Pavlik v Hopkins - Get Ready To Be Excited

Bernard HopkinsBy Matt McGrain: When Pavlik-Hopkins was announced, there was a wave of indifference amongst boxing fans. This was not the beginning of an era of dominance at 160 that some envisaged for Kelly, nor was it the daring step up to face pound for pound top 4 opponent Joe Calzaghe. In the main, fans donít want to see Bernard Hopkins fight any more - despite being one of the more recognisable fighters in the world today, The Executioner is viewed as being a dull practitioner of the sweet science, a man more hell bent on making his opponent look bad than himself look good - and his recent victories over Wright and Tarver, and his razor thin SD loss to Calzaghe are viewed as evidence of the fact.

The Hopkins fight was viewed as being a match made with money and visibility in mind rather than pugilistic excellence. I understand why fans would feel frustrated by something like that, but I must confess right now, that I donít share the majorityís view. I loved Hopkins-Calzaghe, and Iím really looking forward to Bernardís showdown with The Ghost.

The view now seems to be that Kelly has it all to lose and nothing to win. I wrote in a previous article for this website that I didnít agree at all with this, that I didnít view Hopkins as anything other than competitive, that a KO victory for Pavlik would be stunning, that he would learn more fighting Bernard than any other boxer in or around his weight class - I also call Pavlik a ďheavy favouriteĒ, which Iím not as convinced about now as I was then. And thatís what Iíd like to address here, how this fight might pan out and who will win. A detailed look has left me less than convinced concerning the outcome, and I expect a very close fight.

What brought me to this conclusion was re-visiting the Calzaghe fight. Much was made going into that bout of The Executionerís stylistic advantage - one of the best counter-puncherís who ever lived, he was correctly viewed as a dose of kryptonite for Calzagheís square-ish, swarming style which often saw him off-balance. Many of us predicted, correctly, that Joe would have to watch his punch out-put and spend more time stalking and less time firing to get the decision (people who predicted a stoppage were mostly dismissed as being drunk). But Joe, too, had his stylistic advantages, being a pressure fighter in with an older man. What has been left mostly unsaid is what an excellent job Joe did of bringing this advantage to bare, and, given the closeness of the decision, how nothing short of that excellence would have done.

Calzaghe kept the pressure on Hopkins, not purely with punching, which would have provided serious countering opportunities, but also with world class footwork, world class. I think this was the best example of top drawer footwork we have seen in recent times. Not from a technical point of view - Calzaghe is not set for balance, he is unbalanced, positionally - but he is also unconventional, and turned this very much to his advantage against Hopkins. Because Joe does not get set in the traditional way, every time he moves or is unbalanced, he can get set more quickly. He is only looking for a stance that allows him to punch, he is not looking to get his lead foot out, his weight distributed, his hands positioned.

This was enormously helpful to him in working through Bernardís feints, for example. When Hopkins made a feint, the Welsh Dragon could react with a step back or to the side, and then be right back in The Executionerís space within moments. And this was how Calzaghe won the fight - he took Hopkins out of his comfort zone and made him work harder than he wanted to, made him move more than he wanted to, forced him to take more steps than he wanted to.

Hopkins gassed and Calzaghe took the decision. It was pressure at its most educated if not its most exciting, but it was born of world-class ring generalship, world class footwork and an unconventional style which the older fighter could not solve to a degree that would allow him to rest.

I submit that Kelly Pavlik has none of these things. After a shaky start that basically revealed the stylistic advantages that a switched on Hopkins had over Calzaghe, Joe started to dominate the fight. During the sixth round, Emanuel Steward, commentating for HBO remarked that ďCalzaghe is putting more pressure on Bernard than any fighter I can ever recallÖin yearsÖheís coming to him all the time and Bernard is struggling to time him now.Ē

Calzaghe created a momentum shift with flurries of punches and by operating constantly just out of range, forcing Hopkins to move or punch. He wasnít throwing barrages of punches or leading with his head to create pressure, but Stewardís remark is accurate - the pressure was constant. Now, what about Pavlik and his style? Kelly has stepped up recently, and from Zertuche onwards the learning curve has become steep. He has shown himself equal to every challenge and in my view he continues to improve as a fighter, to learn from these engagements.

His jab, for example, looked improved to me in Taylor II, and I now consider it amongst the best in the game technically, accurate and hurtful. But where Calzaghe is unusual and a technical rule-breaker, Pavlik is pretty much textbook as a puncher and as a mover. I will say that this is a positive nine time out of ten, and certainly, if your fighter isnít Roy Jones or Ad Wolgast, this is the way a trainer should organise his fighter .

However, Hopkins found it very difficult to make angles off Calzagheís moves because he was a little squarer, which meant he need not favour either hand for a chasing punch, and very quick, because Joe didnít tend to look for a set position for his feet. Pavlik does both of these things. He has pretty standard footwork which he uses to settle himself for correct punching, and as a puncher, he leads with a traditional orthodox position. This is a style that is made for Hopkins.

Making angles for his most hurtful punches - the right down the pipe - and to take himself out of harms way with the minimum amount of movement is absolutely crucial to Hopkins now, it may be the most important part of his game. He needs economy of movement to do the 12, he needs his opponent to create openings for his best shots because he just doesnít have the speed or the work-rate to create those openings for himself anymore.

