Calzaghe-Hopkins: A Historical Perspective

By George Kimball


Calzaghe-Hopkins: A Historical Perspective

A day before they met in the ring, colleague Matthew Aguilar wrote that immortality would be on the line when Joe Calzaghe and Bernard Hopkins collided in Las Vegas. The sentiment would have been more accurate had he said that immortality would be on display. The legacy of both men was already secure, and wasn’t going to be diminished by anything that happened in the ring that night.

Calzaghe and Hopkins were and are sure-fire Hall of Famers-in-waiting; they would still be that even had they conspired to produce a bad fight – and as it turned out, they gave us a pretty good one.

On December 7, 1989, the crowd at the Mirage spent most of the evening booing and chanting “Bullshit! Bullshit” as 33 year-old Sugar Ray Leonard outpointed 38 year-old Roberto Duran in the finale of their trilogy. His win in a fight that had been billed as “Uno Mas” would be the last of Leonard’s career.

The displeasure of the audience that night was not a factor when the electors considered their Hall of Fame credentials: Both were chosen on the first ballot – Leonard in 1997, Duran last year. Manos de Piedra would have been in a lot sooner had he not fought beyond his 50th birthday.

Leonard and Duran had been bitter rivals since their first two meetings in 1980 and roundly disliked one another, but Duran’s reaction to the judges’ verdict that night is instructive.
“Leonard won the fight,” said Duran. “The judges saw it that way. Now I am going to say goodnight and have some champagne and go back to Miami.”

Contrast that with Hopkins’ petulant reaction in Las Vegas Saturday night, when he accused the judges of ganging up on him to steal the decision, and CompuBox of abetting the frameup by falsifying the evidence. (Conspiracy theorist that he is, B-Hop didn’t actually come right out and say this, but you got the feeling he was about one sentence short of accusing Adalaide Byrd of abetting the plot by scoring the fight his way just to make the perceived larceny seem less obvious.)

In protesting the result, Bernard sounded like a jailhouse lawyer.  If you listen to the inmates, almost every convict in America will claim to be innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. Hopkins, to his credit, has always owned up to that part of his resume, forthrightly admitting that he did his time at Graterford because that’s pretty much where he deserved to be, but he has somehow transferred that persecution complex to the ring, where he’s never actually lost a fight.

Just as Hopkins’ loss won’t detract from his record of accomplishments, from an historical standpoint, Calzaghe’s win won’t do much to bolster his already compelling case. When he comes up for Hall of Fame consideration in half a dozen years or so, the fact that the Welshman ruled the 168-pound division for a string of 18 unbroken years will be his most persuasive credential. That in 2008 he won a split decision over a 43 year-old man will be considered just a footnote to that career.

While we would take exception to Matthew Aguilar’s contention that Hopkins rates ahead of Robinson, Hagler, and Monzon as “he most historically significant middleweight ever,” there can’t be much dispute that Calzaghe was and is the most historically significant SUPER-middleweight in history. (Though as these things go, it’s been a pretty short history.)

Although B-Hop did make 20 consecutive defenses, they were of “a” middleweight title, as opposed to “the” middleweight title. For most of Hopkins’ reign, the championship was fragmented, and in over half of his defenses, only the iBF title was at stake, while other men held the WBC, WBA, and WBO versions.

While at various times both Monzon and, yes, even Robinson also had rival claimants for their championships, every one Hagler’s 13 successful defenses was for a truly undisputed title. In 1980 he won both the WBA and WBC titles from Alan Minter, and, in 1983 added the IBF version in that organization’s first-ever title fight -- although at the time of that bout, against Wilford Scypion in 1983, the IBF was calling itself the “USBA-International.”

Hagler, in fact, never lost a fight for the undisputed title. Before his last fight, against Leonard in 1987, the WBA had already voted to strip him for facing a man perceived as an unworthy challenger. (The IBF took no action, but did not sanction Leonard-Hagler.)

Hopkins, by contrast, didn’t come into possession of all the extant belts until 2004, when he stopped Oscar De La Hoya to add the WBO title, and thus made exactly one (1) defense of the undisputed middleweight championship.

And – we apparently can’t stress this often enough – “undisputed” means just what it says. Undisputed. When Frank Warren describes Calzaghe as the “undisputed light-heavyweight champion” despite the fact that four other guys are recognized by the world sanctioning bodies, it trivializes the term beyond all meaning.

You wouldn’t want to nit-pick about this too much, it should also probably be noted that Hopkins’ string of title defenses includes the 1998 No Contest in his first fight with Robbie Allen. Technically, since he did retain his title, I guess that counts as a successful defense, but in that fight Hopkins suffered the most debilitating blow of his career – not from Allen, but from Mills Lane, who, breaking a clinch, threw him out of the ring and onto the press table.

None of this is intended to demean Hopkins’ considedrable accomplishments, but merely to put things in perspective. He was unquestionably the best middleweight of his era, but he wasn’t Marvin Hagler, and he certainly wasn’t Sugar Ray Robinson.

Calzaghe, in any case, joins the pantheon – a pretty short pantheon, at that – of Clinton Mitchell, Roy Jones Jr., and Jermain Taylor as the only men to defeat the Executioner, and two of those losses came before he was the Executioner.

Interestingly, three of Hopkins’ five losses were either split or majority decisions. If there is an aberration contained in his career log, it is probably the first of these, not because Hopkins lost to a majority decision Mitchell, but because he should never have been fighting him in the first place.

Although he didn’t have much of a pro career, Clinton Mitchell had been one of the country’s top amateur light-heavyweights. At the 1986 Olympic Festival he had beaten Andrew Maynard, who would win a gold medal in Seoul two years later. In short, he was not the opponent a reasonable manager would have chosen for Bernard Hopkins’ first professional fight. 

“That,” says Connecticut trainer John Scully, who himself boxed in those circles two decades ago, “was a VERY tough fight for Bernard to take for his pro debut.”

If his first professional outing was shrouded in controversy, his last was not – unless, that is, you’re willing to buy into B-Hop’s argument that CompuBox fudged the statistics, abetting the fix by just pretending that Calzaghe landed over a hundred more punches over the course of the bout.

Hopkins, on the other hand, can take solace in the facts that with his first-round knockdown he made the Calzaghe fight closer on the scorecards than it should have been, and that he was still there at the end – although but for the dubious breathers he caught following low blows more imagined than real he might not have been. (Following the last of these, Joe Cortez’ patience was finally exhausted, and he denied Hopkins what would have been his third rest period of the evening, He could just as easily have disqualified him for having abandoned the fight.)

While Saturday night’s fight lacked the fireworks it might have produced had Calzaghe and Hopkins fought half a dozen years earlier, as they should have, it was, all in all, a highly satisfying fight. Nobody’s complaining except Bernard Hopkins.


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