Steve Bunce: Bernard Hopkins is a freak among boxing’s old fogeys, but even he is vulnerable

‘It is all that I know and I will know when to quit,’  Hopkins has insisted

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The Independent Online

There is a gathering of old men in the ring right now with Bernard Hopkins turning 50 in a few days, Mickey Rourke in a comeback at 62 and a maverick heavyweight called Bronco Billy Wright, who was 50 earlier this month, showing no signs of retiring.

In November, Rourke, who once trained alongside Muhammad Ali in Miami, ended his ring exile and fought for the first time in 20 years. The fight, which has been hastily downgraded to an exhibition match, was in Moscow, Rourke wore golden gloves and in the second round Elliot Seymour fell over from a glancing blow to the soft fat spilling over his waistband; there were screams of “fix” but there is no need to fix a fight between an old Hollywood heartthrob and a homeless man from the wigwam city in downtown Los Angeles.

A few days earlier, Hopkins had no such luck with the latest fight in his long, long career and lost his light-heavyweight world title to the impressive Russian Sergey Kovalev, who just might be one of the three best fighters in the world right now. Rourke has looked haggard, old, battered and bruised for most of his career but Hopkins suddenly looked like an old man against Kovalev and it was far more disturbing than the Moscow farce.

There was an awful melancholy after the loss and watching Hopkins, a true veteran in the boxing business, struggle to stay on his feet and last until the final bell was a cold reminder that old men are vulnerable in real fights. Hopkins, incidentally, has not yet decided whether he will finally walk away and concentrate on promoting fighters.

Former actor Mickey Rourke, 62, fought in an exhibition in November

Hopkins became the oldest man to hold a version of the world title when he beat Tavoris Cloud to win the IBF title in 2013, 19 years after he had won his first title. Hopkins was 48 and took the unofficial old fogey belt from Big George Foreman, who was just 46 when he knocked out Michael Moorer to become the heavyweight world champion in 1995.

However, Foreman’s return to champion status was truly remarkable as he had taken a 10-year sabbatical to preach in Houston before lacing on the gloves once again. One afternoon in Tokyo I asked him about his first career and he just laughed and told me: “I need to be reminded that it was me in those old films.” His trainer at the time was Angelo Dundee and he started to laugh. “Hey, don’t ask me, I can’t remember what my guys did back then,” he said.

Hopkins had never taken a break, spending nearly a quarter of a century perfecting his style and learning his trade from inside the rings and gyms. “It is all that I know and I will know when to quit,” Hopkins has insisted. However, too many faded fighters return in old age – well, old age for boxing – and find that at about 38 their timing has diminished and their legs are like stone. The adage that the last thing a fighter loses is his power is just not the case once age occupies him, taking a toll in areas that were left untouched when the man was 10 years younger.

Hopkins, you see, is simply a freak and some of his very best wins took place once he had turned 40 and at a time when he was already a multi-millionaire with a legacy secured by 10 years of dominance at middleweight. “I’m not just a fighter from another era, I’m a fighter from the pages of history,” Hopkins said. However, the Kovalev loss was the type of defeat that can harm the memory and any repeat beating would suggest that ego and not sense is controlling the old man’s mind.

Hopkins is the oldest world champion in boxing history

The Bronco is unbeaten since 1998, having stopped or knocked out most of his victims in a sequence of 17 since his last loss, which includes six of the last seven ending in the first round. In 50 fights he has been beaten four times, three by former and fallen heavyweight champions, and at 50 he remains the type of credible sideshow attraction that could end up fighting for a version of the world heavyweight title.

“I sparred with George just before he won the world heavyweight title back and I knew then that one day I could do the same,” said Wright, who lives in Las Vegas but is the current Latin American heavyweight champion, a belt that gets him a ranking in the top 20. In boxing’s crazy world, a fun guy like Bronco, even at 50, could get a call. I know that Hopkins, who turns 50 on  15 January, will continue to get calls for a long, long time.