The pre-fight build up and the suspense had obviously gotten to both Sergey Kovalev and Bernard Hopkins as they showed uncharacteristic body language while waiting for the opening bell on Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Kovalev was unusually restless and had an urgent expression while Hopkins’s face was hidden behind his new mask but he looked artificial and stiff walking aimlessly around the ring. Hopkins tried too hard to appear nonchalant and refused to touch gloves with Kovalev who tried to show respect to the veteran but cared little for his mind games.
Round 1- timing is of the essence. Kovalev lost all respect after the bell, he took center ring and stalked Hopkins who openly refused to engage and started trying to buy time while conserving energy. “The Krusher” did not rush forward; he gave Hopkins the courtesy of “feeling him out”, adjusting the range and testing his reflexes. Midway through the round Kovalev’s demeanor changed, he raised his head from behind the guard, his expression softened and he started “walking in the park”, it was his fight already and he knew the reason.
Hopkins’s timing was 15 years late for this fight. Experience, wisdom and stratagems can not buy a split second of timing; boxing is a young man’s game. Kovalev appeared to be calm and relaxed but he saw the openings and clocked Hopkins on his way out of a corner with a crisp right hand to the side of the head. Hopkins fell instantly but did not acknowledge the move and refused to touch gloves again at the end of the round.
Round 2 – range wins battles: The second round did not bring any changes, Hopkins allowed Kovalev to fight at his own range and pace. Hopkins’s priority was survival and hopefully a second wind if he could drag his foe into deep waters later. The problem with deep waters is they are deep for everyone and Hopkins continued to absorb what would prove to the worst beating in his career. Taking body punches did not help his second wind one bit. Hopkins realized Kovalev could hurt him at close range and he started avoiding it. This contributed to the fight staying relatively clean – the action took place at long range and one was too busy punching while the other was too busy staying off the floor, so there was little time for antics.
Round 3 – blocking shots. Kovalev started pacing himself in the third but he kept the initiative as Hopkins just did not want it. He needed Kovalev to come at him so he could apply his system for survival and professorial frustrating moves. Hopkins even managed a take-down when Kovalev rushed at him – they don’t count but they drain energy. Kovalev returned with a calm mayhem and Hopkins, a throwback form a more masterful era, rolled with the punches, swayed and weaved in order to cushion the sting. He managed to remain on his feet but he blocked too many shots with the left side of his head. For three rounds Hopkins had taken unprecedented punishment, perhaps the aggregate damage of years of his career. He only managed a single flush right cross for the round.
Round 4 – footwork and body movement: Hopkins realized the gravity of the situation and tried to minimize the damage by using every inch of ring space. His footwork was strictly professional – he was off his toes for stability but light and mobile on his feet. Lateral movement and slips saved him some pain, he still took some heavy leather but his correct head and shoulder position carried him through the storm.
Round 5 – body shots. Following the advice of his corner, Kovalev “returned downstairs” and bombarded Hopkins with heavy jabs to the torso. This was a safe way for Sergey to deplete his opponent’s reserves; he threw the shots from long range and welcomed any rare counter from Hopkins as it opened a new window for his right hands. Hopkins raised his left elbow and used it as a shield hoping to deter attacks or hurt the crushing incoming fists.
Round 6 – running out of ideas. Hopkins came out looking disorganized and ambled around taking heavy shots. If he had a hidden agenda, it remained hidden. Getting your opponent to punch himself out requires you to make him miss and the thuds from Kovalev’s shots were loud. Hopkins still managed to finish the rounds in his corner, so he had to take a step or two to his stool while the stalker had to cross the ring to return to his corner.
Round 7 – cards on the table. Hopkins knew if he lost that round he would need a KO to win. He came out to fight (sort of), went forward for the first time in the fight leaning his head forward dangerously and mounted several offensive moves. He even landed a flush right cross-left hook combo after he slipped a jab from Kovalev – pure class from the veteran but not enough to win his best round.
Round 8 – deep waters. After a positive 7th round and his corner’s suggestion that Kovalev “isn’t used to people coming at him and isn’t used to being this far” in a fight, Hopkins tried to do the same – go forward and put pressure on his opponent. Kovalev had other plans as he countered Hopkins’s momentum with right hands in succession garnered with long hooks to head and heavy jabs to the body. This time Kovalev countered a jab from Hopkins and staggered him with a big right midway through the round. Hopkins played the limbo rock but managed to stay off the floor and hung on until the bell which found him in a neutral corner this time. He simply lost control and went with the flow. Deep is deep for everyone.
Round 9 – fire at will. Hopkins was finished mentally and he simply hung on for dear life while Kovalev tried hard to take him out. The legend was brutalized by the young lion.
Round 10 – a professor vs. a professed pugilist. It wasn’t a pretty sight as Hopkins was no longer resisting but simply gritting out the worst beating in his life.
Round 11 – Kovalev eased off the pressure and took a break saving it for the final round but still clubbed his opponent, especially when Hopkins tried to lead with the head.
Round 12 – the deepest end. Hopkins did great to make it this far and even landed his best punch in the fight sending Kovalev off balance momentarily. After a slow star, Kovalev rushed forward like a bull and the matador speared him with a hefty left to the neck using his own momentum against him. The shot was more of a push and it did not land clean (neck and collar bone) so Kovalev went on and put his opponent through an ordeal. Whatever sins Hopkins had towards the sport, he paid for them at the hands of a fellow pugilist who had two of the most valuable boxing tools – timing and power. Hopkins showed true grit and his correct head position carried him through the fight. He protected his chin in a professorial manner but the punishment he took was from epic proportions and perhaps he needs to bow out in style while he can.
The scores – 120:107, 120:107, 120:106 for Kovalev – were precise and the very idea of a rematch would be cruel to Bernard Hopkins. With his face swelling by the minute Hopkins managed to sound coherent after the fight and deserves respect for going the distance with such resilience.