By Steve Kim
This Saturday, from the D.C. Armory in the nation's capital, Bernard Hopkins returns to the ring in a light heavyweight title unification bout against Beibut Shumenov. At 49, Hopkins isn't just old by the standards of professional boxing, he's old for a recreational athlete who shoots hoops at the local Y on the weekends. Yet here he remains, fighting at a world-class level, and if it were up to him, he'd be sticking around for a while -- to the chagrin of many.
He is boxing's one-man senior circuit, consistently turning back the challenges of those who are younger, more crowd-pleasing, more marketable or all three. Hopkins isn't just that cranky old guy telling kids to get off his lawn, he's actually beating them up before he heads back inside with his bathrobe and slippers, grumbling about today's generation.
To put the age difference in perspective in this weekend's Showtime main event, Hopkins made his pro debut on Oct. 11, 1988, losing in four rounds to Clinton Mitchell. At the time, Shumenov had just celebrated his 5th birthday. By the time Shumenov made his pro debut nearly two decades later, on Nov. 17, 2007 with a first round blowout of Walter Edwards, Hopkins had participated in 54 fights. Shumenov has 15 career bouts, winning 14; Hopkins had 20 title defenses alone during his reign as the middleweight champion.
Boxing, in theory, should favor youth. While other sports give you retirement ceremonies and retire your jerseys, this sport's version of a gold watch leans more toward unsympathetic beatings on the way out, paving the way for the younger generation to take over. Somehow, Hopkins has managed to outrun what had been an undefeated force in boxing for decades -- Father Time.
This guy just won't ride off into the sunset. Yes, he is to be respected and admired for his Hall of Fame credentials, and marveled at for his discipline and longevity, but the reality is that many in the industry and the fanbase believe it's time for Hopkins to finally begin his five-year countdown to his induction ceremony in Canastota. While he's described as "crafty," "cagey" and "full of guile," oftentimes those are just euphemisms to describe the boring and drawn-out fights that are more an education in the art of the sweet science than actual entertainment.
There was a time, long ago, when Hopkins was actually a vicious puncher, scoring eye-opening KO's over the likes of Steve Frank and Joe Lipsey in the mid-1990s. His long, hard road as the heir apparent to the great Marvin Hagler culminated with his surgical dismantling of Puerto Rican icon Felix Trinidad in 2001. Back then, he truly was "the Executioner," a long-time nickname that he's now discarded in favor of "the Alien." After two disputed losses to Jermain Taylor at 40 in 2005, it was thought that his storybook career was nearing an end. That Hopkins had even managed to have a career following a five-year stint for armed robbery in his youth was remarkable, but it turned out he still had more than a few chapters left in him.
Since he turned 40, he has battled the likes of Winky Wright, Joe Calzaghe, Kelly Pavlik, Roy Jones, Jean Pascal (twice) and Tavoris Cloud. He hasn't won every battle, but he has more than held his own, and in recent years he had captured the WBC and then the IBF belt. But as the years have wore on, Hopkins' tactics have been more and more about survival than anything else. His bouts are now grinding, strategic affairs devoid of any sustained action. He has become boxing version of the junk baller, and to many, his renegade schtick has worn thin.
Hopkins is now that guy trainers show their young fighters when it comes to the manly art of self-defense and survival. However, he's not the one you throw fight parties for when he performs. He is appreciated, but hardly beloved, and to many boxing fans, it's not helping that his mere presence is now getting in the way of anticipated matchups.
That includes a clash between Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev, two fighters who are everything Hopkins no longer is: young, risk-taking punchers. It was a pairing the masses were yearning for in the light heavyweight division, and one that the beleaguered HBO was banking on to anchor their boxing program in 2014. Eventually, Stevenson eschewed the Kovalev fight and shunned HBO by instead agreeing to a deal with rival network Showtime that will most likely lead to a fight versus Hopkins.
The thinking from Stevenson and his management is sound and logical. Why fight a hungry young lion who could really beat you up, when you can instead face a fighter nearing 50? At worst, Hopkins would befuddle Stevenson, and either way, the payday would be larger. Perhaps Shumenov can derail those plans, but it seems he is a bit too crude and raw to really exploit the physical slippage that was apparent in Hopkins' October victory over the pedestrian Karo Murat.
There is an adage in boxing that fighters can turn old overnight. Well, Hopkins did that about 15 years ago. Only problem is, nobody told him.
* * *
Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)