Hopkins: Not One of The Middleweight Elite
By Mike Casey
Heart and soul. Mind and attitude. Probably none of us would ever
doubt that Bernard Hopkins possesses these most admirable and essential of
fighting qualities in abundance.
BHop has never been anything less than totally committed to his
profession, which undoubtedly has much to do with why he is still bounding
around like a spring chicken at forty-one and feeling confident about taking a
pop at a heavyweight ‘champion’ who has been knocked out five times in 38
I have enormous admiration for Bernard and I will tell you why.
He learned his trade as thoroughly as he could in the tough and honest gyms of
Philadelphia. He forged a terrific will to win and has made the very most of his
physical and mental assets. To my recollection, he has never expected anything
for nothing. He has made boxing his life and has never joined the ranks of the
shallow and the vain, who fail to see the irony of spouting macho nonsense
whilst dressed in skirts or the damn cheek of then chloroforming us all to sleep
by doing little or nothing for twelve rounds.
In short, Bernard Hopkins is one of the genuine, throwback tough
guys, in much the way of Marvin Hagler before him. Blue collar, no fuss and no
frills. Just a lot of hard work, three squares a day and maybe ripping up the
occasional telephone directory to exercise the finger muscles.
Before beginning his autumnal mischief-making among the bigger
boys, Hopkins held on to his middleweight crown for a decade and defended it
twenty times. We will proceed to examine the depth of that achievement, but let
us say right here and now that it is no mean feat to reign for such a length of
time, irrespective of whom you happen to be knocking over.
We add up all these ingredients and we would appear to have one
of the elite middleweight champions of boxing history. We certainly reach that
conclusion when we examine Hagler, Carlos Monzon, Ray Robinson or Harry Greb.
Yet it is here that I must reluctantly part company with Bernard
at the grave risk of upsetting him, and I will explain my reasons before I make
hasty tracks for a remote cave in deepest Mexico. I think Hopkins was a very
good middleweight champion. I do not think he was one of the greats. I have
already compared him to Marvin Hagler. Now, in a different vein, let me compare
BHop to Harold Johnson. Harold was an excellent light-heavyweight craftsman who
was more technically varied than Hopkins and certainly fought a far superior
level of opposition.
Johnson was accomplished, polished, all those fine things we say
about fighters who possess no truly alarming weaknesses. He was a very good
fighter and a very good world champion, but he never stepped up to the gold
standard. To this day, when his name is mentioned, the conversation quickly
moves on to his great nemesis, Archie Moore. In much the same way, BHop has
never escaped the shadow of Roy Jones Jnr. One fight, one loss, a long time ago.
But it still resonates with significance and follows Bernard around.
Hopkins and Johnson, in an all-time perspective, were princes
among kings. For all they had in the prime of their lives, there were too many
question marks to enable them to assume the ultimate rank of the royals.
When you fish around the fight beat for opinions on Hopkins the
middleweight, a regular pattern quickly emerges. It is one where tributes of
profound respect and admiration conclude with that most hurtful of words, ‘but’.
Understand that fighters do not make a practice of cheaply
soiling each other’s legacies, save for those rare occasions when a bitter and
deep-rooted rivalry is at play. Their summations are always tempered with
respect and more than a little uncomfortable hesitancy.
Typically measured and honest in his comments is former fighter
and referee, Ron Lipton, who shared some frightening company in his days as a
sparring partner, going head to head with Dick Tiger, Rubin Carter, Emile
Griffith, Holly Mims, Lloyd Marshall, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Jimmy Dupree,
Charlie (Devil) Green, Jose Monon Gonzalez, Freddie Martinovich and Frankie
Rumour has it that Ron also tried for a face-off with the
Incredible Hulk, but the big green fella thought better of it.
Asked for his thoughts on Bernard Hopkins, Ron says: “I respect
Bernard’s accomplishments and have seen all his fights from the beginning of his
career until his last one with Antonio Tarver. He has dealt with whatever has
been placed in front of him without ever being completely subdued by anyone. By
his own explanation and my close observations, he has truly mastered the basics
“It is because of his uncanny sense of radar, timing, balance and
reacting accurately and with uncanny instinct to his opponent’s every move, that
he is very hard to set up with clean power shots to his body or vital areas of
“Being a crafty pro fighter with a strong sense of safety first,
he conserves his energy and stays relaxed. He comes into the ring at all times
minus any fat on him, and his efforts in training camp via roadwork, sparring
and watching his diet have given him boxing longevity.
“He was always a tough thinking man and a survival-minded street
kid, and the bit he did in the joint only tempered his mental attitude on a
blacksmith’s anvil. By bringing this whole package into the ring, you have a
tall and rangy middleweight in front of you that is always in shape and is the
quintessential definition of ring generalship.
