Grand old master Bernard Hopkins presents a whole slew of challenges for Chad Dawson, but his biggest test may come from within himself: Can he stay focused and aggressive for 12 rounds?
Dawson is a tremendously gifted boxer who unfortunately is prone to fighting in spurts. When he is on his game, he is virtually impossible to stop, thanks to a combination of superior hand speed, exceptional mobility and power. Other times he'll follow up a terrific two-fisted attack by backing away and gliding around the ring as if auditioning for "Dancing with the Stars." It is a trait that has exasperated his many trainers, including John Scully, Eddie Mustafa Muhammad, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Dan Birmingham and most recently Emmanuel Steward. If there's a formula to keeping him focused, nobody has yet to discover it.
Gary Shaw, Dawson's longtime promoter, has seen him put it all together, but those times have been few and far between. "The last time Chad was close to perfect for 12 rounds was when he fought (Tomazs) Adamek for the championship in 2007," Shaw says. "That was the perfect Chad, although he did get a little lazy in the 11th round and Adamek dropped him."
So talented is the 29-year-old Dawson (31-1, 17 KOs) that he has been able to beat opponents even when his mind drifts. He certainly won't be able to do that against the wily Hopkins (55-5-2, 32 KOs). Although Hopkins' skills and speed have diminished over time, the 46-year-old remains one of the most intensely focused fighters in the game, a genius at exploiting flaws and neutralizing an opponent's strengths.
The last fighter to beat Hopkins was Joe Calzaghe in 2008, and it's no coincidence that the Wales boxer also had a strong ability to stay mentally engaged and follow his game plan through to the end. That victory was disputed by some, but there is no denying that Calzaghe outworked Hopkins and dictated the pace of the fight with his high-volume punching and constant pressure. Shaw thinks Dawson has the same ability. "Chad will be totally focused for this fight," he says. "He's been chasing Hopkins for a long time and it is his dream to beat Bernard."
Many have shared that vision, but few have succeeded. Now in the autumn of a career that began in 1988 when Dawson was six years old, Hopkins has won his most recent fights by imposing his will and his elusive style. One of the key tools Hopkins uses is getting his punches off first and then following up by rushing inside and engaging in an energy-draining wrestling match. By doing so, he denies his opponent any chance to get into a rhythm, which frustrates them into making mistakes.
Dawson, however, has the foot speed and maneuverability to keep Hopkins from applying his punch-and-clutch tactic. "Hopkins hasn't fought anybody in years with the size and speed of Chad," Shaw says. Indeed the last time Hopkins faced such a fighter was Calzaghe. Since then, Hopkins has carefully chosen opponents who will stand in front of him.
Although Dawson has the ability to outbox Hopkins, he too often has lapsed into slugging it out toe-to-toe, which essentially turns him into a stationary target. If Dawson does, Hopkins will prey on him. "To win, Chad needs to stay outside and use his head, jab and speed," Shaw says. "In the past he would abandon that and get in a brawl, largely because the fight was too easy for him."
It is almost impossible to analyze and predict a Dawson performance without using the word "if." In this case, IF Dawson sticks to his game; then he will pose the worst possible style for Hopkins: a young southpaw who is much faster and possesses great athletic ability. Hopkins has shown vulnerability to fighters like that, most notably Jermain Taylor, who beat him twice in 2005 by moving and throwing fast, powerful combos from different angles.
Outside the "if" factor, the biggest unknown here is the question of whether Hopkins can be at his best when fighting for the third time in 10 months. The last time he did that was in 2005, when he beat Howard Eastman in February before losing twice to Taylor in July and December. Before that, you have to go back to 1997 to find a year in which Hopkins fought three times. Most recently, he had one bout in 2009, two in 2008 and one in both 2007 and 2006.
Another possible factor is that Dawson dismissed Steward as his trainer just a month before this fight and brought in Scully. Apparently it wasn't a good fit with Steward. Dawson said recently that he just wanted to get back to fighting the way he did with Scully, who trained him earlier in his career during a time when he was knocking out a higher percentage of opponents. Dawson has not scored a knockout since 2007, but his level of competition has also been much tougher the past four years. Shaw discounts the trainer switch. "I don't think it will have a huge effect. Scully has trained him and is someone I think is a very underrated."
A victory for Dawson, Shaw says, "would make him the biggest man at 175 and take the luster off of Hopkins, who probably won't be able to go into retirement if he loses." Shaw says Dawson would have many options if he wins, including going up to cruiserweight, or dropping down to 168, where he fought several times earlier in his career, but not in six years. "He can make that weight," Shaw says. "If he beats Bernard, he hopes (Lucien) Bute will be next."