A Muscovite’s view of the Executioner’s song

It doesn’t matter where you sit. It doesn’t matter from where you viewed Saturday’s spectacle, Bernard Hopkins victory over Kelly Pavlik is arguably one of the most complete boxing clinics since, Barrera schooled Naseem Hamed perhaps? Andrew Mullinder captures the major emerging points from the fight in his regular summary from the chilly confines of his Russian residency.

A Moscovite’s view of the Executioner’s song

By Andrew Mullinder

I waded from my apartment at 5.45am into the predawn of a dank Moscow morning to make my regular pilgrimage to a casino called Sportland. There you can get apathetic service from waitresses in short, pleated skirts and a good view of a big screen that shows all the big American boxing cards.

It was still dark and I was still thick-headed when I arrived there, but in my 15 minute gypsy cab ride (in Moscow every Lada or Volga is a potential cab; just hail, negotiate and go) I had resolved to take a punt on Pavlik at the in-house bookmakers. I felt it inconceivable that Hopkins could win, other than by early knockout. Pavlik, even if technically overmatched, would force Hopkins to fight at an uncomfortably frenetic pace, which, I surmised, would have the same affect on Hopkins running the first three quarters of a race too fast has on a 400 meter runner. In previous fights, Hopkins had seemed incapable of fighting for three minutes of twelve rounds, something I was sure the young stud rearing out of Ohio would force the old man to do. And this time, I noted, Hopkins would be fighting a genuine banger.

Shortly after my regular drinking partner for these early morning forays arrived, I placed a modest bet on Pavlik to win in round 9, 10, or 11, getting eleven-and-a-third-to-one covering all three, and gulped back a slug of beer. I felt confident.

Only 90 seconds into the fight I had mentally written off the bet. It was already clear that Pavlik was unable to get his punches off. His footwork was good, sliding with Hopkins rather than following him around the ring, but he simply wasn’t pulling the trigger when well positioned.

In truth, Hopkins gave a masterful performance; one that should mean his name is now included in every discussion about the best pound for pound fighter of the last 10 or 15 years. I have never – ever – seen any fighter, on video or live, more adept at neutralizing an opponent’s strengths and forcing a fight onto his own terms. Pernell Whitaker may have left his opponents swatting air and looking inept, but Hopkins literally seems to paralyse his foes, leaving them like a fly mesmerized by candlelight, unable to impose their will, drawn slowly to their demise.

Neither can I bring forth any fighter able to compete with Hopkins’s encyclopedic and empirical knowledge of the techniques employable in a boxing ring. His movement, subtle changes of angle, multilayered defence, sublime counterpunching, and rapier combinations against Pavlik were an instruction manual for fellow boxers and armchair aficionados.

The old man’s magnum opus almost made me feel privileged to lose my money.

***

In my view, the key to the fight was the Pavlik jab, something largely ignored in the few reports I have read thus far. Hopkins successfully and brilliantly negated Pavlik’s jab, which the Ohio man uses to set up his honey punch right cross. By stepping away and to the right, circling anti-clockwise, and by taking away the jab, Hopkins emasculated Pavlik. Although Hopkins’s god-like defence, movement and counter-punching were vital, I believe his neutralization of Pavlik’s jab was salient.

***

In the run-up to the fight, Steve Kim used his maxboxing.com column to launch a withering critique of Hopkins. He argued that Hopkins is now more businessman than fighter, more concerned with securing big fights and the associated money – which Kim said Hopkins would say anything to secure – than asserting himself in the ring. According to Kim, Hopkins has replaced the executioner’s mask of his young, angry days with the silk pyjamas of a man who is part of the very system he once raged against.

Surely, I wrote on the Boxrec forum, Kim missed the obvious answer for Hopkins’s transformed style, namely the inevitable results of the ageing process. As the sands of energy and athleticism run though the hourglass, Hopkins has filled the gap they leave by using his formidable technical expertise to neuter his opponents, set traps, and generally befuddle all and sundry. It seemed to me a little unnecessary to employ bar-room psychology to go beyond the obvious, and in doing do craft a rather spiteful and personal diagnosis.