“Rating Bernard with the great middleweights of the past is no
problem for me, as he deserves recognition for his record number of title
defences. Yet his cautious style is not exciting and quite boring at times for
the average fan. I study his moves and enjoy his boxing abilities and
techniques, yet yearn for a Hagler v Hearns middleweight shoot-out, which has
not been part of the Hopkins portfolio.
“It is understandable for him to keep winning, make money and
have career longevity, but when people are paying to see a middleweight title
fight they deserve to see some real action. It costs him in my opinion in
obtaining a more illustrious echelon with the lions and tigers of the division’s
rich history. What was lacking was the big explosive punching power with both
hands early in the fight, that real killer instinct to rumble early on.”
Ron Lipton also shares this writer’s opinion that the generally
poor quality of BHop’s middleweight opponents must stack against him in an
historical perspective. “In any era, it is the job of the champion to defend
against the best contenders. It is not Bernard’s fault that the ranked fighters
pitted against him were not the most formidable in boxing history. Yet this has
to be considered when rating a champion against other boxing legends in his
“One can only wonder how he would have fared in a division
stacked with rugged men like Joey Giardello, George Benton, Florentino
Fernandez, Jose Monon Gonzalez, Holly Mims, Rubin Carter, Emile Griffith and
“I rate Tiger, Zale, LaMotta, Ketchel, Cerdan, Robinson, Monzon,
Walker, Greb, Hagler and some other greats over Bernard. But Bernard would have
given any man at 160lbs a great fight. He was a courageous, dedicated
middleweight champion who deserves a world of credit for beating Tarver at
Ron Lipton’s last point brings another interesting point into the
equation. BHop did indeed surpass the expectations of many when he stepped up in
weight to dethrone Antonio Tarver. It was an excellent achievement. If Bernard
goes a step further and takes a portion of the heavyweight championship from
Oleg Maskaev, people will doubtless argue for a big re-assessment of the entire
Hopkins portfolio. At a grand old age, he will suddenly be an unlikely triple
weight champion. How could we possibly deny him his place at the main table?
I would only ask that we all calm down a little at this point and
take a deep breath. Firstly, let me say that Bernard gave away significant
poundage to Tarver and got the job done mightily well. I predicted that he would
do so in a poll of Boxing Scene staffers, and I certainly do not offer that fact
in the way of a boast. My batting average in calling fights is as wildly
topsy-turvy as that of most other so-called experts.
I based my prediction on two simple beliefs: that Hopkins would
fight with his usual dogged commitment and that Tarver, with visions of
Hollywood stardom still swimming in his head, would be out to lunch in much the
same way as Lennox Lewis went AWOL in the first Rahman fight.
In the run-up to Hopkins-Tarver, we heard so much about Bernard’s
attempt to succeed where Ray Robinson failed in making the championship
transition from middleweight to light-heavyweight. We heard nothing of Dick
Tiger crossing that line with his great feat of dethroning Jose Torres in 1966.
Tiger was creaking a lot more than Hopkins at that similar stage in his career,
having had twice as many fights against opponents of a much higher calibre. Look
up Dick’s record when you have a moment and count the number of fighters on it
you’ve never heard of. You won’t get too far. The only other opinion I would
offer on this little matter is that Jose Torres would have fancied his chances
very strongly against Antonio Tarver.
In going back over BHop’s middleweight title defences, Ron Lipton
told me, with not a trace of sarcasm I might add, that he was reminded of the
old adage, ‘In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king’.
This is the crux of the matter, surely. In the kingdom of the
blind, a lot of one-eyed men can become kings and the best of them can become
kings of two or three divisions when there are countless ‘champions’ to aim at.
Now, what if BHop does indeed knock off Oleg Maskaev for the once
meaningful WBC heavyweight title? That would undoubtedly be some feat on
Bernard’s part, if only because of the weight differential. But in terms of
magnitude and historical significance, would it really be as indelibly printed
on our minds as little Carmen Basilio beating Robinson, Robbie taking out
LaMotta with such class and fire or the triple slam of Henry Armstrong? You
might frown at one or two of those examples, but I am talking about men who
stepped up to dethrone undisputed champions who were indisputably all-time great
It is so tempting to magnify everything out of proportion when we
are swimming in a docile sea without sharks. Roy Jones Jnr was ranked the fifth
greatest heavyweight of all time in one readers’ poll after seeing off the
stunningly moderate John Ruiz. So where do all those people rate Roy now?
Oleg Maskaev was knocked out by Kirk Johnson and Lance Whitaker
and stopped by Oliver McCall, David Tua and Corey Sanders. Yes, Oleg has become
a much improved fighter. But really, would he have even got a look-in twenty or
thirty years ago? This isn’t misty-eyed romanticism. It is surely a stone cold
fact to anyone with eyes and even a basic understanding of world class talent.
