Roy Jones add weight and capture heavyweight titles.

“The Executioner” bosses Tarver.

When the opening bell rang, Hopkins appeared to be in better condition, with visible muscular definition in his upper body. Tarver, on the other hand, looked like he had misjudged the ease at which he could trim down his heavyweight frame. And Bernard’s beefed-up body was not just for aesthetic appeal, as he used his newfound strength to great effect, frequently out-muscling and out-maneuvering the larger man in the clinches. In a shocking upset, the 3-to-1 underdog outworked Tarver throughout the entire fight, showing superior reflexes and quicker hands despite being the older man.

“I told people they would be surprised that it would be an easy fight,” said Hopkins. “I could have fought in this weight class a long time ago. I do great with southpaws. I knew all I had to do was neutralize his jab and work with everything else.” And in fact Bernard’s ability to nullify his opponent’s best weapon would become a staple of the latter part of his career.

Against Hopkins, “The Magic Man” had few tricks.

After upsetting Tarver, Hopkins maintained light heavyweight supremacy by beating Winky Wright (another amazing win) before losing by split decision to Joe Calzaghe. Meanwhile, Taylor, the former Hopkins conqueror, had lost his middleweight titles to an undefeated puncher from Youngstown, Ohio named Kelly Pavlik. In a surprising move, Pavlik then decided to move up and take on Hopkins at a catchweight of 170 pounds. Team Pavlik believed their younger, fresher charge could take out the aging veteran and secure a significant payday in the process. And the odds agreed with their assessment, as Hopkins was declared a 4-to-1 underdog. But once again, “The Executioner” defied the doubters.

Despite being seventeen years older, Hopkins was the one who maintained a faster pace, who possessed clear advantages in speed and athleticism, and consistently overwhelmed Pavlik with rapid-fire combinations. The wily Philly fighter completely befuddled his younger foe, utterly sapping every ounce of his confidence. Just like Tarver, Pavlik landed a mere handful of meaningful punches throughout, none of which appeared to trouble Hopkins and the judges correctly scored the match a rout for the older man, giving Bernard another startling, odds-defying victory. “Ninety percent of the media picked Pavlik and I always appreciate naysayers,” Hopkins said. “That’s what motivates me.”

Kelly Pavlik: humbled by Hopkins.

It’s worth noting that Pavlik, like Tarver and Trinidad, was never the same after his encounter with Hopkins. The fearsome puncher failed to regain the form that saw him overwhelm Jermain Taylor as he struggled in many of his subsequent fights and lost his title to Sergio Martinez before retiring in 2012. Similarly, despite being just 28 when he faced “The Executioner,” Trinidad competed only four more times in his career, losing two of those matches. And Tarver was never the same either, his defeat to Hopkins marking the start of his decline as not long after he would suffer back-to-back defeats to Chad Dawson and thereafter struggle to remain relevant.

Hopkins’ career is nothing short of legendary, and the chief reason for this beyond his astonishing longevity, is the plethora of elite fighters he defeated, many of whom enjoyed significant physical advantages. In all three of his most shocking wins, Hopkins conclusively proved that superior skill, technique, and strategy can overcome youth and power. And he reminded boxing fans again and again: never bet against the ring wizard from Philadelphia, Bernard Hopkins.

Call him “The Alien,” “The Cooler,” or “The Executioner.” Bottom line, he’s a legend.

It’s worth noting that before his final fight, a knockout defeat to Joe Smith Jr., many, if not most, had in fact learned that lesson and actually picked the 51-year-old Hopkins to win what would be the final match of his long and amazing career. And while Father Time inevitably won the last battle, the man from Philadelphia had given him one helluva fight for way longer than anyone thought he would or could. In any case, by the time Hopkins finally walked away from the fight game, his ticket to Canastota had been locked up many years before. Among other feats, his amazing upset wins over Trinidad, Tarver and Pavlik guaranteed that.       — Jamie Rebner 

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