By Lewis Gould
Bernard Hopkins managed to avoid getting knocked out by his much younger opponent, but it was as obvious to the paying customers in Atlantic City as it was to the judges that the almost-50-year-old Philly phenom should retire.
B-Hop proved no match for 31-year-old Sergey Kovalev. The hard-punching Russian added the IBF and WBA light heavyweight belts to his WBO title by capturing a unanimous decision.
Kovalev dropped Hopkins in the first round and beat him up for the rest of the 12-round bout in capturing a one-sided victory. All three judges had Kovalev by a wide margin: two judges had it 120-107, while the third judge saw it 120-106. The Post scored it 119-108 for Kovalev.
Though he didn’t get the knockout he craved, it was validation for Kovalev, who improved to 26-0-1 with 23 knockouts and added the biggest name to his growing list of victims. It also could have been the end for Hopkins, who will turn 50 in two months, and finally showed some age in the ring.
Kovalev proved stronger, faster and just as smart as the future Hall of Famer.
“He was good at keeping distance,” Kovalev said. “But he needs to stop for real and give opportunity for younger guys to be champion. I’m the next.”
Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) did not say if this was his last fight.
“I will not disclose anyting now,” he said. “It’s 50-50 with what I’m going to do. But I’ve done more in my whole career than expected.”
The veteran also was gracious in defeat.
“[Kovalev] fought a great technical fight,” Hopkins said. “He used his reach and used his distance. He has patience. Every time he got hit with punches he did the right thing and stepped back.
“He had a good game plan. Every time I tried to engage he wouldn’t trade punches with me. He’s going to be around for a long time. I respect a guy who comes to fight.”
Kovalev seemed a bit tentative early, willing to follow Hopkins around the ring without throwing anything lethal. Hopkins tried to stay in constant motion, but got clipped by a right hand to the head late in the first round and flopped to the canvas. Hopkins wanted the flash knockdown ruled a slip, but referee David Fields began an eight count. Hopkins didn’t seem badly hurt, but Kovalev went on the offensive and was the aggressor as the round ended.
Kovalev kept coming forward in the second, but was patient. Hopkins offered a pawing jab, but it seemed Hopkins was trying to figure out a strategy to counter Kovalev’s two-fisted attack.
Hopkins landed a nice counter right hand in the third round, but Kovalev was getting the better of it and finished with a flurry as the round ended.
Kovalev was proving to be a better boxer than given credit for. He was faster than Hopkins and able to throw a counter right when Hopkins tried to move in.
By the fifth round Hopkins was starting to become stationary. Whether it was a change in tactics or his 49-year-old legs showing age was uncertain. Kovalev stuck with his game-plan. He was content to throw jabs to the body as Hopkins tried to bob and weave his way out of trouble.
Yet, Hopkins could do nothing to deter Kovalev and change the momentum of the fight. He mostly kept in a defensive posture, keeping his head down and not generating much force on his punches.
Kovalev flashed a look of confidence as the sixth round ended, having been virtually untested to that point. The pattern of the fight continued through the ninth round with Hopkins eating three punches for every one he threw.
Hopkins landed perhaps the best punch of the fight in the 10th round, a right hand that rocked Kovalev for an instant. But it was too little, too late.