by Hamilton Nolan
Bernard Hopkins is amazing in the way that only true stories can be amazing. Not in a grandiose, spectacular way, but in an all too believable series of small steps that adds up to something that seems unbelievable. On Saturday night, before a crowd chanting "B-Hop," the 48 year-old Bernard Hopkins took a unanimous decision victory-- and a title--over the young, strong, legitimate former light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. How? A single moment at a time.
Hopkins' primary skills at this late stage of his career are slipping punches, stepping away from trouble, grabbing on the inside, and being surprising. Sustained offense and sustained energy are not his specialties. It does not matter. Tonight, he seized the small moments. He let Cloud expend all the energy attacking; and then, when he paused, Hopkins would land one or two or three punches, and move. Every time that Cloud missed a punch or smiled for a brief moment at his mistake, Hopkins would hit him. He did not so much beat up Cloud as make it clear that Cloud did not beat him. That was enough for him to cruise to victory by a margin of several rounds.
In the sixth round, Cloud was cut over his left eye (from an elbow, naturally, not a punch). The blood just made him look more beleaguered. With only one or two exceptions, Cloud could not land a clean punch all night. On the inside, Hopkins grabs immediately, making punching impossible; on the outside, he has an uncanny ability to slip, and duck, and step in, and then... back to holding again. Building a rhythm is nearly impossible. Building frustration, though, is inevitable. In the seventh, Cloud whiffed so hard that he plunged halfway over the top rope. Hopkins took the opportunity to stick out his tongue to the crowd, and then, when Cloud turned back to the ring, Hopkins jabbed him twice in the face. It was classic Hopkins: not so much physically damaging as psychologically enraging.
It is not unreasonable to ask, of course: What is the draw of Bernard Hopkins? There is his legacy, of course-- wins over Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik, and a host of lesser names. And there is his peerless flair for self-promotion-- the pushups between rounds, the trash talk, the executioner mask, the whole bit. But it has been years since The Executioner really threatened to execute anyone. His last knockout came in 2004. Mask notwithstanding, Hopkins is primarily a defensive counterpuncher now, and not a particularly dangerous one. He is a veteran, an artist of the sweet science, and the craftiest big time fighter extant, in terms of knowing every last semi-legal trick of the trade. But his style is nothing like the sort of hyperactive action fighter that is usually required to draw interest outside of hardcore boxing fans.
No, the main draw of Bernard Hopkins now is his age. More than that, it is the question of when his age will catch up with him. Fighters tend to get old all at once. They tend to collapse spectacularly, in a single fight, before the eyes of the world. It is always somewhat horrifying to watch, and always mesmerizing. At 48, Hopkins has defied the actuarial tables more than almost anyone before. So for each fight, his draw is twofold: a chance to see him defy expectations once again, or a chance to see a proud athlete succumb to his inevitably physical collapse. His last fight, a decision loss to Chad Dawson, was not close; Hopkins had the look of a man still talented enough to defend himself, but thinking less about inflicting damage than about survival. It had the look of what could well be the last stepping stone before disaster.
Well, it wasn't. He beat Tavoris Cloud fair and square. Bernard Hopkins is, improbably, astoundingly, the light heavyweight champion of the world. Again.
Keith Thurman (20-0) is not the most artful welterweight. He's muscular, and square, and although athletic and almost hyper, cannot seem to shake the whiff of being a natural brawler constantly reminding himself to box. But he can hit like a truck. With 18 KOs in 19 fights, his game plan is not a mystery. Despite the fact that he's been boxing since age 7, he still appears raw. And that's okay. He will not outbox the best 147 pounders in the world, but he could certainly knock out any of them if he can catch them.
Well-- except Jan Zaveck (32-3), apparently. A year ago Zaveck fought Andre Berto, and lost, but proved that he can, at least, stand up to hard punches. And he stood up to Thurman's, as well. Zaveck has a tight, high guard (and a hard head), which proved a little too tight for Thurman to crack. Thurman averaged about one booming, head-rocking left hook or uppercut per round, but never put together enough to knock Zaveck down. He did, however, win every round en route to a unanimous decision. For his part, Zaveck made a case for himself as a professional stepping stone fighter-- good enough to give anyone a fight, but not to beat them. Zaveck tried to counterpunch Thurman, but Thurman's power made it impossible. The time between punches that Zaveck normally would have spent countering was spent double-checking that he was still conscious.