"Because I'm crazy."
Those were a few of the words that came out of Bernard Hopkins' mouth late Saturday night/early Sunday morning at Boardwalk Hall. They could have been the answer to any number of questions: Why are you still fighting at age 49? Why did you get into the ring with a young, devastating boxing like Sergey Kovalev? What makes you keep going when you really have nothing left to prove in the sport of boxing?
They were, however, the words Bernard uttered with a smile during Max Kellerman's post-fight, in-ring interview in response to the question as to how Bernard withstood the barrage of power punches Kovalev rained down upon him in a brutal 12th and final round and why Hopkins decided to end the fight that way.
"Because I'm crazy."
Bernard Hopkins is crazy. Any man who steps into a boxing ring and takes punches for a living is a little crazy. And when a man continues to do that two months shy of his 50th birthday? Well, that's about as crazy as it gets.
And crazy is the perfect word to describe my experience taking in my first live prize fight ever.
About a week and half ago or so, my cousin asked me if I wanted to go to the Hopkins-Kovalev fight on Nov. 8 in Atlantic City. Let's see … do I want to go see a living legend from my hometown take on one of the most talented, powerful, up-and-coming boxers in the sport? I believe it took me all of two seconds to decide in the affirmative. I could not have been more excited, and I couldn't wait for Saturday to finally arrive.
As late as Friday night, I was sort of up in the air on my plans for getting down to AC. Ultimately, I decided to meet up with everyone down the shore so I could, inexplicably, watch the first half of the Penn State-Indiana game and listen to the second half on my drive down, then meet my cousins and their crew to watch the Notre Dame-Arizona State game on the boardwalk.
The Penn State-Indiana game was exactly what has become common practice for any Penn State game this year. The defense played phenomenally, while the offense was beyond putrid. Christian Hackenberg continued his rapid regression, throwing an absolutely atrocious pick-six to give Indiana the lead, and he continued to miss wide open receivers and make horrid decisions. I'm not sure if it's a case of a sophomore slump, learning an entirely new offense, losing his top playmaker in Allen Robinson to the NFL and his offensive-minded head coach from last year, or simply Hackenberg not being as good as we thought, but the guy has struggled mightily this season. The most alarming part is that he keeps getting worse, just like the offense as a whole, not better.
Yes, Penn State has a dreadful and inexperienced offensive line that plays a large part in all of this, but the fact that not a single element of this offense has improved in the slightest and in actuality has gotten noticeably worse makes me think that offensive coordinator John Donovan and head coach James Franklin are not coaching these kids at all. The more games this team plays, the more I question whether Donovan and Franklin are even capable of coaching at all. There has been no evidence thus far that they can.
The game was tied at half, however, thanks to a 92-yard touchdown run by Bill Belton and Penn State's tremendous defense.
I departed at halftime and tuned in to the Penn State broadcast for my trip down the AC Expressway. It had been a while since I really listened to Penn State radio announcers Steve Jones and Jack Ham. I have to say, I really enjoyed listening to the duo, mainly because they pulled no punches, especially former Penn State great and NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham.
When Penn State took a 10-7 lead on a Sam Ficken field goal, Ham made no bones about it when the defense was put in a tough spot, saying it had to get a stop and not give up any more points, however unfair that is, because Penn State's offense simply is not good enough right now. He's obviously right, but you don't normally hear an announcer for a home team be so brutally honest, proclaiming an entire portion of the team isn't good enough to get the job done.
Thankfully, Penn State added another field goal to make it 13-7, and as I pulled in to the Tropicana parking garage I listened to the final few minutes. Then I headed inside during a break in the action and caught the final two drives of the game, with Penn State's defense indeed hanging on by pitching a shutout defensively — Indiana's only score was on that pick-six — giving the Nittany Lions the 13-7 victory. Penn State is now one win away from bowl eligibility with three games left: Temple at home, at Illinois and Michigan State at home to wrap up the season.
After the final seconds ticked off the clock, I headed to Chickie's and Pete's to meet up with the crew and settle in for the biggest game of the afternoon, Notre Dame-Arizona State.
