Bernard Hopkins: ‘I’m not defending my belt; I’m defending my legacy’ in match with Sergey Kovalev

Kevin Iole
Boxing Experts Blog

There was never any doubt, really, that Bernard Hopkins would agree to fight whomever the IBF deemed as the mandatory challenger for his IBF world title. His record over the last 20 years proves that.

After his mandatory defense against Karo Murat, set for July 13 in Brooklyn, N.Y., was canceled when Murat was unable to acquire a visa to get into the U.S., the IBF considered what it would do.

Ultimately, it decreed that the 48-year-old Hopkins would have to put his belt up against unbeaten Sergey Kovalev.

There were those who questioned whether Hopkins would agree to meet Kovalev, who has 19 knockouts among his 21 victories but is largely unknown outside the sport's hard core fan base, or whether he'd dump the belt and pursue a match against a bigger name for more money.

But Hopkins never allowed the sanctioning bodies to take his titles when he was the undisputed middleweight champion, even when they put forward ridiculous mandatory contenders such as Morrade Hakkar.

So, it was no surprise Wednesday when Hopkins announced on Twitter that he would, indeed, face Kovalev.

Murat was a virtual unknown and Hopkins was going to fight him. Though Kovalev doesn't have a big name, he's been fighting on Main Events' cards on the NBC Sports Network and he's gathering some attention for his all-out style.

But in a long and fascinating interview with Yahoo! Sports, Hopkins said he agreed to fight Murat, and then later Kovalev, because of what it took to get the titles.

"I understand that I worked hard and I trained hard and I don't believe that, unless there is a financial reward, guaranteed, sealed and delivered, that you should give up any titles," Hopkins told Yahoo! Sports by telephone from his office at Bernard Hopkins Boxing in Delaware. "Especially, that's me. That's what I believe. I believe titles are not to be given away."

So Hopkins will fight Kovalev, probably in September, and already, some are speculating whether Kovalev will become the first man to knock him out.

Michael Woods of The Sweet Science contacted Kovalev trainer John David Jackson, who briefly trained Hopkins, and got Jackson's take on the fight. Naturally, Jackson sees Kovalev doing well.

Asked if Kovalev might knock Hopkins out, Jackson was blunt.

I can see that happening, but I think it would be stopped before that. I have no ill feelings toward Hopkins. I don't want to see him get hurt, but this is the business were in. You see young versus old and he's the old now.

Jackson is a quality trainer with a bright boxing mind, but some folks will never learn. Hopkins has been derided as too old for more than a decade, since the time he won promoter Don King's middleweight tournament in 2001 by stopping Felix Trinidad in the finals.

He's heard it time and time again in the interim, but came out on top just about every time, and never was close to being stopped.

Kovalev is 21-0-1 with 19 knockouts. The only blemish on his record is a technical draw in a 2009 bout with Grover Young. Young was injured from an inadvertent foul in the second round and couldn't continue.

So, Kovalev has a quality record, though he hasn't had a long run against top opposition. His most impressive performance was a third-round stoppage of Gabriel Campillo in January.

Hopkins, though, is at an entirely different level.

And he's taking the fight with Kovalev just the same way he took bouts against Jean Pascal, Kelly Pavlik and Trinidad, when others thought he would have little chance.

"I'm not defending my belt, per se," Hopkins said. "I'm defending my legacy. To me, that is bigger than any organization's belt that exists. I'm defending my legacy first. The title is the carrot. If they want it, come get it."

Hopkins spoke for nearly an hour and never once mentioned Kovalev's name. He spoke of the political machinations he's been through in the sport and how he still believes it occurs.

He's no longer swindled by the business, because he made a point to learn it from all sides. Some of those who would have swindled him underestimated him.

"I'm not the smartest guy in the world, but I'm far from the dumbest," he said.

He never makes a rash decision and studies each decision from the perspective of those he's negotiating against. He uses that logic when deciding whether or not to accept a mandatory challenger.

"I'm a king of knowing how to fulfill rules and regulations of the organizations," he said. "Anybody who paid attention to Bernard Hopkins and my career knows that Bernard Hopkins understands the politics of this business. I'm playing chess, not checkers. They're playing chess, too, and I get that, but one of my advantages is that they think I'm playing checkers."

So, he'll fight Kovalev and give the Russian the opportunity to become a household name overnight by becoming the first man to knock him out.

Hopkins will eventually grow too old for the business, and if he stays around long enough, he'll get knocked out. But it's unlikely to be know, and it's unlikely to be against Kovalev.

Any professional boxer is dangerous and can score a knockout with a perfectly placed punch, but Hopkins knows that the track record and the odds favor him.

Many boxers talk of the sport as a business, but Hopkins truly lives him. He makes measured decisions about his fight career just as he would if he were running a Fortune 100 company.

"Boxing," he said, "is what I do, but it is not who I am."

And sometime later this year, Sergey Kovalev is going to learn just that.

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