Photos by Sumio Yamada
JEAN PASCAL vs BERNARD HOPKINS
As ever when a rematch takes place we have to figure out which fighter will be able to fight better the second time around. The eternal conundrum presents itself again on Saturday in Montreal when Jean Pascal defends his light-heavyweight title against Bernard Hopkins.
If you look at their first, drawn fight last December, it is at first glance no-brainer that Hopkins wins this time. Down twice in the first three rounds, Hopkins finished the bout by chasing his much younger opponent all around the ring. Hopkins looked the stronger, better, tougher fighter in most of the rounds. If it hadn’t been for the knockdowns, he would have won a unanimous decision.
My first thoughts were that Hopkins would score a remarkable victory on Saturday to make him, at the age of 46, the oldest man ever to have won a world title. This week, though, I have been slowly veering away from this position. Today’s weigh-in raised a red flag. For surely the first time in his long career, Hopkins failed to make the contracted weight. It wasn’t by much, and he easily made the weight limit with a couple of ounces to spare at the second attempt. Still, for the ultimate professional such as Hopkins, to weigh in over the limit, however slightly, borders on the unthinkable.
Additionally, Pascal looked somehow different at today’s weigh-in. The Quebec boxer is impressively built, but he looked a little leaner than usual, almost imperceptibly so, but, more than this, his attitude seemed different to the first fight. When the two men met last December, Hopkins seemed to be rattling Pascal and unnerving him with his ex-convict, menacing manner. This time, Pascal was clearly anxious not to give an inch in the now-customary pre-fight staredown. Perhaps things will be different when the bell rings for the start of the HBO main event on Saturday night, but as of today Pascal looked the way I like a boxer to look — ready to fight.
Many years ago, the great writer A.J. Liebling observed: “I believe that there is more hogwash written about the ‘psychological’ aspect of boxing than about any other facet of the sport.” Yet with due deference to Mr. Liebling, there could be something to this psychological business as it relates to boxers.
Speaking over the phone from Montreal today, Yvon Michel, Pascal’s promoter, explained that last December Pascal wasn’t prepared mentally for the task ahead of him. Pascal, he said, was riding an emotional high after his upset win over Chad Dawson, who at the time was considered the best light-heavyweight in the world. Then he was matched against Hopkins. “People were asking him what he was doing fighting a 45-year-old man [as Hopkins then was],” Michel said. “Hopkins had performed bad in his last two fights. Jean wasn’t prepared to fight the fight of his life the way he was when he fought Dawson. This time it will be different.”
Also, Hopkins tricked Pascal by adopting a friendly attitude in the build-up to the fight, only to turn nasty and downright mean-spirited as the bout drew nearer, Michel said. “On the press tour he was nice to Jean, he was funny, like an old pal,” Michel said. “It was only when the week of the fight arrived that he tried to intimidate Jean. So really, Jean was not really ready for what happened that night. Now he knows, and he’s prepared for the challenge of a lifetime. Hopkins is a great, great fighter and I don’t see a one-sided fight, but I see Jean winning most of the rounds, and at the end I see Jean as a clear winner.”
Leaving aside the mental part of the bout, let us look at the mechanics of the contest.
When Pascal was letting his hands fly in the early rounds of the last fight he looked very good. There even seemed a possibility that he would stop Hopkins. Then, as early as the fourth round, Pascal showed signs of fatigue and Hopkins essentially took command.
I would say that Hopkins fought the best he could possibly fight that night. Pascal, meanwhile, can hardly box a worse fight than the one he fought in December and logically should be able to fight a better one on Saturday.
Pascal has been accused of lacking stamina, but he swept the last two rounds on all three judges’ cards in his gruelling rematch with Adrian Diaconu, and this despite boxing with an injured shoulder. I think it was mental pressure as much as anything that caused him to tire the first time against Hopkins. I believe that Pascal can learn from the experience of December’s ordeal.
Hopkins is a craftsman, the superior technician, but Pascal — always assuming he doesn’t burn up too much energy, too soon — has the speed and the style that can offset the older man’s ringcraft. Pascal is what I would call an “explosive bursts” fighter. He will move around the ring and then swoop into the attack. “Pascal can be hard to figure out because he doesn’t fight in a rhythm,” Diaconu’s trainer, Stephane Larouche, said over the phone from Montreal this week. “Sometimes I don’t think even Jean knows what punch he’s going to throw next.”
The athletic, unconventional fighter can beat the more measured boxer because he does the unexpected. Pascal was beating Hopkins for three rounds and we sometimes forget that there were two or three rounds later in the fight when he rallied well enough to make the rounds close enough for argument.
Astonishing physical specimen though he is, Hopkins nevertheless is moving towards his 47th birthday, while Pascal is only 28. A great older fighter can grow old overnight, as Archie Moore did against Floyd Patterson and Joe Brown did against Carlos Ortiz. I don’t think that Hopkins will grow old on Saturday, just five months after his first clash with Pascal, but it is possible that he won’t be able to maintain quite the same intensity for such a long stretch of boxing.
Picking against Hopkins is a risky thing to do, though. Hopkins pulled off major upsets against Felix Trinidad, Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik, and he came within a single point of upsetting the odds against Pascal. One of my most knowledgeable subscribers just emailed to say he is staying away from the fight. “I’m an expert and I lost the last three times [he bet against Hopkins] when I thought he was through,” my subscriber warned. “He’s one of a kind.”
Yet while I started out liking Hopkins’s chances, as the fight gets ever-so near I am just getting a sense that this will be a different Pascal, a more focused and fierier version of the one who limped to the finishing line in December.
Subscribers' previews and picks include: DeGale-Groves; Dawson-Diaconu; Gavin-Mutley; Lebedev-Jones; Rojas-Montes; Cleverly-Kuziemski.