Sunday, January 6, 2008

It's Time for Hopkins to Fight Like He Talks

Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe came face-to-face last month in Las Vegas and they engaged in a heated exhange of words.

The impending announcement that Bernard Hopkins will face Welshman Joe Calzaghe on April 19th in Las Vegas will likely come with the same hype and blather that comes from Hopkins each time he announces his next fight.

In his own world, “The Executioner” continues to talk a good fight, but when he’s gotten in the ring over the past few years his words have rung hollow. In his advancing years he's become a cautious miser with his punches who methodically shuffles around the ring in an effort not to lose - instead of really fighting to win.

Hopkins, the minimalist, will turn 43 in a couple weeks and in his role as the "Old Man River" of boxing, his career continues to flow on despite the fact that father time is breathing down his neck.

Few boxers have been able to fight effectively into their late 30's, but Hopkins, several years removed from his best days, defies the trend and has scored signature wins since he turned 40 over Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright.

And he continues to talk trash as though he were a man in his 20's.

He doesn’t think much of Calzaghe, his popularity in Great Britain or his undefeated record. And while Hopkins talks a great fight and is a tireless promoter, his comments and analysis of himself and his true worth in the boxing marketplace often border on being delusional at worst and comical at best.

"I'm known around the world and he's not,” says Hopkins of himself and of Calzaghe. “You take Joe Calzaghe and put him on 54th and Broadway (in New York City) at 12 noon and you guarantee ten people won’t know him. You put Bernard Hopkins in New York and I will shut it down,” says Hopkins, who thinks of himself in terms that are quite far removed from reality.

Hopkins, pictured above in New York City's Times Square and the scene appears far from being "shut down" by his presence.

His fighting style has morphed from once being busy and aggressive to now being picky and careful. His defensive-minded efforts are not exactly crowd pleasing as Hopkins throws few punches and every move seems carefully thought out well in advance. While it may be an effective way to win it's boring to watch. His last fight against Wright caused those in attendance who were not sitting on their hands to boo the lack of sustained action.

There is no question that Hopkins is a brilliant tactician in the ring who has forgotten more than most will ever know, but in the sport of boxing, fans who spend money to see him do so with the expectation that there will be at least some entertainment value.

As it is, Hopkins, who is known to be frugal with the millions he has earned during his twenty years in boxing, dispatches with punches as though they were hundred dollar bills. He has scored only one knockout in the past four years.

“I don’t see how he can possibly beat me,” says Calzaghe of his aging and cautious foe. “He knows I throw over 1,000 punches a fight and he throws what, 200 punches a fight?”

But what about the greatness of Bernard Hopkins?

“He’s not great. How is he a great fighter?” asks Calzaghe. “He’s been beaten twice by Jermain Taylor. He thinks he is. He was lucky against Winky Wright and he was a middleweight. He ain’t gonna’ win, he’s going to lose. I know that and I think he knows that. I don’t think he really wants to fight me.”

Joe Calzaghe believes he has what it takes to be victorious over Hopkins.

As a result of Hopkins’ less than scintillating boxing style his box-office clout and his pay-per view numbers have sagged in relation to other fighters such as Oscar De La Hoya and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Hopkins' star power has never crossed over to the mainstream and his fights usually draw in the vicinity of 350,000 pay-per view buys.

Ever the businessman concerned with the bottom-line, Hopkins is aware of his comparative lackluster drawing power and when his July 2007 bout with Winky Wright threatened to be a box office disaster, Hopkins created a scene at the weigh-in by placing his hand on Wright's face and pushing him. The action caused a minor melee, but it did make headlines around the world the day before the fight and clips of the fracas were replayed time and again on national sports telecasts.

Hopkins was later fined $200,000 by the Nevada State Athletic Commission for the shove but he first claimed he did it only to drum up interest and hopefully sell more pay-per views. In front of the commission members he changed his tune by saying that Wright had insulted his mother.

Whatever the case, most observers and pundits believe Hopkins is only fighting for the money now. He admits that even if he lost all of his future fights that he would still be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. He holds the record for title defenses (20) by a middleweight champion which is likely a mark that will stand the test of all-time.

Outside the ring he oversees various real estate holdings in and around his hometown of Philadelphia and is a well known philanthropist. He also makes time to help educate inner city youths and at-risk adolescents about the dangers and temptations of the streets. Hopkins knows full well about the traps in the ghetto as he spent 56 months in Graterford State Penitentiary before turning his life around.

