Bernard Hopkins versus the Corporate Media
And, uh, Jermain Taylor too
By Alex Pierpaoli
It seems I’m always trying to argue my view of something. Whether it’s that global warming is a reality that’s actually happening, that Karl Rove is a malicious liar, or that Jessica Alba is so much hotter than Jessica Simpson; trying to prove your point to people that do not share it is never easy. Boxing is a source of joy in my life in part because there is no other place where truths are proved or dispelled so quickly or with such brutal emphasis. But when there’s a close and controversial decision in a high profile fight then dammit I end up arguing about boxing too, a process that often squeezes the joy out of the greatest of contact sports and leaves me pretty nauseous.
Last Saturday night at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Bernard Hopkins lost a split decision to 26 year old Jermain Taylor. Taylor, who remains undefeated at 24-0 (17) with the split-decision victory, proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he belongs at the top of the one hundred sixty pound class; but even he seemed less than enthusiastic with his effort in the narrow decision win. In case you missed it, HBO will rebroadcast their pay-per-view fight tomorrow night at 10:15 ET/PT. But before you watch there are some things to consider…
Watching Bernard Hopkins fight on HBO is similar to watching Neil Cavuto or Sean Hannity doing a story on Howard Dean. The only thing fair and balanced about HBO’s broadcast is the scale they use to weigh fighters a few hours before fight time. And unlike the punch-count figures with which HBO is so enamored, the fight-night weights are actually a noteworthy and provocative statistical element of their broadcast.
Going into last Saturday’s fight the agenda was clear, HBO wanted a change. They hyped the hell out of Jermain Taylor and the idea that he could be boxing’s savior, the shot in the arm the black-eyed sport needs for its own damn good. Time and again we were reminded of Taylor’s humble beginnings and good nature contrasted with the bitter feud Hopkins had with Lou DiBella, Taylor’s promoter. During the fight HBO cameras checked on DiBella in the crowd as if this businessman, and former HBO employee, had any impact on what was going on inside the ropes.
When HBO’s cameras showed Hopkins on his way to the ring, Hopkins was without the executioner’s mask he used to wear into fights.
“I like that Bernard Hopkins, at the age of 40, has finally given up on his Halloween executioner costume,” said Larry Merchant. But if you think back to one of Hopkins recent HBO fights it was the same Larry Merchant who told viewers that Hopkins gave up the masks because of the current political climate and the increased visibility of masked jihadists killing innocents. The mask imagery was something Hopkins, as a Muslim, wanted to avoid out of sensitivity to American armed forces and to other Muslims. But on Saturday night versus Taylor HBO was more in the mood to mock Hopkins than to praise him.
HBO’s unofficial judge, Harold Lederman prefaces each match-up on the network with a breakdown of the four criteria used to score professional prize fights: Clean Punching, Effective Aggressiveness, Ring Generalship and Defense. Lederman always makes a point of stressing clean punching as the most weighted of the criteria and yet he often gives tremendous credit to the fighter landing the more frequent glancing, brushing punches. DeLaHoya-Mosley 2 was the most glaring recent example and Taylor-Hopkins is another.
Boxing is a crucible where character is forged and weaknesses are brutally exploited in the most immediate and often punishing manner. Hopkins and Taylor thrive in that environment, even if they represent two very different personalities of the American prize-fighter.
Last Saturday night Hopkins was the champion. If you are the challenger then it is up to you to lay your hands on him and mark him up enough to make us believe that you are the better fighter and that you’ve actually taken the title. Counting punches and awarding rounds to the busier fighter is simply granting quantity too much significance. The shifts in tide are usually more important than the spray and splash in the flow of a fight.
Larry Merchant is one of the best in the business but he has his peeves like anyone else does—one of them is fighters who think they are owed anything from the judges and one could very easily make the case that on Saturday night Hopkins expected the benefit of the doubt as champion. Perhaps that is the most shocking truth to come out of the fight at all; since when does the most suspicious guy in the sport expect anyone to do him any favors?
But when interviewed Hopkins seemed resigned to what had just happened despite insisting that he should have gotten the decision.
“I think I backed him up more than he backed me up with force,” said Hopkins. And it’s the force that matters folks, this is boxing, not cycling. Why Hopkins wasn’t more enraged surprised me. At ringside, next to Jim Lampley, even Roy Jones, Hopkins old nemesis, looked plain disgusted.
“At 40 years old he (Hopkins) still out-landed the guy and has a very good argument that he won the fight,” said Jones. It seemed like Roy thought Hopkins deserved the decision, even though, when pressed by Jim Lampley to tab a winner, Roy said it should have been a draw. But that could also be that Roy has more class in his role as broadcaster than Lampley and wouldn’t get baited away from impartiality. His Royness called the fight a draw, but his face told a different story as he appeared visibly disappointed for Hopkins and the Executioner’s title reign that ends at 20 defenses.
Roy knows that Ring Generalship and Defense are enough to win rounds when one fighter is making the other guy miss and making him go where he wants when there is no significant edge in punches landed. Ironically, the older Nard gets the more he seems to fight like Roy Jones, lots of feinting and careful use of distance to impose a very strict economy of action on the bout. Fighters that excel in ring generalship are the ones that consistently set the pace on an opponent and can lure the other guy into fighting the wrong fight and playing right into the better ring general’s fists.
