When you’re 45 years, 11 months, and three days old, what difference does a lousy 38 days make? Bernard Hopkins believes in breaking records and making history. So to him, 38 days makes all the difference in the world.
It’s by a span of 38 days that Hopkins can set the record for oldest fighter ever to win a major title when he challenges Jean Pascal for THE RING world light heavyweight championship on Dec. 18. (We specify “major” title because, for example, Joe Bugner defeated Bonecrusher Smith for something called the WBF heavyweight title at age 48. No further explanation needed.) George Foreman was 45 years, nine months, and 26 days old when he landed a one-two to the kisser and knocked out Michael Moorer in 1994 to become heavyweight champ. Hopkins will be 38 days older than that when he ducks through the ring ropes at the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, Quebec, to challenge Pascal.
There’s a reason very few fighters over the age of 40 have won legitimate championships. Guys in their 40s aren’t supposed to be able to outfight guys half their age. But Hopkins, by his own declaration, “ain’t normal.”
“It’s a rare situation to be in a position to make history like this,” Hopkins said, “and I am a rare human being. I think at the end of the day, somewhere down the line, my genetics and my body will be analyzed by scientists. This ain’t normal! When people say things ain’t normal, normally it’s a bad situation. But this is not normal!”
Unfortunately for Hopkins, standing in his way is a fighter who just might turn out to be abnormal himself.
On the surface, Pascal and Hopkins would appear not to have much in common. Pascal was born in the ’80s. Hopkins was born in the ’60s. Pascal is originally from Haiti and shaped his identity in francophone Quebec. Hopkins is originally from Philadelphia and shaped his identity within the walls of Graterford Prison. Pascal spent the last 14 years dreaming of being Roy Jones. Hopkins spent those same years dreaming of beating Roy Jones.
Hopkins achieved that particular longstanding goal this past April, and just eight months later, Pascal has an opportunity to avenge his idol’s defeat. But while Pascal incorporates the physical stylings of Jones into certain elements of his in-ring repertoire, the reality is that mentally, he more resembles the supposed enemy. Some of the same things that have helped Hopkins to be “not normal” are present in Pascal.
Pascal has a dedication to his body and his craft that is reminiscent of Hopkins. The Canadian is a true student of the game, like Hopkins. He believes that you can only become great by taking on other great fighters and cares deeply about his place in history, philosophies shared by Hopkins.
Who do you think uttered this quote? “The key is to never waste a day. Each day is a day to get better and better.” Sounds like a Hopkins-ism, right? But it’s a Pascal-ism.
And it’s part of the reason this fight is so fascinating. Roy Jones provides a link of sorts between the two fighters, but the real link is in the championship they’ve both held and are now competing for and the shared mentality that guarantees there won’t be a sit-up left undone or a fight tape left unanalyzed prior to fight night. In the ring, we’ll get the very best of a motivated Pascal and the very best of a motivated Hopkins – whatever that might be as “The Executioner” finds himself closer to 50 than to 40.
Hopkins’ accomplishments since celebrating the big four-oh are nothing short of amazing. At 40, he dominated Howard Eastman to secure his record 20th consecutive successful middleweight title defense. At 41, he moved up and virtually shut out Antonio Tarver for the light heavyweight championship. At 42, he beat a fellow pound-for-pounder in Winky Wright. And at 43, he schooled middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik in an over-the-weight non-title bout. Along the way, he’s suffered three losses, but not a single one was conclusive. His two fights with Jermain Taylor in ’05 and his ’08 bout with Joe Calzaghe all could have gone either way.
However, it has now been more than two years since we saw an impressive Hopkins performance. He looked rusty in the early rounds against the ordinary Enrique Ornelas and he almost resembled an actual 45-year-old in outpointing the completely used up Jones earlier this year.
So could it be that Hopkins (51-5-1, 32 knockouts) is finally slowing down appreciably? We all know the fine wine cliché, but any sommelier will tell you that each bottle has a range of years during which the taste improves, and after that, it starts to go downhill whether you pop the cork or not.
“I feel like I’m about 35,” Hopkins told THE RING in October. “I don’t feel like I’m 20, obviously. But I think that no matter how old I get, I’m always going to feel 10 years younger than the average person my age. So I think when I become 50, I’m going to be 40. When I become 60, I’m going to be 50. I think if you look back at the archives of old articles and things I said about 15 years ago, I said if I wanted to, I could fight until I’m 50 years old. I’m blessed. I think I talk pretty good, no brain damage. Does my back hurt sometimes? Yes. I mean, you run five miles a day for the last 15 years, your back will hurt. I’m not a bionic man. But at the end of the day, I’m not the norm.”
That performance against Jones was not the norm either. It was maybe the most unimpressive version of Hopkins we’ve ever seen. But Pascal isn’t going to read anything into that.
“With boxing, we never know what can happen. You can look old and bad in one fight, then look great in your next fight,” Pascal said. “Shane Mosley did that against Antonio Margarito after everyone said he was finished. So I’m not going to judge Hopkins by his last performance.”
If we judge Pascal (26-1, 16 KOs) by his last performance, then he’s a formidable fighter indeed. In fact, his last four fights suggest a potentially special competitor. He became the first to hang a loss on rugged Adrian Diaconu, stopped crafty veteran Silvio Branco, repeated the Diaconu win despite dislocating his shoulder mid-fight and then upset pound-for-pound entrant Chad Dawson by an 11-round technical decision to claim the vacant RING title.