So why does Hopkins continue to fight?

He is an equity partner and a very active player in Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. He is married and has a daughter that he swore he wanted to spend more time with in order "to watch her grow up." He also promised his mother, before she died, that he would retire before his 41st birthday and he once claimed that when he broke his own promises it always came back to haunt him. He made a half-hearted attempt to make good on that promise and he did stop fighting, but only briefly, after besting Antonio Tarver for The Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight title in June 2006 before returning to face Wright.

Ask Hopkins then, why he is still around and he offers this as an answer.

"I have an agenda, it's a good thing for my bank account," he says about his continuing journey as a prize fighter. "I'm already who I am. I'm a hall-of-famer. If I lose my next five or six fights - if I fight that long - I am already cemented in the books."

While he made over $3 million for his last fight against Wright, Hopkins claims that he gets paid $250,000 per press conference for his promotional work with Golden Boy Promotions. He also proudly states that he has over $25 million stashed away in various bank accounts.

He had grandiose visions for the fight with Calzaghe, but the realities of his plight in the marketplace forced him to scale back his plans. Hopkins has a sense for boxing history and counts 'Sugar' Ray Robinson as an idol. As a result, he was pushing for the Calzaghe fight to be held in New York's Yankee Stadium where many of the great fighters of the past appeared in front of tremendous crowds, including Robinson.

However, the logistics and economics of such an undertaking proved insurmountable and the demand for tickets that would have filled the cavernous 57,000 seat 'House that Ruth Built' was questionable. Besides, the last boxing card that took place in Yankee Stadium was the third fight between Muhammad Ali vs. Ken Norton - in 1976.

Bob Arum promoted the Ali vs. Norton fight and when asked what he thought about Hopkins’ desire to fight in Yankee Stadium, Arum was, as usual, blunt. “Hopkins was talking about fighting at Yankee Stadium but that's crazy,” said Arum. “If he fought at Yankee Stadium even the ushers wouldn't want to watch him. Bernard Hopkins couldn't draw a breath.”

Predictably, Hopkins' plans were scaled back dramatically. The fight could have drawn over 50,000 in Wales but Hopkins never seemed open to that scenario. Now the fight against the undefeated Calzaghe will take place at the Thomas and Mack Arena in Las Vegas - which seats 19,000.

The fight is coming at the perfect time for the 35 year-old Calzaghe who has been the 168-pound titlist for over 10 years and is coming off his biggest career victory over Mikkel Kessler in November. Calzaghe was recently named the BBC Sports Personality of the Year and says that he sees no way that Hopkins can beat him and calls Hopkins, "an old man." The Welshman is an active southpaw who consistently throws a high volume of punches and possesses a quirky style that frustrates opponents.

“Hopkins is the only fight out there for me at the moment,” says Calzaghe. “I’ve got to chase a 43 year-old man. At the end of the day he talks, he wants fortunes, but we all want to get paid. Boxing is a business as you know.”

Initially, Hopkins also demanded the lion’s share of the purse, but he eventually relented and settled for a 50/50 split with Calzaghe who is the proven box-office draw in this fight. After all, Calzaghe’s fight against Kessler drew 50,000 fans in November to Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium and even his April fight with the little known Peter Manfredo, Jr. drew over 35,000 to the same venue.

A smiling Calzaghe stands high in the upper deck at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales. In November 2007, over 50,000 partisan fans showed up to cheer him to victory over Denmark's Mikkel Kessler.

Hopkins, on the other hand, once defended his middleweight title in 2003 in his hometown of Philadelphia to an arena that was half empty. In 1999, he defended his title against Antwun Echols in Miami, Florida in front of a group of less than 300 people. While Hopkins sells more tickets now, he is still a tough sell on his own and needs a name opponent to draw a large crowd.

But, as usual, Hopkins fired the first verbal shot when he met Calzaghe face-to-face in the lead up to the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. vs. Ricky Hatton last month in Las Vegas.

Hopkins, who is an intimidating presence with a dark glare said he was “going to give cute Calzaghe a face-lift” and later caused a stir when he said, “I’ll never let a white boy beat me.”

It would be nice if he would only fight as nasty as he talks.

January 2008

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