Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe, back to the future with guaranteed uncertainty

hopkins calzagheBy Francisco Lobo, photo by In Boxing it often seems that the past is of more moment than the present, and nowhere more so than in the case of the extraordinarily resilient light heavyweight and super middleweight world champions Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe.

Hopkins and Calzaghe have been two proven long-term successes in the past decade, in the United States and in the United Kingdom, have been gaining worldwide mainstream appeal, while their career endings have been receding further and further into the future. Either one of them has very much been the captain of his own fate and it is early to say exactly how they will be judged by posterity.. But after mopping up several important career wins and exhausting almost all the available alternatives, they got to be under increasing pressure from the demanding press and were being dragged into some lengthy, agonizingly difficult negotiations and, thence, have finally pulled off a deal and given themselves a chance on April 19th, as the Planet Hollywood ring and the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, will play host to one of the most expected fights of this new year of 2008, but by doing so, ironically, they get a small hold on the fate and career legacy of the other.

The undefeated Welshman Joe Calzaghe (36) has been steadily eating into the higher echelons of the professional boxing business during his long winning-spell in the 168-pound division and since turning professional in October 1993. He beat Stephen Wilson to claim the British super middleweight title in his 14th pro fight, in 1995, beat former undefeated WBO intercontinental Champion Mark Delaney in April 1996 under promoter Mickey Duff and trainer, father Enzo Calzaghe, and then challenged for the WBO super-middleweight title in October 1997, already under long time promoter Frank Warren - he was already 22-0, 21 KOs, with ten KOs in the first round, six KOs in the second round, one KO in the third round, two KOs in the fourth round and one KO in the fifth round).

The Welshman received the benign inheritance of the great British and Irish super middleweights who dominated the division in the nineties like Nigel Benn, Steve Collins, Michael Watson and Chris Eubank, this last one against whom he won the vacant WBO world title. Ever since, he has built a stellar record of 44-0 (32), has made 21 successful defenses of the WBO super middleweight title and has gained a lot of momentum beating noticeably younger men like former undefeated IBF world title holder, American Jeff Lacy in March 2005, and against former WBC and WBA World titlist, Dane Mikkel Kessler in his last fight, in November 2007, and which clearly propelled him to the upside of things in order to press Bernard Hopkins for that superfight he always fancied as a bit of an exception and only happens in his long-awaited and long-delayed american professional debut now.

Veteran Bernard Hopkins (43), now way-past his prime and who has been notably reticent and reluctant to fight Calzaghe ever since backing out of an agreement in 2002, has also been, in retrospect, remarkably consistent throughout his whole professional career and since losing his professional debut fight at 175 pounds and losing one IBF vacant middleweight title fight in May 1993 to the well-known, former middleweight and four division world champion Roy Jones Jr., when he was promoted by Butch Lewis. He won 26 out of 28 fights, with eleven straight wins and one draw since losing to Jones, with twelve wins in the first round and four wins inside two rounds, and a single career fight in Europe, in Paris, France. Hopkins won the USBA middleweight title against Lupe Aquino and then, captured the IBF title in his third attempt at the vacant title against Segundo Mercado in April 1995, also under famous promoter Don King, after having drawn a fight and have been dropped for the very only two times in his entire career by Mercado in his second fight outside the U.S., in Ecuador, in December 1994.

Hopkins (48-4-1 with 1 no-contest) really made a name for himself in the “Black and Blue Division” by way of defending the IBF middleweight title 20 times and unifying it with the WBC and the WBA middleweight championships against Keith Holmes and Felix Trinidad in New York City, in 2001, when he also beat the record of 14 consecutive middleweight title defenses set by Argentine Carlos Monzon, and thus, joined the list of all time great middleweight champions along with Sugar Ray Robinson, Tony Zale, Marcel Cerdan, Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta, Monzon and Marvin Hagler, just to lose the unified 160-pound championship and two consecutive bouts to Jermain Taylor in 2005. But he may have reversed that decline and began his rebound unexpectedly in the light heavyweight division by way of winning the lineal championship from Antonio Tarver in June 2006.

