Shortly after Beibut Shumenov was born in Kazakhstan, his aunt made a near fatal mistake and gave the new baby boy bad milk. The toddler turned blue, leaving his poor dad to rush him to the doctor. As Shumenov said recently, he is lucky to be alive after this kiddy calamity.
At just about the same time, on the other side of the planet a 17-year-old Bernard Hopkins was being sentenced to 18 years in prison for strong armed robbery. He entered Graterford Penitentiary in Pennsylvania where he would witness murder and rape along the road to becoming the prison’s boxing champion.
That sickly baby and the hardened felon of 1983 would one day, 30 years in the future, meet in a prize fight to unify two of the light heavyweight championship belts. That fated evening is this Saturday night, in Washington D.C.
Hopkins, now a 26-year veteran and legend of the sport, continues his inexorable march towards the hall of fame and “all time great” status. A victory here, and the oldest champion in history becomes the oldest man to ever unify titles: another feather in a dogeared old cap that is already adorned with enough plumage to turn a peacock envious.
Conversely, Shumenov, still the babe of the brawl has just 16 fights on his ledger and faces his first true test at the elite level of boxing. While his record is strewn with a handful of victories over names you may recognize — William Joppy, Montell Griffin, Byron Mitchell — the names echo from around the turn of the century, over a decade ago, when they were viable opponents. While you may remember the names, do you know the records they hold in the last six years? Between them just four wins.
It is with this relative lack of testing that Shumenov enters the spotlight with the WBA belt won off of a mid-level titlest, Gabriel Campillo, and stares across the ring at a face chiseled into this eras Mount Rushmore of boxing.
Strangely, 30 years on, from that helpless baby and that hardened criminal, the experience gap has narrowed, but by how much?
With over four times more fights and 381 more rounds under his belt, Hopkins enters the ring as the most seasoned fighter Shumenov will ever likely face. There isn’t anything he can throw at the masterful veteran that dozens of opponents haven’t already tried.
When tallying up Shumenov’s likely advantages, it’s not easy to find many. A few things are evident, however, when watching him fight. He changes up his punches well, going from the head to the body within punching combinations. He would do well to work the old man’s midsection. His right hand is his bread and butter. He has caused several of his knockouts with a quick straight right hand, but sometimes gets caught up in throwing wide looping hooks instead. He uses that same right hand to sneak in an effective uppercut from time to time too.
How effective those tools will be against the ageless stone facade of Hopkins’ defense remains to be seen. If history is to be considered, and with Hopkins it must always be, there is every indication that his first mission will be to neutralize Shumenov’s best weapon. He will likely remove the straight righthand from the equation. Once that is impossible to land, Shumenov will look to swing around the guard with the aforementioned looping shots. The tuck chinned defense of the Philly legend will stave off these attacks as he launches his own best weapon, the straight right hand down the middle as a counter attack.
Like dominoes, one dropping into the next until none stand, the weapons fall from opponents’ hands as Hopkins methodically takes them out. Then Shumenov, stripped of his arsenal, will learn what so many of Hopkins opponents do when they are in the ring with him. To beat him, you must fight out of character. Here a crucial decision is to be made; do you fight out of character and become something more than what you are? Or do you fight out of character and become something less?
In becoming less, many choose to join Hopkins. They lower their output, get scrappy inside, hold and hit, play the chessmaster’s game and almost always lose. Their defense is not as good. Their punches are not as well-timed or precise. Their ability to foul and cajole are not so subtle.
Some are able to stick to their identity and find another gear. Joe Calzaghe, longtime super middleweight champion, a volume puncher by nature, just let his hands go after getting dropped by Hopkins in the 1st round. The windmill arm flailing wasn’t particularly effective as a meaningful attack — most of the sloppy barrage was ducked and dodged by the slippery Hopkins — but Calzaghe eked out a split decision based largely on heaping hundreds upon hundreds of awkward arm punches at the crafty champ.
Chad Dawson won his second bout with Hopkins by combining the two facets that had exemplified his career to that point: being consistent and being quick. It wasn’t terribly impressive. It wasn’t dominating, but by just amplifying his natural persona enough, Dawson earned a majority decision.
It’s no mistake that even these losses on Hopkins ledger are recorded in the books with indecision on the part of the judges. No one has ever had an easy night with Hopkins and whatever decision his opponent makes on how to proceed once their preferred plan is rebuffed, the road will be strewn with broken men.
Shumenov will have to show that he is more than what he has been so far in his short career. Is there another gear? Is there more than a well conditioned, solidly technical, workmanlike fighter? One wonders if even Shumenov, with his relatively paltry experience, yet knows the answer to that question.
As with every fight that Hopkins has signed on for in the last decade, there is always one persistent riddle to unfurl; is this finally the fight in which the old man turns out to be a shot fighter?
The question, though seemingly valid for so long, is now becoming increasingly absurd. It is appearing more and more likely that Hopkins will never be a shot fighter, simply worn down from the years of punishment. He’ll never be that shopworn pugilist, because he never entertained the idea of taking punishment. In fact, in a sport in which the entire purpose is for one man to foist pain and violence upon the other, no one has ever really been able to do it to Hopkins.
Even nearing 50, it’s difficult to land a clean punch on the unblemished face of the defensive master. We’ve never seen him cut or bleeding. Never seen him particularly hurt. There is every chance that Hopkins will continue to fight another year or two and never quite fall off the cliff that almost everyone has foreseen in his future.
While his speed and stamina may wane, his guile seems to carry him through. And though at times — as he has adjusted physically and mentally to fighting in an older mans body — his precautionary tactics have alienated some fans, in retrospect Hopkins may not have known just how much he could push his body either.
Recent bouts have seen his demeanor change a little. In this final stage of his evolution, Hopkins seems more willing to engage, put himself on the line and punch more. Some of that may be out of a necessity to create the openings that in the past he could rely on his reflexes to garner for him. Some of it may be his ability to see the finish line of his long and storied career.
Should he best Shumenov and unite two belts, Hopkins will begin what he hopes is the last chapter in the tome that his story has filled. The final passage will be to face Adonis Stevenson, the thunder-fisted “Superman” who sent Dawson packing in one round and who currently campaigns as the division’s true acknowledged champ.
Stevenson has the punching power to paste anyone to the canvas. A slightly more vulnerable legend, just shy of his 50th birthday, going under heavy fire like that would be that last hurrah that Hopkins wants to go out on.
One could imagine a victory over Stevenson being Hopkins’ magnum opus, making him an undisputed champion in his second weight class. Then he could have, perhaps, one victory defense just after his 50th birthday in January to cap off his career and cement his standing as an ageless phenom. Whether that is what has yet to be written, we shall see, and for now are left to wonder if Hopkins has enough ink left to finish the final few statements he wants to.
In 1983 the odds that these two men’s lives would ever interact in the most menial circumstance, let alone meet up in a prizefighting ring with millions of dollars involved and light heavyweight glory on the line, were infinitesimally small.
A little helpless baby and a street-hardened criminal — that dynamic duo from three decades past enter final preparations as the hours tick down until they clash in the ring. One of them is now 16 bouts into his six year career. The other is 64 fights into his 26 year career.
Time is funny; the more things change, the more they stay the same.