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Bernard Hopkins Issued Championship Ultimatum, Forced to Face Russian Wrecking Machine

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COMMENTARY | History-making 48-year-old world champ, Bernard Hopkins (53-6-2, 32 KOs) is in a real bind. The reigning IBF light heavyweight titlist was set to face the solid, but unspectacular Karo Murat in a mandatory title defense on July 13, but only because he had to--- and, likely, because he had a good chance of winning. The Murat fight was a necessary evil if Hopkins wanted to move on to a big arena-filler later this year and bring along the IBF strap as a bargaining chip.

But Germany's Murat is suddenly out of the picture, felled by visa issues that prevented him from entering the United States. Meanwhile, as Murat was being counted out of his title shot with the future hall of famer, the IBF's no. 4 contender, Sergey Kovalev was beating the stuffing out of no. 5 contender, Cornelius White en route to a TKO 3 victory Friday night in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

This Monday morning the IBF announced that the heavy-handed Russian wrecking machine, Kovalev, would be replacing Murat as the mandatory light heavyweight contender. Representatives of Hopkins and his new mandatory challenger have until July 17 to negotiate a deal or see the bout head off to purse bid.

Hopkins, who has said that he only wants big fights at his age, was willing to take a small fight against a lesser challenger. Now, not only is he being pushed into a small fight, but it'll be a small fight against an extremely dangerous opponent with more than a fair chance of upsetting all of his plans.

The undefeated 30-year-old Kovalev (21-0-1, 19 KOs) is absolutely no joke. The only blemish on the Russian's record is a foul-induced technical draw in 2011. Taking away that fluke occurrence, Kovalev should be on a run of nine straight stoppage victories with eight of those stoppages taking place in the third round or sooner.

Roman Simakov, one of only two men to take Kovalev seven rounds or more, paid dearly for his efforts, losing his life three days after the 2011 TKO 7 loss due to brain injuries sustained in the bout.

Most recently, Kovalev has stepped up his game under the guidance of promoter, Main Events, facing much stiffer opposition, but looking no less dominant. His recent demolition of Cornelius White was preceded by three-round thrashing of former world champ, Gabriel Campillo.

Heavy-handed with en effortless, almost laid back ring style, Kovalev is deceptively destructive and shows no signs of any glaring technical deficiency. It's hard to imagine Hopkins controlling the pace and rhythm of a Kovalev fight, cruising to a stifling decision victory like he recently has against guys like Tavoris Cloud and Jean Pascal.

Against Kovalev, Hopkins will likely have to get physical and break down the Russian battler before leaning on his technical expertise to take him the rest of the way. It's a task that the aged "Executioner" would certainly like to avoid if at all possible, especially for the relatively small payday that will be attached to the risk.

Ideally, Hopkins and his promoter, Golden Boy, would like to twist and turn and find some way out of this high risk-low reward contest. But Hopkins dug a hole for himself following his title-winning effort against Tavoris Cloud in March when he crowed about showing respect to the IBF and honoring his commitment to face then-mandatory challenger, Murat.

"There are numerous champions that have been calling me out after my historic victory on Saturday Night," Hopkins wrote in a statement issued to the press. "I am aware that I have a mandatory obligation under the IBF guidelines to fight Karo Murat, the mandatory challenger. Out of respect to the IBF, it is my intention to honor my commitment to the mandatory challenger at this stage of the game just as I have done throughout my twenty-five year career, namely, through twenty straight defenses of the middleweight title."

Now, Hopkins finds himself backed into a corner, forced to either go back on his word and lose his belt or face a dangerous, less-than-ideal opponent. The only viable alternative to a mandatory Kovalev clash would be to vacate the belt, settle for some short money, and fly out to the UK to face Nathan Cleverly for the WBO title or head up to Quebec to face the hard-punching, newly crowned WBC champ, Adonis Stevenson. Of course, this is only if Cleverly's and Stevenson's people actually even want the bout.

It's also quite possible that Hopkins could once again defy the odds and pull off a victory against Kovalev. Fans would be wise to never count "B-Hop" out. But, at 48 years of age and with the final moments of his career at hand, this is not the time for a low-stakes gamble.

Already, there has been some movement to put distance between Hopkins and his IBF mandate.

"We have been looking at historically significant fights," Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer told Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated. "Kovalev is someone I have never heard of, someone many people have never heard of. That doesn't mean he is not good. I'm just not so sure how attractive [a fight] that is."

It should be interesting to see how Hopkins, the defensive master, manages to remove himself from this tough situation while keeping his reputation and marketability still intact.


Paul Magno was a licensed official in the state of Michoacan, Mexico and a close follower of the sport for more than thirty years. His work can also be found on Fox Sports and as Editor-in-Chief of The Boxing Tribune. In the past, Paul has done work for Inside Fights, The Queensberry Rules and Eastside Boxing. For breaking news, additional analysis, and assorted crazy commentary, follow him on Facebook, @TheBoxingTribune or on Twitter, @BoxingBTBC.

Sources: Boxingscene, Fighthype, Sports Illustrated

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