Before that streak of victories, Pascal suffered his lone loss, a close decision to Carl Froch in the UK in a Fight of the Year candidate. Hey, you can’t win them all, especially when you’re as eager to challenge yourself as Pascal is.
“He was the underdog when he fought Froch,” said Pascal’s promoter, Yvon Michel. “He was the underdog when he fought the first time against Diaconu. He was the underdog when he fought Dawson. And all of them were undefeated opponents. He was not scared to go into Froch’s backyard the first time. We lost there, but it was not the end of the world, and we came back two fights later against Diaconu in Jean’s first light heavyweight fight. Jean Pascal is going straightforward; he doesn’t try to slalom between the challenges. After each fight, he looks at which one is the best challenge, and this is great for a promoter. I don’t have to sit with him and convince him what is going to be good for his career. He knows it.
“Yes, Hopkins is tricky, and it’s going to be a good, tough challenge. There are two challenges in this fight, actually: to win, and to look good doing so.”
So far, looking good hasn’t been a problem for the 27-year-old Pascal. If there’s one thing that sets him apart completely from both idol Jones and opponent Hopkins it’s that the reigning light heavyweight champ makes for exciting fights. He describes himself as a “gambler” and a “risk-taker.” He hits and is willing to get hit.
That doesn’t mean Pascal is some face-first brawler (if he was, you’d surely never hear anyone compare him to Jones). He’s awkwardly aggressive, throwing plenty of punches but moving quite a bit as he does so, switching from orthodox to southpaw and back again, and varying his attack from single shots at odd angles to rapid-fire flurries with his head down. He’s fast and athletic, though not on par with a prime Jones in regard to either adjective.
Hopkins noted the Jones resemblance, but prefers to compare Pascal to a Hall of Fame fighter from the generation prior to his.
“Pascal reminds me of Aaron Pryor,” Hopkins said. “Aaron Pryor had a style where he fought like a fighter on the street, but he knew what he was doing and he confused you because nobody else knew what the hell he was doing. Pascal has that type of ability where he gets hit here and there, but he has such an unorthodox style where he confuses you and you start looking at him like a deer in the headlights.”
That’s precisely what happened to Dawson, who saw the openings against Pascal but couldn’t get comfortable and didn’t take advantage of those openings often enough. It was a startling turn of events for those who had prematurely handed the keys to the division over to Dawson. But it was a welcome turn of events for Hopkins.
Following B-Hop’s win over Pavlik, efforts were made to pair Hopkins with Dawson, and many observers speculated that Hopkins wanted nothing to do with a gifted young southpaw like “Bad Chad.” Hopkins admits that he wasn’t particularly interested, but insists it had nothing to do with the dangers Dawson presented. Rather, he says he passed because of what Dawson didn’t present: enough money.
Considering he’s now taking a fight against Pascal, who’s every bit as young and gifted as Dawson, the explanation sounds reasonable.
“Chad Dawson, to me, was a guy that HBO felt had enough to beat Bernard Hopkins, but they weren’t willing to put up the money to prove that they had confidence in this guy,” Hopkins said. “I mean, what would it look like for Bernard Hopkins to come off the amazing upset of Kelly Pavlik and then turn around and fight a Chad Dawson for less money than I’d been making? I got the same money fighting Roy Jones Jr., a dead man, as I would have gotten to fight Chad Dawson. The problem was that Chad Dawson can’t sell out Hartford, Conn. He doesn’t even sell tickets at home. That doesn’t do anything for me. Jean Pascal does sell tickets in Canada.”
Michel is predicting a sold-out Pepsi Coliseum, 16,000 strong, and because both fighters are set to earn a percentage of the live gate and the pay-per-view profits, it’s easy to understand why Hopkins was so much more eager to fight Pascal than Dawson. And remember, Dawson was just an alphabet titleholder at the time a fight with Hopkins was being discussed. Pascal has THE RING belt that signifies that all other beltholders are really just contenders to his legitimate championship, and as a two-division former RING champ, that means something to Hopkins.
“Bernard Hopkins doesn’t do anything just to do it,” the future Hall of Famer said, slipping into third-person mode. “There’s always a reason behind it. Whether it will play out in my favor, we’ll see, but I’m willing to take that chance.”
If it doesn’t play out in Hopkins’ favor, will that finally be the end of the road for a fighter who turned pro in 1988, back when Pascal was a mere 6 years old?
“People have been wondering, is this the last one?” Hopkins asked without THE RING having to pose the question. “No, I don’t believe it is. All I can say is, I am going to get out of this game when I feel that I can’t do it anymore. When I can’t train for six or seven weeks like a young 25-year-old, that’s when it’s over. When you start hearing that Bernard Hopkins is getting up at 8 instead of getting up at 5, then you can write the big headline, “Father Time has Caught Bernard Hopkins.”
A lot of folks have written variations on that headline before. They wrote it when he didn’t look great over 24 rounds against Taylor. They wrote it when he faded late against Calzaghe. And they wrote it earlier this year when he and Jones combined for one of the ugliest boxing displays in recent memory.
At the end of the Pascal fight, they just might be writing it again, and they just might be right to do so. Pascal seems to have all the tools to potentially be that guy who finally leads The Executioner to the gallows.
But astute observers know better than to ever count Hopkins out—especially in situations where a majority of experts are counting him out.
Hopkins will be motivated to make history on Dec. 18. Pascal will be motivated to make Hopkins history. Neither one could be defined as “normal.” May the most abnormal man win.