On the night of April 19, 1997 at the Memorial Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana, John David Jackson was stopped in seven rounds by IBF middleweight beltholder Bernard Hopkins. For “The Executioner,” a young, spry fighter of 32, it was just his fourth title defense. Now 17 years later, Jackson – now a world-class trainer – finds himself in the opposite corner of Hopkins, when the former faces Sergey Kovalev this upcoming weekend in Atlantic City.
Did Jackson ever think Hopkins would still be an active prizefighter in 2014?
“No, never in my wildest imagination, I never thought that,” admitted Jackson, who is 51 years old.
By any standard, the fact that Hopkins is not just still participating but actually doing so at a world-class level is incredible. And this is no Russian retirement tour that he’s doing ala Roy Jones; he’s staring down the most lethal puncher in the light heavyweight class just months shy of his 50th birthday.
“There’s a couple of things that carry it; listen, everyone knows he lives well. He lives a clean life but his ego is what keeps him going,” explained Jackson of Hopkins’ longevity. “He has a massive ego and he can’t help himself and it’s not a bad thing for him but he can’t let go. Unfortunately, he’s going to let go on November 8th – but he can’t let go. But it is what it is.”
To say Jackson is familiar with Hopkins is an understatement. He sparred with Hopkins during his days in Philly while Jackson was trained by the great George Benton and later on, was part of Hopkins’ training staff. The knowledge he has of Hopkins could prove to be invaluable in this match-up. Jackson states, “I think it plays a big part because I know most of Bernard’s moves; I know what he’s going to do, the way he thinks during a fight and the way he fights. It’s going to help Sergey out a lot and it benefits him in the fact that I was blessed to be part of [Hopkins]’ camp and I’ll be in the corner for this particular fight.”
Hopkins is the master of mind games; psychological intimidation is a vital part of his arsenal. But Jackson says, “Well, the magic thing about this fight is that Sergey understands English but not a lot. So a lot of what Bernard says goes right over his head and I told [Kovalev]’s people, ‘Don’t interpret what he says; let him talk.’ So it’s all going to be for naught because the kid understands English but to a degree but not a whole lot of it yet. The mind games they’re going to try to play, you can’t play on this level.”
But where Hopkins really strives is in executing his strategy. There was a point long ago when Hopkins was actually a very good offensive fighter during his days as a middleweight champion (no, really; go and watch some of his fights from that era). But as he’s gotten older and moved up in weight, Hopkins has become more of a tactical counterpuncher, one who controls the tempo and is a master at taking away an opponent’s preferred offensive weapon. He is boxing’s old master, the tortoise that can out-think faster hares.
It’s Jackson’s job to conceive a game plan that can solve boxing’s version of the Rubik’s Cube. Step one is to not aim for the head of Hopkins, who does as good as job as anyone at tucking in his chin behind his front shoulder and angling his body. It’s rare when you see Hopkins hit cleanly up top. You get the sense that this old guy could keep his head dry in a thunderstorm without an umbrella.
“You can’t sell Bernard short for what he does and what my old trainer, Georgie Benton would tell me, ‘Listen, don’t worry about the head; we got 12 rounds for the head. You break his body down and guess what? You’ll get the head later on,’” says Jackson, who clearly wants his charge to work from the waist up against Hopkins. “So you gotta hit Bernard everywhere but his head; you gotta hit his shoulders. Hit him in the chest; hit him in places an old man doesn’t really want to get hit.
“And the way this kid punches, Bernard’s trying to sell this kid short with his punching power. This kid has phenomenal punching power. Only one guy that I know has that kind of power and he has it in both hands. Randall Bailey was a right-handed puncher; he was a devastating right-hand puncher. This kid has power in BOTH hands. I think Bernard looks at [Beibut] Shumenov, [Karo] Murat and [Tavoris] Cloud; he’s not in their league.”
Jackson points to the likes of Chad Dawson, Joe Calzaghe and, “to a degree,” Jean Pascal as fighters who have troubled Hopkins with their athleticism and all-around skill set. He says of Kovalev, “This kid could do all that – but he can punch.”
Another key aspect of this fight is spacing; Hopkins is adept at taking away his opponent’s comfort zone and dominating clinches on the inside. He knows how to grapple in close, pinning arms in a way that render them useless and planting his head on your chest. It’s like being in the clutches of the Venus Fly Trap for 36 minutes. It ain’t pretty but it’s effective and it’s one of the ways Hopkins controls the tempo of his bouts.
