Hopkins Vs. Tarver: They're Doin' it For History
By Doug Fischer from Max Boxing
Did anybody ask for Bernard Hopkins' challenge of light heavyweight champ Antonio Tarver? Where did this fight come from?
Tarver, who holds no major world title but carries general recognition as the 175-pound champ (from The Ring magazine and most of the world’s media and fans), had a successful 2005, winning a rematch against Glen Johnson (who out-pointed him for the title in ’04) and a rubbermatch with rival Roy Jones (which he won easily).
Most fight fans were looking forward to a third fight between Tarver and Johnson (who, unlike Jones, still appears to be on top of his game) in ’06, but the “Magic Man” has taken his own course – first participating in the upcoming Rocky 6 film as Sylvester Stallone’s heavyweight rival “Mason Dixon” after flirting with the idea of stepping up in weight for real to fight the likes of O’Neil Bell and Mike Tyson, and then opting to stay at 175 pounds and accepting the challenge of the 40-year-old former longtime middleweight champ.
Hopkins, who lost his 160-pound title to Jermain Taylor with back-to-back controversial decisions last year, was expected to finally hang up his gloves after a certain hall-of-fame career (honoring a deathbed promise to his mother to retire before the age of 41, which he turns in January), but the opportunity to fight Jones (which would have been a rematch of a bout that took place 13 years after their first encounter) came about this year and “the Executioner” announced that he would stay in the game for one more fight.
When Jones-Hopkins II, which would have pitted a fighter who lost his last two bouts (Hopkins) vs. a fighter who had lost his last three (Jones) – surprise, surprise – fell apart in negotiations, it opened the door to the June 10th co-promotion between Tarver’s All-Star Boxing, Hopkins’ Golden Boy Promotions and, of course, HBO Pay-Per-View.
But, again, who asked for this fight? When were fans clamoring for Hopkins to step up in weight? Most realized that Hopkins, who had taken on an increasingly tactical/low-punch approach to his fights in ’04 and ’05, was winding down and beginning to finally show his age in the ring. The boxing maverick had a good – some would say great – run, including 20 title defenses, and it seemed as though it was time for him to ride off into the sunset.
But nobody tells Hopkins, or Tarver for that matter, what to do.
It’s clear why Golden Boy, All-Star and HBO want to do this fight. Hopkins and Tarver are among the few well-known names in the sport. Both men earned their fame with upset victories over fighters who were considered to be the best boxers in the game, pound for pound (Hopkins against Felix Trinidad; Tarver against Jones), and both are among the more loquacious and quotable athletes in any sport. As last month’s bout between Fernando Vargas and Shane Mosley proved, pay-per-view events between veteran fighters with name recognition – even those who are thought to be past their primes – can do solid numbers and make good money.
However, why does Hopkins need to risk his record (and health) vs. the naturally bigger and harder punching Tarver? And what will Tarver, who’s 37, get out of beating an older and smaller man?
The answer to both questions, if you believe what the combatants had to say in yesterday’s Los Angeles press conference (actually, it was in Inglewood) at the Hollywood Park Racetrack, is history.
Hopkins told the assembled press that he had two heroes (or spiritual “mentors”, if you will) during his rise from a Philadelphia penitentiary to the pinnacle of the boxing world – Marvin Hagler and Sugar Ray Robinson.
Hopkins said he honored Hagler with his absolute dedication to his conditioning and craft. Even at age 40, he still keeps a Spartan lifestyle, watching what he eats, keeping his weight under 170 pounds (something young welterweights rarely manage), and continuing to get up at 4:30 a.m. to complete his usual 3.5 miles of roadwork.
Now Hopkins says he wants to honor Robinson by going for something that most observers will say he can’t achieve. Robinson, who many believe is the greatest fighter ever, failed to win the light heavyweight championship from Joey Maxim on an oppressively hot summer night in New York on June 25, 1952. (The story of this fight has been told a million times – Robinson, the middleweight champ at the time, was winning the fight on the score cards going into the 13th round, but the heat was too much and he was unable to leave his stool for the 14th round.)
