Commentary

A "marvelous" time for Hopkins to say goodbye?

For years, Bernard Hopkins has hovered at or near the top of boxing's pound-for-pound list. But at 43, he has clearly lost a step and it may be time for him to call it a career, writes Eric Raskin.

Updated: April 21, 2008, 9:39 AM ET
By Eric Raskin | ESPN.com

Bernard Hopkins and Joe CalzagheAP Photo/Eric JamisonDespite a spirited effort against Joe Calzaghe, Bernard Hopkins' best days may be behind him.
If Bernard Hopkins didn't listen to his own mother when she told him to retire from boxing, certainly he isn't about to listen to some random sportswriter dispensing career advice.

Hopkins is a 43-year-old man who can make his own decisions and has proven he knows a lot more about what's best for him than anyone else does. So I would never try to give a penny's worth of free advice to Hopkins (despite how attractive that deal may sound to boxing's admitted king of price club shopping).

But one of Hopkins' pugilistic heroes, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, does have some advice for his fellow all-time middleweight great. And Hagler's advice comes not through words, but through actions.

Hagler was just 32, more than a decade younger than the age-defying "Executioner" is now, when he lost a tough-to-swallow split decision to the younger, fresher, faster Sugar Ray Leonard in 1987.

Hagler was still capable of beating just about any fighter in the world and still worthy of inclusion on the pound-for-pound lists. But against John Mugabi and Leonard, he was beginning to feel his age, so he walked away from boxing.

On Saturday night at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Hopkins vehemently disputed the split decision he lost to the younger, fresher, faster Joe Calzaghe.

Considering Calzaghe is undefeated and should be in everyone's pound-for-pound top three at this point, it's fair to say Hopkins is still capable of beating anyone out there and still deserves a pound-for-pound ranking.

But we saw some strong evidence against Calzaghe that Hopkins' age is more than just a number; it has become a limiting factor in what he can do in the ring.

[+] EnlargeBernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe
AP Photo/Isaac BrekkenHopkins, left, started quickly against Calzaghe but faded down the stretch.
Hopkins started brilliantly, scoring a shocking knockdown just a minute in with a straight right hand. He generally controlled the distance and made the Welshman fight his fight over the first three or four rounds. His almost nonstop footwork had Calzaghe frustrated.

But gradually, the light heavyweight champion's 43 years began to show. His legs grew heavier and his movement decreased. He initiated more and more clinches. Calzaghe closed rounds with Leonard-like flurries, and Hopkins, a half-step behind when he punched back, closed rounds by looking for his water bottle.

In Round 10, Hopkins absorbed what looked like a harmless low blow and bought three minutes of time recovering from it. After the extra rest, he seemed re-energized and went on to enjoy probably his best round of the second half of the fight.

In the 11th, he tried the same tactic, but referee Joe Cortez ordered him to fight on.

With about a minute left in the fight, Hopkins' legs looked slightly rubbery. They kept him up until the final bell, but the mere sight of B-Hop betraying signs of fatigue was unprecedented.

Hopkins has never quite looked his age, but there have been three recent fights in which he's at least looked within five years of his age: the two close losses to Jermain Taylor and this fight against Calzaghe.

[+] EnlargeBernard Hopkins and Joe Calzaghe
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesCalzaghe's high work rate and relentless attack tired Hopkins in the later rounds.
In the Taylor fights, Hopkins did not fade down the stretch (in fact, he accelerated late in their first bout). Against Calzaghe -- a marvelously conditioned fighter, it must be noted -- Hopkins started fast and finished slow.

Hopkins' hands usually get in the final word, but in the Calzaghe fight, the hands on the clock made the closing statement.

None of these observations, however, are meant as an argument that Hopkins ought to retire. If ever there was a fighter for whom boxing is not a dangerous sport, it's Hopkins, the master of rendering his opponent's offense irrelevant.

So if The Executioner still has the itch to fight, if continuing to box is what's going to make him content, then without a doubt, he ought to continue on.

A quote from Hopkins' promotional partner, Oscar De La Hoya, regarding his own plans to retire at the end of 2008, perfectly sums up how hard it is to walk away: "Every time I go to the gym, I feel the exact same way inside. I can picture myself, that little boy walking to the gym with a big gym bag and tube socks and being scared and nervous to get inside that ring. I still feel that same sensation. And to think that I'll never ever feel that again, it's a scary thought."

Hopkins tried to "never ever feel that again" after the second Taylor fight and again after defeating Antonio Tarver for the light heavyweight title, but the addiction to the ring was too strong.

If he finds himself going through that withdrawal again in the months ahead, then clearly there's a compelling reason to fight on.

The thing Hopkins ought to consider, however, is that scratching his own personal itch may be the only compelling reason he has left.

If you've ever watched a Hopkins fight, you know his continuing on in the name of entertaining his fans wouldn't be a worthy cause.

And Hopkins' legacy is secure. There's nothing he could do to enhance it at this point other than winning a heavyweight title, but that's unrealistic, even in this horrid age of heavyweights. The weaker titlists against whom he would have had a shot, such as Oleg Maskaev and Sultan Ibragimov, no longer have belts.

So what fights are out there for Hopkins at this point?

The one bout that might mean something to his legacy, a rematch with Roy Jones, appears impossible now that Hopkins lacks the bargaining chip of The Ring championship.

Meanwhile, Calzaghe has more appealing options than to give Hopkins a rematch.

And why would Hopkins take on a young gun like Chad Dawson? Frankly, Hopkins has run out of attractive, realistic opponents (other than maybe Glen Johnson, but that certainly isn't a "superfight") and it's unlikely he'll embrace a get-back-in-line approach at his age.

"I have nothing to be ashamed of," Hopkins said after the Calzaghe fight, and rightly so. "The fans are the judges, they got eyes, they can't be fooled, they can't be swayed."

Hopkins was talking about the scoring of the fight and declaring that the public knows who really won. Some will agree with him, some will disagree (I had Calzaghe winning by three points), but even those fans who scored for Hopkins "can't be fooled" into overlooking the signs of deterioration.

We're talking about a fighter who hardly ever used to lose rounds (in his entire middleweight title reign, he never heard a scorecard closer than 116-112 until the first Taylor fight), and now four of his past five fights have come down to close decisions.

Hopkins is a marvel for an athlete in his 40s, especially one who hasn't been linked to labs or syringes. But he clearly isn't what he was in his 30s.

In fact, not to knock an outstanding achievement for Calzaghe -- any win over Hopkins, no matter how untidy, is something to celebrate -- but based on Saturday's evidence, Hopkins would have to be favored over Calzaghe in a prime-versus-prime showdown.

We'll never see that, of course, because Hopkins' prime is over. Whether his fighting career is over too is a decision he'll have to make.

We know what Mama B-Hop would tell him to do. We know what Marvin Hagler would tell him to do.

Boxing doesn't particularly need Bernard Hopkins at this point. So the decision should come down purely to the question of whether Hopkins still needs boxing.

Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.