Thanks to the ridiculous amount of corruption in the world boxing, few people outside of the hardcore fans knew or cared about a monumental occurrence in the sport over the weekend. At the extraordinary age of 48, Philadelphia’s Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins beat 31 year old IBF light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud to become the oldest world champion in the sport’s history. Hopkins set the original record at 46, defeating Jean Pascal in Canada two years ago, then lost his belt to Chad Dawson 11 months ago via decision. Hopkin’s ascension back to the top of the division is nothing short of remarkable.
To understand the significance of Hopkin’s performance, some context is needed.
With modern training techniques and sparser fighting schedules, most fighter today continue careers up until their mid 30’s, but are generally considered past their prime by the age of 33 or 34. Famed trainer Freddie Roach, former trainer of Hopkins and once a professional fighter himself, was considered finished at 27 years old.
I spoke with Roach once while training at his gym in Hollywood, California and he told me that he was called ‘Old Man Roach’ by the press when going in to his last fight against David Rivello in 1986. Roach had fought professionally for 8 years. Bernard Hopkins has not only competed professionally for almost 25 years, he has been at world championship level for at least 20 of them, a feat only rivaled by the great Archie Moore over half a century ago. You would be hard pushed to find any other athlete in any other sport with that type of longevity, particularly at the elite level.
For any fan of the sweet science, watching a Hopkins fight is akin to witnessing a great sculptor at work. The old man has not only kept himself in incredible physical condition through a spartan lifestyle, but added more depth to his game as his athleticism has declined. Hopkins moves with no wasted motion, utilizing absolutely perfect posture and positioning at all times. His feet are always in the right place, his chin tucked deftly behind his shoulder, and his hands never out of defensive position. Hopkins glides around the ring with supreme coordination, and fires punches only when he knows he can land. The blows themselves are text book perfect and are always delivered with minimal muscle tension and perfect structural alignment. Hopkins threads 175lbs of weight through the space of a quarter (his 2nd and 3rd knuckles) with no wind up or explosion, just seamless hip rotation and fluid body mechanics. Hopkins moves so well that he effectively makes fighters walk on to his punches without exerting much effort at all.
But it is Hopkins’s brain that sets him apart from other fighters. He is a cold and calculating chess player in the ring, dissecting opponents as a surgeon would his patient. Hopkins displays no emotion in the ring, taking advantage whenever opportunities present themselves. Hopkins has lost twice recent years, but only to fighters so young or athletically gifted that they could make up for technical deficiencies. Anyone with out supernatural physical gifts tend to fall apart when confronted with Hopkins mastery of the game.
Tavoris Cloud, a dangerous fighter with knockout power in both hands proved to be no different, despite being 17 years younger and still in his physical prime. Hopkins took the center of the ring from the opening bell in their fight in Brooklyn, New York, and never let Cloud get set.
Every time Hopkins moved, his balance was so good that he could deliver a punch from any angle, making him a danger at all times. Cloud, on the other hand, had to have his feet planted before he punching, rendering him useless as he picked up his feet to follow Hopkins around the ring.
And that really was the tale of the fight. Hopkins lulled the younger man into fighting at a slow pace while he pivoted around the ring and hit Cloud as he clumsily tried to find the right leverage to deliver his shots. Cloud had some luck early on in fight as Hopkins worked to find his distance, landing a couple of hard lefts in round two and making Hopkins hide behind his defensive shell. But by the end of the 3rd round, Hopkins had deciphered Cloud’s movements and began to execute his game plan. He fought in calculated spurts, feinting Cloud out of position and countering beautifully with combinations. Hopkins timing was so good that he began to land lead right hands as the rounds wore on, befuddling Cloud who swung wildly and missed far more than he landed. The younger man did have his moments, landing a few hard shots in exchanges against the ropes in the 5th and in the 8th, but Hopkins’s reflexes seemed to be completely intact and he slipped and slid his way out of any real danger.
“I stuck to the game plan,” said Hopkins after the fight. “I have been working on my speed and my reflexes, and at the age of 48, I wanted to display them. We were working on combination punches. I tried to throw multiple punches. In my other fights, I would only throw one shot….We knew that if we continued to throw combination punches that he couldn’t adjust to that.
“Because I was working on my combination punches, it took me a while to find my rhythm. But in around the fourth and fifth round, I found that rhythm.”
The scores reflected Hopkins’s assessment of the fight with two judge’s scoring the bout were 116-112 and the other 117-111 all in favor of the Philadelphian. It can be argued that Cloud’s style played perfectly in Hopkins’s hands, but given Hopkins is close to 50, the feat is truly an extraordinary one.
An alumni of the Pennsylvanian penitentiary system after committing armed robbery as a teenager, Hopkins not only developed an iron clad determination to make something of his life, he spent seven years navigating the worst predators in the country. He learned to read people well because his life depended on it, and used those skills to take apart men who specialized in professional fighting. His longevity is not just genetic, it is a product of his forged mentality.
I have met Hopkins on a number of occasions when working as a boxing reporter several years back, and always felt like I was being sized up myself. When Hopkins speaks to you, he asks questions. He wants to know who you write for and where you come from. Unlike the majority of boxers who generally offer canned responses to the media, Hopkins listens to your questions and answers with extraordinary insight. Hopkins engages with everyone he meets, because he wants to know more, a technique he translates into preparing for fights, Hopkins buys tapes of his opponents from their amateur days – back when they were teenagers. In the biggest fight of his career against Oscar DeLaHoya, Hopkins watched tapes of the Golden Boy as a 16 year old so he could understand his mentality better. The then 39 year old Hopkins knocked DeLaHoya out with a brutal body shot in 9 rounds.
While casual sports fans may not know too much about Hopkins, now would be a good time to pay attention to him given he probably won’t be around for too much longer. But then again, that’s what everyone said 12 years ago when at 36, no one gave him much of a chance against knockout artist Felix Trinidad. Instead of playing to script, Hopkins delivered perhaps the best example of a boxing lesson ever witnessed in the square ring, taking every round and knocking out the Puerto Rican super star much to everyone’s amazement.
While Hopkins was not as dominant against Cloud over a decade later, the achievement at his advanced age makes it all the more amazing.
“This means more to everyone else because I’m not going anywhere,” said Hopkins of his victory over Cloud. “I stop when I want to stop, and I think that after tonight, I don’t think people want me to stop either.”
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.