At least we thought we were settling in for Notre Dame-Arizona State. When I met up with my cousin and friend at the bar, which was surrounded by TVs in every direction, seemingly every game in the country was on except ND-ASU. We were treated to the end of the Georgia Tech-NC State blowout and Tulane-Houston games. Thanks for that.
Quickly, the crowd grew restless waiting for the ND game to be put on. One group of guys behind us got extremely upset, making their displeasure heard. When the game finally came on, Notre Dame was leading 3-0. That lead would not last long, as ND quarterback Everett Golson became unhinged.
After the Sun Devils tied the game with a field goal, Golson essentially gave the game to the home team. First he fumbled, which led to a 13-yard touchdown pass by Taylor Kelly on the very next play to give ASU the lead. On the ensuing next play from scrimmage, Golson threw an interception, leading to another Arizona St. score. And on the very next possession, the Golden Domers' QB threw another interception that was returned for a touchdown. In a blur, the 3-0 ND lead turned into a 24-3 deficit, and the Irish fell behind 34-3 before a late touchdown to end the half. The 34-10 score didn't exactly scream great second half, so after finishing up as much of the food we ordered as we could, we headed to the boardwalk to enjoy some cigars on the walk to Boardwalk Hall.
After finishing up the cigars and finding out that Notre Dame was making a comeback — despite another Everett Golson interception, this time with ND at the ASU 7-yard line — we headed inside the hallowed grounds. I made sure to take in the atmosphere and surroundings of the place, taking note of the Arturo Gatti banner and the Atlantic-10 Championship banner, as well the old-school feel of Boardwalk Hall. It was certainly a sight to behold.
We settled into our seats in section 205, row H, taking in the undercard fights. There was a full slate of 10 fights, of which we saw about six or seven. Just about all of the undercard fights were uneventful — a few stopped by the ringside doctor, two involving fighters padding their stats against guys who had no business nor desire being in the ring, and the crowd getting a rise out of Darnell "Ding-A-Ling Man" Wilson. Wilson is an overweight bar puncher who came into the fight with Vyacheslav Glazkov holding 17 defeats to his name. He walked out of the ring with defeat number 18.
Honestly, the fights themselves were pretty bad, and the crowd let the fighters know with a barrage boos. This was a common theme throughout the night.
Another common theme was the sheer stupidity of other folks in the building. When we entered, the crowd was extremely thin — to the point that there were whole sections nearly empty. Still, we took our actual seats, the ones printed on our tickets, and set up shop for a long night. Shortly after we arrived and found out Notre Dame had pulled to within three points, two jerkoffs — and there's really no nice way to describe them — came storming down our row demanding that we vacate two seats for them because we were sitting in theirs, apparently. Mind you, there were nothing but empty seats around us, meaning these two could have sat anywhere for the time being, but no. They had to be assholes about it. This despite the fact that we were, in fact, sitting in our own seats, not theirs.
Still, seeing as we were still some five hours or so from the main event and there was still plenty of room around us, we moved down for this dynamic duo so as to not create a scene. No later than five minutes after their dickish insistence, they got up and left, either realizing they were actually in the wrong section or deciding they had better things to do like continue to be complete jerkoffs. My guess is it was a combination of the two.
Anyway, I digress. Before long, Everett Golson was turning the ball over yet again to all but seal Notre Dame's fate while we sat back and watched dud fight after dud fight. Thankfully, the crew of guys behind us was extremely entertaining. It was a mix of die-hard boxing fans who were dropping knowledge and friends of theirs who were there to see some haymakers. They were both funny and informative, creating a nice atmosphere.
Of course, it wasn't so nice everywhere. At one point during the undercards, a brawl in the stands broke out. Now seeing as this was my first title fight boxing event I have ever attended, I wasn't sure if this was standard operating procedure, like going to an Eagles game, or just the Jersey effect. My inclination is to say the latter, but I really don't know. Either way, it helped provide a wakeup call for a bit of a snoozer that was the pre-main event attractions.
Between fights, there were trips to get some beverages and food, and late into the evening, a full, large popcorn was purchased. As I was offered some, my cousin knocked the nearly completely full popcorn tub over, filling the seat in front of the us — and the jacket that was resting there — with popcorn. We couldn't stop laughing, while also thanking the heavens the owner of the jacket had stepped out to smoke a cigarette. The last thing we wanted was to become one of the fights that broke out in the crowd.