True to form, diehard Hopkins reversed his position and jovially called out for the once under-appreciated Joe Calzaghe after winning his last professional fight, the first defense of the light heavyweight championship against the also well respected and former unified junior middleweight champion Ronald Winky Wright in July 2007, maybe because he felt the shift of popularity to the super middleweight champion and now challenger for his light heavyweight title. Under the risk of getting himself sidelined when Calzaghe started to assess his options, Hopkins may have looked primarily for the good payday, thus softening the winner-takes-all risk that was partly responsible for his previous intransigence to fight.

The also veteran Calzaghe has been forced to work exceptionally hard and upped his game against Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler, delivering something like 1000 punches in these most important and recent fights, and he may have made a stronger claim to have the superior momentum now. In short contrast, even though there are no indications that his abilities have been severely eroded or diminished with time, that his vigour is ebbing already and that he is fading fast, Hopkins’ age of 43 must be seen as a drawback and he finds himself justifiably in a playfield bound to be tilted steeply in the incumbent’s favour, a position that has played well to his gritty strengths before but, given the circumstances, he will have to draw on every ounce of his sound experience in this up-hill challenge to stall Calzaghe’s superior momentum and counterweight many of his advantages.

Bernard has been hardened by circumstance in the Sharpnack street of Germantown, Philadelphia, whose name curiously means brotherly love, served five years in state penitentiary in the early eighties for armed robbery, and since becoming the first Philadelphia born middleweight champion after the Philadelphia based middleweight champ Joey Giardello for the boxing-rich city that produced the likes of Joe Frazier, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Bennie Briscoe and Georgie Benton, Hopkins has also proved to be too shrewd an operator to be counted out yet.

In a coherent attempt to take the subjectivity out of the analysis, Calzaghe’s technical proficiency and consistency are no more influential than his fights’ numbers suggest – he simply outlands his opponents by a landslide and there is every likelihood that Hopkins will not outperform him in this aspect, even with his understanding of every nuance of the sweet science and all his fighting guile.

After eight rounds, Calzaghe threw 406 punches against Eubank’s 244, and outlanded the former WBO middleweight and super middleweight Champion by 146 to 98 punches; after only four rounds, outlanded Olympic bronze medallist and former WBC super middleweight champion Robin Reid 37 jabs to 8; after nine rounds, Calzaghe scored 223 punches on the head and 65 punches on the body of former WBO super middleweight number one contender Juan Carlos Gimenez (against only 65 punches scored to the head and 12 to the body by Gimenez); outlanded another former top contender in australian Rick Thornberry 404 punches to 127.

He continued to have amazing punch stats against the more experienced american fighters, threw 783 punches and landed 289 on former IBF super middleweight champion Charles Brewer (against Brewer’s 638 thrown and 179 landed); threw 312 punches and landed 115 on former NABO super middleweight champion Kabary Salem - the “Egyptian Magician” threw 190 and landed only 40, despite one of them had dropped Calzaghe for the second time in his career and after a second round knockdown suffered against former two time WBA titlist Byron Mitchell, whom Calzaghe stopped in that very same second round, in 2003. Moreover, repeated against Mikkel Kessler that career highest output mark achieved first against the former IBF Champion Jeff Lacy – threw 1010 punches, almost doubling up Kessler’s 585 punches thrown, and landed 285 (137 jabs and 148 powerpunches) against Kessler’s 173 (52 jabs and 121 powerpunches) and this last statistic is a very similar number to Brewer’s 179 punches, one of the highest if not the highest number of punches landed on Calzaghe in a world title fight.

Unsurprisingly, when his body started telling him he couldn’t sustain all-out assaults anymore, Hopkins went from solid skilled offensive fighter, relentless body puncher and rough aggressor to conservative and more technical counterpuncher. He went from unbelievable punch outputs and tremendous fighting paces against Lupe Aquino, Segundo Mercado, Glen Johnson, Joe Lipsey, Simon Brown and John David Jackson to picking his shots from range and landing in single figures per round against Antwun Ecols, Syd Vanderpool, Felix Trinidad, Robert Allen, Oscar De La Hoya, Howard Eastman, Jermain Taylor, Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright.

