Craft and experience won’t trump youth and power when the junior man employs his gifts smartly. In 2014’s most anticipated fight, Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev easily outfought Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall, earning a unanimous decision victory as he snatched three of the four major light heavyweight belts. It was an unambiguous, dominant win, as Kovalev was the busier and more effective puncher in every round. The belief, held by many of us, that Hopkins would frustrate “Krusher” and force the Russian to deviate from his fight plan never transpired. What we received was a clinical performance from a man whose identity had previously been drawn from his aggression, not his guile.
People have often been wrong about Bernard Hopkins. They’ve underestimated his talent and will, and he’s made them look foolish. This is the scaffolding upon which the Hopkins legend is built: defying expectations to earn difficult and dramatic victories over more highly regarded opponents. Prognosticators try to learn from their mistakes, and this, more than any other reason, is why so many people, including myself, picked Hopkins to beat a younger man with frightening physical ability. In other words, the fear of being embarrassed by Hopkins’s unconquerable spirit is what convinced us to defy logic.
Prior to the fight, Kovalev’s startling power was a constant talking point. He had knocked out his previous nine opponents, and in one horrible and non-apocryphal instance, Kovalev had inflicted such damage on a European opponent, Roman Simakov, that Simakov later passed away from his injuries. “Krusher” was also respected for being a finely schooled boxer. His footwork and technique were more advanced than the opponent many had used to gauge this fight, Kelly Pavlik, a similarly hard-punching, younger boxer whom Hopkins humiliated in 2008. But in spite of Kovalev’s advantages and his status as the betting favorite, the “Alien’s” mystique persisted.
Unfortunately, Hopkins’s physical reserves are no longer sufficient to suffocate a fighter like Sergey Kovalev. It was obvious he would try to slow the fight to his preferred, measured pace, and counter when one of Kovalev’s flurries left him susceptible to being countershot. This sort of fight plan—the only one Hopkins could have used against a man both faster and more powerful—is impossible if his opponent gets in and out quickly, as Kovalev did all night. In the first round, the “Alien” received a dose of brutal reality when, with one minute left, Kovalev backed him into the corner where his counter right found the left side of Hopkins’s head. The blow dropped Hopkins, who had been fighting with exceeding caution as Kovalev stalked him across the ring, turning away from most of the Russian’s shots. The immediacy with which he fell confirmed Kovalev’s power and disabused those of us in the pro-Hopkins camp of the notion that cunning alone can offset the violent truth of punching power.
From the first round onward, Kovalev vs Hopkins adhered to the same pattern, in which “Krusher” walked the older man down and carefully placed his shots, and “The Alien” did little in return. For perhaps the first time, Hopkins looked truly old and showed none of Kovalev’s bounce or sharp reflexes. His punch output was minimal and only sporadically was he able to land clean scoring shots on the inside, none of which hurt the patient Russian who dominated not by attacking head on, but by using intelligent, deliberate aggression that never left him vulnerable. Kovalev employed his fight plan beautifully and showed he can substantiate his natural gifts with restraint.
As impressively as he fought, credit must also be passed to his trainer, John David Jackson, who once served in the Hopkins camp and fought the then-Executioner as a middleweight. Hopkins scoffed at the notion that Jackson might have the insight required to expose his weaknesses, but Jackson’s strategies worked beautifully. By refusing to fight ugly, Kovalev neutralized any chance Hopkins had of mounting offense. In this sense, he neutered a fighter whose modus operandi in boxing has been to strip his opponents of their assets. It didn’t make for an exciting fight, for after the first knockdown it settled into a mostly sedate pace, but Kovalev shut Hopkins out, and continued to do so late in the fight when it was believed the “Alien” would exercise greater influence.
The bout’s most exciting round was doubtlessly the final one when Kovalev, though he clearly didn’t need a knockout to win, attempted to force a stoppage and Hopkins refused to go down. Despite his age, he’s still in superb cardiovascular shape and was not betrayed by his legs or his chin, which remains capable of withstanding a sledgehammer shot. He was beaten up badly in the twelfth though, and I felt a mixture of sadness and reverence for Hopkins as he struggled to weather Kovalev’s attack. His sheer toughness and refusal to succumb was extraordinary. Hopkins might have got his ass kicked but he still finished on his feet.
Sergey Kovalev is the world’s best light heavyweight, but where he goes now is uncertain. The boxing world wants him to fight Montreal’s Adonis “Superman” Stevenson, who it’s believed had a deal in place to fight Kovalev before backing out, which created a void that Hopkins filled. Stevenson-Kovalev would feature two explosive punchers and “Superman” might be the only man at 175 lbs capable of challenging Kovalev. Bernard Hopkins, meanwhile, refused to divulge his future plans. He can still be competitive if he chooses to fight again, but not at the division’s peak anymore. Regardless, in taking on Kovalev, Hopkins made a gamble that many younger, fresher men wouldn’t attempt. He lost, and lost badly, but wasn’t diminished in defeat so much as he was forced to confront a physical reality he’s spent so long defying.
— Eliott McCormick