Bernard Hopkins: The Old Warhorse
By Jay McIntyre: Saturday April 19th marked another evening where the aging Bernard “The Alien” (formerly “The Executioner”) Hopkins (55-6-2-2, 32 KO’s) defied Father Time. It marked another notch in his belt, and gave him two more championship straps (the WBA super, and IBA titles) in his quest to unify the light-heavyweight division.
This unification bid started in March of last year when he dismantled former champion Tavoris Cloud – winning his IBF title – and it continued last night when he peeled away and added the two aforementioned pieces of the light heavyweight crown to his collection. Beibut Shumenov (14-2, 9 KO’s) did not have much to offer that Hopkins had not seen before, and herein lies the problem for most of Hopkins’ opponents: he has seen it all and he knows how to keep his rhythm going at the expense of his opponent’s. Shumenov – normally known as a volume puncher – tried to box on the outside with Hopkins, and despite his early success in the first three rounds, things quickly unraveled for the self-trained fighter. The more that you give a fighter like Hopkins, the more data is available to him so that he can adapt. Perhaps this is why Shumenov thought a conservative approach would work to his advantage – the less you give Hopkins, the less he can do. Ultimately the split decision win for Hopkins (which should have been a unanimous decision win) became something of a foregone conclusion from the fourth round onward. And so, Bernard Hopkins – the old warhorse – had trampled yet another prizefighter standing in his way. Let’s have a look at what makes Bernard Hopkins so tick so far into the twilight of most people’s lives.
Footwork and Range
Bernard Hopkins doesn’t seem to take a lot of damage in his fights. Sure he gets hit, but historically he has been able to keep away from big hitters like Tavoris Cloud, and mix it up with good boxers like Oscar De La Hoya because he is always far enough away to be safe, but close enough to slip in to cause some damage. Hopkins knows when to get on his toes when evading and moving aggressively, as this lets him be the slickster he needs to be. He also knows when to walk flat-footed to conserve energy, and this is a subtle yet effective energy-saver over the course of a twelve round title fight. You have to remember that he has only lost by some sort of decision and has never been KO’d or TKO’d over the course of his twenty-five year career – he rarely gets fatigued and rarely put himself in harm’s way. Also, lateral movement is a staple to his success as it keeps his opponent pivoting to reset his line of attack. Another staple is his tendency to punch and clutch if he feels that his opponent is timing him with a counter. This allows him to land the punch he wants, but to close the range and smother his opponent’s counter punch.
In addition to this movement, is his near constant state of balance? It cannot be stressed enough that boxing is a sport ruled by the feet, not by the fists. When a fighter gives chase and gets careless, the first thing you’ll notice is how far his lead leans over his lead leg. As soon as this happens the fighter’s defense is as good as gone. Their chin is up, they have no stable base to push off of to evade, and their reaction time is gone. While Hopkins is good at pulling his opponents out of their stance, he refuses to get suckered into abandoning his. Having fifty percent of his weight on each foot let’s him move in any direction and maximizes his ability to respond to an attack. It also, serves to give him a stable base from which to throw his own punches with pinpoint accuracy.
Ironically enough, Hopkins is also more than willing to lean forward and put himself off balance if it means gaining a few more inches and catching his opponent on the end of his punches. Remember that when two fighters are feeling out each other’s capabilities, range and timing are obvious things that both are trying to sort out. If his opponent is used to a certain distance as ‘safe’ only to find that Hopkins is sneaking in right hands, it can become quite disheartening.
There are four things that should be readily available when looking at Hopkins’ stance: it’s bladed, his chin is tucked, his right hand is glued to his jaw, and he is almost always perfectly balanced on his feet. Here are the advantages of each:
1.) Blading the stance makes you a thinner target and therefore harder to hit (it also loads the right hand).
2.) Tucking his chin prevents him from being caught cleanly with a good shot. You can often see him looking through his eyebrows when fighting as the forehead is a better place to take a punch than the face and chin.
3.) Placing his right hand right along his jaw allows him to parry incoming jabs, block left hooks – and most importantly – keep his power right poised for use.
4.) His balanced footwork is something I already touched on above, but it’s a valuable part of his form and it lets him dictate the terms of engagement.
He also has a tendency to vary the level of his lead hand. Carrying the hand low isn’t necessarily a ‘faux pas’ because he can fire it upward from a blind angle with a good deal of speed, and he can also get an under hook and tie up his opponent if things get too hot on the inside. An under hook is a technique whereby you slip your bicep under the armpit of your opponent to control their motion and deny their punching. Though rather common in MMA, it has been a staple in boxing since its bare-knuckle days.
