Old school prevails in Hopkins-Pascal despite judges' findings
Bernard Hopkins and Jean Pascal drew in their title bout, but Hopkins was better
While Pascal, 18 years younger, showed iffy conditioning, Hopkins grew stronger
Hopkins, who will get a rematch with Pascal, is still among pound-for-pound elite
Bernard Hopkins taught a master class Saturday at Quebec City's Colisée Pepsi.
The record will show Jean Pascal earned a passing grade in retaining his WBC and Ring light heavyweight titles on a majority draw.
But the more than 16,000 hometown fans who witnessed Hopkins' stirring exhibition of technical precision, ring generalship and true grit know Pascal's transcript deserves at best an incomplete.
Hopkins, who turns 46 on Jan. 15, delivered an inspired performance in his bid to surpass George Foreman as the oldest fighter to win a major world championship, but came up short on the judges' cards. Steve Morrow of the United States scored it 114-112 to Hopkins, but Canada's Claude Paquette had it 113-113 and Belgium's Daniel Van de Wiele had it 114-114. (SI.com had it 114-112 to Hopkins.)
It wasn't a five-alarm travesty or a historic miscarriage of justice, as Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer predictably clamored afterward.
But Hopkins won the fight.
And he deserves the history after cheating Father Time yet again, outfoxing an opponent who was five years old when Hopkins turned pro.
With a hostile Quebecois crowd bearing down on him, Hopkins rallied from a pair of flash knockdowns in the first three rounds -- his first taste of the canvas in 16 years -- and showed extraordinary mental strength to chip away at the early deficit and dominate the fight over the last three quarters. Hopkins outlanded Pascal, 171 to 105, and connected at a higher rate on both jabs and power punches. He landed the better and more frequent combinations, imposed his will on his opponent more effectively and looked fresher at the end.
By most objective measures, Hopkins was the winner, not the 28-year-old champion. The cynic might argue Hopkins' biggest problem was having the wrong passport.
"This one hurts the sport," Hopkins said afterward, impassioned but more disappointed than angry. "And I don't cry over spilled milk. The fans seen it, the fans know what it is. Pascal wasn't overly happy. He's banged up. He's a younger guy, but I took him to school. He got some good shots in, but he should against a 45-year-old guy."
The arguable if not controversial result sullied one of the most gallant performances of Hopkins' panoramic 22-year career.
Pascal spent the opening round circling Hopkins, making ample use of the 24-foot ring -- a theoretical advantage for the younger fighter -- and using the right hand to set up the left hook. As Hopkins bore in for an end-of-round flurry, Pascal sent him to the floor with a right. Hopkins was surprised to see Montreal referee Michael Griffin had ruled it a knockdown, as the punch had landed near the back of his head. ("I don't think it was legitimate," he said of the sequence. "I didn't complain about it. I got up and fought like a champion.")
Early on, Hopkins was making Pascal miss with lunging punches, but failing to capitalize with counters. He appeared to settle and find rhythm in the third, landing lefts to the body and overhand rights with greater accuracy, but Pascal scored a second knockdown with a short left downstairs.
From there, the fight almost exclusively belonged to Hopkins.
He won the next four rounds -- and six of the next seven -- on SI.com's card, landing the crisper, cleaner combinations. Even when Pascal landed squarely, Hopkins never appeared hurt. It was vintage Executioner: slippery and artful in defense, escaping trouble with a graceful sidestep or instinctive shoulder roll.
At no point during the second half did Pascal look 18 years Hopkins junior. As the fight progressed and Pascal's iffy conditioning became evident, Hopkins grew more emboldened, consistently moving Pascal backward with a blend of right-hand leads, vicious lefts to the body, overhand rights and well-schooled combinations. He began landing left jabs with pinpoint accuracy, with the twofold objective of setting up the right and zeroing in on the welt that was taking form under Pascal's right eye.
Pascal's questionable stamina became apparent in the later rounds, as the older, fresher and busier Hopkins kept bullying and backing him up. His inexperience was also evident, as seen in Pascal's inability to commit to the body (or the jab).
Hopkins briefly dazed Pascal with an overhead right to the chin in the ninth, but he saved his best work for the 10th, when the champ walked into a counter left to open the frame. This was the professor at his most patient and deliberate, making Pascal look slow and even overmatched.
Pascal came back admirably in the 11th, trading in the middle of the ring and getting the better of the exchanges -- including three thudding uppercuts after the clapper sounded -- but Hopkins was more than willing to swap fire on the inside.
Perhaps the biggest indictment against Pascal's case for victory came in the final round, with the fight up for grabs, as the fading champion repeatedly clinched to neutralize the more aggressive Hopkins, who appeared eager to keep the result out of the judges' hands. (Presciently, as it were.) A five-punch combo in the final minute left Pascal covered up against the ropes.
Afterward, Schaefer said the WBC plans to orders an immediate rematch. Pascal insisted he'd welcome one ("If he wants a rematch, anytime," he said), but downplayed any concerns about Saturday's questionable result.
"We've got fair judges in Canada," Pascal said. "[Hopkins] likes to fight ugly, dirty. It's not like he's that good. He's just a tough guy to box."
By now the Hopkins legend is familiar even to casual sports fans. He came up in the North Philadelphia projects near 25th and Diamond -- a stretch of asphalt known as the Badlands. He turned to crime early and spent 53 months in prison for armed robbery, where he learned the ascetic physical and spiritual discipline necessary to succeed in the ring. Having completely turned his life around, Hopkins went on to win the middleweight title and defend it a record 20 times from 1995 through 2005, adding the Ring light heavyweight title in '06.
As the legend spins onward toward Hopkins' half-century mark, it's fair to ask how long he can keep competiting against world class opposition. He certainly showed no signs of slowing down Saturday night.
Hopkins' last signature victory came in October 2008 as a 4-to-1 underdog against then-middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik in a non-title fight -- an upset which propelled him back into the top tier of the pound-for-pound ratings. Since then, he'd fought just twice: fully deserved but hardly impressive victories over Enrique Ornelas and Roy Jones Jr.
Yes, he appeared sometimes ragged in those outings, but the over-40 version of Hopkins tends to fight up or down to his competition -- and neither opponent was capable for demanding his best.
Still, Hopkins never left my pound-for-pound top five. And Saturday's superb performance -- against a homestanding in-his-prime opponent ranked 14th in Ring magazine's year-end cross-division Top 100 -- vindicates that lofty standing among the sport's finest practitioners.
If nothing else, it proved the nearly-46-year-old Hopkins can still compete at the highest level. You only wish he had something more to show for it.