Bernard Hopkins is stepping into the ring this weekend against Sergey ‘Krusher’ Kovalev. Kovalev is 31, Hopkins will be 50 in just over two months.
To put 50 in athletics into context, think about Hopkins’ contemporaries in the soon-to-be five decade club. Ron Gant was born in 1965 and has been retired since an injury-plagued 2003—footage from his early years in baseball looks ancient, as grainy as an Edward Murrow telecast. Katarina Witt skated for a country—East Germany—which no longer exists. Mario Lemieux’s last comeback ended eight years ago with the star a hobbled former shell of himself. Reggie Miller hasn’t started a game since the youngest NBA rookies were 9 years old. Lennox Lewis last defended a belt while LeBron James was in high school.
In spectator sports, 50 (or nearly 50) isn’t the new 40. It remains the exclusive province of athletic freaks like Gordie Howe and Satchel Paige. Even Hopkins’ accomplishments are ancient. The Philly-raised light heavyweight champion’s first title belt—won in 1992—is old enough to have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan and buy you a beer. His most recent knockout—against Oscar de la Hoya—came more than 10 years ago.
In every sense you’ll be watching a throwback fighting Saturday, a relic from an ancient era that has survived to this day, the human equivalent of the creatures that outlived the dinosaurs like sharks and alligators.
Hopkins has done it with no small amount of guile—in fact, his brain and stamina are the only things he has left. Hopkins (55-6-2-2) possesses very little pop—against a tank like Kovalev (25-0-1), the odds of him landing a knockout shot are astronomically small, even if he catches the Russian off-guard. He has a serviceable chin, but since he excels so well at the don’t-get-hit part of boxing, we don’t know how he’d handle a sustained assault on his body.
What Hopkins does have is a PhD in the sweet science. His columns in The Ring are the stuff of legend—full length tutorials on how to throw a jab, how to adjust one’s footwork against a lefty, how to fight on the first full moon of the quarter-quell (OK, I made that one up). The point is, Hopkins has thought about the nuances of the sport longer than most of his opponents have been drawing breath.
It’s going to take every ounce of that knowledge to overcome Kovalev. The Russian contender throws a murderous left hook that has ended a handful of fights when it meets with ribs or a poorly-protected cheekbone. He knocks opponents out at a prodigious rate—23 have eaten canvas. The Krusher, true enough, is the next in a long line of opponents who are promising to end Hopkins’ long career. But, he has the power to maim a like-aged competitor. I shudder to think about what he’ll do to an AARP member.
Hopkins is an athletic risk manager—little different than the guy who decides when to settle and when to take a case to trial. He’ll be fighting for the judges in Atlantic City Saturday—lay hands on Kovalev and get the hell out of there before the Russian can lay one of his sledgehammers on Hopkins’ well-cared for, but frankly old, body.
He walks a perilously thin line in his title defense. If the goal is to push Kovalev to the 12th round, a place he’s never been before—and it should be—Hopkins must weather what will likely be a four-round storm from the challenger. Will he have enough to duck or absorb those punches and then catch up the judges’ scorecards in rounds 5-12? That’s a lot of action after some potentially devastating bruising to muster for an old man. Add to it that John David Jackson—a former sparring partner, opponent and trainer of Hopkins—is training Kovalev. Jackson knows the cards could tip Hopkins’ way on sentimentality, so don’t expect the Russian to leave his corner early with anything besides orders to remove The Executioner’s head.
This and any subsequent title defense (and hell, his last 18 fights over the past 10 years) challenge our most tested proof about sports: everybody breaks down, eventually. It’s a trite way to end a column, but no matter the outcome Saturday, you’ll see a once-in-a-generation athlete test his skills at the very frontier of athletic performance: Old age.