As incredible as it may seem, the cost for inaction has not been high for Hopkins because his mental alertness, superb defensive skills and ultra-efficient performances have made it up… Hopkins has been the perfect economical boxing anachronism for quite some time. He landed only five punches in the first round against Canadian Vanderpool, only six punches against Puerto Rican Trinidad in the first round, only three punches against Englishman Eastman in round number one and eight in round number two when he joined Golden Boy Promotions with former opponent Oscar De La Hoya, landed only five jabs through four rounds against Taylor from Little Rock, Arkansas, in July 2005, (four jabs landed through six rounds in the rematch in December 2005), landed only two punches in round one, seven in rounds two and three in his rematch against Taylor; landed only three punches in round one and nine punches in round two against Antonio Tarver in his first fight at 175 pounds since 1990.

However, the low figures take no account of the fact that he also he is the man to have connected 33 out of 55 shots (60% connect rate) against Simon Brown in round four, one amazing 96 % connect percentage (27 out of 28 punches) against former IBF number one contender Antwun Echols in round number five and in his 10th defense of the title, 63% and 60% connect rates in rounds six and eleven against former WBC champion Keith Holmes for the IBF-WBC middleweight titles unification, 50% and 65% of shots landed in rounds four and five against former WBA number one contender Carl Daniels in his 15th defense of the unified title. And it should not be forgotten that he was winning by something like 9 rounds to 2 when he halted Felix Trinidad in the 12th round in 2001, when unifying the WBC, IBF and WBA middleweight titles, won by 118-109 scorecards against the 3 to 1 favourite Antonio Tarver when capturing the light heavyweight title and beat another betting favourite Winky Wright by the same scores Calzaghe beat Kessler and those are 116-112 and 117-111.

Most Superfights have an element of uncertainty about them and it is not fair to label Bernard Hopkins a risk if that risk is not unique to him and if there is also a disparity in the two fighters’ experience at the highest level to favour Hopkins. Nevertheless, there is little reason to doubt about which will be the American’s strategy against the Welshman. There is enough low-hanging fruit for Calzaghe not to take notice that Hopkins can’t compete physically with him all the time and, therefore, even he expects Bernard to turn this more into a battle of wits, to build a mousetrap and turn the theoretical advantages against him. Hopkins was always very solid skilled fundamentally and mentally very tough but he has learnt to eliminate the crowd pleasing element, to fight methodically like a dispassionate professional – takes his time, figures his opponent out and does the most to frustrate him in performances that are perceived as too negative at times.

Like a true counterpuncher, Hopkins forces his opponent to lead, uses his back legs and economical footwoork to create the distance and to spin out of trouble, feints with his head and changes angles smoothly, slips some punches and then tucks in his chin down behind his shoulder and sneakily moves in, behind his solid shots.

The American uses all his experience to control the tempo and the pace of the fight and to beat his opponent to the punch with radar-like antecipation, drives home some unexpected counter shots such as one withering straight right hand in the middle, a precise and powerful overhand right, the fast leading left hook and short bursts of powerpunches inside while he grabs, pushes, does a whole lot of subtle, undetectable dirty moves and grappling to gradually sap his opponent’s strength and eat away his confidence. At some point and under the heat of the battle of attrition, his opponents resign to stop doing what they had in mind and start having a rough fight, getting sluggish, sloppy and tired. This doesn’t win the fight for Hopkins by itself but it increases his chances of winning. That’s what happened with experienced fighters such as Tarver, Wright and even before, with Allen, Echols, Vanderpool, Holmes and Trinidad, and that is what Hopkins is promising Calzaghe to happen with him in the press conferences for the upcoming match, that he will turn into an ordinary rugged european fighter at some point.

