Tonight is, supposedly, the absolutely final chapter in the long saga which is the professional boxing career of Bernard Hopkins. Those who have followed that career with some attention will recall that the man also known as “The Executioner” and “The Alien” has made similar promises in the past. However, at the incredibly advanced age of 51, even Hopkins acknowledges that he has run out of options. His attempts to lure big names such as Floyd Mayweather and Gennady Golovkin to face him went nowhere, and his one-sided loss in 2014 to Sergey Kovalev put an end to his long run of wins, or highly competitive showings, against fighters some two decades younger.
Joe Smith Jr. would appear to be the perfect opponent for this occasion. Relatively inexperienced and unschooled, Smith brings some genuine knockout power to the table, along with youth and athleticism, but not much else has been proven. After his one round demolition of Andrzej Fonfara he of course has to be taken seriously as a force in the light heavyweight division, but does he have the resources, tactically and mentally, to deal with a guy as experienced and cagey as Hopkins? It is doubtful to say the least.
And yet, as we all know, power is the great equalizer. Smith is the naturally bigger and stronger man and all it takes is one big shot to neutralize all of that experience, strategic wisdom and ring smarts. Even if this was not Bernard’s final ring appearance, Hopkins vs Smith would be an intriguing match-up simply because the parameters for how the struggle will unfold appear so clear-cut: either Smith gets to his man early and scores an historic knockout win, or Hopkins does his usual thing with clinching and smothering and slowing the pace to a crawl and making his far less experienced opponent look completely inept, and thus waltzes to another decision win.
But the question looming just as large as who will win tonight in Inglewood, is where does Hopkins ranks in terms of his career accomplishments? Assuming he prevails and that this is his final fight, how do we appraise his career and compare him to the champions of the past?
But in a sense these two questions are closely connected. Or put another way, one’s answer to the first question, tells you a lot about how you should answer the second. Because the simple fact is, Archie Moore aside, there have been precious few boxers with the ability to compete at an elite level once they have entered their sixth decade of existence. 51 is old for an athlete. For a boxer, it’s ancient. And yet, as the videos from Manny Montreal here testify, everyone asked, with a single exception, are putting their money on Bernard Hopkins to win tonight. Considering how many boxers, trainers and ex-champions Manny puts the question to, that in itself is rather extraordinary.
Win or lose tonight, the legacy of Bernard Hopkins is secure. He has carved out a unique place for himself in boxing history and has proved the experts wrong on more than a few occasions. In terms of sheer cunning and tactical versatility, the man is a throwback to some of the true wizards of ring craft, to guys like Joe Gans, Benny Leonard and the aforementioned Old Mongoose.
Bernard may not have always provided fans with great excitement, and some of us may have tired of his tendency to indulge in tactics unbecoming a champion, if we can put it that way. But there’s still no arguing with his longevity, or his wins over a lengthy list of champions, including Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad, Winky Wright, William Joppy, Jean Pascal and Kelly Pavlik. Tonight may be the final chance to see him in action. And the fact so many expect his hand to once again be raised in victory against an opponent so much younger, really says all you need to know about this old warrior’s ring legacy. — Robert Portis