Much like his fellow title claimants, Maskaev is a modest plodder making some
very nice hay on a very barren farm. Take McDonalds and Burger King out of the
fast food chain, and the rest of us would profit handsomely from selling
The proliferation of ‘world’ titles and the creation of pointless
weight divisions went unchecked despite all the protests of the usual few good
men. The ensuing poison was always going to significantly dilute the overall
quality of the product. The cynical splintering of the world heavyweight
championship, the richest and most glorious prize in sport, was the biggest
desecration of all. The resultant mediocrity leaked down through all the weight
divisions, cheapening the achievements of even our greatest and most deserving
Thomas Hearns, undeniably an all-time great and one of this
writer’s sentimental favourites, was officially a world champion in six weight
classes. Yet Thomas was never the undisputed master of any of them. Deep down,
that must surely rankle with such an intensely proud warrior.
To many fans, the current mess is no big deal, because it is all
they have ever known. They never lived in the comparative Garden of Eden that
was there before. They hear about the great fights at Madison Square Garden and
the monumental events in Kingston and Zaire. But they can never taste or feel
I can understand the sense of resignation. Over the years, we
have been so relentlessly battered by the politicians and the self-serving
schemers of our sport. We feel there is little more we can do than to shrug and
say, “Oh, well, that’s boxing,” whenever the next dollop of crud is slopped on
our plate. We barely bat an eyelid any more at the corrupt farce of sanctioning
fees. Yet can you imagine the indignant fury if the Steelers had been expelled
from this year’s Super Bowl for failing to kick a suitcase of cash upstairs for
the right to compete?
Through utterly no fault of his own, this is the sparse and
pocked field in which Bernard Hopkins has been sewing his seeds. He is so often
criticised, rightly so in my view, for being a one-pace fighter and lacking
passion. But in all brutal candour, when has he ever needed to be more? A canny
old pro who is in for the long haul will only ever show you as much as he has
to. It requires top-notch contenders and fellow champions to bring out his best
qualities. We would never have seen the best of Muhammad Ali if Foreman and
Frazier hadn’t made Muhammad fight for his very life.
Manager and trainer Frank Baltazar, the father of former top
contenders Frankie and Tony, agrees that circumstances conspire against BHop
when he is judged against many of his stellar middleweight predecessors. “I
don’t think that Hopkins was one of the true elite,” says Frank. “In my opinion,
he was a very good fighter but not a great one.
“He was the kind of fighter that needed to set the pace of the
fight. If he wanted to go 10 miles per hour and his opponent wanted to go
faster, Bernard was in trouble. But most of the guys he fought were willing to
fight at his pace, which made for some boring fights.
“As to how he would have done against some of the past
middleweight champions, I will only speculate about fighters that I have seen
live or on TV in real time. I think Bernard would have lost to guys like Tony
Zale, Marcel Cerdan, Joey Giardello, Dick Tiger, Emile Griffith, Carlos Monzon,
Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Robinson. And of course, Hopkins did lose to Roy
“Bernard might have beaten the rest of them. Maybe not all of
them, but most of them.”
Boxing writer Jim Amato stresses the historical depth of the
middleweight division in explaining his reasons for not being able to rate
Bernard Hopkins in his all-time Top 20. It is sometimes forgotten that BHop
began his pro career as a light-heavyweight, dropping down to middleweight after
losing his debut.
It is Jim’s belief that Bernard should have moved back up to the
higher division a long time before he did. “Hopkins is the best middleweight of
his era. It would be senseless to argue that point. He will more than likely be
a first ballot Hall of Famer when the time comes. He dominated the division for
“But even with his long reign and his signature win over Felix
Trinidad, I always felt that he was a bit overrated. In fact I was more
impressed with Bernard’s win over Antonio Tarver than in any middleweight bout
he ever had. It told me that Bernard should have moved up to light-heavyweight
long ago. He looked strong and carried the weight well. I think he may have hurt
himself career-wise staying at middleweight and fighting inferior opponents.
“Bernard may have been a victim of his time. If you look at his
defences, you have Steve Frank, Joe Lipsey, Bo James, Andrew Council, Robert
Allen on three occasions, Echols twice, Syd Vanderpool and Carl Daniels. Yes,
Hopkins defeated Keith Holmes and William Joppy who had both at one time held a
piece of the title. But neither will be remembered as a great champion. Then
there was Bernard’s defence against Morrade Hakker.
“Bernard was a sound technical fighter, but he was not a big
hitter, although Joe Lipsey may argue that point. Hopkins was crafty, durable
and in most cases utterly boring. Even both of his setbacks to Jermain Taylor
“Bernard was a decent body puncher – just ask Oscar De La Hoya –
and a smart ringwise boxer. He rarely took chances, though. He was content to
jab and try to sneak a right hand in. He was more than willing to tie up his man
and maul on the inside. This made for several boring fights. I did respect his
confidence and he was very durable. Hopkins was a guy that didn’t do anything
extremely well but did a lot of things very well. I think he got away with a lot
because of the competition he faced.
