Bernard Hopkins: Can the Ageless Wonder Do It One More Time?
On Saturday, March 9, two-division world champion and ageless boxing icon Bernard Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KOs) will attempt to make history, yet again, when he challenges undefeated IBF light heavyweight world title holder Tavoris Cloud (24-0, 19 KOs), as he attempts to break his own record by winning, yet another, major world title at the improbable age of 48.
The fight will be broadcast live on HBO from the Barclay Center in Brooklyn, NY.
The list of boxing legends who have continued to battle in the ring so close to the half-century mark is short. The list of those who have continued to do so, while credibly campaigning near the very top of the sport is, well, frankly non-existent.
Hopkins is battling forward into unprecedented territory at this point. It's been that way since May 21, 2011, when he thoroughly outworked 20-something Jean Pascal to capture the WBC and The Ring magazine belt, breaking George Foreman's record as the oldest man to ever win a major world title in boxing.
At this point, Hopkins has surpassed any athlete in any major sport in terms of longevity. He's moved beyond the likes of Nolan Ryan and Gordie Howe.
For an athlete to set these sort of records in a combat sport, like boxing, should be viewed as particularly remarkable. The punishments for no longer being competitive in boxing are more significant than the bruised pride of some other sports.
Still, when I interviewed Hopkins the week before last by telephone, the pride of remaining competitive was at the front of his mind:
I wouldn't still be doing this if I didn't know I could still do it without pimping my name...this is my chance to show again that I am different. I have the opportunity to once again be an example of what you can accomplish when you do things the right way...not by lasting and making it close, but by still delivering a decisive performance.
Hopkins has always been among the sport's most driven competitors, and his quest to extend his career indefinitely has added another layer of motivation to his preparation for this fight:
I want to have a profound effect on people with what I'm still doing and will continue to do...I want to be an example to young fighters, and young athletes in general, whether they are black, white, Asian, whatever, to know that they can do things the right way. That they don't have to take shortcuts and cheat if they do things the right way.
As he attempts to break his own record, Hopkins' career has now become a story that is intriguing to people not normally interested in boxing, or even in sports in general. The United States has an aging population and a youth obsessed culture at the same time. An older man continuing to win at a young man's game is a big story across the board.
For Bernard Hopkins to keep performing at such a high level physically, so far into his fifth decade of life, has the potential to inspire and encourage aging weekend warriors and gym rats across the country. As Hopkins noted on a media call earlier in the week: "I believe those baby boomers, the people 40 and up, are going to get out their horns and celebrate Bernard Hopkins."
When I spoke to Hopkins directly, we spoke in more depth about how his career can be an example of the benefits of nutrition and fitness, not just to boxing people, but to Americans in general. Hopkins laughed when I mentioned fitness icon Jack LaLanne. "Yeah, I liked that guy," he said. "I'd like to be able to keep inspiring people the way he did."
Of course, come Saturday night in Brooklyn, it's going to be just like the punchline in the joke about the Rabbi and the Priest watching a boxing match: Hopkins' grand intentions "won't mean a thing if he can't fight." In Cloud, he has an undefeated opponent with explosive power.
Cloud has been out of action since winning a split decision over Gabriel Campillo in February 2012. He was supposed to fight Jean Pascal last August, but the fight fell through when Pascal broke his hand.
When I interviewed Cloud by phone last week, he sounded anxious to finally get back in the ring: "It's been kind of frustrating, but I've just had to keep working hard, staying ready to go."
Cloud sounded exactly the way you like to hear a hungry young fighter sound: confident and determined, but level-headed and focused. Like so many in this sport, boxing has been an opportunity to transcend childhood poverty and deprivation.
"A fight like this is a big opportunity for me," said Cloud. "I've always wanted to fight the biggest names that are willing to fight me."
Based on their most recent performances, I see no reason to count the ageless Hopkins out against the hard punching Cloud. I thought Hopkins clearly lost against Chad Dawson, but he was hardly blown out.
Cloud was thoroughly out boxed for large parts of the fight against Campillo. He is a talented athlete, and I expect that he will have learned some things from the experience, but Hopkins has a bag of tricks far deeper than the journeyman from Spain.
On the media call, Hopkins stated of Cloud:
I know I'm the better IQ fighter and the better conditioned fighter. When I do things he's not expecting, I know he's going to have to adjust mentally...this guy hits hard, he comes right at you, so I can show some Bernard Hopkins craftsmanship.
Still, the list of great fighters who got old over night is exceptionally long. And the majority of the names on it belong to men who were a decade or more younger than Hopkins is now when it happened to them.
Hopkins has always been a master of the mental game, gifted with a special talent for generating a huge motivational chip to place on his shoulder. Over the years he has always been outspoken over perceived slights, or lack of proper recognition.
A classic example would be during the build up to his 2001 showdown with then unbeaten Felix Trinidad in 2001. An underdog going into the fight, Hopkins still shared promoter Don King with Trinidad at the time, and he has made no secret over the years about feeling that King sided with his rival.
Now, over 12 years later, a sense of antagonism toward King once more motivates Hopkins. One of the most successful promoters in boxing history, the 82-year-old King is seemingly nearing the end of his own active career. The IBF champion Cloud is the last of his high-profile fighters.
"If I beat him," said Hopkins on the media call, "If I take out Cloud, Don King is going to have to close up shop. He's not going to have anything left to sell."
In Cloud, Hopkins sees a hungry younger fighter he can related to. But in King, he seems to see a distillation of every perceived obstacle that he has faced over his long career. The chance to retire King as a major promoter is clearly providing Hopkins with that sense of antagonism that he has always thrived on:
Whoever thought Bernard Hopkins, out of anybody, would be the one to do this. Not the mob, not the street people, not other promoters...Whoever thought Bernard Hopkins would shut down Don King. It's part of what motivates me, to be the last nail in the coffin.
Briggs Seekins is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand. Follow Briggs on twitter at #Briggsfighttalk.
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