We began cleaning it off when one of his buddies finally picked it up and shook off the remaining popcorn pieces, saying he better get that off before he comes back and starts trouble. Luckily no trouble took place then, as his friends accepted our apologies and were cool the whole night.
As we got deeper and deeper into the fight card, the seats at Boardwalk Hall began to fill up. Before the co-main event match, we went out for one last trek around the hall and some refreshments. When we returned as the HBO broadcast finally took place and the national anthems were playing, we returned to see a group of three new folks occupying three of our six seats. Apparently no one in Atlantic City knows how to read a ticket properly.
When my cousin's friend informed the trio — two guys and a woman — that they would have to move so we could sit in our seats, now with the entire arena packed, they resisted at first. Then he told them again, you have to move. The woman turned to him and said, "What are you gonna do, tell on us?"
That's when things got slightly heated, as the trio was informed that no, we we're going to tell on you — but you were moving, one way or the other. Finally, while mouthing off and being upset that they were in the wrong seats I guess, they moved behind us, next to the entertaining crew that had been cracking us up all day. Those guys behind us informed these trespassers that A. we (as in us) had been sitting there all day and those were our seats, and B. the seats they moved to were also occupied by others all day. Finally, this second group of assholes left and headed somewhere else, probably to try and pilfer someone else's seats. Seriously, what in the hell is wrong with people? Reading a ticket and finding your seat is not hard. If you aren't capable of completing that task, or at the very least asking an usher to help you, you shouldn't be at the event in the first place. Just stay home and let the competent folks enjoy sitting in their own seats without any headaches. Or at the very, very least, shut your damn mouth and move out of the way quickly when the rightful ticket holders of the seats you are occupying show up. It's not hard, people, unless you make it difficult. And if your goal is to make things difficult, you should be barred from public.
Anyway, after the co-main event ended with another uninspiring bout, we were all set to hear Michael Buffer introduce the real main event of the night. We also noticed some celebrities in the crowd, namely Whoopi Goldberg and Rosie Perez — mostly because Rosie is an infatuation here at TSFJ. Also in attendance were 50 Cent, Michael Rapaport, LeSean McCoy, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and others.
None of that really mattered all that much. We weren't here to see any of them. We were hear to see the 49-year-old Philadelphia legend take on the up-and-coming knockout specialist. Buffer got us amped, but it was Sergey "The Krusher" Kovalev and especially Bernard Hopkins entering the ring that got the crowd really roaring. Hopkins, who recently changed his moniker from The Executioner to The Alien, entered the ring in an alien mask. Hopkins always was the entertainer.
Of course, once the bout started, it was really all about Kovalev. Before heading to this fight, being more of a novice than an expert, I called our very own boxing expert, Paul Navarro. Paul dropped more knowledge on me in 15 minutes than I had learned about boxing in 30 years, giving me pointers on what to watch for in the fight. He said for Bernard to have any real chance, he'd have to keep Kovalev's feet moving and continue to turn him like a dancer. He also anticipated Kovalev going for the knockout and Hopkins trying to make him go the distance, something The Krusher had never done before.
When the bell rang, I was looking to see what Bernard would do. How would the 49-year-old hold up?
In typical Hopkins fashion, he was cautious and calculating in the opening rounds, throwing very few punches so as to try to wear Kovalev out. Kovalev, meanwhile, was definitely the aggressor, but he was not overaggressive at all. In fact, he was welcoming the slow pace, reading Hopkins much the same way Hopkins has read opponents early in bouts throughout his entire career.
The slow pace and low punch output got the crowd restless. The boos rained down again. Then another fight broke out in the stands. As I stated earlier, crazy was the appropriate word for the night.
But while the pace was slow early on, it was not in Bernard's favor. Hopkins was not moving Kovalev around and certainly was not having much success turning the 31-year-old power puncher. Simply put, Kovalev was out-boxing the boxing master. He connected with some power punches, sure, but Kovalev was making a point to all his doubters that he was more than a puncher. He kept Hopkins outside, wouldn't let him get comfortable and used his reach and power to overwhelm the old man.
And for the first time in his career, Hopkins looked like just that, an old man.
