This Saturday night, at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, Jermain Taylor and Bernard Hopkins go at it once again for the undisputed middleweight championship of the world.
Only, this time, it's very much disputed.
Going into the initial matchup, there was no doubt who was the undisputed middleweight champion: It was Bernard Hopkins. "The Executioner" not only carried that mantle proudly, but he was so closely associated with it that it became a part of him. You began to think his full name was "Bernard Hopkins, undisputed middleweight champion of the world" every bit as much as Marvin Hagler was "Marvelous."
Unlike his idol, Hopkins didn't change his name legally. There was no need. He, along with everyone else, related his accomplishments as a prizefighter to who he was as a person.
It was a part of an identity, his being.
But for the first time in about a decade, Hopkins will walk into the ring as a mere challenger, a beltless boxer trying to win back his titles.
But in his eyes (and many others' eyes) all he's trying to do is get back the belts that were given to Taylor on loan by Duane Ford and Paul Smith, the two judges that had Taylor beating him the first time, by scores of 115-113. That pair trumped the scorecard of Jerry Roth, who viewed the fight a 116-112 victory for the Philadelphian.
The majority of those ringside that night felt Hopkins had done more than enough to make his 21st successful title defense.
Taylor was like the young, wild, untamed stallion that broke out out of the gate quickly with his passion and energy. Hopkins was the seasoned thoroughbred that took some time to stretch his legs, but came on strong. Some say that despite Hopkins' finishing flourish, he had fallen about a furlong or two behind Taylor, who outworked him early.
Perhaps he did. But there's an old saying from legendary basketball coach and sage John Wooden: "Don't mistake activity for achievement." Boxing fans tend to do that more and more in the age of CompuBox, where thrown punches are mistaken for ones that actually land and debilitate the opposition.
But much of the blame should be placed on the narrow shoulders of Hopkins himself. For a guy who is as paranoid as Art Bell, he should have known better than to leave the fight in the hands of anyone but himself. Perhaps he fell into a false sense of security given his new promotional partnership with Oscar De La Hoya, who promoted the first bout. Maybe, just maybe, for the first time ever, he became part of the establishment he had long disavowed.
Surely, with his own company promoting its first fight, he couldn't possibly get jobbed or get the short end of the stick in a close decision.
How wrong he was.
Taylor is the establishment's dream. He's young, handsome and generally well-mannered. He's the kind of fighter who is deemed marketable, the kind of black athlete who is acceptable to the red states. He's Grant Hill to Hopkins' Allen Iverson.
He's the kind of boxer HBO is dying to promote, uhhh, sorry, I mean sign to a multifight deal and showcase.
Hopkins, however, is forever the renegade.
There's a line of thinking that says that Taylor, having endured 12 tough rounds with Hopkins, comes out of that bout with an invaluable amount of experience. That could be the case. But you could also hypothesize that Taylor, for the only time in his professional career, comes into a bout with a tinge of doubt.
Before the early rounds with Hopkins, you could have made a strong argument that he had never lost a round. In his bout with Hopkins, not only did he lose rounds, but he was hurt for the first time by Hopkins' assault in the late stages of the fight.
Taylor can claim all he wants that he wasn't buzzed by the old man, but it's hard to shake off the image of his covering up and turning away from Hopkins in the last few frames. And the shots of his reaction in the immediate aftermath of the 12th round? What do they say about a picture telling a thousand words?
When they face each other again, Taylor will be fighting to legitimize his claim as the middleweight champion of the world. Hopkins will be seeking to cement his status as an all-time great.
Much is still in dispute.
I see the same kind of fight. The reality is that Hopkins will turn 41 in mid-January, so he knows he can fight only in short, contained spurts. But one thing I do expect Hopkins to do, when he's not counter-punching, is to at least give the impression that he's busier on the outside. He'll flash his jab more consistently.
There's a psychology of winning rounds that exists with many judges. If nothing is really happening between the two fighters to really separate them, most judges will tab the boxer who at least looks busier. In the first fight, that was Taylor in the early rounds.
Many have speculated that Hopkins will have to make the first round of their rematch round 13. I agree to an extent, but again, he's 40 years old. Hopkins, in recent years, has had an innate feel of when to push the gas pedal and when to put it into cruise control. Compared to the sports car that Taylor is, Hopkins is
now the fuel-efficient sedan.
On the flip side, Taylor will do what he always does, which is come out fast and look to establish his hard, jackhammer jab to set up his right cross.
The real question is, can he do it better, and has he improved technically and fundamentally from July? For all his physical tools, he makes a lot of mistakes.
While Hopkins might look to be a bit busier in the early rounds, I don't expect him to be that much more offensive. Why?
It's in those rounds that Taylor is most dangerous and the last thing Hopkins wants to do is to get into serious exchanges with Taylor, given that Taylor does have significant advantages in hand speed and reflexes.
I forecast a fight that will look a lot like their initial encounter. And I'm not sure that the same Hopkins and Taylor who showed up in July won't be the ones we see this weekend.
So who wins?
Hopkins will, just like I thought he did the first time.