Regardless of where his lead hand is placed, Hopkins employs a very utilitarian jab. Whether he keeps it low to sneak jabs and hooks at his opponent, or mills it (making a circular motion in and out) in front his opponent, Hopkins uses his jab for a variety of purposes. He fires it off as a stiff jab, a setup punch for his right hand, or as a range finder early on the fight.
When it comes to throwing his right hands he treats them like a jab. This is not to mock their power, but rather to accentuate the speed and usage of this punch. It is incredibly difficult to see any telegraphing whatsoever when he throws his right hand and this is one of the reasons that he can throw it ‘cold’ without being intercepted. It works wonderfully as it disrupts his opponent’s rhythm – much like a jab – but with the added pop of a power punch. It’s safe to say that Hopkins is man that prefers any punch with a certainty of landing over a hard punch whose accuracy is uncertain.
Economy of Motion
While Hopkins’ stamina has been praised, we can be honest in saying that his work rate is not necessarily a very demanding one. The fact that he can go the distance in championship fights at his age is laudable, and one key ingredient in this feat is his ability to move just enough to get the job done. It is clever and something that young boxers often overlook as they blast away with their seemingly endless reservoirs of energy. By the twelfth round of his fight against Shumenov he did not look terribly winded and was pretty sharp with his punches – flooring Shumenov in the eleventh round. Of course, the pace wasn’t tremendously high, but Hopkins always finds a way to slow down the pace so that he can keep his energy expenditure to a minimum. In round seven for example, he threw only 30 punches – but landed an impressive 21 of those punches. Once he figured out his opponent’s range and tendency, he did not have to throw a lot of punches, only the right ones at the right times.
For all of the merits above, however, Hopkins is willing to dabble in some mangy tactics in an effort to get under his opponent’s skin if things aren’t going as smoothly as he would like. When he fought Karo Murat toward the end of last year, he kidney punched him in the second round, and kissed the back of his head in the fifth as Murat walked away from a clinch. Murat was no angel, for the record, but in watching these moments it is clear that Hopkins does this to occasionally take his opponent’s mind of their game plan. Floyd Mayweather recently said that Manny Pacquiao shouldn’t be so focused on a knockout, but instead should be focused on himself, and these are words spoken from wisdom and experience. If you aren’t focusing on what you are doing and your game plan, then you are sabotaging your own success – you are playing into the enemy’s hand. Last night Hopkins head-locked Shumenov toward the end of the fight, and this is a tactic that led to his separated shoulder when Chad Dawson threw him to the canvas back in 2011. Also, going into the Shumenov fight he engaged in some pre-fight trash-talk that was not well received by Shumenov. After the fight Hopkins admitted to Shumenov that: “I had to do that to get you off your game. Now you learned something.” and in this we see yet another example of his willingness to undermine his opponent’s focus and throw them off their stylistic rhythm. What Chad Dawson and Joe Calzaghe (his two most recent conquerors) have shown us is that if you can take him out of his comfort zone and ignore his psychological stratagems, then you can focus you and safeguard your success. This also, of course, requires a good deal of talent and is no small feat – the man has so much experience and strictly adheres to the fundamentals of the sport.
In reviewing Bernard Hopkins’ style it should be apparent that there is nothing readily superhuman about his ability. He is a true master of the fundamentals and the intangibles of boxing and these are easily the most important things for any fighter. Virgil Hunter pretty much hit the nail on the head when he quipped: “Fundamentals, if you don’t have them, you’ll run into somebody else’s”. What Hopkins has done – and will continue to do – is to out-think the man in the opposing corner. If they charge – he smothers or slides away. When he attacks, he only does so on his own terms. He is never willing to let his opponent dictate the terms – at least if he can help it.
For how long Hopkins can continue to carry on like Benjamin Button is anybody’s guess, but in the light-heavyweight division there are two people that may prove to take him out of his comfort zone – Sergei Kovalev and Adonis Stevenson. Stevenson’s recent signing with Al Haymon will invariably lead to a unification fight with Hopkins and this will be a very intriguing fight. Sergei Kovalev will probably wait on the sidelines in the meantime, being relegated to beating second tier fighters like another dangerous boxer two weight classes underneath him – Gennady Golovkin. Both seem invariably tethered to HBO and thus become two more victims of boxing’s cold war. Regardless of how it turns out, I am interested in Hopkins’ bid for unification for two reasons: first of all, he is nearly fifty years old, and secondly, it is quite rare to find a unified champion in this day and age. It is a rarity (perhaps a novelty to some) that deserves to peak the interest of the boxing community. Time will tell where Bernard Hopkins ends up, or perhaps more appropriately – Bernard Hopkins will tell Time where he ends up as he has clearly stated he intends to add Stevenson’s belt to his collection by the time he is fifty.
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