Lee Groves

Jabbing at father time: Unlocking secrets of late-career success

 

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This article originally appeared in the April issue of THE RING magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, please click here. To subscribe to the digital edition of the magazine, please click here.

 

Boxing history is replete with fighters who chose to tussle with time far too long. Every rule has exceptions, though. For whatever reasons, a remnant of middle-aged marvels have managed to meld youthful gifts with the insights only veterans can know. These geriatric giants made the impossible seem routine against athletes young enough to be their sons and talented enough to inflict serious harm.

Some names, Archie Moore, George Foreman, Eder Jofre, Bob Fitzsimmons and Larry Holmes among them, continue to resonate through the fistic firmament. And the beat, however creakily, goes on as today’s contenders and titlists include Glen Johnson (41), Giacobbe Fragomeni (41), Vitali Klitschko (39), Luis Lazarte (39), Shane Mosley (39), Guillermo Jones (38), Danny Green (37) and Juan Manuel Marquez (37).

In the waning hours of Dec. 18, at the Pepsi Coliseum in Quebec City, Bernard Hopkins, today’s most-decorated elder statesman, appeared poised to rewrite the history books again. Over the course of 12 tense rounds, Hopkins rebounded from two early knockdowns to dominate the second half of the fight against newly crowned Ring light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal. When the final bell sounded, many were convinced that Hopkins, at 45 years, 348 days old, was about to supplant George Foreman (45 years, 310 days) as the oldest man ever to win a major boxing championship.

American judge Steve Morrow had Hopkins a 114-112 winner, but Canadian Claude Paquette (113-113) and Belgian Daniel Van de Wiele (114-114) overruled him. Yes, the draw that was roundly booed allowed Pascal to keep his light heavyweight belt, but it also mortally wounded his star power. That’s because on paper, Pascal-Hopkins was the classic “pass-the-torch” fight in which the young stud is supposed to dispense of an aging warhorse before passionate partisans. Instead, the timid Pascal fumbled the exchange and the flame of his title reign was nearly snuffed out.

Pascal and Hopkins are now preparing for their rematch on May 21 in Montreal, which will give Hopkins, now 46, another opportunity to become the oldest man to win a major championship.

How does Hopkins continue to baffle the experts? How does he get away with taunting time when others couldn’t? What traits does he share with others who had or have kept age at arm’s length? The reasons can be boiled down to the three Ds:

DEDICATION TO DEFENSE:

While still in his 20s, Hopkins made a wise but pivotal decision to learn the vital but unglamorous intricacies of defense. He couldn’t have asked for better instructors than Bouie Fisher and Naazim Richardson, who taught him glove positioning, how to roll away from punches without compromising his ability to counter, how to use angles to hide from opponents, and so on.

The years of endless drills have reaped tremendous rewards. Not only was Hopkins able to extend his career, he also lengthened his ability to generate multi-million dollar purses and, most important to this old-school soul, his chances to enhance his legacy.

Unlike many instinctual artists who can’t grasp how they do what they do, Hopkins can explain the “how” and “why” behind every maneuver. His “Perfect Execution” column in The Ring magazine offers a literary and pictorial window into the secrets of his success far after 40

altHis sophisticated techniques flummoxed a succession of elite opponents, and there are numbers to prove it. One CompuBox study revealed that Jermain Taylor threw 30 percent fewer overall punches and landed 63 percent fewer power shots against Hopkins than against his three previous opponents. The same pattern continued with Antonio Tarver (43.7 percent fewer thrown punches and nearly 70 percent fewer power connects), and Winky Wright (19.7 percent fewer thrown punches per round and 54 percent fewer power connects). This ability to neutralize his opponents’ offenses not only added years to his career but may also increase his prospects of enjoying a high quality retirement.

This attention to detail also worked wonders for others. Moore and Foreman used the cross-armed “armadillo defense” to pick off and roll under punches, while Holmes and Vitali Klitschko masterfully used their height and reach to stifle opponents. Although Marquez adopted a more fan-friendly approach in his mid-30s, he still incorporates the techniques taught to him by Hall of Fame trainer Ignacio “Nacho” Beristain. Jofre, at 37, executed a similar plan to capture an improbable featherweight title against Jose Legra in 1973.

While getting hit is inevitable, all these men knew that minimizing the punishment in the short term would improve their results in the long term.

DETERMINATION TO CHANGE

As we all know, boxers can be stubborn. Too many fighters adopt a my-way-or-the-highway attitude when it comes to changing their styles, especially when that style served them so well. How can anyone argue against fame, fortune and championships?

One would think the headstrong Hopkins would have been reluctant to shift gears given his success. After all, his wrecking-ball right allowed him to win 14 of his first 23 fights in three rounds or less and seven of his first eight middleweight title defenses ended inside the distance. One of them – a 24-second blowout of Steve Frank in January 1996 – remains the briefest 160-pound title fight on record.

But as Hopkins neared his mid-30s, he realized changes were needed to achieve two long-term goals – surpassing Carlos Monzon’s divisional record of 14 defenses and lengthening that benchmark to 20. Gradually, the meaning behind his “Executioner” nickname changed. Instead of letting brute force act as judge, jury and, ahem, executioner, Hopkins used his considerable boxing IQ to flawlessly “execute” fight plans.

