(Bernard Hopkins, black trunks, takes a punch from Sergey Kovalev; Ed Mulholland, USA TODAY Sports)
ATLANTIC CITY – Sergey Kovalev couldn’t knock out Bernard Hopkins Saturday night on HBO. He was robbed of his trademark, the thing that has made him a sensation. But what he did might have been more impressive: He outboxed the ancient master.
Kovalev kept his distance perfectly. He jabbed Hopkins to his stomach. He feinted, threw combinations, and unveiled punches in the 10th he didn’t throw at any prior point. He countered. He neutralized Hopkins in clinches, avoiding any of the 49-year-old’s foul tricks like head butts or rabbit punches. He was faster than Hopkins. And Hopkins couldn’t touch him.
We knew Kovalev was a well-schooled light heavyweight. THIS well-schooled? Blanking Hopkins on the scorecards-level schooled? No.
In the 1 st, Kovalev scored a flukish knockdown. Yet Hopkins clearly had felt Kovalev’s power early. He fought more defensively than ever, hardly throwing a punch over the early rounds. When he did throw, he couldn’t connect; Kovalev’s upper body and head movement was impeccable.
Eventually, Hopkins would start inching his way into the fight, but inches wasn’t going to do it when he needed yards. By the 6th round, Hopkins already needed to score some knockdowns or get a stoppage. He finally uncorked and landed some right hands late in the fight, especially in the 12th.
Hopkins got too cheeky after that, sticking out his tongue at Kovalev and clearly irritating the Russian. Kovalev didn’t have to go after Hopkins at that point, but he did it anyway. It briefly looked as though Hopkins might just stop like a clock winding down. Then he was saved by the final seconds of the final round ticking away.
If this is the end of Hopkins’ career, it has been a special one. It wasn’t always a thrill ride. But Hopkins did things above the age of 40 no one ever has, and his career before that already put him among the best few middleweights of all time. His mastery of technique was almost absolute, his spartan training regimen the stuff of gym legend. And he feared no one. It was half-insane that he took this fight at this age.
I say “almost absolute” because he got outboxed Saturday. Surely Hopkins’ age played a role in Kovalev defeating him, but Hopkins looked about as sharp as he has in the last couple years, so this isn’t some win you can or should write off to a generation gap.
Put simply, Kovalev is very, very real. We suspected he was; it’s just that we weren’t getting confirmation of it against the Blake Caparellos of the world. He’s clearly the best light heavyweight on the planet, even if Adonis Stevenson holds the lineal championship. That match-up remains interesting, despite their most recent respective wins, because one of the things we learned tonight is that you can’t simply outbox Kovalev – you have to hurt him. Stevenson has the best chance out there of hurting Kovalev.
Don’t count on the fight happening, of course, because Stevenson fled HBO for Showtime in hopes of getting away from Kovalev and toward Hopkins. Hopkins went toward Kovalev, and in so doing, cleared a path for us to realize that Kovalev is all that and then some.