By Mike Elliott
Inglewood, Calif. -- Father Time finally caught up to future Hall of Fame boxer Bernard Hopkins, but it took 51 years and nearly eight additional rounds to do so, as the crafty defensive master suffered a bizarre TKO loss Saturday night when Joe Smith Jr. knocked Hopkins out of the ring in the last fight of his glorious career. Smith (23-1, 19 KOs) retained his WBC International Light Heavyweight Title with the win.
To put things in perspective, Smith, 27, was not even born when Hopkins (55-8-2, 32 KOs) started boxing professionally 28 years ago.
Although the outcome was certainly not what Hopkins desired, in many ways his final fight was vintage B-Hop -- controversial, tactical, defiant, and with an opponent, who on paper at least, had several advantages over him.
But let's start with the controversy.
Approximately 53 seconds into the eighth round of what had been a reasonably competitive bout, Smith had Hopkins against the ropes and unleashed a powerful combination that knocked Hopkins out of the ring.
In a frightening moment in front of 6,513 primarily pro-Hopkins fans, Hopkins fell backward and landed seemingly head-first onto the concrete floor of the Fabulous Forum with his legs in the air.
California State Athletic officials and medical personnel immediately surrounded Hopkins and checked on his condition for several minutes. That delay produced lingering uncertainty as to whether the bout would continue, since no official announcement was immediately made.
|Photo Credit: Tom Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions|
By rule, Hopkins had 20 seconds to return to the ring before the bout was waived off, but he failed to beat the count due to an ankle injury. He also hit his head in the fall.
"I had seen him every time I threw the right hand, he was throwing the left," said Smith. "I had seen him fall, and I kept hitting him until I saw him go out, and I landed that left hook until he went out. I knew he had time to go out, but I hit him with four or five clean shots and they were good shots on the button. I knew he was a true champion, and if he didn’t get injured he’d be back here."
Hopkins contended that he was pushed out of the ring, but replays revealed that the final impact indeed came from a Smith punch, rather than a shove.
"He got frustrated, and I might have gotten glazed with a left hook and next thing I know he was throwing me out of the ring," said Hopkins. "I injured myself and hit my head first and hurt my ankle. I knew of the twenty seconds, but couldn’t stand up on my feet because my ankle was injured, I said I could walk but I couldn’t box. I had a choice to make, but I guess the referee made it for me."
And just like that, the bout, and Hopkins' career, had ended.
"This is my last fight, I promised it would be and you come to that point in life where it is final and I’m happy with my retirement," said Hopkins. "I know the fans will know I went out as a solider, fighting the toughest, baddest opponents. I’m not saying I agree, I’m not in denial—Joe was a tough, heavy-hitting fighter.”
Hopkins, no stranger to unusual fight endings, had given his fans some hope up to that point.
After a shaky first round in which he was wobbled by a short Smith right hand, Hopkins shook off his two years of ring rust and began to effectively counter Smith in spurts.
Hopkins continually circled around the perimeter of the ring with his back against the ropes, as Smith followed and tried to throw his bombs. Hopkins often rolled with those punches, however, minimizing the impact, while landing his own left hooks and straight right hand counters to Smith's head.
By the fourth round, Smith, like so many other Hopkins opponents, saw his work rate begin to decrease, as Hopkins' defensive traps and counters had him more hesitant. Essentially, Smith was starting to play B-Hop's game, and the pace began to slow. All three judges scored the fourth round for Hopkins.
In Round 5, Hopkins had the crowd chanting his name, as he scored with several rights to Smith's head.
"I was a little surprised that he was still sharp and fast," said Smith.
|Photo Credit: Tom Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions|
Smith continued to be the aggressor in Rounds Six and Seven, but was not always an effective aggressor due to Hopkins' elusive defense and counterpunching. Smith walked through those counter shots well, but he also started to show some early signs of fatigue.
After seven rounds, the judges had the fight scored closely -- 69-64 for Smith, 67-66 for Smith, and 67-66 for Hopkins. The DSH had the bout 67-66 for Hopkins.
Then, in what seemed like an otherwise typical exchange in this fight, Hopkins suddenly got caught flush with a few blows, and went flying out of the ring and into retirement a la Joe Louis.
What a legacy he leaves.
We all have heard his fascinating backstory. Born into poverty. Substance abuse issues in his childhood home. Incarcerated in state prison for several years as a young man.
