• Steve Bunce

Evergreen Hopkins still a student of the ring

Steve Bunce April 15, 2014
Steve Bunce and Barry Jones chat to Anthony Ogogo about John Ryder, Billy Joe Saunders and Chris Eubank Jr

It was in 1994 that Bernard Hopkins had his first shot at becoming world champion. This Saturday in Washington he will fight in a world title fight for the 32nd time. Hopkins is 49 years old - and that is really all you need to know about this truly remarkable human being.

Should he win on Saturday, Hopkins, the reigning IBF light-heavyweight champion, will become the oldest man to unify world titles. His opponent, Beibut Shumenov, is from Kazakhstan but is based in Las Vegas, and comes from a wealthy family back in the former Soviet republic. He is a child of just 30, the owner of the WBA's 'super' light-heavyweight title, a highly decorated amateur, and may well be the latest victim of a boxing mugging at the fists of Hopkins.

Buncey's Vaults

Collins retained his WBO super-middleweight title in Cork © AP
  • It's Chris Eubank and Steve Collins II in Cork. It was ridiculous at times and I wrote: 'A madcap road-show containing the good, the bad and the surreal has descended on the narrow streets of Cork. The ability of the protagonists has largely been forgotten.'

    There was a genuine fear that a booze curfew would be in place on the day in the whole of Cork! However, Judge AJ Murphy saved the day when he declared that the fight was not sport and therefore there would not be a ban. He said: '"These are two professional boxers trying, within limits, to murder one another."' It is hard to invent!

    It was a mad week in the glorious city and a local radio poll delivered a shocking result when it claimed 'eight out of ten Corkians want Eubank to win. Collins is seen as arrogant.' Collins was the favourite with the bookies but he 'looked agitated' at times during the week.

    The first fight was close and Eubank insisted that the loss was his own fault: '"I was spooked, I was upset," admitted Eubank. This time the Brighton boxer is in control of his own delicate mind.' It was not enough and Collins pulled off another memorable win, a tight split decision, at a windswept Pairc Ui Chaoimh, where as many as 40,000 enjoyed the fight.

    As reported in The Daily Telegraph, September 9, 1995.

"There is not enough respect in our game for the sweet science," says Hopkins. "I believe in the sweet science - that's what I do in the ring. The game has always been to hit and not get hit. Nothing has changed but boxers have stopped learning."

Hopkins has been making sense for a long, long time in a business often dominated by the arrival of a new, fresh superstar with two good wins to his name. The light-heavyweight division's two current golden wonders are perfect examples of instant stars.

Shumenov shares the title of world champion with Adonis Stevenson of the WBC and the WBO's Sergei Kovalev. The impressive pair are on glorious knockout runs but are still both a long, long way off being as good as they think they are.

"To be great at this game, you have to study this game," Hopkins believes. "It takes more than a couple of knockouts to be considered a great fight; it takes time, it takes learning and all fighters have to face the test of time to become great. I have graduated the hardest possible way."

Hopkins is watching the pair with care, knowing a showdown would be worth a lot of money. "Let's see how things develop," said Hopkins. However, I would fancy super-middleweight Andre Ward against either Kovalev or Stevenson. Hopkins, who seems to agree, has said that he will never fight the brilliant Ward.

"I'm 49, I'm knocking on the door of being a senior citizen," said Hopkins. "I can do what I'm doing because I respect my job. If I didn't respect my job it could kill me."

Hopkins would be dead had he not switched jobs from petty crime on the streets of Philadelphia to boxing when he was released from prison in the late 1980s.

When Hopkins first fought for the world title he was still serving the extreme terms of his parole and needed special permission to travel to Ecuador in 1994. He got a draw with Segundo Mercado; he stopped Mercado a few months later to win the IBF middleweight championship and made 20 defences during his ten-year, four-month reign.

"When you watch me you are watching history," says Hopkins. "You can tell your family in 20 years that you saw me box. I'm having more fun now than I have ever had and that is because these are the best years of my life."

He is not joking. On Saturday night there is the chance, just like there has been for a decade, that time and his opponent's young legs will be simply too much. Hopkins was beaten twice by youth and speed in tight, controversial fights with Jermain Taylor, who was unbeaten in 23 contests, back in 2005. However, in 2008 he defied the odds, nature and commonsense to easily beat Kelly Pavlik, who was 26 years-old and unbeaten in 34 fights.

It gets better. Last year Hopkins won the IBF light-heavyweight title with a lopsided points win against Tavoris Cloud, was unbeaten in 24 fights and 17 years younger.

On Saturday it is Shumenov's chance to retire the ring's elder statesman. The Kazak has promised not to "use any dirty tactics" against Hopkins: "Boxing is boxing and it has rules and I will not break the rules," he said.

Hopkins listened to Shumenov's pledge and just shook his head. "I get paid to put bodily harm on the other guy. It doesn't sound great, but that is what it is; that can mean that the fight becomes a brawl…" He left the sentence without an end, stopping with a shrug.

Had he carried on, the rest of the sentence would go something like this: "…and that can mean heads, elbows and just about anything to get the win."

Hopkins is right. We are watching boxing's History Man in action, and we should all enjoy it while it lasts - even if it is ugly at times.

Bernard Hopkins is bidding to become the oldest boxer to unify world titles in Washington © AP
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Steve Bunce Close
Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.