“I think Bernard could have held his own against just about any
middleweight in history, but I believe there are several more than twenty men
who could have beaten him. I cannot see him out-mauling guys like Carlos Monzon
or Dick Tiger, or even Emile Griffith, who was a great boxer on the inside and
“I believe a prime Rodrigo Valdez would have handled Bernard. I
think Hagler would have been too busy for Bernard, who enjoyed a slower pace.
James Toney and Joey Giardello would have out-slicked Hopkins. Mike McCallum
would have beaten Bernard in the trenches. The list goes on….”
Hawaiian boxing writer and style analyst, Curtis Narimatsu, also
sees a number of stumbling blocks for Hopkins in match-ups against his fellow
“In terms of attitude, no one is more consistent today than BHop.
Above all else, Bernard’s dedication and fitness are unmatched. But his divine
mentality wouldn’t be enough to deal with the finest middleweights in history.
“BHop’s best assets are his mobility and torso twist, which is
very reminiscent of Tony Canzoneri. Bernard’s offence is typified by his sneaky
right counter, but that would be neutralised by Carlos Monzon’s potent jab and
the fact that Monzon kept his high right hand plastered to his neck, which would
have blocked BHop’s right counter. Carlos would then be countering with that
formidable right of his own.
“A prime James Toney would be best able to anticipate Bernard’s
right counter, then pound BHop with counter hooks and crosses. Hagler would
enjoy the same advantage over Bernard.
“Dick Tiger is another who would give Hopkins problems. Dick
wouldn’t let BHop get set to counter. Tiger would fluster him all night long.”
Most of the contributors to this article, quite understandably,
would only speculate on the middleweights they have either seen live or on film.
But that does not prohibit us from venturing our opinions on the old-time
masters, since there are certain facts we know from the hundreds of eyewitness
accounts and the precious few films to which we have access.
Modern technology, racing on in leaps and bounds all the time,
has enabled technically gifted fans to cook up all sorts of delectable treats
via the keyboard. Fragile fight films from a hundred or so years ago, many of
them on the verge of literally crumbling to dust, are lovingly restored and
massaged to give us real time, close-up revelations of legendary men who were
previously little more than tantalising names.
So what do we know? We know for starters that Bob Fitzsimmons was
a crushing middleweight puncher of great science and knowledge, who was very
fast on his feet and not the dandy poser that the stereo-typists would have him
be. “Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons posed, they didn’t fight,” Bert Sugar once
said. Well, Bert should really have known better than that.
Fitz was an undisputed world champion at middleweight,
light-heavyweight and heavyweight and knocked out the cream of those divisions.
Are we to believe that his opponents simply stood there waiting to be hit? Bob
pole-axed the astonishingly tough Tom Sharkey, which Jim Jeffries couldn’t
manage to do in two attempts spanning 45 rounds.
We also know that the ferocious Stanley Ketchel was a timeless
force of nature in the way of Roberto Duran and one of the hardest
pound-for-pound punchers that ever laced on the gloves. As he proved in his epic
duel with Joe Thomas at Colma, Stan could maintain a breakneck pace for more
than thirty rounds. Sam Langford, as potent a one-punch hitter as the ring has
ever seen, couldn’t deck Ketchel or even greatly inconvenience him in their epic
little war of 1910.
Australian ace Les Darcy, in the estimation of Nat Fleischer,
might have become greater than Ketchel. Pneumonia and the poison from an
abscessed tooth resulted in Darcy’s early death at the age of twenty-one, yet he
had already blistered his way through the world’s leading middleweights, losing
just two decisions and two bouts by disqualification in his 50 recorded fights.
Mickey Walker, the great Toy Bulldog, was sometimes too tough for
his own good, especially during his forays into the heavyweight division. Yet he
remained a vicious proposition. Outweighed by 42lbs, down in the first round and
hurt several times thereafter, he still rallied back to defeat the 210lb Bearcat
Walker was a terrific body puncher who would often fire his
punches in rapid blitzes. He could lead with a fast left hook, hurt and knock
out opponents with either hand and possessed a hard and flashing right cross.
As for Harry Greb, the incomparable Pittsburgh Windmill, we
really shouldn’t have to justify his place as a top three candidate among the
middleweight greats and quite possibly the best of them all. Harry’s magnificent
record, very nearly the stuff of fiction, is there in the archives for all to
peruse at their leisure. Simply look at the men he beat and how few men beat him
in nearly 300 fights. Like Ketchel, he cannot be conveniently contained in his
own era by the modernists and told to know his place.
These were some of the past masters who showed superior talent to
Bernard Hopkins and most certainly demonstrated a much greater degree of fire
and passion. Could Bernard have beaten them? From this corner, no.
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