From those humble beginnings would emerge a legend -- one of the sweet science's smartest fighters and a true defensive genius.
As a pro, he had many hats. The disciplined gym rat who learned the trade in the rough gyms of Philadelphia. The grinder who climbed up the professional ranks in obscurity. The principled negotiator who battled promoters over his true monetary worth. The skilled fighter who defended his middleweight belt a division-record 20 straight times.
But most fight fans did not become familiar with Hopkins until his late thirties, after his upset win over Puerto Rican star Felix Trinidad. That upset would set the tone for his career and form the main theme of his legacy: Underdog superstar.
Few fighters have defied the odds, taken risks, and then triumphed as many times as Hopkins. Typically, he would have two strikes against him going into every fight: 1) his advanced age, and 2) his "superior" opponent.
Time and again, Hopkins would assure everyone who would listen that he knew exactly how to beat his opponent, and then he would go out and do precisely what he had said.
The list of such victories is lengthy and reads like a who's who of this past era's notable fighters: Trinidad, Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright, Kelly Pavlik, Jean Pascal, Tavoris Cloud, and Oscar De La Hoya.
Even his losses -- such as his two to Jermain Taylor, and his highly controversial split decision to Joe Calzaghe -- still seemed to enhance his legend, as the quintessential wily old pro proved he could still compete on even terms with younger, more gifted opponents.
Hopkins specialized in disarming sluggers, both physically and mentally. His pre-fight chatter got into many an opponents' head, while on fight night his smothering (some might say ugly) defense and opportunistic punching proved to be a winning formula.
Hopkins' win and post-fight conversation with the powerful Pavlik felt like a master teacher educating his student. His victories over the eager Cloud and free-swinging Pascal were classic examples of smarts overcoming brawn.
Smith seemed like he could be another one of those impulsive power punchers whom Hopkins could coax into his fighting his fight. Smith was bigger and stronger, to be sure, but Hopkins had dealt with such problems before.
For several rounds, Hopkins enjoyed moderate success and had the fight at his pace. But Smith ultimately stayed disciplined, kept his distance, and used his power to pull out the victory. In the process, an interesting new boxer was introduced to a national audience.
Smith, a relative unknown despite his impressive win over Andrzej Fonfara, proved to be no slouch, as he accomplished a feat that even Sergey Kovalev could not do -- earn a stoppage win over Hopkins. Moreover, his background as a current union worker in New York only adds to his made-for-television narrative.
Smith showed class in his victory, at one point humbly asking Hopkins to autograph his gloves in the post-fight press conference.
“I came here to win tonight and move forward in my career and I did it,” said Smith. “I said I’d be the first one to stop him in his career and I was. I have lots of respect for Bernard. He is a true champion. Lots of people love Bernard and still will because he’s a true champion."
As for the notion that Hopkins might try to go out on a more positive note by fighting one more time, the legend quickly put those rumors to rest.
"I'm going to say it one last time," said Hopkins, confirming his retirement. "My era was gone two eras ago. I have no regrets."
For the evening's ten-round co-main event, Joseph "Jojo" Diaz, Jr. (23-0, 13 KOs) used his superior boxing skills to overcome the continual pressure of veteran Horacio Garcia (30-2-1, 21 KOs), as Diaz won a unanimous decision to retain his NABF Featherweight title. All three judges scored the bout 100-90 for Diaz.
"I knew I was facing a tough, experienced opponent, so my plan was to go in there and get him using my jabs, angles and everything I worked on in my training camp," said Joseph Diaz, Jr. "I came in and got what I wanted and I'm very happy with the outcome."
Diaz's combination punching and accurate straight left hand continually scored on Garcia, and proved to be the difference.
"It was a power versus speed fight," said Garcia. "For every power punch I would throw, he would throw two. I agree with the judge's decision, and we'll hit the gym to make the adjustments."
The evening's televised opening bout on HBO saw Oleksandr Usyk (11-0, 9 KOs) systematically break down and defeat Thabiso Mchunu (17-3, 11 KOs), as Usyk prevailed by technical knockout in the ninth round at the 1:53 mark to retain his WBO Cruiserweight title.
"I'm very happy with my performance, he was awkward but I'm glad I was able to win by knockout," said Usyk. "Once I was able to find my range and throw combinations my power was too much for him."