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30 SEPTEMBER 2014

 




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Thomas Hauser








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Hopkins-Calzaghe: When Push Comes to Shove


Bernard Hopkins: photo by Holger Keifel
Bernard Hopkins: photo by Holger Keifel

By Thomas Hauser

Visually, the upcoming fight between Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins looks like a confrontation between a concert violinist and a street thug. The combatants’ personalities are vastly different too.

Conversing with Hopkins is like clocking time of possession for a football team that has a dominant ground game. At the end of an hour, Bernard has talked for 57 minutes and the other person for three.

Hopkins is self-reverential. Respect is enormously important to him, but also he wants to be liked. He’s one of boxing’s best self-promoters, speaking his mind and then some. Unlike some people in the business, he understood the power of the Internet a long time ago. “The reality show got big for me the last couple of years,” he says.

Listen to Bernard for even a short time and a self-portrait emerges: “I’m an argumentative person . . . People respect me, not only for my accomplishments in boxing but because I’m a humble man . . . Fighters all got egos. Some are in check and some aren’t. Mine is . . . I’m a different fighter than any other fighter that came in my era. Come April 19th, people are going to have to put me in a whole new different category; maybe that icon thing. Legend, I already got. Icon would be really special to me.”

In the ring, Hopkins projects an aura of invincibility. He’s still fighting at age 43 and doing it well. “What makes me different from other athletes my age,” he says, “is that the desire is still there. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke. Being in the gym is my intoxication.”

Does Hopkins need boxing to impose discipline on his life? Is it a necessary release for the demons within him? No one (except possibly Bernard) knows for sure. But late last year in quiet conversation, he offered a window onto his psyche. “I got $20,000,000 in the bank,” he told this writer. “And outside of harm to my family, there’s only one thing that I’m afraid of. Going broke.”

Calzaghe, in contrast to Hopkins, is soft-spoken with an almost gentle manner about him. He conjures up images of a guitarist in a British rock band more than a professional fighter. Looking at him, it’s hard to imagine that he has been undefeated as a boxer in the amateur and pro ranks over the past seventeen years.

“I grew up in a secure world,” Calzaghe says, when asked about issues beyond the ring. “It frightens me to think what my children and grandchildren will face. We’re destroying the world. Global warming is a terrible threat. I disagree with what’s happening in Iraq. Too many innocent people are being killed. For what? I believe in fighting terrorism; but our being there only provokes more terrorism, not less.”

As for his family (Calzaghe shares custody of two sons with his ex-wife), he says, “Joe [the older boy] wants to be me, but I’d rather he not fight. Boxing is a hungry sport, and he’s not hungry.”

Calzaghe is boxing’s longest-reigning current champion. As with Hopkins, his most impressive credential is his longevity.

Bernard won the IBF middleweight title with a seventh-round knockout of Segundo Mercado in 1995 and made twenty successful title defenses before losing to Jermain Taylor in 2005.

Calzaghe won the WBO 168-pound crown with a twelve-round decision over Chris Eubank in 1997 and has made 21 successful title defenses. He has fought his entire career as a super-middleweight (although the Hopkins bout will be contested at 175 pounds). The level of Joe’s opposition has been largely undistinguished. Super-middleweight is not one of boxing’s “classic” divisions, and there have been few inquisitors for him to face. Still, he’s 44-0 with 32 knockouts. His signature victories were a twelve-round shut-out of Jeff Lacy in 2006 and a dominant decision triumph over Mikkel Kessler last year.

“In the 1960s and ’70s,” Calzaghe observes, “there wasn’t much money and there was only one title. You had to mix it up every few months and get busted up. Now it’s easier to be a world champion, but the belts don’t mean as much. This fight is for the money. After years of plugging away, I’m getting the rewards I deserve. But this fight is also about my legacy. People talk about pound-for-pound, but talking about who’s the best in the world pound-for-pound is fantasy. No one knows, really. A legacy is something else. A fighter secures his legacy by winning difficult fights against tough opponents, and that’s what I plan to do against Hopkins.”

Hopkins-Calzaghe can only add to Bernard’s legacy. If he wins, it gets bigger. If he loses; hey, he’s 43 years old.

Calzaghe has more at stake. If he loses, his legacy will be diminished. And if he wins?

Hopkins fills in the blanks. “I’m fighting a champion,” Bernard says. “Calzaghe is fighting a legend. To have my name as a victory on his resume does more for him than having his name on my resume does for me. He could have an American icon on his resume.”

“He calls himself a legend,” Calzaghe responds. “He’s old enough to be a legend. On April 19, we’ll see who the legend is.”

And there has been one more twist in the pre-fight build-up. An ugly one.

