Thursday, June 4, 2009

Breaking It Down: Hopkins vs Trinidad Revisited

Welcome to The Boxing Bulletin's new feature series, Breaking It Down.

In this first edition, Michael Nelson revisits the 2001 middleweight title contest between Bernard Hopkins and Felix Trinidad, and takes a look at just how the masterful Hopkins made it look so easy.

My friend looked at me with a skeptical eye when I said that Bernard Hopkins was going to knock Oscar De La Hoya out. "You always pick against De La Hoya," he noted.

Can't say the man didn't have a point. I had been tabbing De La Hoya to lose in nearly all of his major fights since 1997.

After trying to convince him that I was picking Hopkins more because of his tactical brilliance than my personal biases, he asked me for evidence.

I went to the Hopkins DVD set I had accrued a few years prior. There were a number of fights I could have pulled out - the fourth round destruction of the quicker, but smaller Joe Lipsy. The relentless pounding of Glen Johnson. The revenge exacted on Robert Allen after a lackluster no contest (Bernard's 'Montel Griffin II' moment). The cunning performance against KO artist Antwun Echols.

But anything other than Hopkins' masterpiece against Felix Trinidad on September 29, 2001 wouldn't have sufficed. For one, Hopkins was the underdog against a known commodity, future hall of famer, and consensus top three pound-for-pounder. He was forced to be on his 'A' game.

Two, it was a rare fight where the ring intelligence displayed was so stunning, it was apparent to those who don't watch boxing on a regular basis. Far from just running around and pot-shotting, Hopkins would outmaneuver Tito from the outside and pick him apart with jabs one minute, then outmaneuver him on the inside and pick him apart with uppercuts the next.

Let's take a look at some of the nuances that helped make my friend see the light.

:58, Round 2 - Hopkins makes his presence felt for the first time in the fight. He lands a hard counter jab, circles Trinidad without moving out of range, and lands two more hard jabs within 6 seconds. In contrast to the skittish dance around the ring Oscar presented Tito with, there's little wasted movement. At the five second mark, Hopkins lands a strong right hand that definitively gives him the round.

2:45, Round 4 - Hopkins comes out moving forward in an aggressive stance. As a consequence, he eats a counter left hand that snaps his head back, perhaps Trinidad's best punch of the fight. Hopkins decides to step back and lure Tito into traps, rolling his shoulders and landing a few of his own counter punches.

2:25, Round 5 - Naazim Richardson is calling for the 36 year old to take "the young boy to school". Bernard promptly abides. Hopkins' feints are getting Trinidad all out of sorts this round; Tito gets stuck with a jab, then bites on a feint and gets cracked with a clubbing right hand.

1:03, Round 6 - With his back to the corner, Hopkins persuades Trinidad into delivering a left hook by throwing a left uppercut and giving the impression he was open to a counter. He blocks the hook and counters with a right cross. It's not a hard punch, but old man Hops notes that Tito took the bait.

:46, Round 7 - Hopkins does a move that he's done in previous fights when he feints with a right hand and catches Trinidad out of position with a hard blow to the ear. He drops another right as soon as Trinidad regains position and slides to the side. It's a sequence that requires footwork and balance not many fighters possess.

:12, Round 8 - George Foreman, while clearly biased towards Trinidad for most of the night, makes a good observation: "All night, Trinidad has been trying to lay on Hopkins' left hand, and Hopkins seems to get his left hand out of the trap and hold Trinidad. If he's able to just lay on Hopkins' left hand once, he's gonna get him with the overhand right." Catching opponents coming out of a clinch had been one of Tito's bread-and-butter moves throughout his career. Hopkins neutralized it by pinning Tito's arms and stepping out of range before Tito could respond with a right hand. The times Trinidad did manage to lay on Bernard's left hand, Hopkins made sure to duck down and get his left up quickly enough to at least partially block the overhand right.

Whether inside, mid-range, or outside, Trinidad had much difficulty making solid contact on Bernard.

2:16, Round 10 - Hopkins revisits the maneuver he pulled in the 6th round by baiting Trinidad with a left uppercut, blocking the counter left hook, and dropping a right cross. He still doesn't throw it with full force, but it lands solidly enough to elicit a reaction from the crowd.

2:03, Round 12 - Hopkins baits Trinidad with another left uppercut, and once again, Tito bites. This time he puts all his weight into the cross and deposits him on the canvas. Felix struggles up at the count of 9, but his father saves him from further punishment. Just as Hopkins predicted.

The old professor would go on to have a few more great performances as an underdog in his career, and he may have one or two more inside of him yet. But whenever I'm asked about the purest example of the sweet science I can think of, the Trinidad fight will not be far from my grasp.

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