Both have built Hall of Fame resumes while earning millions and millions of dollars. Revealingly, they’ve done so by relying on their personal interpretation of the art of hitting and not getting hit, focusing on winning and not necessarily on pleasing audiences with their performances. They have forged long and successful careers, even as they keep staging and winning big fights while on the wrong side of their primes. A direct consequence of their fighting styles, business decisions and marketing efforts is that they’re loved almost as much as they’re reviled by boxing fans and the media.
The list of similarities between Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Bernard Hopkins could go on (they both spent time in jail, they both come from troubled and impoverished backgrounds). But in the fall of 2014, what resonates at the mention of their names is how different their approach is in selecting opposition as they add the finishing touches to their historic careers. While the boxing world’s reaction to Floyd’s predictable domination of Marcos Maidana in their rematch was a collective jaw-breaking yawn, it’s hard to find a fight fan who’s not heavily invested in the upcoming light heavyweight unification bout between Hopkins and prodigious puncher Sergey Kovalev.
It’s worth noting that for all the bad the HBO/Showtime rivalry has done to the sport, the highly intriguing Hopkins vs. Kovalev matchup would probably never have come to fruition without it. Let’s remember earlier this year, Kovalev’s promoter Kathy Duva claimed a verbal agreement was in place to stage a fight between the Russian Krusher and lineal light heavyweight champ Adonis Stevenson. Fast forward a few weeks, and you can see Stevenson bailing on that deal by signing with promoter Al Haymon and moving his show from HBO to rival network Showtime—where Hopkins had also been fighting of late. Thus, everything pointed to Stevenson and Hopkins meeting soon thereafter, a meeting which would conveniently allow them to sidestep the dangerous Kovalev.
Except things didn’t quite turn out like that. In a move that surprised everyone following this drama, Hopkins jumped ship from Showtime to HBO and signed up to fight Kovalev at the same time, leaving Stevenson without an opponent—and without a payday—for the foreseeable future. And while most fans would rather have seen Kovalev trade leather with Stevenson, they have happily settled for the second best fight available at the weight class, which will take place in Atlantic City on November 9.
Hopkins vs. Kovalev represents a classic puncher vs. boxer duel, at the pinnacle of the weight class, no less. And being fair about it, it’s high time Kovalev had his chance to shine, since he has been for a while now—along with middleweight terror Gennady Golovkin—one of the most avoided fighters in professional boxing. Stevenson went to great lengths to avoid meeting him in the ring, and with good reason: Kovalev’s fearsome punching power is matched by well-developed boxing technique and more than proper footwork. In short, Kovalev is a force to be reckoned with, to the point that many consider him the uncrowned champion at 175 pounds. All this makes it all the more impressive that it was the 49-year-old phenom from Philadelphia who answered the Russian’s call, instead of the younger and stronger Stevenson.
And closing the circle regarding our opening comparison between Hopkins and Mayweather, it’s patently clear Bernard’s choice also stands in stark contrast t0 Money May’s selection of opposition. In rematching Maidana, Mayweather earned another huge paycheck for facing an opponent he’d already studied for twelve rounds: as safe a proposition as someone of Mayweather’s pedigree is liable to find. By taking on Kovalev, Hopkins has signed up for one of the riskiest challenges anyone could take in boxing these days.
What, you may ask, is the motivation for Hopkins to fight Kovalev? At his advanced age and with countless accomplishments in his ledger, what’s the point of risking life and limb in facing the fearsome Krusher. Now, don’t get the wrong idea: Hopkins will get a sizeable paycheck from HBO for the fight, and the possibility of more is on the line. However, it’s hard to imagine someone of Hopkins’ stature wouldn’t secure a similar salary by fighting Stevenson, or maybe a couple of lower-ranked opponents. So what gives?
Perhaps Hopkins—unlike Mayweather—really does care about his legacy. Perhaps he knows the historic opportunity he has to keep adding to his ledger as he fills up his application for All-Time-Great status, someone who took on all comers and beat most of them. Given the high risk a ring-meeting with Kovalev represents, it’s hard to think of any other motivation fueling Hopkins on.
While some of us watching from the outside may think it borderline insane to allow a near-senior citizen to share the ring with as dangerous a bruiser as Kovalev, there’s no denying that by taking on that challenge, Hopkins has distanced himself considerably from Mayweather in the “All-Time-Great” race. Mayweather’s career, filled as it is with brilliant performances, suffers greatly when one stops looking at his accomplishments and starts considering all the challenges he chose not to pursue. Hopkins’ resume does not suffer from this ailment, as the former Executioner has been in the ring with many top talents, often as the underdog—as he was against Felix Trinidad, Roy Jones Jr., Antonio Tarver, Joe Calzaghe, and Kelly Pavlik, to name but a few—emerging as the winner in most instances.
It’s true Mayweather’s name is the most recognizable of the two outside of boxing, and it’s true he found a way to inflate his bank accounts beyond the dreams of every other prizefighter out there. But these things matter little when discussing legacies, and even as abstract a concept as courage. Sure, every time a fighter steps into the ring is a display of courage in itself, but we’re talking here about the courage to reach for greatness, the courage to take on new challenges, and to dare to shut the critics up. Time and again, it has been Hopkins who has defied the odds and made the impossible, in retrospect, seem not only possible, but inevitable.
It has been a long time since Mayweather allowed himself to be in that position, and no one expects him to start doing it now. How can he defy the odds when managing the odds and setting them in his favor is all he cares about? How is a guy whose boxing career is a monument to premeditation and calculation supposed to write one—please! just one!–stunning, shocking page in the history books of the sport? Sadly, it just can’t be done.
Fortunately for the fight game, the name of Bernard Hopkins is still out there to remind us what true greatness looks and behaves like. It’s a safe bet that The Alien’s accomplishments in the ring will be remembered for a lot longer than Mayweather’s stash of Benjamins will last him. More importantly, no amount of those Benjamins will be able to buy Mayweather the resume Hopkins has put together through his long, successful and unpredictable career. –Rafael García