Something strange happened on the way to this weekend’s HBO rematch between light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson, a battle of undeniable substance but wholly refutable style: People began to care. The first bout, which ended in a 2nd round no contest, lived down to every expectation of what a dismal failure it would be both financially (reportedly fewer than 100,000 pay-per-view buys) and in its entertainment value (two rounds of not much happening punctuated by a conclusion that sparked outrage).
Yet the rematch is selling tickets more briskly than anyone could’ve imagined. The possible reasons are numerous. Hopkins, for as much as his minimalist fighting style has bored so many over his decades in the ring, has a knack for doing relatively nice television ratings of late, using both his mouth and the angle that he is beating remarkably good competition well into his 40s; had the original bout been on HBO proper rather than on PPV, it might have reeled in some viewers. The controversy over the original ending might’ve boosted unexpected interest in the rematch, as people sometimes like to see things reach a definitive conclusion even if they aren’t especially sold on what came before, and sometimes people are drawn to controversy. Dawson, a previously personality-less character both in and outside the ring, showed a spark of anger at Hopkins after the fight that might have made fans slightly interested in him, too, plus bad blood sells. And the bout is in Atlantic City this time rather than on the West Coast like it was last time, befitting two fighters based on the East Coast.
There are very few hard and fast rules in making a successful boxing event — there are only tendencies that many of them have. Some boxing orthodoxies hold that boxing fans won’t watch a fight that they expect to be boring, but that’s been proven false time and again, or else oft-boring heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko and pound-for-pound #1 contender Floyd Mayweather, Jr. wouldn’t be two of the world’s biggest stars. Sometimes, simply putting the best guy against the next best guy — and Hopkins, as champ, and Dawson, as #1 contender, are that in the light heavyweight division — is enough to generate above average TV ratings relative to the current era of said ratings. It is is rare, however, for U.S.-based fights to sell very well at the gate if they don’t offer action, so this one bucks one trend, if not another. One wonders how this fight’s relative success will fit into the aforementioned orthodoxies.
One also wonders how this fight will go. On paper, Dawson figured to be a style nightmare for Hopkins the first time around, a big, fast, young 175-pounder with excellent boxing skills when recent Hopkins opponents with only one or two of those traits had troubled Hopkins, let alone all three. In less than two rounds, some saw a fight that reflected that dynamic. Others said “not so fast,” since Hopkins sneaked in more power punches over that period than did Dawson. Each man, too, has questions about his mentality going in: Some think Dawson is too angry, and might be overconfident; some think Hopkins is too placid, as if resigned to losing to someone who got the better of him briefly.
This fight might not be as bad as the last one, but it almost certainly won’t be a thrilling brawl. It wasn’t a rematch that many fans really were asking for. But it’s commendable that both men took on such a difficult task, and I’m more interested than I anticipated in discovering who will come out on top.
Hopkins’ game should be well known to all by now: the accurate right hand, the tricky and borderline illegal inside fighting, the tough defense. But at age 47, he’s not as quick or unhittable as he was even two years ago. Against Dawson, his chances of victory depend almost wholly on guile. In the first fight, he still had plenty guile on display. He probably could sleepwalk to victory using a kind of instinct for guile against any number of light heavyweight contenders. So deep is his experience, so clever is his approach, that he hasn’t lost a fight cleanly since 1993 when Roy Jones, Jr. defeated him, and since he’s taken out the fellow savvy vets (Winky Wright, Antonio Tarver), young guns (Kelly Pavlik, Jean Pascal) and everyone in the middle. Hopkins is no worse than the second-best “old” fighter boxing has ever seen, depending on how you view his achievements in the 40s compared to those of Archie Moore.
Dawson is some combination of savvy vet and young gun. He’s fairly polished in his craft, although he has the occasional tendency to get hit when he shouldn’t. Outside the ring, he has been mocked as something less than a genius, but inside the ring he knows what he’s doing — his only loss, to Pascal, can be attributed more to lack of aggression than know-how. At 29, he should be in his physical prime. He’s speedy as hell and physically strong, and his lack of knockouts might merely be an issue of focus, but he doesn’t have exceptional pop in his fists, either way you look at it. And his resume has some very nice names on it — Tomasz Adamek, Glen Johnson, and Tarver when Tarver was still a top light heavyweight.
In the first fight, Dawson didn’t lack for aggression. He wasn’t reckless, but he was pressing the fight. He didn’t seem perturbed by Hopkins’ unhittability the way so many are, nor any return fire from Hopkins. If anyone looked uncomfortable, it was Hopkins who was having difficulty with Dawson’s length, speed, strength and aggression. At the same time, Dawson didn’t take too kindly to Hopkins’ holding and wrestling tactics, and Dawson’s cool — he’s damn near frigid in there sometimes — went out the window when he lifted up the older man with his shoulder and grasped his leg to deposit him on the canvas. The legitimacy of Hopkins’ shoulder injury has been questioned by the Dawson camp and many fans since, although I see no evidence that disproves it and more evidence than none to suggest it was real.
At any rate, Hopkins has been strangely silent, by his standards, since then. Some see this as Hopkins’ resignation to his inevitable demise, similar to his begging out of the first fight post-injury (or “injury”). But I find it hard to believe that Hopkins would take this fight if he didn’t believe he could win it. Hopkins could’ve dropped his belt and avoided a mandatory rematch if he wanted and he would’ve had a ready-made excuse that he was still the real champ and there was no economic demand for him to fight Dawson again.
I don’t share Hopkins’ presumed confidence. Everyone knows that Hopkins starts slow and figures out his opponent over the course of a fight. Maybe that would have happened against Dawson the first time around, and maybe it will this time, too. I don’t think Hopkins is as much of an underdog as others seem to, because I’ve been won over to some extent by those who caution that things weren’t going as badly for Hopkins in the original bout as I’d perceived. Yet, I saw enough of Dawson’s physical attributes, focus and boxing ability therein to make me think he would’ve given Hopkins friction all night long, the worst Hopkins has faced during his remarkable run, and eventually edged him on the scorecards. I think this fight will be close in each round, with many rounds of not much happening and some judges giving the old man some of those nothingness rounds. But in the end, Dawson will have his hand raised via split decision or close unanimous decision.