For Hopkins, every fight starts early. This one started before the contracts were signed. On December 7th (the day before Mayweather-Hatton), Hopkins and Calzaghe came face to face in the media center at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. Initially, the banter was good-natured and revolved largely around who was ducking whom and who would win if they fought one another. Face to face became nose to nose. Joe was unrattled. Bernard turned to walk away, then turned back and declared, “I would never let a white boy beat me.” An hour later, he tried to engage Calzaghe in further dialogue onstage at the Mayweather-Hatton weigh-in, but Golden Boy personnel stepped between them.

Calzaghe made light of the exchange. “It was good fun,” he said afterward. “Hopkins’s comment wasn’t in good taste. But Hopkins isn’t a good-taste person, is he?” Later, Joe added, “I don’t think he’s a racist. I think he said a stupid remark that made himself look stupid.”

Others were less charitable. Summoning up righteous indignation, Frank Warren (Calzaghe’s promoter) proclaimed, “I’ve heard some disgusting trash-talk in my thirty years in boxing, but that’s the lowest of the lows.”

The British press had a field day, wondering what the reaction would have been had Calzaghe said, ‘I would never let a black boy beat me.” And inevitably, Richard Schaefer (the CEO of Golden Boy, which promotes Hopkins) was drawn into the fray.

Prior to the 2006 fight between Oscar De La Hoya and Ricardo Mayorga, Schaefer was disturbed by Mayorga’s homophobic rants and noted, “I’m not pleased to be associated with a person like Mayorga, but this is boxing so I guess we have to do it." Now, in response to Hopkins’s comment, Schaefer acknowledged, “It was not appropriate, and I wish it hadn’t been said.”

However, one person refused to distance himself from the remark. Hopkins has an extensive vocabulary, but the phrase “I was wrong” doesn’t appear to be in it. “What I did in Puerto Rico [throwing a Puerto Rican flag on the ground prior to fighting Felix Trinidad] and what I said to Joe are all part of boxing,” Bernard declared.

That was followed by, “People say the world has changed, but not that much. I’m just telling it like it is. I don’t regret saying what I said. I was right; and I was profoundly right.”

Finally, at a press conference in London, Hopkins advised the media, “I said what I said. People who know me, know me. It doesn’t matter what I regret or what I don’t regret. Come April 19th, it’s up to Joe to prove me a liar.”

Meanwhile, Bernard was moving away from “I would never let a white boy beat me” to focus on the United States versus the United Kingdom. “I’m not just representing myself,” he announced. “I’m also representing my country. I’m gonna make this thing so patriotic; everyone’s gonna say, ’We’ve got to team up and support the American.’”

Still, the residue of Hopkins’s “white boy” comment lingers. We’re now at a point in the racial dialogue where neither side should get a free pass on comments of that nature. And it’s disappointing when Bernard drops to that level because he’s capable of so much more. Unlike some trash-talkers, he’s smart enough and verbal enough that he doesn’t have to fan the flames of prejudice to express himself. And more significantly, he holds himself out as a role model.

If Bernard wants to be a role model, he shouldn’t talk like a bigot. As John Dillon wrote in the Sunday Express, “A full retraction and an apology would have been the wholesome course.”

As for the fight; Calzaghe opened as a 2-to-1 favorite and the odds have risen slightly since then. Part of the reasoning behind that is Bernard’s age and part of it is Joe’s skills.

Calzaghe is a southpaw with quick hands and a good sense of anticipation. “I throw more punches and I land more punches, “ he says. “That’s what it comes down to. That’s the basics of boxing.”

Against Mikkel Kessler, Joe showed a solid chin and his non-stop assault was particularly impressive in light of the seven-year age differential between them. The 36-year-old Calzaghe didn’t just rely on experience and skill against Kessler; he relied on his heart.

Calzaghe isn’t taking Hopkins lightly. “He’s forty-three,” Joe says. “But he’s still an excellent fighter. You can’t take that away from him. Against Winky, the last fight [in July 2007], he moved very well and he used the right shots at the right time. He retained a lot of good movement. His work rate wasn’t bad. The guy can still fight.”

Still, over the past few months, the prospect of a Calzaghe victory over Hopkins has been stated most forcefully by Joe himself:

* “Hopkins is not as good as he thinks he is. He knows what it’s like to lose. He’s lost four times. I’m a winner, a champion, undefeated for seventeen years. I’ve beaten everyone they put in front of me. I’ll dominate the fight.”

* “Hopkins is a bully; simple as that. He’s a messy fighter; he’s a dirty fighter. But I’m not intimidated by him. I just find it funny that a grown man carries on the way he does. He can be the bad guy now, but I’m going to be the bad guy come April 19. Let’s see who’s doing the talk after the fight.”

* “Sometimes you win pretty; sometimes you win ugly. I go with the flow in each fight. I’ve always done better against tall guys, so that works in my favor. I normally carry around fourteen stone [196 pounds], so [moving up to 175 pounds] should give me more punching power and I won’t have to struggle to make weight.”

