Who will be remembered as the greater fighter, Jones or Hopkins?
Even those who are disgusted that two geezers will put their walkers aside to wage war Saturday in Las Vegas must admit one thing: Roy Jones Jr. and Bernard Hopkins are two of the greatest fighters ever.
Jones dazzled boxing fans for more than a decade with his speed and athleticism and built up a long list of accomplishments, even if you believe he dodged some legitimate opponents. Hopkins successfully defended his middleweight title a record 20 times and has remained competitive into his mid-40s.
But who will be remembered as the better fighter?
A case can be made for both, beginning with the descriptions above, but conversations with three experts — historians Cliff Rold and Bert Sugar as well as television broadcaster Larry Merchant — suggest that Jones has an edge.
First, we realize that some will object to this discussion because any conclusion will have to be modified after the fight on Saturday. In fact, it won’t. If Hopkins wins, he will have beaten a terribly shot fighter. If Jones wins, while it might enhance his legacy a tad, he still will have beaten a 45 year old.
So on to the discussion ÔÇª.
Jones (54-6, 40 knockouts) will be remembered for the manner in which he fought at his peak — unbelievably quick for a good-sized man, athletic, clever and virtually unhittable. He also had more power than some realize; he has 40 knockouts in 60 fights.
The knock on Jones has always been his opposition. Sure, there were big-name contenders he never fought. Dariusz Michalczewski, Nigel Benn and Gerald McClellan come to mind. However, his opponents certainly were comparable to Hopkins’.
Among those who Jones beat were current or future hall of famers Hopkins, James Toney, Mike McCallum and Virgil Hill. And many others, including his mandatories, were among the best in his division at the time they met.
In other words, he faced many very good fighters. Was it really necessary to fight all prospective opponents to solidify his legacy as a great fighter?
And let’s look at Hopkins’ opponents during his 20-defense run. He fought three (possibly four) future hall of famers in Glen Johnson, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. Antonio Tarver probably also will receive consideration. However, Jones also fought Johnson and Trinidad while De La Hoya had no business fighting at middleweight.
The edge there goes to Jones.
Hopkins’ (50-5-1, 32 KOs) run of title defenses is impressive to say the least. The Philadelphian held onto his 160-pound belt for 11 years, roughly the same duration that Joe Louis was heavyweight champion. That alone provides guaranteed entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Consider this, though: Jones had 17 successful defenses in three divisions — middleweight, super middleweight and light heavyweight — and also won a major title at heavyweight, easily outpointing John Ruiz.
Also, as Rold pointed out, Hopkins had six successful unified title defenses. Jones had 10, meaning he fought more current title holders than Hopkins.
“I think Roy’s accomplishments in three divisions equal Bernard’s in one,” said Rold, who writes for boxingscene.com. “And he probably beat better fighters in title fights overall than Bernard did at middleweight. ÔÇª Roy has wins over Toney and Hopkins on his record, and Virgil Hill. We know in retrospect how good those wins were.
“Once we get some distance I think Roy will regain a lot of the stature he lost in recent years.”
Another factor that works in Hopkins’ favor is his longevity. He has competed at the highest level for a mind-boggling two decades while Jones began to decline as soon as his physical gifts began to fade. And although Hopkins now chooses his opponents carefully, he was beating top-rated fighters well into his 40s.
Victories over Tarver, Winky Wright and Kelly Pavlik have helped us appreciate how great he really is. Sugar compared his boxing ability to that of Willie Pep, which is high praise indeed.
Jones’ greatness didn’t last as long as Hopkins’ but it burned white hot while it did. He was regarded as the best fighter in the world pound-for-pound for as many as seven or eight years. That might be the longest stretch in history if we sat down and tried to figure it out.
And, while a victory is a victory, Jones at his best was far more exciting to watch than a blue-collar fighter like Hopkins. Like it or not, that plays a role in how a fighter is remembered.
“Roy made an impact on people, which leaves a residue in their minds. At his best, he always had a ‘WOW’ moment,” Rold said.
Merchant used a baseball analogy involving two great Los Angeles Dodgers pitchers to compare Jones and Hopkins.
“The way I have put it to people is the difference between Sandy Koufax and Don Sutton,” he said. “Koufax had a short but spectacularly dominating career. And he’s remembered for that. Sutton won almost twice as many games and hung around for twice as long. Both are in the hall of fame.
“ÔÇª Jones occasionally did things that took your breath away, things you’d never seen before. Hopkins was a guy who willed himself into becoming a dominant force over a long period of time. That counts for something, too.”
Rold compared Jones and Hopkins to light heavyweight legends Ezzard Charles and Archie Moore, both hall of famers.
“Charles was probably the best light heavyweight of all time,” he said. “A lot of people would’ve put Moore in that spot, though. If you look back, Moore was good 10 years longer than Charles was good. He had longevity but Charles beat him three times head to head. He beat Charley Burley twice and Moore couldn’t beat him at all. Charles gave Marciano two tough fights. Moore gave him two tough rounds.
“Archie Moore was a great fighter. Charles was a great fighter. Hopkins was a great fighter. Jones was a great fighter, just not for quite as long.”
Sugar said the principal difference between Jones and Hopkins was the period at which they peaked. Jones peaked early — and probably a little higher — and Hopkins peaked a little later but maintained it longer.
So who does he think is better? He has Jones at No. 88 and Hopkins at No. 91 in his most-recent list of the 100 Greatest Fighters.
“It’s close,” he said and then quipped. “I guess they’re fighting for my championship on Saturday.”
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