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The Last 15-Round Jazz Fighter

By Luis A. Cortes III


After the final bell rang on Saturday night, Bernard Hopkins made his way over to the ropes on the side of the ring where press row is seated while his corner started ripping the tape from his gloves in preparation to hear yet another historic decision in their favor. Hopkins, who, in the past, has taken this opportunity to shout at the media in “I told you so” fashion regarding whatever transgression he blamed the media for before the fight. This time however, with a smile in his eyes and full of boastful pride, he repeatedly shouted, “I’m a 15 round fighter! I’m a 15-round fighter! I’m a pure throwback; I’m old school!” Usually the case in these moments with the media immediately following the end of a fight, Hopkins was absolutely correct.
 
Hopkins is a fighter cut from a cloth no longer being produced. Unfortunately, for the fans and those in the media, fighters and (come to think of it), characters like Hopkins are all but extinct. Granted, if it were not for the fact that Beibut Shumenov held the WBA belt, he would have never been in the ring with Hopkins. But hey, he did, so while Al Haymon took care of the business end by securing the services of the WBC champion Adonis Stevenson for Showtime, Hopkins took the next best option in his historic quest to unify the division.

So the stage was set for Hopkins to start on yet another historic run. From the moment the opening bell rang, you could tell from the initial pace in the footwork of the two fighters, this was the perfect style for Hopkins to execute his masterful skills and do so in impressing fashion. Hopkins has a style similar to that of a master jazz musician. He starts out doing one or two basic things and builds on them, improvising along the way to fit the tempo of the fight. He did this in the first round by simply circling and waiting to see what his foe had to offer in terms of foot movement and hand speed.
 
You sense of just how old-school Hopkins really is. He might be the first fighter in a long time whom I scored a round for despite not landing any solid power shots. For that fact, I’m not even sure he landed any punches other than a few jabs. Gone are the days when fighters like Willie Pep or Pernell Whitaker used their defense as a means of scoring a round in their favor over the ineffective aggression and offense of their opponents. Scoring for aggression is one thing but when it is rendered ineffective by a master of ring generalship and defense, the master earns the round.
 
As the fight progressed, it was clear the straight right hand was going to find a home across Shumenov’s face all night. In the past, Hopkins has deposited body shots with both hands in the early rounds in order for the body shots to pay off with interest later in the fight. He utilizes that approach against fighters who press the action with their more natural hand and foot speed than that of what Shumenov really brought to the ring. But once the first round was over, it was clear to Hopkins that on this night, despite being 19 years Shumenov’s senior, he was indeed the faster man in every way.
 
Round by round passed as Hopkins took his younger foe for a “walk” (allowing his opponent to follow him around the ring) as he dictated the tempo in the action. Picking his shots from angles he created with his jab, “half-a-man” style (tucked chin and angled body) and solid foot movement, utilizing the whole ring if need be. Once Hopkins started using the “Philly shell” defense (that a certain “Money” fighter has made popular) in order to counter Shumenov’s slow punches, it was clear the jazz musician was finding his zone.
 
Hopkins uses this shoulder roll style in a hybrid fashion. While other Philadelphia and Motor City legends (think George Benton and James Toney) have used it to stand right in front of their opposition in order to make them miss, Hopkins, much like Floyd Mayweather, adds much more movement and angled footsteps in order to set up the proper angles. Once on the inside, as a result of the movement behind jabs to both the body and head have effectively positioned them for the slip or body roll, they counter with an accurate, clean, non-contended power shot.
 
Simply put, younger fighters have not gotten the memo that it takes years of mastering this style both inside the gym and on fight night to be used against the sport’s elite or for that matter, a true professional fighter. Even with that experience, these two masters only use it sparingly. After all, just ask Andre Berto and Adrien Broner if it’s a good idea to use this style without movement against power punchers who are slower than them.
 
To Shumenov’s credit, he never tried to stop winning the fight. Other guys would have been happy with keeping their distance and trying to land one or two big shots to notch the victory with a lucky power punch. Nope, Shumenov actually continued to try and press the action. To be honest, it was the only chance (as small as it may have been) he had to somehow win. However, this played right into the master’s hands.
 
