Big Underdog

Other fighters know how to box, but Bernard Hopkins understands boxing.
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Nothing particularly notable had happened as it neared the end of the second round of Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson’s light heavyweight championship fight last October. Dawson looked to have narrowly won the first round, and while the second was close, there had been more posturing than punching. That’s when Hopkins led with a straight right hand, the signature punch of his late career. He rushes in with his head down and shoots the right hand from its defensive position next to his chin.

The punch is hard to counter as Hopkins closes the distance between himself and his opponent so quickly. In this case Dawson slipped the punch, ducking down to near waist level. Hopkins’ momentum forced him into Dawson and he draped himself over Dawson’s back. Dawson, frustrated at being manhandled, reared up and (it was almost a body slam, but not quite) sort of shucked Hopkins off of him the way a farmer might toss a heavy bag of feed to the ground. Hopkins, forty-six at the time, fell heavily to the canvas and grabbed his left shoulder in agony. The fight was over.


It was a disappointing end to a fight that most expected to be disappointing. Due to budgetary issues it was a PPV event, and while official numbers were never released it was rumored that sales were disastrously low. The referee initially ruled Dawson the winner by technical knockout, but the decision was later correctly overturned and declared a no contest, meaning Hopkins regained his light heavyweight championship belt.

Dawson and his team howled that Hopkins had faked the injury rather than continue in a fight he feared he would lose. They claimed that Hopkins had been avoiding a fight with Dawson for years. This was his way out.

Hopkins had been avoiding Dawson for years. Chad Dawson is a terrific fighter, one of the best in the world, but if he has a thousand fans I’d be surprised. Dawson has all the physical tools but he’s the type of guy that does just enough to win and no more. His boxing style excites no passion and he’s not a compelling character. He has trouble speaking, leading his former trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr. to say, as only he can, “he’s a little retarded.”

The risk of fighting Dawson wasn’t worth the reward, and Hopkins only took the fight when there were no other options. As for Hopkins faking or exaggerating the issue, if it was any other fighter I’d call the accusation ridiculous. Nothing had happened at that point to indicate Hopkins was in trouble and a fighter being instantly aware that a phony shoulder separation would lead to a no contest seems impossible. It’s just not how fighters think in the heat of the moment.

Well, at least most of them. Hopkins is a ring genius, a master of gamesmanship. In recent fights he seems to have exaggerated low blows and shots behind the head. He frequently wrestles and punches his opponents on the side blocked from the referees’ view. He’d even had similar falls before. When Hopkins was the middleweight champion he retained the title in a no contest when referee Mills Lane accidentally pushed him out of the ring against title challenger Robert Allen. In another middleweight defense Hopkins rose from an almost identical body toss by Antwun Echols. In that fight he rose from the canvas and managed to knock his opponent out with only one hand. Because if Chad Dawson is a fighter who will do just enough to win and no more, Bernard Hopkins is the type of fighter who will do whatever it takes to win, and nothing less. 

I say this as a great admirer of Bernard Hopkins; he very well might have exaggerated or faked that injury. It’s part of the reason I do admire him. We live in a world were casual decisions by politicians, bankers, or generals change thousands of lives. It’s never personal, it’s always just a part of a bigger picture.

For Bernard Hopkins it’s always personal. When promoters or athletic commissions tried to play with him, he raged. When television executives tried to lowball his as an ex-convict without a particularly appealing style he defied them merely by winning. He never bowed and scraped, he fought and did whatever it took to remain a champion.

He’s an inconceivable forty-seven years old now and has no special attributes. The other great aged champions—Archie Moore and George Foreman—were two of the greatest punchers in the history of the sport. Hopkins, at his best, was never more than an average puncher, or notably fast. Hopkins has done it by being disciplined, focused, intelligent, and mean.

I expect him to lose this Saturday against Dawson. I expected him to lose last October. Dawson is just the type of fighter to trouble Hopkins. Dawson has long arms and he throws a lot of not very significant punches. He fights to score points and Hopkins has trouble keeping up with that type of fighter at this stage in his career. Hopkins is slower and stiffer than even a few years ago and simply doesn’t have the stamina to throw many punches. He usually lands more clean blows, but is susceptible to being outworked.

But you never know with Hopkins. He’s a big underdog, more than two to one, but he has won fights with steeper odds. If he does win it’ll be a narrow, scratch-and-sniff affair. He’ll do it by controlling distance, which he does as well as any fighter in history. At this point in his career Hopkins can’t fight for long in punching range. He either has to be far away from his opponent to take some time to catch his breath, or he has to rush in with the darting aggression that led to Dawson’s frustration toss in their first fight.

If you get bored during the fight, watch their feet for a few seconds. Even seeing Hopkins shadowboxing is a rare treat, as his mastery of range and footwork is without parallel. For each action by his opponent there is an instantaneous reaction. The creation of range and angles comes to him without thought, completely naturally. Monastic discipline and twenty years of championship bouts have made him a master. Other fighters know how to box, but Bernard understands boxing.

As with all his fights over recent years Hopkins doesn’t have much to lose. He’s far past his best and his legacy can only be enhanced, not diminished at this point. No one would blame him if he finds himself behind early and coasts to an uneventful loss. But somehow I doubt he will. I expect him, even if it’s late in the fight and he’s losing, to come in with that sneaky straight right and follow up with his hard head. I expect him to do anything he can to get the win. Chad Dawson may be nothing to the grand old champion, just another puppy yelping at the old dog, but for Bernard, it’s always personal.

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