Friday, April 18, 2008

He Huffs, He Puffs and He'll Blow Your House Down

Philadelphia's Bernard Hopkins will fight Joe Calzaghe of Wales tomorrow night in Las Vegas at the Thomas & Mack Center.

He likes to think of himself as the Big Bad Wolf. So much so, that he once told an interviewer, "There's two types of people in the world, lambs and wolves; I'm a wolf."

And come Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Bernard Hopkins, also known as "The Executioner" is going to try and take a bite from the hide of Newbridge, Wales' favorite son, Joe Calzaghe.

You see, Bernard Hopkins is still hungry like a wolf.

Spend a little time around Hopkins and it doesn't take you long to figure out that the man has an appetite for words and he likes to talk mostly about his favorite subject - himself. He has the unique ability to wear out reporters and fans alike with his non-stop blather. Journalists never walk away from Bernard Hopkins with an empty tape recorder, a blank page or an unanswered question. In fact, Bernard has even been known to pose his own questions and then give his own expansive answers.

But frankly, the talk is now beginning to wear thin with Joe Calzaghe.

"I asked him if he actually believes what he's saying," says the polite and amiable Calzaghe, who has been forced to endure a constant tirade of barbs, innuendos and veiled threats since he first came face-to-face with Hopkins at the Floyd Mayweather, Jr. - Ricky Hatton fight back in December.

Bernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe have squared off face-to-face on several occasions over the past few months.

Hopkins caused quite a stir when he said to Calzaghe, "I'll never lose to a white boy." And a couple of months later, with a sneer that would make a villainous B-grade movie actor proud, Hopkins asked Calzaghe, "Are you ready to die?" Then Bernard got his face within a few inches of Calzaghe's and whispered, "I'm going to make you piss blood."

Calzaghe was incredulous when he was asked to comment on the taunts. "I mean, I've been fighting longer than he has and I have more fights as an amateur and a pro than him," said an exasperated Calzaghe. "Does he really think that he can get in my head and scare me?"

Apparently he does, because Hopkins, who hails from the ghettos of North Philadelphia, repeats the same lines over and over about what he's going to do to the Welshman when the two square off for The Ring Magazine Light Heavyweight belt.

The "Old Man River" of boxing at age 43, Hopkins continues to babble on and he has always had a certain flow with words. Maybe it was the muted solitude of 56 months spent as prisoner number Y4145 in Pennsylvania's Graterford State Penitentiary that's caused Hopkins to enjoy hearing his own voice. Or perhaps it's the fact that the greatest monetary success in his career has only come within the last few years as he has become even more vocal and expressive when the cameras are rolling.

Whatever the case, as time has marched on, Bernard Hopkins has become more entertaining with his tongue than he is with his fists. At his advanced age he's still quite effective, enough so that he's still ranked in the top of boxing's pound-for-pound ratings. But his fights can be dull, controlled, cautious affairs that avoid drama.

Joe Calzaghe has had a long and storied career, but until now he has never fought in the United States. Saturday night will change all of that.

Fitness guru and hired gun Macke Shilstone is helping with Hopkins' preparations and claims that as far as Hopkins is concerned - age is only a number. Hopkins treats his body as though it were a temple, lives a clean life and is never far from fighting weight. Shilstone said he conducted a myriad of tests on Hopkins at his lab in New Orleans and he says he's come to the realization that Hopkins' true physical age is, "Probably in the neighborhood of 27 to 28 years old."

In recent fights, however, Hopkins has taken on the air of a man that is fighting not to lose instead of a man really fighting to win. He's a creaking version of his younger self and he's lost much of the quickness that defined his youth. He now has the look of a man shackled in leg irons as he carefully shuffles around the ring. His greatest asset seems to be his ability to slow his opponents down so that they fight at his same geriatric pace. Hopkins has selected his last few opponents carefully and admitted that he has no desire to fight anyone "under the age of 35."

Calzaghe's father, Enzo, who has been the only trainer his son has ever had, made the observation that "When you talk about 43 years old, I think he's gotten past the "sell-by" date a long, long time ago."

In Calzaghe, Hopkins will be tangling with a different animal than what he has been feasting on lately. While no spring chicken at 36, the "Pride of Wales" as his countrymen lovingly call him, still has a bounce in his step and he's a tireless punch thrower. Calzaghe has quick hands, is slippery on the inside and is deft with his feet. Even though he often has the look of a frenzied man trying to punch his way free from a wet paper bag, he's a winner. According to the number crunchers, Calzaghe, who has never fought outside of Europe, fires upwards of a thousand punches in a twelve round fight compared to Hopkins who threw a measly number in his last outing against Winky Wright.

Tom Jones, the world famous singer from Wales, will sing the Welsh national anthem just before Calzaghe and Hopkins hear the bell for round one.

Calzaghe is unbeaten in 44 career professional fights over the past 18 years and he's cleaned out the 168-pound weight division. His goal before he calls it a day, which he says "is not far off" is to "conquer America". His popularity is such that he will bring 8,000 of his countrymen along with him for the ride.

When Enzo was asked if the decision to come to Hopkin's home country was an easy one to make he said it was very easy. "We chose to go to America. Joe asked and begged me if we could go to America and kick the guy’s ass. I said, 'Come on Joe, let’s go kick his ass.' It's our own choice."

But Hopkins insists that he's going to make Calzaghe's first fight in America a bad experience and he also says that "I destroy careers." In spite of all that he has accomplished and even though he's made a record 20 middleweight title defenses, Hopkins claims that he's fighting for a different reason. "To prove the nay-sayers wrong," he barks. "To prove the so-called experts least with Bernard Hopkins."

His quest then is that he'd like to make us remember only the good times. And Hopkins can be quite selective when it comes to his memory.

A mural in the prison gym at Graterford State Penitentiary, where Hopkins spent nearly six years for strong-arm robbery in the 1980's.

He rarely speaks of losing two fights in a row to Jermain Taylor in 2005. Those fights permanently stained his record, ended his reign at 160 pounds and forced him from the middleweight division. When the name Jermain Taylor is brought up, he glares at you as though you jostled him from a peaceful sleep. Instead, when Hopkins points to his own brilliance he prefers to talk about his 2001 signature victory over Felix Trinidad and his two most recent wins over Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright. In his mind it's as though it is impossible for him to lose on Saturday night.

"I made a career of making people's mouths drop on super-fights like this," he says emphatically. "This is something that seems to tickle my fancy. I'll say it's just something that I like to do. I like to look at some of the media's faces when they look like they've just seen Jesus walk on water. So to me, it's a personal gratification and it's also, you know, my way of proving that everybody's entitled to an opinion and I respect their opinion - but I might not agree with it. But at the end of the day it just gives me the power to show that anything is possible. Anything can happen. That's my motivation."

And after all these years, Bernard Hopkins is still hungry like a wolf.

April 2008

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