Bernard Hopkins: Is He the Best Fighter of His Generation?

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Bernard Hopkins: Is He the Best Fighter of His Generation?
Al Bello/Getty Images
Bernard Hopkins is one of boxing's most compelling personalities.

On March 9, Bernard Hopkins will attempt to break his own record of being boxing’s oldest world champion when he challenges IBF light heavyweight belt-holder Tavoris Cloud.

While many still question Hopkins’ desire to continue fighting at age 47, his longevity is impressive. 

Dissenters will point to the fact that Hopkins’ last two fights have been uninspiring.

In October 2011, Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KO) was forced to abandon his fight against Chad Dawson in Round 2 after tumbling to the canvas and suffering a shoulder injury. In the subsequent rematch, Hopkins was soundly beaten in a fight where he couldn’t muster significant offensive bursts. 

That said, Hopkins isn’t far removed from two compelling fights against Jean Pascal.

In two bouts with Pascal—the second of which resulted in Hopkins becoming boxing’s oldest world champion—Hopkins was aggressive and endeared himself to a hostile crowd. Hopkins also defied logic by besting an athletically gifted fighter in his prime. 

So, given his sustained excellence and multitude of accomplishments, is Hopkins the best fighter of his generation? 

Al Bello/Getty Images
Hopkins is an all-time great.

To Hopkins’ credit, he has fought so well for so long that his resume transcends a single generation of contenders and champions.

Whether it’s Jean Pascal, Kelly Pavlik or Chad Dawson, Hopkins has made an admirable late-career run of educating and testing younger and supposedly fresher fighters. 

Hopkins’ accomplishments rival boxing’s all-time greats (per BoxRec.com’s encyclopedia): 

  • Held The Ring World Middleweight Title (2002-2005) and World Light Heavyweight Title (2006-2008 and 2011-2012).
  • 2001 Fighter of the Year as determined by the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA), The Ring and World Boxing Hall of Fame.
  • Record for most middleweight title defenses (20), making him the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing history (surpassing the likes of Ray Robinson, Carlos Monzon and Marvin Hagler).
  • Oldest fighter to hold the undisputed middleweight and light heavyweight titles (surpassing Archie Moore for the latter honor).
  • Oldest-ever world champion—a distinction formerly held by George Foreman. 

Other than concrete statistics, Hopkins also holds defining wins in major fights over Felix Trinidad (TKO 12) in 2001 and Oscar De La Hoya (KO 9) in 2004. His 2006 victory over Antonio Tarver to claim the lineal light heavyweight title was also another clinical performance.   

Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
Roy Jones Jr. was untouchable in his prime.

However, when considering Hopkins’ career, there’s a difference between being the best middleweight of his era—and one of the greatest 160-pounders ever—and being the greatest of his generation.

In fact, both Roy Jones Jr. and Evander Holyfield can stake claims as greater fighters than Hopkins.

Of course, this is not meant to denigrate what Hopkins has accomplished during his outstanding career; rather, it points to the contrast one can make between Hopkins’ polarizing fighting style compared to Jones' and Holyfield’s more appealing je ne sais quoi qualities. 

At 50 and 43 respectively, Holyfield (44-10-2, 29 KO) and Jones (56-8, 40 KO) essentially fall into the same generational category as Hopkins.

While their career arcs did not necessarily peak and ebb in unison, all three, at various times, were among the best in the sport during the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s. 

Jones is a four-division champion and ranks as one of the greatest light heavyweights of all time.

Despite starting his career south of 160 pounds, Jones eventually captured the WBA heavyweight title and was untouchable as a champion until running into Antonio Tarver in 2003. Early career wins over Hopkins and James Toney were a strong indicator of how great and gifted Jones was. 

More than world titles, records or statistics, Jones’ recognition as the best pound-for-pound fighter during the 90s and into the 2000s is what separates him from Hopkins.

Among the more subjective accolades, Jones was twice named Fighter of the Year (1994 and 2003) and was voted Fighter of the Decade for the 90s by the Boxing Writers Association of America (per BoxRec.com’s encyclopedia). 

Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Evander Holyfield is one of boxing's greatest warriors.

Simply put, at his peak, Jones’ blend of athleticism, speed, boxing acumen and power was nearly mythical. 

Similar to Jones, Holyfield’s career is not short on accolades. A two-weight champion, Holyfield infused relevance into the cruiserweight division by becoming the undisputed champion at 200 pounds.

Holyfield, however, will always be remembered for his remarkable career as an undersized heavyweight. 

Holyfield remains the only four-time heavyweight champion—a remarkable feat considering the division’s storied history.

Just as significant are Holyfield’s three Ring and BWAA Fighter of the Year awards (1987, 1996 and 1997; 1990, 1996 and 1997). He also garnered Fight of the Year (1992 vs. Riddick Bowe), Round of the Year (1992, Round 10 vs. Bowe), Upset of the Year (1996 vs. Mike Tyson) and Event of the Year (1997 vs. Tyson) from The Ring (per BoxRec.com’s encyclopedia). 

These distinctions, coupled with memories of Holyfield’s trilogy against Riddick Bowe, his stoppage of Mike Tyson and logic-defying displays of heart and resilience, elevate Holyfield above someone as accomplished as Hopkins.       

Is Bernard Hopkins the best fighter of his generation?

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In opting to place Jones and Holyfield above Hopkins on the mythical list of greatness, the decision boils down to qualities that are difficult to quantify—Holyfield’s unparalleled courage and will to win and Jones’ unorthodox magnificence. 

Bernard Hopkins’ legacy is secure.

He will be enshrined in Canastota five years after he retires and deservedly so. Hopkins has certainly outlasted Holyfield and Jones while also providing his own iconic moments—his win over Trinidad, his body shot against De La Hoya and his between-round push-ups against Jean Pascal. 

But at the same time, his style remains polarizing, and both fans and pundits consistently find him frustrating. Granted, Hopkins is a master defensive fighter and ring tactician. However, it is unlikely that he will be remembered as fondly as Holyfield or Jones. 

Regardless of how one feels about Hopkins, his (at times) maddening fighting style should not overshadow his tremendous career. Hopkins has been an outstanding fighter, and he deserves to be remembered—and still seen—as such.

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