Where once he relied on power, he now banked on judicious timing, excellent punch placement, laying strategic land mines, practicing the darker arts outside the referee’s view, a refined sense of pacing, and seizing upon his rivals’ weaknesses.

It also helped that Hopkins had a kindred spirit in Richardson, who spoke these words between rounds five and six:

“We aren’t going into the big swinging mode with him. We’re not looking for one home run. He’s going big and we’re going to put small shots underneath. That’s why he fades: He goes big and he starts missing and he gets tired. He’s weakening already. I need you to stay behind that stick and make them investments.”

A younger Hopkins wouldn’t have been so receptive to implementing Richardson’s patient strategy, especially when down on the scorecards. But this mature, pragmatic Hopkins methodically applied it with well-placed bodyshots, selective multi-punch bursts and the kind of measured, relentless stalking that inflicts physical and psychological pressure.

From that point forward, Hopkins slowly drained Pascal’s legs while yielding few countering opportunities, which kept Pascal’s already sparse output under control.

Then, in the pivotal 11th and 12th rounds, Hopkins jammed his foot on the accelerator and almost left Pascal choking on his dust.

The older version of Archie Moore was an extraordinarily long-suffering fighter, for he often chose to defend plenty of incoming fire before striking with chilling finality. His classic first encounter with Yvon Durelle in 1958 saw the 42-year-old Mongoose absorb four early-round knockdowns only to score four of his own en route to a thrilling 11th-round KO

altForeman’s Christian conversion produced profound changes in the ring and out, as the onetime mad bomber now worked behind a thumping jab and repeatedly asked referees to grant mercy on his battered opponents. Still, his knockout percentage hardly suffered.

The early Holmes was a dancing master with a heavy Ali influence, but, after his legs lost their bounce, Holmes persevered by putting more weight behind his jackhammer jabs and potent right crosses. Micky Ward once was a fleet-footed boxer, but, after returning from a three-year hiatus, he prospered into his late 30s by becoming a slugger armed with a sickening hook to the liver. All these men proved that change, indeed, is good.

DEFIANCE BECOMES YOU

Every fighter approaching his mid-30s has heard these refrains: “Boxing is a young man’s game,” “Aren’t you worried about your health?” “When are you going to hang up the gloves?” or “Why can’t you give the younger guys a chance?”

Like most successful professionals, fighters are fueled by pride. The last thing they want to hear is that they aren’t what they used to be and that they should quit the most lucrative and successful job they’ve ever had. Boxers, especially champions, want to depart on their own terms, and they would gladly give their last drop of blood to prove their naysayers wrong.

Foreman countered his critics by regaining the linear heavyweight title. Moore answered by winning a world championship at 36 and holding it for nearly 10 years. The ever-prickly Holmes, who lost his IBF belt at 35, came within a whisker of dethroning WBC titleholder Oliver McCall a decade later and fought until age 52.

Kenny Lane and Carlos Palomino emerged from 17-year layoffs and went 3-1 and 4-1, respectively, before retiring at 53 and 48. Willie Pep ended a six-year retirement just because he thought he could and rolled off nine-straight wins before losing his final fight at 43. Those who have stood at the summit will do anything to reach it again and to hell with those who want to deny them that pleasure.

Hopkins had planned to retire by age 40 to satisfy his mother’s final wish and his ninth-round KO over Oscar De La Hoya four months before that deadline seemed the perfect swan song. But after she died, Hopkins believed he still had mountains to conquer. At first, his decision seemed unwise as he lost two decisions to Jermain Taylor after outpointing Howard Eastman. The controversial nature of the Taylor fights persuaded Hopkins that he still had plenty in the tank. Therefore, he soldiered on and the results were the stuff of legend.

First, he added 15 pounds of muscle and challenged lineal 175-pound king Antonio Tarver, who was fresh off back-to-back wins over Roy Jones Jr. and Glen Johnson. Hopkins told everyone that this would be his final fight, but Tarver further fueled the fire by placing a $250,000 side bet that he would score a knockout within five rounds. Instead, Hopkins scored his own fifth round knockdown and earned a lopsided decision.

Then, after outpointing Winky Wright and a split-decision loss to Joe Calzaghe, Hopkins again confounded the experts by thrashing Kelly Pavlik, an unbeaten power puncher poised to become the face of boxing. That build-up deeply offended Hopkins, who believed the sport’s power brokers again were ready to shove him into a premature grave. For that, he made everyone pay.

“If I would have stuck to my promise, you would have never got to eat crow,” Hopkins told ESPN.com before the Pascal fight. “You would have never got to write about the night in Atlantic City [N.J., after beating Pavlik]. After the Tarver fight, I could have easily stepped aside. But look at what you all would have been denied.”

See that chip on Hopkins’ shoulder? It’s Stonehenge’s twin.

Hopkins followed the Pavlik upset with decisions over Enrique Ornelas and Jones, and then the disputed draw against Pascal. The Pascal performance surely will push back B-Hop’s Hall of Fame induction, but he probably wouldn’t mind, for he knows there’s more to do.

The hours, minutes, days, and years may be the same length for all of us, but for a few special champions time can be molded, manipulated—and yes—conquered.

 

Lee Groves is the author ofTales From the Vaultand a writer/researcher/punch counter for CompuBox Inc

 

Photo of Hopkins-Pascal / Tom Casino-Showtime; Photos of Archie Moore and George Foreman / THE RING

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