Hopkins wants to succeed where his idol, and a few other hall-of-fame middleweights, failed.
To help his cause, Hopkins has hired Mackie Shilstone, the fitness guru best known in the boxing world for his work in bulking then-light heavyweight champ Michael Spinks to 200 pounds for his successful challenge of heavyweight champ Larry Holmes in ‘85. Shilstone also helped former heavyweight champ Riddick Bowe control his weight for his title winning effort over Evander Holyfield in ’92 and aided in Roy Jones’ jump from light heavyweight to heavyweight, where the beefed-up 175-pound champ beat John Ruiz for a piece of the heavyweight title in 2003.
“I wouldn’t take any fight, or do anything, that I didn’t have a reason to do or a belief that I can’t win,” Hopkins told the media. “Mackie Shilstone doesn’t come cheap, but I hired people to show you that I’m serious about this fight and about winning it. I’m preparing my troops to go to war.”
Another recruit to the Executioner’s Army is former junior middleweight and middleweight titlist John David Jackson, who is now making a name for himself as a trainer. Jackson, who Hopkins beat in one of those 20 title defenses, will aid head-trainer Nazim Richardson, who took over for recently retired Bouie Fisher late last year.
Jackson, a slick southpaw who helped Hopkins learn how to fight lefties almost 15 years ago in the gyms of North Philly, is expected to provide tips on cracking Tarver’s tricky southpaw style.
Easier practiced than done vs. Tarver, who made things difficult for his opponents even in his three losses (to Eric Harding, Jones and Johnson), all of which he avenged in return matches.
“I’m grossly underestimated considering my accomplishments and the fighters that I’ve beat,” Tarver told the media, “I’m not just the best light heavyweight in the world, but one of the best fighters, period.”
Tarver was talking about the mythical pound-for-pound rankings that many boxing writers, publications and websites post that rate the top talents in the game. Tarver feels that he should be among the top five – with ’96 U.S. Olympic teammate Floyd Mayweather, fellow Floridian Winky Wright, Manny Pacquiao and Marco Antonio Barrera – and not the bottom half of the top 10 or 15 where many have placed him.
Of course, Tarver didn’t help his claim to being one of the game’s elite fighters by fading late and failing to press the issue during his third match with Jones, who could do little more than pose, mug and attempt poor imitations of AND1 street ballers for 12 rounds.
Tarver could have helped his cause by taking a third match with Johnson or waiting for a worthy challenger, like 168-pound champ Joe Calzaghe, who recently pummeled Jeff Lacy, to come around instead of “picking on” a 40-year-old former middleweight champ, who wasn’t knocked out a natural 160 pounder in more than five years (Antwun Echols back in December of 2000 in case you were wondering).
However, in terms of history, Hopkins is perfect for Tarver. The Orlando native has reached a point in his career where he is beginning to wonder how the public and the press will perceive his legacy. Hopkins is already a lock for the hall of fame; Tarver is on the fence. He’s got one future hall of fame lock on his record; one more will likely get him through the doors of Canastota.
Sure, if he beats Hopkins critics can always say he defeated a fighter who was past his prime, but to most fans (including a good number of the folks who vote for the IBHOF) it won’t matter. It didn’t matter that Hopkins’ idol, Hagler, had his biggest victories against fighters who were coming up in weight just like it won’t matter that the Executioner’s most notable wins came against Trinidad, who came up from welterweight, and his current business partner, Oscar De La Hoya, who came up from lightweight.
It certainly didn’t hurt Terry Norris, one of last year’s more popular hall of fame inductees, to have Sugar Ray Leonard on his resume; and everyone knows the former five-division champ was past his prime when that fight took place. Bobby Chacon, perhaps last year’s most celebrated inductee, only had one win over a current hall of famer, Ruben Olivares, and that points victory came well after the Mexican icon’s prime.
So for the sake of Tarver’s ring legacy, the June 10th showdown with Hopkins makes sense.
Most of the media at yesterday’s press conference viewed the matchup as a relatively safe fight for the light heavyweight champ. However, Tarver realizes that he has way more to lose in the fight than Hopkins and said that he’s taking the bout as seriously as the former middleweight champ.
