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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Can Pascal Make Hopkins Feel His Age?

By Martin Mulcahey

Bombastic World War II General Douglas MacArthur said of age, “You are as young as your faith, as old as your doubt, as young as your self-confidence, as old as your fear, as young as your hope, as old as your despair.” He could just as well been commenting on Bernard Hopkins. Apart from fellow future Hall-of-Famer Joe Calzaghe, no boxer has been able make the negatives of MacArthur’s quote pertain to Hopkins. Since reaching the milestone of 40, Hopkins has beaten the young (Kelly Pavlik) and old (Antonio Tarver) alike but in Jean Pascal, he faces the most athletic opponent since Roy Jones Jr. in 1993. The same Roy Jones whom Pascal idolized growing up, never imagining he could one day duplicate his hero’s victory.

This is a matchup filled with incongruity, beginning with a reversal of the usual scenario featuring an aging champion fighting off the attack of a brash young challenger. Tonight, we have an elderly veteran who managed to finagle a fight against the linear champion in his prime. Forget about getting older, Hopkins is old. However, Hopkins dedication to the sport and certitude of victory has allowed this old warhorse to remain a relevant threat to anyone in the light heavyweight division and, once again, forcing fans and boxing insiders alike to ask themselves: who wins? The young man possessed of athleticism or an old man with a larger bag of tricks? The pressure sits squarely on Pascal, with the only prize awaiting him at the end of 12 rounds the right to claim he was the man who sent Bernard Hopkins into retirement.

Of course, when discussing this fight, the subject of age must be raised because the 18-year difference in age is such a compelling statistic. The question of age has been a constant with Hopkins for more than a decade, as present as his shadow during interviews. Pascal is nearly two decades Hopkins junior (five years old when Hopkins turned pro), a statistic so egregious as to be comical. It is an aspect that threatened to overshadow the event but is also historical since Hopkins can become oldest champion ever besting George Foreman by 38 days. Hopkins showed his firm grasp on boxing history. “The difference between me and Foreman is that most people didn’t think Foreman could do it. Not only do people think I can win, they think I can win big and I plan on proving them right.”

Many observers have doubts as to the entertainment value of this matchup. I will come right out and say it; if this fight is boring, Hopkins will have had his way and won. When was the last time Hopkins was in an entertaining bout he won or, for that matter, a compelling fight? The way Hopkins took Kelly Pavlik apart was beguiling and his inability to unnerve Joe Calzaghe gave it a tension lacking in other performances. Hopkins’ putrid PPV performance against Roy Jones in his last fight left a blind spot in any fan’s eye unfortunate enough to have witnessed it. Pascal is the opposite of Hopkins, a fighter whose physical talent and willingness to battle has created memorable moments against Carl Froch, Adrian Diaconu, and even fellow Hopkins bore-boxer Chad Dawson. Therefore, the excitement factor is directly tied to Hopkins ability to employ his stagnating game plan.

Because of the distinct probability this fight has to turn into a stinker, fans should be thankful Showtime stepped in to prevent it from going the PPV route. In the process, the network has made this potentially historical fight available to a wider audience. Chris DeBlasio, Director of Sports Communications, is happy to be the bearer of the spectacle. “The goal of ‘Showtime Championship Boxing’ - as many of you have heard and know - is to televise the most competitive, significant and compelling fights that boxing has to offer in every weight class. This light heavyweight world title fight does fit perfectly into that strategy.” DeBlasio made a compelling argument for the significance of the fight. “It's an important crossroads fight, we know, for both men. There's tremendous upside for Jean Pascal to vanquish the longtime champion in Bernard Hopkins. For Bernard Hopkins, he was first featured back on Showtime in 1994 when this network was looking to establish its brand identity in the sport.” A historical detail lost on most covering the fight.

The event has international flair, marking the third time Hopkins traveled outside of America to engage in a fight. Though it has to be said, the culture, language, and culinary gap are not what are usually expected from an “away” fight. Nor as intimidating as locales in Mexico, South America, Asia, or Europe. As for Pascal looking for any edge tried to drive his perceived advantage home. "Listen, when I go to the States, you guys speak English. I've got to speak English. There's no translation. Now, you're in my country. You're not home. This is my territory. In this town, we speak French." To that point, Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer is not worried about the environs. “I personally had a discussion with Jose Sulaiman and with Mauricio Sulaiman (the father and son duo running the WBC) to ensure that we have a fair panel of judges and a fair referee. A bad decision might ruin it for Canada forever because nobody will come to Canada any more if they're going to hear that in Canada, you get bad decisions.” An overly dramatic viewpoint considering Showtime aired Lucian Bute’s controversial first victory over Librado Andrade two years ago.