Based on his experience, Hopkins is also a fighter who can manage to adapt as the fight is playing out, much like Miles Davis did during his illustrious music career. See, before Hopkins started to land his straight, lead right over Shumenov’s low left, he fell short a few times even though he was in range to land the punch. Since Hopkins wasn’t hiding the punch behind a jab, Shumenov saw it coming early. What followed was yet another example of how Hopkins makes adjustments in the moment.
 
Recognizing that the shot did not land due more to his poor execution rather than Shumenov’s ability, Hopkins took a half-step back out of range and started bouncing up ever so slightly on his toes to subtly get back into range while gaining a rhythm - much like a jazz musician who anticipates his next note while playing his current one. When the opportunity presented itself a few moments later while on his toes, Hopkins leaped forward and landed a punishing lead right. It was a simple adjustment that made all of the difference.
 
If that’s not enough, Hopkins is great at making sure he nullifies counters by not just being satisfied with landing a power punch. He makes sure to commit to the right move to avoid any counter-punches headed his way since he is not a big combination puncher. Hopkins often lands his right and rolls his head down and to his left, utilizing the momentum of his shot to get out of range of his opponent’s counter. Fighters have tried to fire left hooks to the body but straight shots land first. By the time they get their hook off, Hopkins has already landed his right and has his glove back up to guard the counter as he rolls into smothering you with a hold. In these series of pure craftsmanship, it is as if Hopkins is the head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator all at once.
 
Hopkins did all of this and more on Saturday night, putting his whole arsenal on display. Shumenov was clearly wearing down by the time Hopkins put all of these skills together in what became an ultimate crescendo in the true use of the “Sweet Science.”
 
Usually the case in a well-orchestrated crescendo, there is always calm before the climax of sound and intensity. In the case of Saturday night, this calm came in the form of Hopkins making sure he had not only worn down Shumenov but lulled him to sleep by rendering his approach less effective, aggression-wise. Hopkins did this throughout the fight but did so more much later by walking along the edge of the center of the ring. As a result, Shumenov got a false sense that his ineffective pressure was the cause of Hopkins moving closer to the ropes.
 
When Hopkins does this, it is truly a mind trip for his opponent. While it seems, he could easily be trapped along the ropes, he always positions his body on an angle. This way, the artillery coming his way is detected and he can avoid the shots by moving all of the way back into the ropes or pivoting, rolling or slipping to either side. If his opponent tries to follow up when Hopkins is truly back against the ropes - which Shumenov tried to do - Hopkins parries and catches punches on the inside. These defensive moves lost over time by fighters prevented Shumenov from landing heavy hooks and upper cuts to Hopkins’ body while he was indeed on the ropes.
 
Other times, Hopkins would dip his entire upper body giving the illusion that he was out position and could be hit while close to the ropes. However, Hopkins always keeps his eyes on the target and while dipping incoming punches, he looks for his exit route.
 
Round 11 was the crescendo of this masterful work. Just when Shumenov let the effects of Hopkins’ control over every aspect of the fight distract him for a split-second, Hopkins struck with a vicious power shot that dropped him. It was clear that after that strike and climax, the remainder of the fight was going to be the tapering off of Hopkins basking in his work as he would continue to hit the right notes at will to excite the crowd in the smoky jazz club that was the D.C. Armory.
 
So with the fight over and Hopkins shouting toward press row, it was obvious to everyone. We had witnessed something special from a 49-year-old champion who is truly a product of his boxing environment, the old-school gym style of North Philadelphia.
 
Love him or not, you have to respect the fact that - if nothing else - Bernard Hopkins is a true master of his craft. He may not be as fast as Roy Jones was during his reign as king. He may not have the movie star-looks like Oscar De la Hoya or the thunderous entertaining power of Felix Trinidad but Hopkins has outlasted all fighters from several generations and is now picking on the younger guys in this generation.
 
Appreciate him while he is still doing it because he may not much longer. Bernard Hopkins is the Miles Davis of boxing, a fighter who, much like Davis, adapted his style in order to stay relevant and has been able to best the younger generation despite their respect for the craft to which they dedicate themselves.
 
Questions and comments can be sent to Luis Cortes III at luisacortes83@gmail.com.
 
 
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