I also believe that Pavlik, who has a good guard, is not expert at parrying punches, that is, adjusting his guard to block incoming blows, so even if he sees Bernardís big shots coming, itís not a given that he can avoid them. There are examples of this in both Taylor fights, even one or two occasions where Pavlik appears to move his gloves out of the way of an incoming shot because he misjudges that shot - now throw in hurtful punches that are also very accurate and there appears to be a recipe for disaster brewing.

In addition, Pavlik has nothing like the unique pressure Calzaghe was able to bring. As Iíve mentioned, he will look to get set after reacting to a feint, he will look to shift his weight properly when changing direction, he will allow a deficit of speed in order to be correct technically, that is just the way he has been made.

These are only moments, split seconds we are talking about, but they are split seconds which allowed Joe to occupy the Hopkins air space for almost every second of every minute of every round, and also made a sneaky punch of the angle much more difficult for Hopkins to land without suffering a retaliatory blow. These split seconds made the win for Joe. Pavlik absolutely does not have the guile to create these kind of miseries for Hopkins.

That isnít the whole story however. The first thing that struck me when viewing Pavlik footage in chronological order is how quickly the man is progressing. It is arguable that footage from the first Taylor fight is not valid because Pavlik is already considerably better than he was that night.

Itís true that he didnít stop Taylor the second time around but for me, the manner in which he outboxed Jermain in II was more pleasing, in terms of defence, the form on his punches and their delivery. Itís that word again, ďeducatedĒ, Pavlikís pressure was more educated, not quite ďhit without being hitĒ - nobody would want to change Pavlik to that degree - but perhaps with that definition of the sweet science in mind. And this is a real intangible.

How far on has Kelly come? The last time I wrote about Pavlik I was excited as to what the Hopkins fight could do for him in terms of progress, now Iím just excited about what progress the man may have made in training. Although his last time out was against Lockett (who did not have a lot to teach), itís quite possible that Kelly will come in even better than he did last time out. But even if he doesnít, he brings serious aces to the game.

First up, I think Pavlik might be that rarest of breeds, a fighter whose heart is unbreakable. I donít consider Cotto a quitter, but I do say that you will never see The Ghost take a knee in the conditions Miguel could not endure. So even if you see Pavlik outclassed he will still bring 100% to every single round. I canít stress how rare this Joe Frazier style commitment is and I think it may be something that Hopkins has never, ever seen before in an opponent he is dominating.

Even Glen Johnson let his head drop a bit as he began to fade. So Hopkins is in for 12 rounds here, all of them with a guy gunning for him. Secondly, Pavlik has developed a world class one-two. It is true that these are the type of punches that Hopkins ditches for breakfast and counters for lunch, but if youíre going to commit to these punches make them count, and Kelly will do that. If he lands these, Bernard will feel it.

And he will land them. I expect Hopkins to dominate the first three rounds almost entirely, as he did the first two against Joe. I donít expect a knockdown, just a bemused Kelly Pavlik getting timed off his own shots before failing to find a fighter who is standing almost right in front of him with his own punches. This is who Hopkins is.

But he is also old. When he starts to gas, Pavlik will start to land. The question is, when will he start to gas? Against Calzaghe he seemed to be struggling as early as five, but as Iíve said, Calzaghe forced him out of his economy of movement and tired him with brilliant pressure, something that Pavlik will not be able to do. If Hopkins does not tire until round 7 or 8, will Bernard have banked enough to scramble home?

The question is a fascinating one, and it may be the crux of the whole fight. My answer is ďnoĒ. I think Pavlik will win. In my opinion, he has that thing which has dragged many younger fighters through fights where they appear to have been outclassed, hunger to win, will to overcome. And that is why I think people should be more excited about this fight.

To win, Pavlik is going to have to do what many fighters say they will do and few actually do, I think he is going to have to throw caution to the wind and attack Bernard Hopkins. If he canít bring the educated pressure that Calzaghe could, if he wonít be allowed to bring the careful pressure he brought to bear against Jermain Taylor in II, he will need to bring snarling all-action pressure, not from the first round, but form the fourth or the fifth.

He has the conditioning, the heart, the will and desire, the punching and punch resistance for such a performance in my view. But more than any of that he has the need of such a performance. It is possible to imagine a fight where Pavlik carefully boxes his way to a decision past an Executioner who fades badly down the home-stretch, but that type of plan can result in cards naming either man the winner as well as hurting him with the fans and I would favour Hopkins in such a fight.

An all action display that sees him bully Hopkins - not a plan that anyone could have pulled off ten years ago against the all time great middleweight, but one that will work now - will endear him to a public apparently sick of Bernardís spoiling tactics and ready to see him retire, as well as send out a message to Joe Calzaghe that he is the better man, and would Joe care to prove otherwise?

Most of all it would anoint Pavlik as a great fighter in waiting, because although this is the right plan although it is a difficult one to pull off. Beating down Bernard is doable for Pavlik and it is what I think will happen - Hopkins will set out to make this an ugly encounter, but it is Pavlik who will end it ugly, punching and snarling his way through the second half of a fight that you will want to watch over and over again - get ready to be excited.

Article posted on 19.08.2008

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