* “He’s confident, but so am I. I don’t just want to win. I want to put on a show and smash him to bits. He’s never been in the ring with someone like myself with my hand-speed and my work rate. I don’t see how he can possibly beat me. I would have beaten him ten years ago and I’ll beat him now. Joe Calzaghe is better than Bernard Hopkins.”

Calzaghe’s prediction of victory is backed by two men who have been mentioned as possible future opponents for each combatant. “I think Calzaghe beats Hopkins,” says Kelly Pavlik. “He’ll throw too many punches for Bernard to handle.”

“Calzaghe is a good fighter,” adds Roy Jones Jr. “He’s very busy and he knows what he’s doing. To beat Calzaghe, Bernard will have to knock him out; and Bernard doesn’t have the power to do that.”

Hopkins knows that he’s in for a tough fight. “Calzaghe has made twenty-one title defenses,” Bernard says. “I don’t care if it was against twenty-one Charlie Browns or Donald Ducks. I know what he had to do within himself to get up for those fights. I know what it takes to maintain that mental strength. I’d be a fool to not respect a guy who made all those defenses.”

And Hopkins concedes that his age is a factor. “Every fight a fighter fights takes something out of him,” he acknowledges. “That’s true of me too. We all lose a step here and there. You know how much you’ve aged when you look at a tape from ten years ago. I can’t do the things now that I could do when I was thirty, but the sand hasn’t run out of the glass yet. I’m an old man, but I’m an old man that can still fight.”

To prove it, Hopkins has put together a team that includes lead trainer Freddy Roach, Naazim Richardson, John David Jackson, and Mackie Shilstone. The addition of Shilstone is significant because he was instrumental in building Bernard from a middleweight to 182 pounds (which was what Hopkins weighed on fight night when he defeated Antonio Tarver).

“I can’t delude myself about the fact that I’m a 43-year-old athlete,” Bernard says, explaining Shilstone’s presence. “I can’t just sit back and say, ‘I work hard and I’m special.’ So rather than wait until my age bites me in the ass in the middle of a fight, l’m working with Mackie so I don’t see those signs of age after the bell rings.”

Calzaghe thinks he can beat Hopkins with activity and speed, not unlike the way Roy Jones did years ago. But Jones brought very different gifts to the table in 1993 than Calzaghe does now. And Hopkins has learned since then how to blunt that type of attack.

“I’d fight Roy Jones differently if I had that fight to do over,” Bernard says. “I tried to box with Roy, and that was a mistake. I should have put him against the ropes, roughed him up, mauled him, and kept him there. That’s a fight I could have won.”

“I’m always learning,” Hopkins reflects. “As long as I’m in this game, I have to re-invent myself. Once you believe as an athlete that you don’t have to re-invent yourself, you’re the walking dead. You’re done, because the other guys are planning every day. They’re watching you, figuring out ways to beat you, figuring out how to avoid your punches, to counter whatever you do. I don’t fight every fighter the same. There’s a strategy for every opponent. Calzaghe is in for an ugly surprise. I’m not Jeff Lacy, who avoided guys that know how to fight. I’m not Mikkel Kessler, who stands straight up and comes right at you. There’s a lot of number-one contenders that could have been champion but Bernard Hopkins was in the way.”

Calzaghe hopes to make Hopkins fight at a fast pace and increase his work-rate beyond a level that the 43-year-old champion can sustain. Then again, that’s everyone’s plan against Hopkins. To be sure; fighters of a certain age can get old in the ring overnight. But Team Hopkins thinks that could happen just as easily to Calzaghe.

Here, the thoughts of Naazim Richardson are instructive. “Joe Calzaghe is an outstanding athlete,” Richardson acknowledges. “He’s tough physically and mentally, and Bernard understands that. If there’s a round where nothing much is happening, Calzaghe can steal it by throwing more punches.”

“But a lot of things that Calzaghe does,” Richardson continues, “he won’t be able to do against Bernard. He might start off firing a hundred punches a round; but against Bernard, he won’t hit much. You score punches based on accuracy, not activity. And Calzaghe’s hands can’t be in two places at once; so if he’s punching, he’s not defending himself. Calzaghe is used to fighting guys who stand right in front of him and don’t make him pay when he misses. Timing beats speed, and anyone who throws a punch at Bernard gets something back. Bernard will be throwing punches in between Calzaghe’s punches. You don’t make Bernard do what he doesn’t want to do. Nobody has ever been able to make Bernard fight at a pace he doesn’t want to fight at. So when Calzaghe’s activity starts to cause him pain, he’ll slow it down on his own. There’s nobody that fights like Calzaghe, and there’s nobody that fights like Bernard. Neither one of them has fought a guy like he’ll be fighting on April 19th. The difference is that Bernard has been in the darkness before.”

Hopkins is better than any fighter that Calzaghe has ever fought. And while Joe is a very good fighter, he has yet to prove that he’s great. One thing is certain. On April 19th, when push comes to shove, Hopkins will shove back.


Thomas Hauser can be reached by e-mail at thauser@rcn.com


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