Is Bernard Hopkins the greatest athlete to ever lace on a pair of gloves? To even pose the question will doubtless invite a deluge of abusive emails from fans mocking the suggestion. But for all Mayweather’s speed, Tyson’s natural firepower and the unflinching stamina of eye-catching fighters like Joe Calzaghe – to consider just three modern contemporaries – a case for Hopkins must surely be possible to make?
To be able to repel the challenge of a fighter as capable and rounded as Winky Wright, beat Antonio Tarver in his debut at the weight and preceding that with twenty defences at the Middleweight limit, is an example of astonishing physical perseverance across two decades from a fighter who didn’t win a world title until a month short of his 30th birthday.
Of course, fighters like George Foreman, Roberto Duran and Larry Holmes, and even now Evander Holyfield, have been able to survive in a boxing ring well into their forties with varying success. Maintaining enough punch resistance and authority in their own work to keep opponents honest and to remain competitive with men half their own age. Lesser known fighters like Affif Djelti, the scourge of British Super Featherweights, battled with great success well beyond his 40th birthday too. But Hopkins’ is different to even those legendary fighters. Hopkins 2007 isn’t tangibly slower, nor is he fading in fights, easier to hit, vulnerable when caught or throwing fewer shots than Hopkins 1993 or Hopkins 2001.
The move to Light-Heavyweight may have erased a fraction of tone in his body but it wasn’t made out of physical necessity; such is Hopkins’ monastic dedication, only remuneration and the quest for a new challenge took him beyond the Middleweight class. He remains the same fiercely prepared, hungry fighter he was in the early days of his reign and could probably still make 160 pounds were the circumstances and payday right. Quite simply he is defying the age-old wisdom that dictates that fighters, human beings in fact, begin to slow down as the birthdays pass. Hopkins just becomes wiser in the ring, and wiser in the promotion of fights outside it.
Only Archie Moore, arguably the finest Light-Heavyweight of all time, can claim to match Hopkins longevity at elite level and like Hopkins world-titles came later in his career too. Moore remained champion at 175 pounds until his mid-forties and it is isn’t impossible to believe shrewd matchmaking could see Hopkins match the Ole Mongoose’s achievement.
In a press conference following his weekend victory he suggested he could continue for another four years and has highlighted Joe Calzaghe as the next opponent he would like to face. It will take a special fighter to put a full stop on a career even father time himself cannot halt.
Calzaghe, I suspect, could come closer than most though.