There are very good auspices for thinking that Calzaghe will not burn brilliantly for a moment and then fizzle out like a novice or debutante or that he is ill-prepared for this fight because he has seventeen years of experience in the game and was ABA welterweight, light-middle and middleweight titlist before turning pro in 1993. After ten years defending his World title, he has reached the maturity point to understand that he should protect himself from the vicissitudes of the fight and that it could be counter-productive to engage in a fierce struggle or in a punch-up, even if his best defense still is his offense and that he combines awkward athleticism with technical acumen, twisting and turning well while putting accurate combinations of punches together. If he uses his excellent footwork, superior mobility, impressive fluid, pesky punching style, deceptive handspeed, but above all, his own boxing intelligence and versatility to move to-and-fro, he can frustrate Hopkins to pull off yet another surprise victory.

Calzaghe came out very strong and determined against the intimidating, very experienced, and heavy-handed Eubank with a two-fisted assault, fully utilised his superior speed of hand and foot and punching power. He showed patience and finishing abilities with Branco Sobot, Juan Carlos Gimenez, Mario Veit, Tocker Pudwill, Will McIntyre, Omar Sheika, Richie Woodhall and Byron Mitchell with his vast repertoire of shots – stiff, steady jabs, brutal body assaults, incessant combos with cracking big lefts over the top, left hooks, hooks from the floor and left uppercuts, doubling up left counters or tripling up the right lead, pounding his opponent with a torrent of powershots or non-stop barrages of more than 40 punches thrown from all angles. He showed a sturdy chin and a strong body to withstand punishment inside, out-working very strong super middleweight Charles Brewer. He had a magnificent boxing display, outslicking the heavier-handed Jeff Lacy with excellent footwork, side-stepping, moving to-and-fro quickly and unpredictably jumping in and landing a whole lot of short, compact, fast punches. Against Mikkel Kessler, he performed remarkably well again with a prodigious work rate, alongside with a wise switch of more conservative boxing and determined fighting, great ability to shake off big powerpunches and always fire back, doubling up Kessler’s retaliatory shots and going upstairs as well as downstairs.

The very proud Welshman has a huge fighting heart and he has not rested on his laurels. It’s difficult to find a man with a more different persona than Hopkins, the more introspective Calzaghe was born in a boat between the italian island of Sardinia and Bedford, England, he moved early to the village of Pentwynmawr by Newbridge, South Wales, and appeared in the Welsh boxing scene at the age of ten. Never moved out of South Wales and never fought outside the British islands before 2001 when he fought McIntyre in Copenhagen, Denmark, and when he rematched with Veit in Braunschweig, Germany, in 2005. The likeable, down to earth homeboy from Newbridge, SW, always wanted this fight in the US against a long standing, recognizable name like Hopkins to prove himself to the world and that he was not just a domestic fighter in the UK comfort zone.

Nevertheless, Calzaghe takes a very hard test against the most disturbing psychoanalyst either inside or outside the ring though. Hopkins already started the provocations with a well-aimed shot, dismissing european fighters, reacting angrily against british journalists and pulling the race card when confronted with Calzaghe’s spotless resume, playing mind games with Calzaghe about legacies and legendary statuses, trying to get Calzaghe intimidated and out of control at the same time, whether or not that is the best way to promote a boxing event. Calzaghe probably has been warned to turn a deaf ear to his cursing and to cut him some slack, given the circumstances, but he surely may fear failing to live up to the high expectations he, his people and the media created for him.

The big paradox in this one is that one way the older man can get the nod is when some of Calzaghe’s inconsistencies come on top when he’ll be trying to look pleasing in offense. That’s when he gets too anxious marching forward to close the gap, has a tendency to look down, push his punches and lose some focus, stops fighting with his right shoulder in front of him and squares up, slides out of position and gets open to counter-shots, specially right hands from his left side – this has happenend against Chris Eubank, Kabary Salem and Byron Mitchell, former British & Commonwelath Champion David Starie, former WBC champion Richie Woodhall, against australian Sakio Bika most recently, and even in his latest, brilliant performance against Kessler. He also can’t unload at will on his opponent early because he has had several hand injuries, specially in his left hand, and has had to fight almost one-handed and through excruciating pain when his hand went after three rounds against Rick Thornberry, Evans Ashira, and after seven rounds against Jeff Lacy in 2005.

