Even if you don’t follow boxing closely, you’ve heard of Bernard Hopkins. He’s considered one of the best middleweights (160 lbs.) ever, and in a division that once featured Marvin Hagler, Sugar Ray Robinson and others, that’s saying something. His title reign lasted 11 years, with victims like Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya falling to him over that span.
You may not have heard of Joe Calzaghe. He’s considered the best super middleweight (168 lbs.) ever, but that’s not saying as much, since in boxing history, it’s a relatively new division; but considering that Roy Jones, Jr. and James Toney fought there for parts of their careers, it’s nothing to sneeze at. He’s had his own decade-long title reign.
Hopkins’ reign ended when Jermain Taylor pulled out close decisions over him twice in 2005, unjustly in the eyes of many. But even at the very, very advanced age of 43, Hopkins hasn’t sat on his laurels. He’s spent the last two years beating up future Hall of Famer Winky Wright and light heavyweight (175 lbs.) division king Antonio Tarver, who recently played the villain in “Rocky Balboa.” Calzaghe’s getting long in the tooth himself at age 36, but he’s spent his last two years beating up heavily-hyped Mike Tyson clone Jeff Lacy and much-respected division rival Mikkel Kessler — the two best wins of his career, in fact. He’s also become a super-celebrity in Great Britain whose last fight with Kessler was viewed by a live audience of about 50,000 people and who won BBC’s sportsman of the year award in 2007. Not just boxer. Sportsman.
Both are still among the top five boxers around of any size. And Saturday night, they’re fighting each other.
That makes it significant. Whether it’ll be watchable or not is a whole ‘nother question. Calzaghe is plenty fun to watch. Hopkins? Yes, well, he’s a matter of taste.
Did you like the New York Knicks of the 1990s, when the goal was to grind the game down to a slog, focus on defense and work in the occasional cheap shot on the opponents? Then Hopkins is your kind of fighter. Like the Knicks of that era, led by Pat Riley, there is an incredible brain behind the Hopkins operation: Bernard Hopkins. Frankly, he’s brilliant at finding and exploiting his opponents’ weaknesses. Sometimes, he’s brilliant at creating those weaknesses by headbutting, hitting low and all other manner of illegal maneuvers, as when he busted his noggin against Wright’s and created a big cut that nearly blinded Wright out of one eye for their whole fight. But he just plain wins.
The best other-sport corrolary for Joe Calzaghe is probably “Whiteyball.” I’m mildly amused that this correlation came to mind, but I say this not to be controversial like Hopkins, who notably and tastelessly made racist remarks to Calzaghe about how “I will never lose to a white boy.” No, I refer to Whitey Herzog, the baseball coach of the 80s and 90s whose St. Louis Cardinals killed with speed. They never hit many home runs — just singles, doubles and lots of stolen bases. Calzaghe makes a living off hard work and constant motion. He usually tries to overwhelm his opponent with speed and sheer volume of punches, but he’s adept at the sweet science, too, changing strategies, punch angles and anything else on the fly. You get beaten by this speed, but slowly, over time. Lacy and Kessler just looked exasperated by the end of their time against Calzaghe.
Calzaghe reckons he has the one thing that Hopkins has had trouble with: Hand speed. Jones beat him with it, and it was a factor in his fights with Taylor. Hopkins is usually too crafty to give away his strategy, but he’s hinted that he expects to be able to hit the on-rushing Calzaghe at will, since he’s a counter-puncher who never leads anyway — this just equals more counter-punching opportunities for him. Hopkins probably has some tricks up his sleeve. Wright had lost fights before, but nobody solved him like Hopkins. Hopkins is a puzzle-master in there.
A big question is, will anyone get in the way of whatever tricks Hopkins pulls? Referee Joe Cortez is the third man in the ring, and Brits are still fuming about how he kept Ricky Hatton on a strict leash in December during his own big fight on U.S. soil against another American master, Floyd Mayweather. In theory, Cortez should do the same to Hopkins if he holds and mauls, which is how I expect Hopkins will treat Calzaghe when he tries to get off flurries. But Hopkins doesn’t just outsmart his opponent, he outsmarts referees, too.
Incidentally, I think forcing Hopkins to lead might be the smart thing for Calzaghe, who usually fights going backwards anyhow. Heavyweight Sam Peter did it successfully last year against Toney, who was like Hopkins in that he won with his brain and waited for his man to come to him. Sure, it would turn it into the most boring fight ever as a flummoxed Hopkins just stood and waited, but maybe it’s time somebody took Hopkins out of his comfort zone for once.
My current thinking is that Calzaghe, by virtue of his style, will force Hopkins into fighting more than he would like, since, at 43, he tends to fight in spurts. But the value in this fight is primarily in its importance to the sport, both now and the legacies each man leaves behind. That’s drama enough for me to be looking forward to it.
My prediction: Hopkins, by competitive but surprisingly wide decision. I’ve learned my lesson about picking against Hopkins, who’s made a fool of me every time I have. He always finds a way to win.
Confidence: 60%. Calzaghe’s the favorite because of his (comparitive) youth and speed. He could have the advantage in size, considering he’s been struggling to squeeze down to 168 for years and Hopkins is still a newcomer to 175. But Hopkins has his secret weapon from the Tarver fight, fitness guru Mackie Shilstone, working with him again, so maybe age isn’t such a factor. My only worry in my prediction is speed and volume. My bet is, Bernard figures it out. But Calzaghe’s made a fool out of me anytime I’ve doubted him, too.
My allegiance: Calzaghe by a country mile. Hopkins may only be a racist for show, but I don’t like him making racist remarks anyway. I respect his ability, accomplishments and intelligence, but he’s one of the most un-fun boxers to watch ever, plus he’s got a petulant air about him. Calzaghe’s significantly more likable and watchable.