Some on the forum offered the explanation that Dougie Fischer, and ergo Kim and Maxboxing, had some previous altercation with Hopkins. Of this I’m not sure, but I am sure that Hopkins’s performance makes Kim look even wider of the mark. Hopkins didn’t just “suck the life and action” from the fight, but provided an aggressive and entertaining performance. And the executioner’s emotional post fight words, “I’m tired of proving myself”, provided an eloquent rebuttal to the subjective and often pernicious hacks who have been seemingly unable to embrace one of the greatest fighters any of us will ever see.

***

Pavlik was beaten so comprehensively that nobody has really mentioned the risible cornerwork he had to endure. Perhaps it was discussed on the HBO or Setanta broadcasts, but I had Russian commentary and don’t understand enough Russian to make out what was being said for much of the fight. What I could make out, though, were the words of advice being offered in Pavlik’s corner. That is, if you can call repeating “double the jab” advice.

It seemed to me that Pavlik’s corner was as trapped by the web Hopkins had spun as Pavlik was. Hopkins had negated Pavlik’s jab to the point where he wasn’t using it at all. Even when he was, he felt nowhere near confident enough in its effectiveness to step in behind it with the right cross. Simply repeating that Pavlik should use it was not good enough: he needed to know how.

But what was worse, in my view, was the listlessness of the advice. In the event, Pavlik didn’t need the technical guidance his corner were patently unequipped to provide, but instead motivated to take risks and pile forward in the hope of shifting the pace up a gear or two. If Pavlik could not work an opening, he at least needed to set a high tempo to compel his 43 year old opponent to expend every wisp of energy to hold him off.

Throwing caution to the wind might have gotten him knocked out, but it was also his only chance of victory – rumbling forward pumping his arms in the hope he could get some success as Hopkins tired – which might have happened if Pavlik had not supinely acquiesced control of the fight and its pace to Hopkins.

But, like citizens of Air Strip One in George Orwell’s 1984, Pavlik was struck dumb and docile by the impenetrable, nefarious brilliance of his opponent. Something like the roaring gale of Teddy Atlas willing on Michael Moorer against Evander Holyfield was needed to shake Pavlik out of his malaise, but instead he got a sympathetic zephyr.

***

Calzaghe may regret taking the ‘safer’ option of Roy Jones now. Beating Pavlik, which after watching his performance against Hopkins he would seem heavy favourite to have done so, would have added much to Calzaghe’s resume. But Hopkins got there first because Calzaghe went for the supposedly better risk-reward ratio supplied Jones, and now it’s the executioner being shifted up pound for pound rankings.

That being said, Hopkins’s destruction of Pavlik does draw into sharp focus Calzaghe’s brilliance. When he fought Hopkins, he appeared similarly vulnerable in the early rounds. Hopkins was the worst possible style mesh for Calzaghe, who prefers his opponents to come on to him and rarely performs impressively against counter-punchers or cuties. Of course, Hopkins represents the epitome of this kind of boxer: he can often be like a black hole, dragging even the most stubborn into his destructive gravity well. Once there, most, like Pavlik, are crushed.

But Calzaghe showed a flexibility and intelligence beyond Pavlik. Just as Joe seemed about to tumble over the event horizon, he switched tactics, started avoiding more of Hopkins’s rights, and simply letting his hands go, ignoring whether they hit anything or not, but in doing so slowly cranking up the pressure on the old man. By the end of the fight, Hopkins was resorting to brazen playacting and unspeakable filth to slow the fight. He was also screaming blue murder to the referee at every perceived injustice, a sure sign of distress from any fighter.

Calzaghe demonstrated exactly the tactics Pavlik needed to employ when it became clear Hopkins had an answer to plan ‘A’, but the ease at which Hopkins beat a man who destroyed Jermain Taylor and Edison Miranda puts Calzaghe’s performance in its proper perspective.

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