HBO PPV’s broadcast also included former ESPN commentator Max Kellerman, whose point that the master chess player, Hopkins, achieved the winning position on Saturday night but never bothered to checkmate his opponent was absolutely correct. Why Bernard Hopkins didn’t work harder for the knockout when it seemed possible in rounds seven and ten is a question for the ages. If Hopkins scored a knockdown he could have secured a win assuming the rest of the fight played out the same way after Taylor got up.
Nard should have turned up the heat sooner. No question. This was not a fifteen round fight, what was Hopkins waiting for? Shame on him for not admitting he let the rounds get away from him.
As to Jermain Taylor, boxing does have a new star, no doubt. Taylor fought very well and he’s a tough kid. Major props and class to him–but even he didn’t think he deserved the win. He’s a real competitor and at the end of the fight he had to feel more busted up than ever and it’s likely he never imagined he’d feel that way when he won a pro-title.
As a young fighter it’s doubtful he ever fantasized about squeaking by with a split decision to become a champion. Competitors like Jermain Taylor fantasize about emphatic victories and post-fight glory, not post-fight arguments, protests and appeals. So when Jermain Taylor asked for a rematch within seconds of first responding to Larry Merchant it wasn’t a surprise. Not five minutes after the final bell the guy who won the fight is talking about training harder and getting a rematch; now that’s a fighter. Maybe HBO is going to get their golden warrior that saves the sport after all.
In the end it was a typical seven rounds to five type of fight at best–like too many these days. I felt Hopkins scored with enough well placed left hooks to Taylor’s jaw to pull the close rounds like round 3. Though neither fighter threw many body-punches at all—which was tremendously disappointing—Hopkins’ punches seemed the more bruising throughout the fight. For the record my card read as follows:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 total
Hopkins 9 9 10 9 10 9 9 10 10 10 10 10 115
Taylor 10 10 9 10 9 10 10 9 9 9 9 9 113
Here’s the problem with Compubox and counting punches, first the statistics generated have absolutely nothing to do with how a fight is scored. There is no way to distinguish hard punches and flicking, do-nothing punches. Non-jabs are considered “power punches” but there is no way to quantify or qualify which of those hooks, uppercuts and crosses did any damage. Counting punches only matters in the amateurs where doing damage to one’s opponent holds no more value than gently tapping him in the forehead. In the amateurs quantity of punches landed is all important even if the five judges scoring rarely agree on an actual count of total punches.
Counting punches can’t be easy and it certainly requires practice and tremendous focus. But how accurate are the numbers we get from the Compubox counts we see? Are we to believe the figures for the Larios-McCullough fight are accurate? Did you see how fast those two were punching? We are just supposed to accept Compubox figures without debate or a stated margin of error? Are robots counting the punches or human beings that are capable of miss-counting a punch or two, landed or thrown? Has anyone ever done an audit on Compubox figures by carefully going over their numbers compared to a round-by-round, frame-by-frame review of a fight on tape? Are we to assume that the punchstat figures are 100% accurate for a fight in which both athletes’ thrown punches are a rapid blur of movement? This writer considered counting the punches thrown and landed in Hopkins-Taylor but gave up quickly when he found he had neither the patience nor the constitution to stick with it, but determining and stating a margin of error seems like something that would add to Compubox’ credibility.
Punchstat figures are little more than an interesting bit of trivia that adds to the television viewing of fights. There is real folly in assigning anymore significance to them than that. Boxing is subjective and punch figures can sometimes be used to support ones’ argument of who won a fight but very often they can be used to support an entirely contradictory argument. Again, they are just numbers and they simply do not ascribe any value to force and damage done and that’s what professional boxing is all about. Honestly, when you’re at a live fight and have no access to punch-stat numbers, do you miss them? While watching a fight live do you feel lost and confused about which fighter is throwing more and which one is landing more? I’m guessing the answer to both those questions is no.
But don’t take my word for any of this, watch the replay on HBO Saturday night and judge for yourself. Tivo it, tape it, watch it again with the volume off, close your eyes for the damn punch stat numbers, or go to the toilet between rounds to avoid seeing those meaningless digits. Listen to Harold Lederman’s defense of his scorecard, especially at the start of round seven when he describes how much work Taylor is doing and he points out two jabs by Taylor to make his point even though both punches are grazing smacks. Score it for yourself and see who you think won. Watch it without any sound and see if you see the rounds differently than the way in which they are described.
It’s not a thrilling fight, it’s a tactical one and perhaps because of that it is one of the more important fights of the year. There seem to be two schools of thought in boxing judging; one values damage done, harm inflicted and the way a fighter controls his opponent. The other school of thought places more value on a fighter’s work rate, pressure and driving the action of the fight; you decide which of these won out in Hopkins-Taylor.
And the next time these two middleweights fight, pray for a knockout. I know I am.
Send comments or questions to Alex Pierpaoli at: KOFantasyBoxing@gmail.com