30.07.04 – By Matthew Hurley: The middleweight showdown between champion Bernard Hopkins and challenger Oscar De La Hoya is fast approaching. Barring any injuries the biggest fight of the year will commence on September 18 in Las Vegas. In terms of the overall quality of the two fighters you couldn’t ask for much more, but there remains a caveat – according to most observers this fight lacks the dramatic appeal of a true super fight because the undersized De La Hoya, who looked horrible in his previous fight, has no chance of unseating the long reigning champion. Logic dictates that Hopkins walks De La Hoya down and dumps him to the ground sometime past the sixth round. But in boxing logic is the most illogical thing to rely on.
Make no mistake, Oscar will not enter the ring in the guise of the over-confident and over-stuffed fighter he was on the night he was given a scare by one Felix Sturm. De La Hoya weighed in at a full one hundred and sixty pounds and, quite pointedly, looked fat and sluggish. He attempted to bomb out Sturm early but as the fight wore on it soon became apparent that Felix, a true middleweight, wasn’t going anywhere. Not only that but he revealed himself to possess a stiff, unrelenting jab that continually found it’s mark and, by mid-fight, began moving Oscar backwards.
Toss into the mix De La Hoya’s penchant for fading down the stretch and you had an unexpected nail biter of a fight on your hands. No one, other than Oscar himself, was more concerned about this turn of events than Bernard Hopkins. As the fight wore on Bernard’s anxiety began to overwhelm his body language as he watched from his dressing room. His big payday was falling apart right in front of his eyes.
Earlier in the evening Hopkins had administered yet another technically proficient beat down of three time challenger Robert Allen. The fight wasn’t particularly exciting, keeping with Bernard’s modus operandi when it comes to title defenses. Other than the high water mark fight of his career, his brilliant dismantling of Felix Trinidad, Hopkins doesn’t engage in many exciting fights. They are clinical, as his fight with Allen, or sloppy and foul fest, as his rematch with Antwon Echols. He has produced a career worthy of the Hall Of Fame, but only that astonishing night in Madison Square Garden against Trinidad truly stands out. His record setting number of defenses is commendable and his skills are among the most wizened in the sport but he remains a cult figure because of his tight, economical style. He slowly breaks opponents down, rarely supplying a devastating knockout, or dramatic comeback as, say Arturo Gatti consistently does. There is no comparing Gatti to Hopkins. They are in different leagues in terms of artistic quality but where Gatti has a fan base worthy of a rock star, Hopkins remains in the shadows. He doesn’t need a knockout like Thomas Hearns’ decimation of Roberto Duran in their super fight, but he does need something dramatic in his fight against De La Hoya if he truly wants to be remembered by casual fans alongside his hero Marvin Hagler. Hopkins’ greatness is not in question, just his cross over appeal. A stunning victory over De La Hoya will give him that, and he knows it.
So, once again we turn to logic and the logical outcome of this fight is Bernard getting to De La Hoya late. It seems entirely reasonable to envision a weary De La Hoya, holding on to the middleweight champion in exhaustion much as he did in the late rounds against the surging Sugar Shane Mosley in both of their fights. De La Hoya provided the blueprint for Hopkins’s eventual career defining fight against Felix Trinidad when “The Golden Boy” boxed the Puerto Rican star silly for nearly nine rounds. He showed what a quick footed boxer he can be in that fight. He also revealed his penchant for coming apart in the championship rounds. Oscar himself admitted that he had never used his legs so much in a fight and that they were shaking from exhaustion by the ninth round. One could easily see that as an ominous sign as he prepares to fight a true middleweight in Bernard Hopkins. Not just a big, strong middleweight like Felix Sturm, but the best middleweight in the world and the greatest champion the division has seen since the title reign of Marvin Hagler. Oscar needs his legs to be in supreme condition because he’ll need them for all twelve rounds. He’s not going to knock Bernard out. His only hope is to put the best aspects of his game together for twelve fast rounds.
Can he do it? Yes. Hopkins, nearly forty, is more susceptible than one might think. Regardless of how well conditioned “The Executioner” keeps his body, it is breaking down. Age chips away at everyone, no exceptions to this rule, and Bernard has looked slower of foot in his past few fights. His style, one of stalking and breaking his opponent down, takes time. He’s a distance man, hoping to drag his nemesis into the later rounds where the collective damage of his blows can take their toll. But if he can’t catch De La Hoya, who will attempt to box every second of every round, he will lose a decision.
What this fight truly comes down to is how long can Oscar remain the bouncing boxer who befuddled Felix Trinidad. His strategy is all about remaining elusive and providing angles – getting in and getting out. He has the tools to do this, but does he have the stamina anymore?
These questions are what make this fight more compelling than many assume it will be. Again, logic says Hopkins should steamroll his smaller opponent but never has Bernard been so conciliatory in his remarks to the press. Perhaps he’s just quietly licking his chops in anticipation of his greatest victory, or perhaps he realizes that Oscar is going to bring his A game to the ring and this apparent walkover may well turn out to be the most difficult fight of his career.
We’ll find out September 18.