On March 9, Bernard Hopkins will attempt to break his own record of being boxing’s oldest ever world champion when he challenges IBF light heavyweight belt-holder Tavoris Cloud. While Hopkins has nothing left to prove, at 47, he remains a live contender.
Dissenters will point to Hopkins’ somewhat plodding performance in a decision defeat to Chad Dawson as a prime reason that Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KO) should retire. However, it is easy to forget that Hopkins is not far removed from two intriguing and surprisingly engaging bouts against former champion Jean Pascal.
So, does Hopkins stand a chance of dethroning Cloud (24-0, 19 KO)? If he’s going to upset yet another upstart, here’s how Hopkins can do it:
Consistent Punch Output
This is a perennial problem for Hopkins, a defensive wizard who is perhaps more adept at disrupting his opponent’s rhythm than initiating his own offense.
To say Hopkins should simply follow Gabriel Campillo’s tactical blueprint against Cloud would be unfair. Campillo (21-4-1, 8 KO) is a younger, fresher fighter with greater hand speed than Hopkins at this juncture. That said, Hopkins must pick his spots and throw combinations. Campillo showed that Cloud can become gun-shy and susceptible to aimless stalking when bombarded by three or more consecutive punches.
If Hopkins refuses to throw combinations, Cloud will simply stalk forward and unload with his powerful left hook and straight right hand. Even if Hopkins blocks or slips most of these shots, he will gradually fall behind on points. While it would be surprising if Hopkins outworked Cloud, it behooves Hopkins to offer consistent offensive spurts.
Now, consider this: According to CompuBox, Hopkins only averaged 33 punches thrown per round in his defeat to Chad Dawson (per BoxingScene.com). Dawson also threw 31 more punches (431 to 400) and landed 45 more punches (150 to 106) than Hopkins.
Conversely, in his first fight against Jean Pascal, Hopkins threw 152 more punches than his opponent (502 to 350) and landed 153 total shots compared to Pascal’s 86 (per BoxingScene.com). In the subsequent rematch, which Hopkins won, he again threw more punches than Pascal (409 to 377), landing 131 blows to Pascal’s 77 (per DogHouseBoxing.com).
Recent trends suggest that when Hopkins is aggressive, his opponent’s punch output and number of connects suffer.
Obviously, at 48, Hopkins isn’t going to be able to circle and retreat the same way Campillo did against Cloud. Hopkins’ ability to pace himself and control the tempo of a given round is grounded in subtleties. Whether it’s how he fights in the clinch or his foot movement in tight spaces, Hopkins is the ultimate craftsman.
Thus, given Hopkins’ boxing acumen, precise and timely lateral movement should be enough to disrupt Cloud’s rhythm.
Cloud is somewhat of a straightforward fighter who likes to engage as he advances. Applying steady pressure only seems to enhance Cloud’s power, as long as his opponent retreats in predictable patterns. Thus, moving laterally will both disrupt Cloud’s pressure and provide Hopkins with unique angles for landing his own punches.
Campillo used lateral movement to befuddle and outbox Cloud. By using feints to lure Cloud forward, Hopkins can create situations where he is the better-balanced and more mobile fighter. Then, Hopkins should be able to slip Cloud’s punches, turn his man and unload with crisp combinations.
For Hopkins to win, he will have to play matador to Cloud’s bull.
Mix Counter-Punching and Initiating Offense
Against Cloud, Campillo had sustained success because he forced Cloud to fight off of his back foot. While Cloud is an aggressive, powerful fighter, he is not known for his counter-punching or his movement.
Hopkins, of course, is one of boxing’s premier tacticians and counter-punchers. However, he has a tendency to neglect combination punching and forward movement at the expense of negating his opponent’s offense. To beat Cloud, Hopkins must make a concerted effort to beat Cloud to the punch.
If Hopkins simply retreats and tries to counter Cloud, he will be crowded and perhaps drawn into an unwanted slugfest. While it is not in Hopkins’ nature to be overly aggressive and stalk forward, he would be wise to regularly initiate exchanges against Cloud.
Hopkins can use his ability to counter Cloud to jumpstart his offense. When Hopkins stings Cloud with a counter right hand, for instance, he should consider following up with pressure and a fast three-punch combination. Cloud froze when Campillo made quick transitions to combination punching, and this tactic will keep Cloud off balance.
To keep Cloud exclusively off of his front foot, Hopkins must vary his attack.
Throw to the Body
Campillo had tremendous success when he incorporated repeated hooks to Cloud’s body. Punching downstairs was often part of Campillo’s bursts of flashy combinations, and the blows were able to slow Cloud’s stalking.
Using feints and foot movement is also important to create openings for body shots. This, of course, will be more difficult for Hopkins than it was for Campillo. It seems likely that Cloud will be able to crowd and smother Hopkins at some point, yet it is here where Hopkins can turn the tide with body blows.
Making Cloud pay for getting inside is paramount, and Hopkins would be wise to throw crisp hooks and sharp uppercuts to Cloud’s midsection at close quarters. This can occur in the clinch or after Hopkins slips Cloud’s punches as the champion stalks forward. Regardless, Hopkins will have to slow his younger opponent down in order to win.
With Cloud’s aggression and relentless pressure, Hopkins will be forced to fight. Before bemoaning Hopkins’ choice to continue boxing, consider that Cloud might be an ideal foil to force Hopkins into a bout as compelling as his clashes against Pascal.