Thursday, June 08, 2006

Tarver-Hopkins: A light-heavyweight struggle in the twilight of greatness

By JE Grant

When Antonio Tarver, the one true light-heavyweight champion, meets Bernard Hopkins, once the true middleweight champion, Saturday night, we will witness a major event misplaced in time.

A fight that five years ago would have been a mega-event, is now relegated to simply being a major attraction. With both fighters in what has to be the final stages of stellar careers, some of the luster is gone. Fortunately for millions of pay-per-view fans both champions are dedicated to winning – a factor that often overrides the physical diminished abilities of the combatants. Just take a relook at Ali-Frazier III.

Fresh from a movie-making stint as the character Mason Dixon in the latest incarnation of the Rocky series, Tarver has endeavored to drop a significant amount of weight – as much as 50 pounds by some unconfirmed accounts – and refocus on the game that brought him his initial fame.

The southpaw champion went from credible contender to world-beater almost overnight in 2003 when he lost a highly controversial decision to then-pound for pound king Roy Jones. So brilliant was Jones that he rarely lost any part of any round. On top of that, he had most recently won a heavyweight belt.

Tarver was unmistakably different from everyone who had ventured into the world of Roy. Unafraid and totally committed to the attack, he pressed and pounded the undisputed king of boxing. Perhaps not believing their eyes, the judges allowed Jones to maintain his title reign with majority decision.

The strong effort was not lost on anyone. A much-anticipated rematch resulted in one of the most stunning finishes anyone at ringside could have imagined. Beginning with the stare down at ring center when Tarver so famously responded to the referee’s question, “do you have any excuses this time Roy?,” it was clear that the night would be different.

After a tentative opening round of their rematch, Tarver exploded on the chin of Jones in the second round and watched in wonder – with much of the sporting world – as the ten-count put the first real loss on Jones’ multi-title career.

Since that spectacular performance, a pair of classic struggles with perhaps the second best light heavyweight, Glen Johnson, as well as a rubber-match decision over Jones, has solidified his place as the top fighter in his weight class.

At 37, Tarver is in the twilight of his moneymaking campaign, and a win over Hopkins merely adds luster to an already formidable record.

It is true that at 37 we normally would not expect that Tarver would enter the ring as the youngster but the 41 year-old Hopkins gives him plenty of breathing room.

The “Executioner” has long proven his ability and willingness to maintain a high level of conditioning and resilience. After dropping his pro debut, ironically at a career high of 177 pounds, he moved to middleweight and has hovered at or near the 160-pound limit for every fight since. Even as he aged his body seemed immune from the extra pounds that usually creep aboard a fighter’s frame.

Five years of winning after that loss in his debut brought him to his next and most convincing loss, a decision to Roy Jones for a vacant middleweight belt.

For the next 12 years he would remain undefeated, win and unify the middleweight title, and successfully defend his championship 20 times. As champion he defended against greats such as Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, as well as a string of also-rans. He was often criticized for opponent selection (such as his decision to face Robert Allen three times, one of which was ruled a no-contest due to injury, and the other two which were not competitive). Nonetheless he adhered to the cardinal rule for champions – win, win, win.

Win, that is, until meeting Jermain Taylor. Losing close decisions to Taylor were perhaps the first hints that his 40-something body was finally showing the effects of age. While his was very competitive in the bouts – many thought he won both – it was clear that he was not able to put punches together with as much consistency and energy as in years past.

No one would have criticized him if he simply rode into the sunset as a former champion with plenty of money, an already underway second career as a promoter, and his faculties intact. Not bad for an ex-con from the very mean streets of Philadelphia.

Of course the single-mindedness that enabled him to persevere through prison and a long climb to the world championship, continues to drive him.

It had indeed landed him an opportunity for history and prestige for the ages.

It also provides him an opportunity to go out on his shield, crushed by a bigger, younger, and much stronger puncher.

PREDICTION: In this fight it won’t be age that is served, it will be size. Tarver is likely the slower puncher of the two but he is willing to get close and occasionally throw with abandon. He has faced the stiff punches of Glen Johnson and the desperation of Roy Jones and has proven unrelenting. He even fought hard against Eric Harding despite a broken jaw. It is unlikely that the cagey Hopkins has anything in his arsenal that will keep Tarver at a distance or cause him to slow his attack. Of course Hopkins won’t go quietly into the night. He will fight hard in spots but won’t be able to sustain the kind of attack necessary to take the heat out of Tarver. When he can’t punch, however, he will prove hard to hit squarely or often. Look for a retreating Hopkins to give it a strong go but lose out to the heavy hands of Tarver. Antonio Tarver by clear decision.


Blogger orltroy said...

I say Tarver by late round stoppage, when Hopkins gets desperate and agressive late, Tarver will make him pay. ANother superbly written piece and very accurate descriptions.

9:09 AM  
Blogger BiLL Earl said...

J.E.'re the best boxing columnist out there!

Better than even Steve Springer of the L.A. Times!

I'm looking forward to your comments on Wright-Taylor, and just WHICH heavyweight has any chance of knocking out Valuev.


4:33 PM  
Anonymous the cruiserweight said...

What an impressive performance by Hopkins here. In hindsight, I believe he probably should have moved up to 168 or 175 a few years ago. As for Tarver - this just in: He will go down in history as a GOOD fighter, but not a GREAT one. I honestly think the best lt.hvy at the moment is young CHAD DAWSON. As for Tarver - I think he should move up to cruiser. I think he may do well there actually. Even at his advanced age. But hvy? No...He gets 'broken in half' by the top and even 2nd-tier/echelon hvy's.

10:29 PM  

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