Joe Martinez’s voice boomed over the sound system at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City and 7,700-some stomachs simultaneously dropped.
“Luis Rivera scores the bout 114 — 114.”
I quickly summoned up the conversations I’ve had over the past week with HBO executives, announcers and other prominent boxing writers. All had expected Chad Dawson to win the bout going away. All had dismissed the possibility of Bernard Hopkins somehow rewriting his name in the history books again. All had issued the same caution before hanging up the phone.
“No one really knows what’s going to happen.”
(PHOTOS: Fight Night; Hopkins vs. Dawson II)
Max Kellerman has been watching fights since his memory began sometime in the mid-1970s. The youngest member of HBO’s boxing team runs through some of those visions. Ali vs. Holmes. Foreman vs. Moorer. Hopkins vs. Pascal. Memories of former champions trying to reclaim titles once belonging to them, well past the point when age, expectation and the ring should have retired them.
Hopkins would try to turn back time once again Saturday night, taking on the 29-year old Dawson. Just three years shy of 50 and five months removed from an unsatisfactory second-round end to a tepid fight, the Philadelphia native entered the ring against the younger, faster, sharper Dawson as an overwhelming underdog.
Hopkins looked slow in October, laboring his way around the ring, failing to thwart every barrage from “Bad Chad.” When he hit the mat in the second, Hopkins came up lame with a shoulder injury. He escaped with his titles only after the California State Athletic Commission overturned the knockout.
“It makes you wonder why Hopkins picked this fight,” said Dan Rafael, ESPN’s boxing writer. “It’s a maximum-risk, maximum-reward fight.”
But if Hopkins has proved anything over his career and his life, it’s that you don’t ever count the man out.
He found boxing in Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania while serving time for nine felonies. He lost his first professional fight down the boardwalk from Saturday’s venue at the Resorts International. He tasted fame for the first time when he lost to Roy Jones Jr. in 1993. He held a title belt over his head two years later.
A perennial underdog, he racked up name after name on a long list of victims felled by his trademark speed and nearly impenetrable defense: Oscar De La Hoya, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, Jermain Taylor, Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright, Joe Calzaghe, Kelly Pavlik. He even avenged his loss to Jones, 15 years later.
Hopkins is a puzzling wonder inside the ropes. He methodically picks apart his opponents, feigning, slipping, parrying and maneuvering his foes into self-annihilation. Never an “action-fighter,” Hopkins’s preferred modus operandi can best be described as high-speed chest with the occasional exchanging of punches.
His defensive style clashes with his brand of theatrics. He saber-rattles his opponents with his words before fights, donning an executioner’s mask when entering the ring. His pan-African-flag colored robe is adorned by a single, red “X” across his back.
For all the shoulder-shaking, tongue-taunting and post-match crowd-baiting — on Saturday, he shouted, “Look at his face! Look at his face,” motioning to the unsightly gash above Dawson’s left eye — Hopkins could not hide what everyone at the fight had already realized. “The winner, and new…,” Martinez’s pitch-perfect Michael Buffer imitation informed the audience of all they needed to know. Hopkins had lost.
Dawson (31-1, 17 KOs) scored a majority decision, coming ahead on the other two judges’ scorecards, 117 — 111. Hopkins (56-6-2, 32 KOs) erased the speed gap from their October fight, but Dawson pressed Saturday’s action, effectively cornering the older fighter. While both men worked at a sometimes painfully slow pace — the challenger landed 151 punches to Hopkins’ 106 — Dawson outworked and outclassed Hopkins, landing the type of crisp and precise (if rare) blows the boxing universe had come to expect from his opponent.
Hopkins showboated more than he threw actual punches. His head drew more blood than his fists. He dived repeatedly, nearly hurtling himself through the ring ropes at the end of the fifth round. Hopkins put Dawson on the canvas in the eleventh, wrestling him to the floor.
In the orchestrated chaos in the run-up to the fight, it was utterly impossible to count Hopkins out. Despite the calls for him to leave the sport and his advanced age, Hopkins had done too much in his illustrious career to discount a potential caper. “If you were to read about this in the history books,” Kellerman says, “you would say, ‘Wow, a guy who made 20 middleweight title defenses fighting someone 18 years younger as a light heavyweight — why is there such cynicism?’”
Instead, that cynicism prevailed as Dawson rendered Hopkins the most hapless he’s looked in his career and now those aforementioned calls will turn into full-throated demands for him to hang up the gloves.
An hour or so after the final bell rung, his shaved head topped by newspaper boy’s cap, Hopkins spoke admirably of Dawson, imploring a few vocal hangers-on in the press room to, “Let this man enjoy his championship.” He then created a quiet murmur among the reporters when he seemingly acknowledged he may have fought his last fight. “I could be a mentor in the game if I choose to go out that way,” he said.
Hopkins somewhat course-corrected, insisting no decision would be made hastily in that room. He said, if he were to fight again, he would need to find a motivation to do so. Lucian Bute is the logical choice, but Hopkins is also stirred by the sport’s rich history.
Hopkins has already claimed George Foreman’s record for oldest man ever to win a title. If anything ultimately compels Hopkins back into the ring, it will be that pursuit of the improbable that has so defined his personal narrative.
The more relevant question has already been answered. Hopkins will step into the ring again, but it will never quite be the same. Saturday night, a stubbornly proud man looked meek, slipping punches that never came and getting hit with those that did. Hopkins’s only answer to Dawson was the boxing equivalent of a punt: a wild, sweeping left hook followed, not by right-hand crosses, but by hugging his opponent in hopes of fighting him to a standstill. Dawson fell through his mitts and Hopkins’ relevance vanished with him. The ring did not retire Bernard Hopkins. The man will continue to fight. But the fighter is done adding to his legacy.