Bernard Hopkins: Boxing’s Kudzu

When kudzu was first introduced in the United States, it was billed as a way to reduce soil erosion; that is, it promoted environmental stability and longevity.

The problem is, kudzu did its job too well. In maintaining quality soil, kudzu reaped the benefits of its own byproduct, using productive land to spread its seed and dominate large areas at a time.

Today, kudzu goes by many names, most of them unprintable. One is The Vine that Ate the South. Now understood to be an almost unstoppable plant once it begins to grow, kudzu is despised as a nuisance that overstays its welcome.

Bernard Hopkins is a lot like kudzu.

In 2001, the middleweight division was a weight class in disarray. With four different titleholders, Don King put together a tournament to crown an undisputed champion. In the end, Hopkins brought stability to one of boxing’s most celebrated divisions when he scored a stunning knockout over Felix Trinidad in a victory that made him the man at 160 pounds.

Though new life had been injected into the division, Hopkins quickly sapped it by dominating the opposition, one by one. As the first man to record 20 consecutive defenses of the middleweight title, he made it clear that he had no equal for four years before being upended twice by Jermain Taylor in 2005.

Rather than call it a day, Hopkins moved up to light heavyweight to plant his seed there, initially for one fight. But after dismantling Antonio Tarver for the title in 2006, he made 175 pounds his permanent home, though he fought just frequently enough to remind everyone that he was still around.

It’s 2010, and Hopkins is still here.

At age 45, Bernard understands that he can pick and choose opponents at will. His reputation in tact, he knows he’ll get the fights he wants because the top light heavyweights need his name on their ledger in order to make their own.

Take Chad Dawson for instance. Since bursting onto the scene in 2007, Dawson has been chomping at the bit for the opportunity to lay waste to Hopkins and plant his own seed. He waited two years for Hopkins to pick up the phone. Not surprisingly, Bernard was never home. Only when Dawson suffered his first defeat in an upset to Canadian Jean Pascal last month was Hopkins conveniently just walking in the door.

By fighting irregularly and winning when he needs to, Hopkins has made this much clear: he is in the driver’s seat at 175 pounds. And there will be no moving on in the light heavyweight division without first going through him.

Kudzu can be stopped, but it takes repeated mowings and weed-eatings to get the job done. Back-to-back losses to Taylor in 2005 weren’t enough to finish Hopkins off, nor was a 2008 loss to Joe Calzaghe. Just when many thought Kelly Pavlik would finally rid the division of Hopkins’ shadow later that year, Bernard scored an upset win and instead diced Pavlik’s career at the root before it could grow any larger.

Just as stubborn as kudzu, Hopkins will never truly step away from the fight game until he’s not only decisively beaten but decisively beaten up. Hopkins knew Pavlik couldn’t do it to him two years ago, and he probably feels the athletic but reckless Pascal can’t either.

Last summer, kudzu was first discovered in Canada. Is it any surprise that Hopkins was this close on its heels? It’s too late to nip this growth in the bud, but it’s not too late for Pascal to stop Hopkins’ spread at the Canadian border.

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