by Kieran Mulvaney
It has been almost two years since, at the age of 46, Bernard Hopkins overcame Jean Pascal to regain a portion of the light-heavyweight championship and in the process surpass George Foreman as the oldest boxer ever to win a world title. One year and nine months later, he looks to improve on his own record when he challenges Tavoris Cloud for another light-heavyweight belt in Brooklyn on March 9.
Hopkins' career, for all its technical excellence, has become defined by its longevity and by Hopkins' ability to perform at a championship level long after most boxers have hung up their gloves. But the defeat of Pascal stands, so far, as Hopkins' last win.
Since then, he has stepped into the ring twice, both times against Chad Dawson. The first encounter was abortive, Hopkins crashing to his shoulder in the second round of a no-contest five months after the Pascal victory. The second was definitive: Although one judge oddly saw the contest as a draw, the other two, more accurately, scored nine of 12 rounds for Dawson. It was the only time since his first title fight, against Roy Jones in 1993, that Hopkins had been clearly and incontrovertibly defeated.
So is the journey over, the road at an end? Has Hopkins finally reached the point where even he can no longer overcome the one-two punch of the opponent in front of him and Father Time on his shoulder?
Possibly. But not necessarily.
Even at 48, the adage remains valid that styles make fights. There was long the sense that Dawson, with his long-range combination-punching boxing style, was not a good fit for Hopkins, who for many years now has performed best against opponents who come to him. Having once been something of a butcher in the ring - in 1995, he beat Joe Lipsey so badly en route to a fourth-round knockout that Lipsey never fought again - Hopkins had become more of a surgeon, using a scalpel rather than a hatchet, and doing so with deliberate precision.
The key to Hopkins' success in later years has been that, instead of trying to keep up with foes who are invariably younger than him, he has found ways to slow them down to a pace that is to his satisfaction. Howard Eastman, Kelly Pavlik and Pascal are among the hard-hitting challengers who began confidently and briskly, only to be drawn into Hopkins' web and ultimately left passively trying to survive.
It's a way of fighting that gives him the greatest chance of success against more aggressive fighters - those who will walk toward him and give him the opportunity to counter, those he can frustrate and foil rather than those he has to chase around a ring. And that is why maybe, just maybe, Hopkins could enjoy yet another last hurrah when he faces Cloud.
Cloud is on a good run. He defeated Britain's Clinton Woods to earn a light heavyweight title in 2009, and has defended it against Glen Johnson, Fulgencio Zuniga, Yusuf Mack and Gabriel Campillo. He is a relatively aggressive fighter, but not irresponsibly so. Although he packs a punch, he generally outworks his opponents rather than overpowering them: Of those listed above, only Mack was stopped. Against Johnson, he showed not only pace and fluid combinations, but also enough savvy to avoid being suckered in by veteran tricks - managing, for example, to step out of an attempted Johnson clinch and keep punching when the old man needed a breather. That's the kind of ability that could come in handy against a Jedi master such as Hopkins.
At the same time, he has sometimes appeared flummoxed by skillful boxers. Hopkins' team will surely have been paying particular attention to Cloud's most recent outing, against Campillo: After flooring the Spaniard twice in the opening round, Cloud appeared to be outworked by the challenger, and his points victory was met with widespread disbelief. What will be encouraging for Team Hopkins is that Campillo was able to cause a diminution in Cloud's punch output - exactly the kind of strategy for which the Executioner will doubtless be aiming. Conversely, Cloud supporters will note that what caused their man difficulties was Campillo's movement around the ring, something that is not likely to be an ageing Hopkins' forte.
This may well be one of those fights where each man does what the other man wants. Cloud is likely to stand more or less in front of Hopkins, which is where the old man will want him. Hopkins is going to be flat-footed rather than fleet-footed, which is what Cloud will be looking for after the Campillo experience.
The advantages will be sought and fought at the margins: Cloud will want to fight straight ahead but at a half-distance, in the pocket, where he has enough room to let his punches fly. Expect to see a lot of his double left hook off the jab and his straight right hand, which he can throw without being so far away that he'll need to reach for his target. Hopkins will seek to get closer, to smother Cloud, to frustrate him, to turn him and rough him up and crack him with punches on the inside.
The more the punches flow, the faster the contest, the more likely that the younger man is gaining the upper hand. The more the battle is fought in the trenches, the more the referee works to separate the two men, the more of a bruising prize fight it becomes, the more probable it is that veteran guile is winning the day and that Bernard Hopkins is, yet again, enjoying an evening to remember in a career full of them.