“People think I went Hollywood and forgot where I come from and what got me here – it’s the love and passion I have for boxing,” he said. “I’m not a movie star – yet.
“I’m still a hungry, dedicated fighter and that’s who will show up on June 10th.”
“[Hopkins] mentions Sugar Ray Robinson, yes, Sugar Ray Robinson made an attempt to win the light heavyweight title and he succumbed to the heat. Bernard Hopkins will have a lot in common with Robinson because he too will succumb to the heat, but it won’t be the heat from the temperature, it will be the heat he feels when he’s in the squared circle with the man, the Magic Man, the legend killer.”
Middleweight champs, former or current, challenging light heavyweight champs was practically unheard of over the first half of the 20th Century. In fact, in the first 85 years of the 20th Century, only two former middleweight champs were successful in winning the 175-pound title – Bob Fitzsimmons and Dick Tiger.
Fitzsimmons, who won the middleweight title and then jumped to heavyweight, where he won “the biggest prize in sports”, finished up his career in the light heavyweight division where he out-pointed George Gardner over 20 rounds to win the 175-pound championship on Nov. 25, 1903.
Tiger, a former two-time middleweight champ, out-pointed light heavyweight champ Jose Torres over 15 rounds to win the 175-pound title on Dec. 16, 1966.
However, the advances in sports science that occurred in the 1970s and ‘80s – mainly a greater understanding of nutrition and knowledge of how to build and add muscle to the human frame – that allowed modern athletes to become bigger, stronger and faster than their predecessors quickly added to this short list (as did the eventual fracturing of boxing world championships into three “alphabet titles”).
Since the late ‘80s, five more former 160-pound champs have won portions of the light heavyweight crown.
Thomas Hearns stopped Denis Andres in 10 rounds to win the WBC belt on March 17, 1987, and then out-pointed Virgil Hill for the WBA strap on June 3, 1991.
The Hitman’s rival, Sugar Ray Leonard, got into the act by stopping Donny Lalonde in nine rounds to annex the WBC title on Nov. 7, 1988.
Hearns’ nemesis, Iran Barkley, beat him over 12 rounds to take the WBA title on March 20, 1992.
Mike McCallum out-boxed Jeff Harding over 12 rounds to take the WBC belt on July 23, 1994.
Roy Jones out-pointed McCallum over 12 to win the WBC’s “interim” belt (which the sanctioning organization then made their “world” title for no particular reason apart from – what else? – money) on Nov. 22, 1996.
After losing the green belt to Montell Griffin and then winning it back, Jones unified the alphabet titles by out-pointing Lou Del Valle for the WBA title on July 18, 1998, and then decisioning Reggie Johnson for the IBF strap on June 5, 1999.
Of course, there have also been a few failed attempts to take the 175-pound crown by current or former middleweight champs.
We’ve all heard the story of Ray Robinson literally burning out vs. Joey Maxim, but another popular former welterweight and middleweight champ also had eyes for the light heavyweight championship – the “Toy Bulldog” Mickey Walker.
Walker was out-pointed in two attempts to win the 175-pound title. He dropped a 10 rounder to Tommy Loughran on March 28, 1929 (during his middleweight title reign) and a few years later – after jumping to heavyweight for a very good run (I’m surprised Lee Groves and Marty Mulcahey left the Toy Bulldog off of their excellent ‘Pugil List X2’ of the Top 10 Unnatural Heavyweights) – Walker lost a 15 rounder to Maxie Rosenbloom on Nov. 3, 1933.
Before Walker’s time, Charles “Kid” McCoy, a popular middleweight champ who also campaigned as a heavyweight, lost a 10 rounder to Jack Root in an attempt to win the vacant light heavyweight title on April 22, 1903.
Carl “Bobo” Olson, who Ray Robinson once said was the toughest SOB he ever fought, was stopped in three rounds by 175-pound champ Archie Moore on June 22, 1955.
One thing that can be said about all of the former middleweight champs who tried and won, or tried and failed, to win the light heavyweight championship – if they aren’t already in the hall of fame, they will be.