Hopkins: Not One of The Middleweight Elite
By Mike Casey from Boxing Scene
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 fights.
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 DePaula.
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 of boxing.
“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 his head.
“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 division.
“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 Dick Tiger.
“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 light-heavyweight.”
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 fighters.
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 burgers.
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 stars.
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 the atmosphere.
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 Jones Jnr.
“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 years.
“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 were snoozers.
“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 outside.
“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 greats.
“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 Wright.
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.
Mike Casey is a boxing journalist, historian and a staff writer with Boxing Scene. He is a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO) and founder and editor of the Grand Slam Premium Boxing Service for historians and fans (www.grandslampage.net).