Hopkins vs. Taylor II: The Lesson Behind the Controversy

05.12.05 - By Gabriel DeCrease: Once again the pillars of pugilism are holding up another great debate to determine who really won the rematch between Bernard Hopkins and Jermain Taylor. Was it the old lion or new blood that came out on top? And by what margin? Is this the underhanded assassination of “The Executioner’s” legacy? Or is it the punctuation that comes at the end of Taylor’s vocal claim to the middleweight throne? Let me be the first to say I am not too motivated to clear the air. It is what will occur after the smoke clears from the rematch that should have everyone taking sides. Fans should look past the close-call judging and try to spot the real lesson that underlies this pair of low-impact sparring matches.

At his peak Bernard Hopkins was king of the ring technicians. He was a smooth operator who could outbox, outfox, and outclass any man in the middleweight division—that is, after a prime Roy Jones Jr. began his Odyssey in the higher weight-classes.

Jermain Taylor is a young fighter who was thrust into the spotlight—and into the highest echelons of consideration—when he narrowly (and quite controversially) dethroned Hopkins in their first fight. And while Taylor’s pre-Hopkins resume is certainly enough to prove his salt as a true contender, it is hard to say that, setting aside his last two fights, Taylor is the absolute cream of the middleweight crop.. He whooped a shaky-looking Alex Bunema, stopped a legitimately rugged Raul Marquez, schooled the ancient and severely-damaged William Joppy, and obliterated an outclassed and overrated Daniel Edouard. That was the path to Hopkins. Taylor proved himself in those fights. There is no doubt of that. But the question remains, when the two victories over Hopkins are added to the tally, do we get a proven division-leader, or not?

Hopkins talent likely snowballed to an impressive late-peak in 2001 when he turned in a near-perfect domination of Felix Trinidad before stopping him under the moonlight of the 12th-round. Since that time, the crafty and absolutely-focused Hopkins has been slowly and incrementally declining. He was never a murderous puncher, nor a high-output punching machine. By his own admission, he has always been a patient technician, and he made his name, and his legend, as such. Accordingly, the gradual, and natural, erosion of time did not show as vividly. Especially because he was cleverly put in some fights that made him look deceptively good. William Joppy was already almost-shot by the time Hopkins took him apart, which was long before Taylor took his turn at whacking stuffing out of the piñata that Joppy has become. And Hopkins’ body-blow-besting of Oscar De La Hoya had everyone forgetting that “The Golden Boy” had no business fighting at middleweight, and thinking that Hopkins stalked and killed a fighter at or around the level Oscar maintained when he ruled lower weight-divisions. All the while, Hopkins was getting older and slowing down behind the façade. It seemed obvious, perhaps for the first time that he was a different fighter when he expended too much effort, and did too little damage, on his way to decisioning Howard Eastman.

Hopkins appeared less impressive in his first fight with Taylor, and then slightly less impressive again in this most recent debacle. And in both fights Taylor got the nod in fights that could have conceivably been judged on either side of the line. That is, not to take anything away from Taylor. He fought the fights he had to in order to win, but to win over a somewhat diminished Hopkins. It is not hard to imagine a prime “Executioner” fresher and freer-swinging in the late rounds of his first fight with Taylor, and perhaps getting the eleventh-hour stoppage. In the second fight, the Bernard Hopkins of yesteryear would have had a much better chance of dictating the pace and cruising past a sharp and smart, but unspectacular Taylor.

So Taylor beat Bernard Hopkins at two-thirds of his former pay-grade. If that makes Taylor the universally regarded, and unquestioned, champion, then a marginally-diminished B-hop must be better than any other middleweight in the ranks. And that may not be a fact. Make no mistake; it is ultimately impressive that Hopkins is sharp as he is at forty. But could no one other than Taylor have beaten him?

A perfect prototype case-study for this situation is not so far from recent memory. When Antonio Tarver almost got over on Roy Jones in their first match, it was instantly clear that Jones was not the champion he once was. Maybe the move up to heavyweight—and then quickly back down to 175-pounds—took something out of him. Maybe time and age set in and he got old overnight, as they say. Whatever the case, Tarver’s valiant losing performance against Jones, and his two subsequent victories (one by way of crushing knockout), proved only that “The Magic Man” could stand with a shadow of Jones’ former-self. What resulted was a three man tangle in which Tarver, Roy, and fellow Jones-conqueror Glen Johnson battled each other time-and-again for the title of best man at 175-pounds. But looking back, were any of them impressive enough to merit that title regardless of how they performed against one another? Probably not unless both Tarver and Johnson beat a prime Roy Jones, and they surely did not. So the light-heavyweight division is stuck on bended-knee, and is not a very saleable commodity, because the public gets the sense that something smells sour in the wake of the bogus tournament of champions that resulted from Roy Jones losing his fighting-faculties.

Maybe Johnson and Tarver are the best of the light-heavies, but that will not be fully-proven until they step outside their flimsy, incestuous tangle and make fights with guys like the miraculously late-peaking Clinton Woods, young-gun Tomasz Adamek, the sometimes ultra-dangerous Fabrice Tiozzo, and perhaps soft-looking, yet effective Zsolt Erdei. Proof of status cannot always be found in fights that occur between only a few fighters, one of which happens to be a shopworn legend.

In this case, it seems clear that Taylor has put a good down payment on credibility as a champion. But his real trials are ahead. Hopkins is likely out of the mix now. Whether he beat Taylor in either fight is relevant only in terms of “The Executioner’s” legacy, he planned on retiring soon anyhow, so the division is still wide open when considering that Taylor has not shown the world that he can beat a prime Bernard Hopkins. Therein lays the point. The boxing world must look at the middleweight field and wonder if anyone else at 160-pounds might have performed as well (or better) than Taylor against Hopkins in his last days as a champion.

Winky Wright may well have reached a late-peak in which he too could dispatch the forty-year-old Hopkins—perhaps more convincingly so. Wright often looks, these days, like the caliber of technician that Hopkins did at or around his best.

Would talented prospects like Felix Sturm, Kingsley Ikeke, or Arthur Abraham have a shot at besting B-hop? Maybe they would have less hope of victory than Wright, but who knows how far gone Hopkins was in his last two fights. It could be that Taylor was overrated by comparison to the other young talent in the division. Whatever the case, doubt will, and should, linger over Taylor’s championship reign like a thundercloud until he steps into the ring and makes some significant defenses against top-fighters. Tearing through the likes of old-dogs like Ike Quartey and green up-and-comers like Kelly Pavlik will not prove anything.

Taylor seems hungry enough that he will bite off a mouthful in the near future, but the boxing cognoscenti should be careful not to favor Taylor too heavily going into matches in which a prime-Hopkins might have been easily dominant. Taylor did not beat the best at his best. His teeth have yet to be fully cut, and no one should be too terribly shocked if they are cut as they are knocked out of his mouth.

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Article posted on 05.12.2005

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