Playing the Part of Felix Sturm: Howard Eastman

16.02.05 - By Chris Ireland - Perhaps the worst thing a champion can do is give a deserving underdog his big break. Often he is facing an opponent long overshadowed, long ignored, and long overdue. Many times the opponent is unorthodox in style or appearance, and little is known of this hungry challenger. In some cases, he has spent his career toiling in the vineyards of boxing obscurity, fighting in small arenas for little pay.. In other cases, he has fought overseas to the cheers of his countryman. In any case, the champion confidently and unknowingly walks into a trap on the night he is supposed to shine.

Bernard Hopkins is supposed to shine Saturday in Las Vegas. For title defense number twenty, the champion has decided to give a deserving underdog his big break. His opponent has long been overshadowed, ignored, and overdue. For most of his career, this hungry challenger has fought overseas, to the cheers of small crowds in small arenas. Indeed, February 19th may be the night where Bernard Hopkins confidently and unknowingly walks into a trap.

Howard Eastman in every sense of the word is unorthodox. He's a white-bearded, long armed man from Guyana who fights in England and was trained at the Battersea Amateur Boxing Club. A fight with a school menace inspired Eastman to become a champion, and he's bullied his opponents ever since. At 40-1 (34 KO's), Eastman is a rare combination of size, strength, and skill. Howard stands a tall 5'11, and possesses a 74" reach. His KO percentage is high, yet he isn't especially known as a knockout terror. Though Eastman isn't an especially fast starter, he uses his jab to set up combinations as the fight goes on. If there's one serious flaw in Eastman's game, it's his sometimes porous defense. His lone fight in the United States was against William Joppy for the WBA title. In that fight, Eastman allowed Joppy to outwork him in the early rounds and land power shots at will (Joppy landed 55%), on the way to losing a majority decision, despite knocking his opponent down in the final moments of the fight. "The Battersea Bomber" predicts a different outcome this time, claiming he will knockout the middleweight king in five.

The atmosphere and circumstance may be right for an upset, but don't look for Bernard Hopkins to underestimate an opponent. In fact Hopkins has, for the most part, built his title reign against B level competition, never once coming down with the upset bug. Indeed, Saturday night may be a trap fight for the history-minded "Executioner" not because of decreasing interest, but advancing age. Hopkins is now entering a stage in his life when most men are dying their hair and buying sports cars instead of defending any kind of boxing championship. While some have said Bernard has emerged in his later years as fine as wine, this corner believes Hopkins has slowed down. In his most recent fight, the champion got off to a painfully slow start against Oscar De La Hoya. Instead of seizing the opportunity to attack a smaller, feather-fisted foe, Hopkins stood on the outside and only landed a few punches a round. Given, Bernard closed the gab as the fight went on and eventually knocked out his challenger, but he left the door open on many occasions. Another recent trend is Hopkins' lack of ability to throw combinations. A long-armed, large middleweight should be throwing combinations on the outside and using his size. Hopkins has a different approach. He only throws his combos on the inside, usually during a clinch. Hopkins' flawed style hasn't cost him yet, but the bottom line is he can easily be outworked by a large middleweight who can do his work on the outside.

The blueprint to beat Bernard Hopkins is simple: Use jabs and right hands in combination from the outside, stay busy in the early rounds, don't fall apart on the inside, and don't allow the champion to come on late. Howard Eastman seems capable of "Executing" this game plan. Eastman's reach is impressive for a middleweight, and though Hopkins' is one inch longer, the champion doesn't use his wingspan much on the onside, minus the occasional double jab. If Howard can win the early rounds, he appears to be more than capable of holding of Hopkins' late surge. Eastman knocked down Jerry Elliot and William Joppy late in their fights, and stopped Hassine Cherifi in the ninth. Eastman may be the first fighter in years to face Hopkins who is strong enough to hold his own on the inside and powerful enough to land meaningful shots on the champion. And, "The Battersea Bomber" is a consistent combination thrower, which means he'll have the opportunity to outwork Hopkins.

In order for Bernard Hopkins to avoid a historical struggle on his big night, he must take advantage of the challenger's leaky defense. Hopkins' best asset is his ability to set up angles, and accurately land power shots. Eastman's achilles heal is his ability to avoid power blows, as demonstrated against Joppy. If Hopkins isn't showing his age, which is always a very big "if," he'll probably be able to find a home for the accurate power shots he threw against De La Hoya and Allen. The question is, can he throw enough punches to avoid being outworked? If Eastman stays busy, Hopkins will have to show fight fans something he hasn't in a while. In order to avoid such a problem, Bernard will have to use a strong body attack on the inside like he used against De La Hoya, to break down and slow down Eastman.

As far as predicting a winner, this writer has gone back-and-forth all week. One day, the thought is Hopkins will begin to dominate with accurate power shots as the fight goes on, as he's done many times before. The next day this corner likes Eastman, as he uses his jab to take the early rounds, stand up to the champion late with his own power shots, and take advantage of Hopkins' one punch at a time routine by throwing effective combinations.

The final prediction is Hopkins, by way of controversial decision. Controversial, because the number forty is just too much to ignore. Look for "The Executioner" to get off to yet another slow start, throw one punch at a time, and get outworked. Bernard will have some strong rounds as the fight goes on, but in most people's eyes it won't be enough. The judges, however, will give the nod to Hopkins, as Eastman plays the part of Felix Sturm -- a live underdog from across the pond, standing in the way of a superstar headed for big paydays, who came up just short.

The fight does not figure to be an all-out slugfest, but it does promise to be an interesting, gripping drama. Boxing writers and middleweight contenders have been waiting for Hopkins to show his age for years. Saturday may be the night. Hopkins enters the ring at forty for the first time, making Eastman an extremely live underdog. A word of advice to fight fans: Don't plan on another uninteresting Hopkins blowout. The bottom line is, one number will emerge as the story of the fight, but which will it be? Twenty...........or forty?

Article posted on 16.02.2005

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