The day will come, as it must, when Bernard Hopkins can no longer beat back the encroachment of time. That much is certain, even if certainty is to Hopkins a negotiable concept.
Yet Saturday was not that day.
The 48-year-old from Philadelphia won a unanimous decision over Tavoris Cloud to capture the IBF light heavyweight title, surpassing his own record as the oldest fighter in history to win a major world championship. Two of the judges at ringside scored it 116-112 (as did SI.com), while the third had it 117-111.
Cloud joined the ever-growing list of younger, stronger betting favorites who proved no match for Hopkins' skill, experience and ring intelligence. The 31-year-old from Tallahassee, Fla., entered with an unbeaten record, a 175-pound title belt and a reputation as a devastating puncher. He left it just another ex-champion humbled by a master craftsman old enough to be his father.
"I have a history of destroying young champions," Hopkins said afterward, no doubt referring to such vanquished foes as Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal. "Not sure if you'll see Cloud again."
The ageless fighter known as "The Executioner" found stride in the middle rounds and exhibited superior conditioning down the stretch, working his way to an uncontroversial points victory. A clear favorite among the 12,293 at Brooklyn's sparkling new Barclays Center, Hopkins further underscored his place in history with a performance that embodied ring generalship.
Hopkins (53-6-2, 32 KOs), roughly a 2-to-1 underdog, was cautious from the opening bell. He waited to counter the aggressive Cloud, who was able to land the occasional shot. But even in the early rounds, it was evident Hopkins was making the champion think about every punch he threw.
Cloud (24-1, 19 KOs) is known as a big puncher, but hitting Hopkins flush has never been easy and Saturday's fight was no exception. The younger fighter was biting on Hopkins' feints and getting countered, falling right into the veteran's traps. The mounting frustration became manifest at the end of the third round, when Hopkins hit Cloud a split-second after the bell and Cloud returned with a straight right to the jaw. It was an admirable rejection of one of Hopkins' trademark psychological salvos -- but it may have been the hardest punch Cloud landed all night.
Early in the fifth, Hopkins landed four straight left jabs to fend off an onrushing Cloud. From then on it was obvious: the smarter fighter was dictating the pace.
"If I threw combinations, we knew he wouldn't be able to adjust to that style of fighting," Hopkins said. "It took me a while to get in my rhythm, but I found it in the fourth or fifth round and things became easy."
By the seventh, the crowd was completely behind Hopkins, who'd opened a cut above Cloud's left eye as chants of "B-Hop! B-Hop!" echoed through the arena. Hopkins was slipping, ducking, rolling his shoulders and countering brilliantly. Even when Cloud enjoyed brief moments of success -- like the hard shots he peppered Hopkins with in the eighth -- the challenger returned fire quickly.
"He's fading!" shouted Hopkins' trainer Naazim Richardson as the bell rang to start the ninth. He was right. Incredibly, the 48-year-old looked like the fresher fighter. With educated footwork, he kept safely out of Cloud's range when he wasn't veering along the ropes to absorb the champion's hardest power shots. At one point, Hopkins made Cloud miss wildly, then raised his glove to the crowd with a wide-eyed grin before snapping the champion's head back with two quick punches. Hopkins -- who's never been beaten up, never been cut in a fight, stays in fighting shape 365 days a year and keeps a 30-inch waist -- looked as fresh in the final round as he did in the first. It was, for a fighter 22 months from AARP eligibility, an awesome performance. The result was deserved.
Hopkins landed 169 of 417 punches (41 percent) -- including more combinations than he's thrown in recent memory -- compared to 139 of 650 for Cloud (21 percent), who didn't address the media after his first career loss.
"We knew that a 30-year-old guy was not going to run from a 48-year-old guy, so it wasn't hard to figure out their plan," Hopkins said, referring to Cloud's offensive approach. "We knew this guy's style. If a burglar is coming to the house and if he calls you and tells you he's coming, you're going to wait for him. And you're going to make sure you're going to be in a big chair with a big gun and when he comes through the door, you're going to get him. I knew he was coming in. We trained differently than we normally do because of it."
The plot points of Hopkins' extraordinary backstory have been exhaustively documented yet bear repeating. He was arrested more than 30 times before he turned 17, when he was finally sent to Graterford State Prison on an 18-year sentence for armed robbery. As Prisoner No. Y4146, he became a jailhouse boxing champion, driven by the opportunity to turn his life around. "See you when you come back," was the last thing Hopkins heard as the bars clanked shut behind him 56 months later, the first of countless naysayers whose doubt he's reappropriated for motivation.
Within seven years, Hopkins had fought his way out of hell -- otherwise known as D-block -- to the middleweight championship. Without an Olympic pedigree or the backing of a top-shelf promoter, he became a star the only way he could: by not losing for 18 years. He
Now he's become an unlikely poster boy for clean living. The ascetic lifestyle he's followed -- forget drugs or alcohol, it's been 20 years since he ate a donut or a slice of pizza -- is yielding dividends beyond imagination. It's a brutal and often self-destructive activity, this boxing, where so much can happen in so little time: promising careers ended in a matter of seconds, comebacks laid bare as mistakes. Yet Hopkins' quarter-century in the sport is changing our perceptions of what man can do.
Hopkins views himself as a superman, a person who is exceptional and thus above the temporal rules that govern the rest of humanity. His fight with Cloud -- his persistence to fight on when there's nothing left for him to accomplish -- is an attempt to establish the truth of his superiority. In doing so, he continues to defy and reinvent every known metric for fistic greatness. He is one of a kind and he knows it.
"Enjoy me while I'm here," he said early Sunday morning while taking questions from the press.
For now, at least, Hopkins isn't going anywhere.