Not to be outdone, Bernard Hopkins tried to win ground by taking Pascal’s championship belt from Quebec’s mayor, an invited VIP, as Pascal spoke. Hopkins then played keep-away with it, holding the belt behind his back and switching hands to make Pascal reach for it like a big brother would tease his younger sibling. Pascal quickly got in Hopkins's face, spat a couple terse words and pushed Hopkins before the pair was separated. The scuffle had the intensity of two declawed kittens squaring off but Hopkins got the better of the situation by goading Pascal into reacting to him and wasting valuable mental focus. Weeks earlier, Pascal told boxing writer Anson Wainwright of, “I am aware that Hopkins likes to engage in mind games. Inconsistent behaviors tend to throw some boxers for a loop. In that regard, Hopkins has been a teacher and an educator to many great names in the sport.” Point proven and round zero to Hopkins.

What was an amicable promotion has degenerated into callous verbal skirmishes. Yvon Michel, Pascal’s promoter, noted the unexpected turnaround. “Two months ago, Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins were like school friends. Now it looks like that’s finished. They’ve had warriors’ faces since they walked in here this morning. No matter what happens Saturday, this fight will have a colossal impact on the career and the life of these two guys.” Pascal went from complimenting Hopkins, “Bernard Hopkins is one of the biggest names in the sport today. His name is synonymous with excellence. I am extremely fortunate to have the opportunity to fight against such a great well-known boxer,” to a final sentiment, “Bernard Hopkins says that the smartest guy will win. He says he is the intelligent man and I am the idiot. After the fight, everyone will know who the dummy really is.” Perhaps this has piqued fans curiosities; after all, they have bought all 16,495 available tickets.

As for what those fans will witness, it is largely up to Bernard Hopkins as he will have to make the most dramatic adjustments. Hopkins does sport a height and reach advantage (three inches in both departments) that was telling in the obligatory press conference staredown. Jean Pascal is a peculiar fighter to get a handle on stylistically, leading unexpectedly with hooks or darting in and out of range employing quick bursts of punches. Hopkins is a thinking man’s boxer, who expects opponents to fight by the book he has memorized and perfected. Thus, Hopkins was caught off-guard by the athletically gifted Roy Jones and awkward southpaw Joe Calzaghe. Pascal is a B-level amalgamation of Jones and Calzaghe, which works in his favor if Hopkins reacts to Pascal’s punches as he would a regular foe. How quickly Hopkins adjusts or figures out the puzzle before him is key to how the fight unfolds.

The dueling trainers went with automotive metaphors to describe their boxers and roads to victory. Marc Ramsay, Pascal's trainer, spoke out first. "Be ready to see my athlete. He is ready like a powerful F-1 car. When the fight starts, you will see a jalopy on the other side of the ring and my F-1 will run him over." Don’t mistake Ramsay’s humor; he is to be taken seriously, given game plans he devised for Pascal to follow to victory over all but one opponent. Well-respected Naazim Richardson was put off by Ramsay’s lack of deference for his vehicle. "As you watch my athlete, please give him his due respect. Please understand this man's age, what he has accomplished and what he has been able to do for years. He is exceptional and I want him to get his just due. Trust me; if he wasn't prepared, I wouldn't be here." Michel made the most poignant observation on the fights meaning to Pascal. “He's trying to beat Bernard Hopkins but he's trying to match Sergio Martinez or Manny Pacquiao to take aim as the ‘Fighter of the Year.’”

Relatively neutral observers weighed in, as part of a Showtime survey. Glen Johnson’s opinion was especially noted, given his age and loss to a prime Bernard Hopkins. “I think just being in Canada really helps Pascal and that will be the difference. It’s going to be great fight and very close and based on the crowd’s reaction, Pascal wins. It’s hard for me to give a definite answer on who is going to win, based on what I saw when Hopkins fought Roy Jones. I guess I would have to pick Pascal.” Carl Froch, also notable as the only man to defeat Jean Pascal, was his usual honest self. “Pascal is on the way up and Hopkins, while not really on the way down, has definitely hit a ceiling, with regards to work rate. I think the wily fox has a few gray whiskers now and he may be cute in the opening rounds but Jean Pascal’s sheer will to win can be what seals the deal.”

The most unbiased opinion, from a boxer who has not shared a ring with either man and is not in their weight class, came from loquacious former champion Paulie Malignaggi. “Pascal is younger and brings a high-energy level, plus the crowd backing him will motivate him a lot. I think this will be a close fight with Bernard definitely frustrating Pascal in spurts and with Pascal having success as well while pushing Hopkins to fight at a pace faster than he would like. I honestly think it will be very close and I think Bernard will get the decision up there.” It was a person with a lot to lose, Pascal’s promoter, Michel, who surmised, best incorporating the promotion’s tagline of “Dynasty.” “It' is the beginning and it's the end. No matter what happens Saturday, this fight will have a colossal impact on the career and the life of these two guys.” If those 36 “Dynasty” minutes do the same for boxing fans, essentially, it all comes down to Bernard Hopkins.


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