There are countless reasons to pick Joe Calzaghe to defeat Bernard Hopkins in their light heavyweight championship fight on Saturday night. But there's also one very compelling reason to pick Hopkins: because to do otherwise would require picking against Hopkins.
Stated more simplistically, Hopkins has earned a reputation as someone you can never count out -- even when, on paper, everything about the matchup favors his opponent.
Calzaghe is maybe the only fighter in the world who can match Hopkins for tactical brilliance, plus the Welsh southpaw is faster than "The Executioner," much fresher, in fact, and can outwork him punchwise at least 2-to-1.
At age 43, Hopkins simply can't maintain a steady pace anymore; he's been fighting in spurts for the past five or six years. Calzaghe's spurts last 36 minutes.
It's difficult to win rounds on judges' scorecards if your opponent throws 90 punches and you throw 40. That leaves winning by knockout as the alternative, but Hopkins has scored a grand total of one KO in the past five years, while Calzaghe has never been stopped and has only been badly hurt once (against Byron Mitchell) in 44 pro fights.
So if Hopkins is highly unlikely to win a decision and highly unlikely to win by knockout, why would anyone in their right mind pick the old man to win?
Since first winning a piece of the middleweight title in 1995, Hopkins has twice entered the ring as a major underdog. On Sept. 29, 2001, he dominated the undefeated and supposedly invincible Felix Trinidad. And on June 10, 2006, coming off two consecutive losses and jumping up two weight divisions, he strayed from the script against "Rocky Balboa" star Antonio Tarver.
If you go by my scorecards, Hopkins has gone 30 fights and nearly 15 years without a loss. His only two defeats in that span came in 2005 against Jermain Taylor, but I thought The Executioner deserved the first decision and did enough to get a draw in the rematch.
So we're talking about a guy who basically doesn't know how to lose and who does his best work when everyone tells him he's going to lose. How is anyone supposed to feel comfortable picking against Hopkins?
"If I had to put my money down and pick a fighter to win, I like Calzaghe with his speed," said Peter Manfredo, who unsuccessfully challenged Calzaghe for the super middleweight title a year ago. "But Hopkins -- I mean, if anybody can beat Calzaghe, it's Hopkins. He's got all that experience, he's beaten great lefties like Winky Wright. Calzaghe always throws a million punches, but Hopkins has that style where he just might be able to frustrate him."
Dan Birmingham, who trained Jeff Lacy to a lopsided defeat against Calzaghe in '06 and trained Wright to a narrow loss against Hopkins in '07, knows all too well about Hopkins' frustrating style.
"You can never count Bernard out," Birmingham said. "I thought Wink would out-hustle him. But Bernard was smart, drawing him in, punching, holding, clinching, and saving himself for the last three or four rounds, which he'll do against Calzaghe."
Despite that, Birmingham is picking Calzaghe to win on Saturday, for all of the tangible reasons mentioned at the top of this column.
And it's not like Hopkins has a monopoly on the intangibles here. Calzaghe is 44-0 (32 KOs) since turning pro in 1993; you have to go all the way back to 1990 to find his last amateur defeat. Hopkins may only know how to lose by questionable decision, but Calzaghe hasn't lost, period, since before Milli Vanilli got outed.
Of course, Hopkins has beaten fighters with perfect records before -- Trinidad, Glen Johnson, Joe Lipsey, Percy Harris. And he's handled himself just fine against southpaws, posting a mark of 12-0 against guys who put their right foot forward. In fact, his whole light heavyweight resume (all two fights of it) has been built against veteran southpaws in their mid-30s.
Sounds like Calzaghe shouldn't scare him too much.
But on some level, Hopkins feels like he needs a little extra edge against the super middleweight champ. Why else would he dip into the mind-games bag and pull out the "I'd never let a white boy beat me" rhetoric?
Hopkins didn't stop there, writing in the June '08 issue of The Ring magazine, "[Calzaghe's reputation] reminds me of Larry Bird. Great basketball player, but did he get his notoriety [sic] based and predicated on how he could play, or that he can play more than the average guy his color can play? White athletes stand out more and they get more of the attention because they seem to be somewhat more special than the norm."
Those statements, in addition to making it easy for Bill Simmons to find someone to root for on Saturday night, also make it easy to think Hopkins is losing his grip.
Of course, that's what a lot of people thought when The Executioner scored several knockdowns against the Puerto Rican flag during the build-up to the Trinidad fight. They suspected Hopkins' nerves over the challenge awaiting him were causing him to act irrationally.
Then came Hopkins' flawless performance in the fight and nobody was wondering about his nerves anymore.
"I know Bernard, I've talked to him many times, he's always been great with me," said Birmingham. "I think that 'a white boy will never beat me,' or whatever he said, that's all hype. He's got a white trainer [Freddie Roach]. If he was racist, would he hire a white trainer?"
Maybe Hopkins is trying to get into Calzaghe's head and get him to lose his cool and make a mistake in the ring. Or maybe at his age and after all of his training camps, he's pushing the envelope just to psych himself up and get motivated.
Some have speculated that Hopkins is talking trash to try to sell the fight, but as this bout is on HBO and not pay-per-view, that theory has more holes in it than Hopkins' smile.
It all leaves you scratching your head -- just as many of us did when Hopkins signed the contract for this fight in the first place.
His willingness to fight a man who seemingly has all the tools to beat him makes you wonder if Hopkins knows something we don't.
If he does, he'll make us all feel like idiots for daring to pick against him once again.
If he doesn't, he'll find out on Saturday that there is one very compelling reason to pick against Bernard Hopkins, and its name is Joe Calzaghe.
Eric Raskin is a contributing editor for and former managing editor of The Ring magazine.