Furthermore, there is a dissonance in positions about Calzaghe’s punching power. Fighters like Chris Eubank feel that he has handspeed as well as a heavy punch, and he was knocked down by one of the very first left hooks that Joe threw back at him, seconds in to the first round, in 1997, but other opponents such as americans Jeff lacy and Peter Manfredo Jr., who took 25 or 30 punches without fighting back and was said to be prematurely stopped in front of 35 thousand spectators in Cardiff, Wales, think that he doesn’t have the power to hurt with the one punch. Furthermore, one of Hopkins’ trainers and one of the many left-handed fighters Bernard fought, John David Jackson, says that Calzaghe punches with the inside of his glove light and fast, but Bernard has been said to have slapped and not putting much power behind his spurts of effective punches against another southpaw in Ronald Wright in his latest fight. Hopkins punched much straighter and sharper against the other lefties like Jackson himself, Lipsey, Allen, Vanderpool, Holmes, Daniels and Tarver and he should revert back to that style instead of trying to land many punches on Calzaghe like he clearly tried to against Winky.

Even though he is much faster and explosive with side punches, Calzaghe should straighten his punches and not swing so much. In order to command the fight, he should box behind an assertive jab, leading with his right foot to force Hopkins to backpedall anti-clockwise and possibly to lose his back foot. When his points lead gets to be perceived as insurmountable, he can draw Hopkins to him and use his flashy hands to counter punch him, frustrate him and turn Hopkins game plan against himself. Hopkins has lost control of his fights before, in the Roy Jones Jr. fight, and was dominated in the first eight rounds against Taylor and made little sense when playing the role of martyred hero after that. Even his latest win against Wright was not as comfortable as the scorecards suggest and he will have to have a more positive attitude in order to be positively appreciated by the judges now.

It should be worth mentioning that there is a psychological advantage in Hopkins favour, a trick that has been the rule rather than the exception with great old fighters put against other great fighters closer to their physical primes, and that is that Hopkins may be given too much credit by the officials in overcoming the bigger obstacles and the odds. He was said to have not a good chance to match with Wright’s difficult southpaw style, good defence and prodigious punch rate, specially after Wright had outlanded seasoned and skilled prizefighters, former world champions Shane Mosley, Felix Trinidad, Jermain Taylor and Ike Quartey, but Hopkins discipline and workmanlike effort earned him a decision from the judges in Las Vegas.

There should be little hope of identifying fight patterns in advance, but there is recent evidence to suggest that the fight will not have much ebb and flow to it. Much like business partners Marco Antonio Barrera, Shane Mosley and Oscar De La Hoya, Bernard can’t motor around the ring on sprightly legs, so he’ll be drawn more to mid-ring exchanges and will use all his craftiness in making adjustments at close range. Calzaghe doesn’t punch straighter than Wright and, therefore, Hopkins will be mostly occupied and preoccupied in timing his punches and thudding home with more force, while slipping and ducking most of the incoming flack, but the Welshman’s repertoire is much bigger than Winky’s so he’ll probably land more leading rights and lefts on his opponent than he expects. The veteran challenger has a flicker of a possibility to be able to jump in and pounce on his elusive foe with draining bodyshots, get him exhausted and make him quit on his stool but the fight should go all twelve. The veteran title holder cannot pick up the pace after a bad start because his opponent has shown that he doesn’t fade easily, so he can’t possibly come back late to rally in the late rounds like his trainer Freddie Roach has suggested…But Hopkins early success with sharp, precise counter-punching while deterring and blocking his opponent’s wider punches can be all he needs to win the fight.

At the end of the line, Bernard Hopkins wants to leave a super testimony to hislegacy, fighting and beating an undefeated, dominating super middleweight champion and Calzaghe wants to crown his career and build his own legacy by remaining undefeated, winning a second division world title and adding one of the longest reigning middleweight champions’ name to his perfect resume. There are many who claim that they are already legendary stuff in the making because they have defended their titles twenty times and for more than ten years but which of their names will come first when the future looks back at the past? That is the guaranteed uncertainty to be cleared a little bit more after April 19th

Article posted on 19.03.2008

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