On this issue, Jackson explains, “I think for the first four rounds, we don’t want any clinches because that’s Bernard’s escape route. If things aren’t going right for him, here’s what he’s doing to do: he’s going to cry foul or play injured. So for the first four rounds, we have to stay on the outside and then after round four, then we can break him down and get close to him.”
The other issue is forcing the pace early on. The bottom line is too many of Hopkins opponents have allowed Hopkins to dictate the tempo of fights. When not much is happening, well, that’s exactly what he wants. Jackson’s wish is for Kovalev to come out of the gate quickly and make Hopkins work and put him in a bit of a pickle going into the second half of the fight. “Listen, if Bernard can get past the first six rounds, guess what? Does Bernard have enough to muster up a helluva attack for the last six rounds?” asks Jackson, who points out that Hopkins hasn’t scored a clean stoppage victory in years.
But all that is great in theory; you still need a guy on your stool who is good enough to execute all this. Is Kovalev a good enough fighter to solve this puzzle or just a one-trick pony with heavy hands?
“I think all of his boxing skills are undervalued,” said Jackson of his fighter whose last 13 victories have come inside the distance. “Listen, like I tell most people, ‘When you look at Sergey, all people see are the knockouts,’ but he sets his opponents up for the knockouts. He’s not just walk-in, one-punch knockout artist trying to knock you out with one shot – he sets you up. He’ll jab his way in; he feints his way in. He has a great body attack. He’s not one-dimensional the way he gets you but a lot of people overlook that. They look at this guy like, ‘Oh, Bernard’s going to dissect and beat him up.’”
Well, Hopkins and his trainer, Naazim Richardson have compared Kovalev to Kelly Pavlik, who was dissected like a laboratory frog by Hopkins in 2008 and was never quite the same again. The comparisons make Jackson bristle.
“Listen, Naazim – and I’m not trying to disrespect him – Bernard runs that camp. Bernard is his own teacher now. Naazim can’t teach him anything. But Naazim is very good at watching fights and studying fighters. He understands what Sergey can do but last year, he said Bernard should retire. He said there’s only one thing for Bernard to do in boxing and that’s to be knocked out. He’s done everything else but be knocked out. He understands that the clock is ticking more than Bernard realizes. So Bernard may sell the kid short but I don’t think Naazim does. But Naazim doesn’t run the show; Bernard runs the show. Bernard’s going to call the shots.”
Even at this advanced age, it’s going to take a really good – and intelligent – fighter to topple Hopkins. And if Kovalev should do that, some of the credit will go to Jackson for shepherding him through the process. For Jackson, it would be the biggest feather in his cap as a trainer. Jackson says, “If we’re lucky enough to get [Adonis] Stevenson or somebody else, maybe [Andre] Ward, then I’d take that a notch up. But right now, this would be the greatest feather in my cap and it’s nothing against Bernard. It’s just business. He just happens to be the person that would be on the other side of the ring.”
So how does he see this contest playing out on the night of November 8?
“I see the fight unfolding a couple of different ways,” Jackson states. “Bernard says – and this is all B.S. – he’s going to stay in the pocket and he’s going to dissect Sergey. Oh, OK, well if you do that, then you’re calling for your own death sentence because you don’t want to stay in front of Sergey and trade bombs. If you don’t punch hard enough to knock him out…now, you might get his respect but he doesn’t even punch that hard at this stage of his career. Now, if he tries to diffuse Sergey, now that means he may try and be tactical and like I pointed out earlier, how many rounds early on do you want to give away to this kid?
“Because if you plan on this kid puttering out around round six, it’s funny; I tell people, ‘We train 12 rounds for every fight.’ You’ve never seen this kid huffing and puffing and when he beat [Cedric] Agnew, he wasn’t huffing and puffing; he wasn’t dead in the water. He was the guy doing all the punching because Agnew was in survival mode. Sergey had to press the action the whole fight. So we’re prepared for 12 rounds; I hope Bernard is prepared for 12 rounds. I see it either going early because Bernard’s chin is going to give out or a late round stoppage. I’m giving it around round six. Round six, the fight is pretty much over.”
Jackson makes it clear, “Bernard’s in trouble. Bernard’s in trouble.”
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