Bernard Hopkins: One of the greatest

May 19, 2011

Some athletes are judged more by their eye-rolling remarks and cringe-inducing behavior rather than by their athletic achievements. If there is an example more noteworthy than Bernard Hopkins, I certainly can’t think of it.

From instigating a riot by disrespecting the Puerto Rican flag to telling the sports media that Donovan McNabb (former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback) isn’t a real black man, Hopkins often manages to portray himself in a negative light. As a result, most of the recent discussion about Hopkins revolves around his character. But what’s been lost in the chatter lately is that Hopkins is one of the greatest athletes of all time.

Currently, Hopkins holds 59 professional victories with only five losses, and unlike a lot of boxers, there is very little padding on his record. He has fought a veritable who’s who of boxers, including all-time greats like Roy Jones Jr., Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya. He’s held every major middleweight championship, most of them simultaneously, and successfully defended his IBF title a staggering 20 times. Even at 46, Hopkins continues to compete at the highest level.

Sure, Hopkins has a tendency to say the wrong things. However, people appear to have to forgotten he isn’t a man who was groomed to be in the public eye. After all, Hopkins grew up in the projects and spent the earliest years of his adulthood in prison. Despite the odds, he has achieved greatness.

So in honor of Hopkins’ incredible career, I would like to sidestep the bombast and controversy that has become his defining characteristic as of late and draw attention to his achievments. I’ve selected five fights from Bernard Hopkins’ career that illustrate why he is one of the greatest of all time.

5. Bernard Hopkins v. Segundo Mercado II, April 29, 1995

Hopkins began his professional boxing career as light heavyweight with a loss against Clinton Mitchell in October of 1988. He wisely took a year and half to train and reinvent himself as a middleweight. From that point, Hopkins went on to win 26 of his next 27 fights, losing only to Roy Jones Jr.

In December 1994, Hopkins was granted a shot at the then vacant IBF middleweight title against Segundo Mercado. Mercado proved a game opponent and the fight was ruled a draw. An immediate rematch was ordered.

The first fight was a closely contested battle. The rematch was not. On April 29, 1995, Hopkins dominated Mercado for six rounds before finally winning by TKO in the seventh and becoming the IBF middleweight champion. While the fight lacks in drama, its historical significant is huge. Hopkins would go on to successfully defend the IBF title 20 times until his loss to Jermain Taylor in 2005. This Mercado fight marked the beginning of one the greatest championship reigns of all time in any sport.

4. Bernard Hopkins v. Oscar De La Hoya, Sept. 18, 2004

There are superstar athletes in every sport. In boxing, the combination of talent and personality can result in unmatched levels of fame. Oscar De La Hoya possessed personality and talent in bundles. As a boxer, he was considered one of the greatest “small” fighters of all time. As a public figure, De La Hoya was beloved for his charming personality and good looks. As a true superstar in every meaning of the word he was, in many ways, he was the perfect foil for the rough and unrefined Hopkins.

The fight itself was a good one. It was tactical, it was well-paced and it was closely contested. Nine rounds in, Hopkins appeared to be on his way to a decision victory. That was the outcome most boxing analysts had predicted anyway. Hopkins, however, had no intention of merely living up to expectations.

In the ninth round, Hopkins delivered a savage, in-close left hook to De La Hoya’s body. De La Hoya crumpled to the ground and was unable to get up. It was the first time in his career that he had been knocked out. The victory was covered extensively by the press, particularly by ESPN, and Hopkins immediately became a household name to anyone even moderately interested in sports.

3. Bernard Hopkins v. Howard Eastman, Feb. 19, 2005

While most athletes have retired by the age of 40, Hopkins was preparing to do something amazing. Almost 10 years removed from winning the IBF middleweight championship, he was preparing himself his 20th title defense. Eastman was a serious contender. He came into the fight with 40-1 record with 34 of those victories coming by knockout. Hopkins, of course, was coming off the most publicized win of his career with his victory over De La Hoya.

The fight itself was methodical. Hopkins started off sluggish, but turned it on in the fourth round. Hopkins picked his shots and landed at will. In the eighth round, Eastman rallied back and went toe to toe with Hopkins, with both men landing some heavy shots. From the ninth round on, however, it was business as usual for Hopkins. He used his superior technique to pick at Eastman until the fight was over. In the end, Hopkins won by decision. More importantly, he had now defended his IBF title a record 20 times.

2. Bernard Hopkins v. Felix Trinidad, September 29, 2001

In 2001, many people considered Felix Trinidad the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Trinidad captured the IBF welterweight championship in 1994 and defended it a record 15 times before vacating it after a victory over Oscar De La Hoya in 1999. After a few fights at junior middleweight, Trinidad entered the IBF, WBC, WBA middleweight unification tournament along with Hopkins, William Joppy and Keith Holmes. In that tournament, Hopkins won a lackluster decision victory over Keith Holmes. Trinidad, however, crushed Joppy in a dominating performance. When the final bout of the tournament was announced, Trinidad was viewed as the overwhelming favorite.

After an inactive first two rounds, Hopkins began to find his range and methodically outwork Trinidad. With the exception the 6th round, in which Trinidad was able to land some big hits on Hopkins, Hopkins controlled the fight with a combination of superior speed and excellent technique. In the 10th and 11th rounds, Hopkins began to come on strong and landed some heavy leather, including a shot than almost dropped Trinidad in the 10th. Finally, in the 12th round, Hopkins put Trinidad away with a right to the chin that put him to canvas. Trinidad was unable to recover.

That right hand delivered more than just a TKO victory. It earned Hopkins the WBO middleweight championship and the 15th defense of his IBF middleweight title. It also announced to world Hopkins was still the best middleweight fighter in the world.

1. Bernard Hopkins v. Kelly Pavlik, Oct. 18, 2008

In 2008, many boxing pundits felt it was time for Bernard Hopkins to hang up his gloves. A long, dominating career looked as if it was coming to an end. After defeating Eastman, Hopkins lost his IBF title to Jermain Taylor. He then went 2-2 in his next four fights. In the meantime, Kelly Pavlik was earning a reputation as a killer. Pavlik had defeated Jermain Taylor for the WBO middleweight championship and amassed a perfect record of 34-0, with most of those victories coming by KO or TKO. When the fight was announced, many fans expected the younger Pavlik to not only dominate the aging Hopkins, but to become the first person to knock him out.

The fans witnessed domination, but not in a manner any predicted. Hopkins used Pavlik as a punching bag for 12 rounds. Early in the fight, Hopkins landed crisp, technical strikes while avoiding almost everything Pavlik had to offer. By the eighth round, Pavlik looked like the 44-year-old fighter, not Hopkins. Hopkins began to open up his strikes, landing several savage head shots in the following rounds. In the 12th, even though the outcome was clear, Hopkins came out swinging, almost dropping Pavlik with a savage head and body combo. The only real offense offered by Pavlik came in a burst of frustration after the final bell. It was one of best performances of Hopkins career and one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sport.

Amazingly, Hopkins’ career continues onward. Unlike many older boxers who seem to fight past their prime for no reason other than to secure a nice check, Hopkins continues to be a serious threat.

On Saturday, the 46-year-old will fight current IBO, WBC and Ring Magazine light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal in a rematch of their December bout. True to his legacy, the first fight saw the much older Hopkins battle back from early adversity to earn a controversial draw. Win or lose, I can only hope this bout serves to remind everyone the occasional controversy Hopkins generates pales in comparison to his importance in boxing history.