From the opening bell on, Kovalev was in complete control. He had his fair share of supporters, but the mostly pro-Hopkins crowd was rendered silent most of the fight. When Hopkins would land the rare blow, the crowd erupted, but it never phased The Krusher.
By the time the late rounds rolled around, it was more about Bernard holding on than anything else. With what unfolded in the 12th round, it's a miracle he was actually able to do it.
Round 12 was nothing short of a massacre. Kovalev punished Hopkins early in the round, staggering the champ and leaving him dazed. Then he rocked him again, but Hopkins refused to go down. The Krusher continued to pummel Hopkins with kill shot after kill shot, and still Bernard would not go down. It was inexplicable. Here was the best boxer in the division, the hardest puncher out there, giving Hopkins everything he had and landing power punches flush on the 49-year-old, and Bernard would not quit. It really was the exploits of an alien. There's no other explanation for Hopkins not falling to the canvas and going down for the count.
Any other fighter in the world would have succumbed to Kovalev's onslaught, but as Hopkins has shown for a lifetime, he isn't like any other fighter out there. Watching him withstand the assault and refuse to go down was one of the greatest things I have ever witnessed in my life. While it was taking place, the crowd was roaring, both in appreciation for Kovalev's dominance and Hopkins' indomitable spirit. When the final bell rang, Boardwalk Hall could not contain itself. We had all witnessed history, all right, and we couldn't contain our appreciation for what we had just seen unfold before our very eyes.
Sergey Kovalev manhandled Bernard Hopkins. Bernard admitted as much after the fight to Kellerman, saying Kovalev was the better man Saturday night, the better fighter who executed a perfect game plan. For his part, after jokingly saying it was easy, Kovalev praised the legend who had stood in so valiantly against him. He said it was the most difficult opponent he had faced, saying Hopkins made it a very tough fight. He then admitted that he was trying to knock Hopkins out in the 12th round, evident by anyone who was watching, but that the champ simply refused to go down.
The Krusher also made a point to note he wanted to go long with Hopkins and prove he was a better boxer than his critics thought. He proved that and then some. And to cap off his interview, he couldn't resist the urge to take a shot at Adonis Stevenson, the man Kovalev has tried to fight but has been unsuccessful in securing, saying he knows Hopkins could beat Stevenson.
The mutual respect for the participants, both winner and loser, was on full display. They embraced and praised one another, a torch most definitely being passed.
Of course, the night wrapped up with Bernard and his final words to Kellerman. He said his future in the sport is 50/50 … but also pointed out it has been 50/50 for the past decade. He talked about how boxing is for the fans and that's what matters. Fans want to see a unified sport, want to see boxers who will take on all comers, want to see entertaining fights. It's why Hopkins stayed in there toe to toe with Kovalev, taking a beating to give the fans something to remember. Well, that and because he's crazy.
Crazy or not, even in defeat Bernard Hopkins gave the boxing world something to remember forever. At 49 years old, he went toe to toe with a younger, stronger, faster foe, and he took him the distance. Sergey Kovalev dominated from start to finish and damn near knocked out the man who has never been knocked out, but Bernard Hopkins simply refuse to give fans anything less than his all.
It was an awesome spectacle, and the price of admission was worth it for that 12th round and the in-ring, post-fight interviews alone. Whether it's his last fight or not, Bernard Hopkins did nothing but add to his legend, even in sound defeat, while Sergey Kovalev continued to build his own legend. I feel honored to have been there to witness it.
Afterward, a few of us gambled a bit, and after breaking exactly even at the blackjack table, I departed for home, finally laying down my head sometime past 5 in the morning Sunday. It led to a day mostly consumed by falling asleep with the NFL games on my televisions, but I wasn't even upset that I was in and out of consciousness during the football games. Saturday night had drained me, and let's be honest, with the Eagles not playing until Monday night, there wasn't a play in the world that could have compared to what I saw during and after that 12th round Saturday night.
I may have walked in to Boardwalk Hall a casual boxing fan, but I walked out a bona fide fight fanatic. While we aren't sure if this was Bernard's last fight, I can tell you for certain that it's not mine. I have Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev to thank for that. Oh, and my cousin too.