With the exception of Golf, every major sport has an untold but understood age limit, beyond which it becomes near impossible for athletes to stay competitive, let alone win. Only a few are able to extend their careers beyond the norms, and when they do, it becomes a matter of public interest.
When the ageing San Antonio Spurs outplayed the much younger Miami Heat in the NBA Final last season, the entire basketball fraternity celebrated with them. The great Michael Jordan had attempted to enhance his legacy at the age of 38, but even his ultra competitiveness and mental strength couldn't compensate for the wear and tear two decades of professional basketball had caused to his body. Had he succeeded in winning another Championship, it would've been the story of the millennium.
But, unfortunately, MJ couldn't emulate what George Foreman had done at the age of 45 in 1994. Before becoming the oldest World Champion in history by knocking out Michael Moorer in a heavyweight bout, Foreman was known more as the guy who was taunted and outwitted – both in the ring and the pressers – by the great Muhammad Ali. However, as soon as the quadragenarian floored Moorer, he became a national hero – a revered boxing legend.
This preamble proves how rare it is to stay at the very top late in the career, which is why it's mystifying why the 49-year-old Bernard Hopkins – who is the current IBF, WBA and IBA light-heavyweight world champion and has a big fight coming up– isn't mentioned in the same breath as all of the above quoted big names.
In 2011, the then 46-year-old Hopkins surpassed Foreman as the oldest world champion in any boxing division by defeating Jean Pascal. He would lose his titles to Chad Dawson the next year, but refused to call it quits. Instead, the age-defying freak of nature claimed the IBF Light Heavyweight title and extended the legend of his old-age excellence even more. Since then, he has gone on to successfully defend his belts twice against opponents almost two decades his junior.
On Saturday, Hopkins – who will turn 50 in two months – is scheduled to face an unbeaten 31-year-old named Sergey Kovalev. His Russian opponent is in the prime of his career who has earned knock out wins in 23 of his 25 fights. Most successful fighters in the twilight of their career dodge difficult opponents to save their legacy from unwanted blemishes. Ali did it, both Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather, Jr. are doing it right now, and Lennox Lewis would've done it too had he not underestimated Vitali Klitschko. However, you get no such shenanigans with Hopkins. He has regularly called out younger, tougher opponents – even more so in the last 10 years than before.
Yet, when he makes the entrance at Boardwalk Hall, New Jersey this weekend, expect there to be fewer camera flashes than there were at Foreman's big night. If he pulls off yet another historic win, it will make the backpages of some dailies at best. If he loses, boxing aficionados will shed a few tears and write a tribute or two, but the mainstream media still won't give him the attention he deserves.
Why? Hopkins, from the very beginning, has had a prickly personality. He either keeps to himself or when opens up, ends up touching tabooed subjects. His constant use of the race card and the infamous "whiteboy" taunt to Joe Calzaghe was blown out of proportion by his detractors and used as evidence to term him as racist. His crime-infested past, his five-year prison sentence and his Islamic faith have further alienated him from the media.
What's ignored is that Hopkins grew up in the projects and literally inherited a life of crime. In prison, he was one of those rare inmates who actually repented and told the warden: "I ain't ever coming back here."
Regarding his personality, Hopkins has himself admitted that his perpetual fury is what keeps him going. Had he been as lovable as Foreman, he probably would never have been able to achieve what he did.
Still, as a person, B-Hop is not perfect – far from it. But then, when he puts on his gloves, his personality is not on test, his boxing ability is – a point lost on his critics.