When most fight fans watch boxing, they usually do so to see huge or dramatic knockouts or two warriors going toe-to-toe in an all-out war. And while those types of events in boxing never fail to thrill me or the next person.
There is still something about watching a slick skilled fighter who dominates a fight using his counter-punching, ring IQ, and defense. The art of hitting and not getting hit all while neutralizing their opponent’s strengths.
For me, Bernard Hopkins fits precisely into this bill. But he also has to be one of the most polarising fighters among fans. But the thing about Hopkins was he always seemed to defy the odds on so many occasions. Whether being older, smaller, or slower he always somehow managed to find a way to win in most of his 67-fight career.
In today’s article I’m going to focus on and breakdown Hopkins’s slick style of fighting and examine the techniques and mindset that made him so difficult to defeat.
You can watch my video version or continue reading below:
Background and boxing beginnings
First up let’s look at Bernard’s background and how he got into boxing. Growing up in a poor housing project in Philadelphia. Due to the environment, Hopkins was in, he turned to crime early in his life. By the age of thirteen, he committed robbery and muggings and had even been stabbed three times.
However, Hopkins’s luck with crime on the streets would not last. And at seventeen, Bernard was sentenced to 18 years in Prison for nine felonies. Quite often a sentence most doesn’t come back out from.
While in prison he witnessed the murder of another inmate in an argument over a pack of cigarettes. Nevertheless, despite the horrible situation he put himself in, there was a silver lining to it. As it was here he discovered his passion for the sweet science which he took part in it through a rehabilitation program.
This helped him keep clean and focused in Prison as he built up a record of 94 – 4 record in the 56 months he served. Hopkins said the following about his time there:
“Either, you man up or you crumble in the pressure. In there I didn’t eat a lot of things that wasn’t good for you. I learnt how to fast, I learnt how to be disciplined. I became even better and stronger. Boxing was part of the daily routine in Prison. If disiplin myself to the same way in there out here no matter what the circumstances – it is on!”Bernard Hopkins on Prison
It was from here B-Hop would leave prison with aim of becoming a professional boxer and changing his life for the better.
Bernard Hopkins Boxing Style
From watching any of Hopkins’s fights, it’s clear he is a true pugilist and student of the sweet science. You can watch any interview with him talking about boxing and he knows all the minute details of what to do in any given situation in the ring.
Hopkins had a very slick and varied style throughout his whole career, where he instead looked to neutralize his opponent’s strengths. So he could either counter you with his own best shot or make you fight on the inside when you didn’t want to. He had the ability to change it up depending on what was in front of him and whatever it took to win.
When you consider his first nickname was ‘The Executioner’ which was given to him after getting a knockout in the first round. However, ironically, I actually see him more as an executioner in neutralizing his opponent from doing what they want to do best instead of getting knockouts.
Bernard also understands that boxing is like a game of chess. It’s about setting up your opponent to put you in a position you want him in before you strike cleanly or win. There are always different moves or tactics you can execute in multiple situations in the squared circle just like in Chess.
Hopkins understood this and was one of the very best at enforcing his style through fighting in different ways to get the win. Or as Bruce Lee said ‘Be like water‘.
But now let’s look at individual examples of styles and techniques throughout his career.
The stance and footwork
Now one of the first things to address was his background of coming from the great boxing city of Philadelphia. Bernard lived up to the traditions of that city by using the Philly shell from an orthodox stance with
But instead of having a very low lead hand all the time like Floyd Mayweather, James Toney or Devin Haney for example. He would keep his lead hand in a higher position in the mid to long-range. Similar to how you would see old traditional fighter hold their guard.
This would help his lead hand be in an offensive position to attack, defensively block, and feint with it. However, we would start to drop his lead hand once he felt comfortable against some opponents he faced.
From a closer range or on the inside, this is where you would see Bernard use more traditional Philly shell defensive movements such as rolling the right hand and then blocking the left hook for example. While always keeping his chin tucked and behind the lead shoulder when in the pocket. I’ll cover this in more detail later in the article.
In terms of Hopkins’s footwork, it was of course helped by his solid base and fundamentals with his feet. As they were usually always in the perfect distance and balance with his back heel lined with the front foot. While also making sure he was not flat-footed and on the balls of his feet. Thus giving him greater balance to quickly move laterally, or linearly to get away from an opponent or put pressure on them.
But Bernard’s overall stance and footwork were all about having the correct balance to move efficiently or to maximize his kinetic chain to generate respectable power at any given moment. Whether that be on the inside or outside.
See some of what I discussed in action below:
Bernard Hopkins Stance and Footwork
The lead hand
Now just like with most great champions. Almost everything comes off this punch. And of course, for Bernard Hopkins, this was so key throughout his whole career as a prizefighter.
The jab, in particular, was a punch that he would use in a whole variety of ways to either set up other punches, keep the opponent off balance, use as a range finder, a defensive shield or even to counter back with it.
It was almost as if Hopkins was fencing with his lead hand, especially in some of his high-profile fights. When he would throw it, he make sure to come forward with his feet, but could quite as easily jab with it going backward or from a different angle.
If you were going to try to have a jab battle with Hopkins this was certainly a fight you would probably lose. If you throw one, he’ll throw one, you throw two, he’ll throw two.
Against Felix Trinidad this was something he did tremendously well to stop the Puerto Rican from being able to close distance – he would be stuck and move all night with it.
Hopkins also had a very good left hook that he would utilize. Always made sure to only throw this punch from a distance and left the position he could actually land as it was easier to land this. In Hopkins’s words, it was all about. ‘Leverage and Balance’ before throwing it.
Hopkins was also a found user of using a shovel hook where he would throw this punch from a lower lead hand position. This is because it can break through a higher guard due to the lack of vision of the opponent.
Using the Jab to set up
One of my favorites sets up by B-Hop using the lead hand has to be against De La Hoya. Throughout their fight, B-Hop would throw a lot of straight punches to the middle of the guard while Oscar was also probably more cautious of Bernard’s right.
As the rounds went on and Hopkins started to put on a bit more pressure. He was able to set up, De La Hoya, by jabbing to guard before quickly shifting to his left to land the left hook to the body on the button.
While the momentum of his coming forward helped generate the power. This a brilliant example of a fundamental setup to create an opening for the liver shot. Watch below:
Hopkins lead hand set up vs De La Hoya
The right hand
This has to be one of B-Hops favorite weapons to use, and he would mainly use it as a way to actually quickly close the distance to land. But also to smother and get to work on the inside of his opponent.
However, for me, he had perfected the technique and fundamentals of when to throw this punch so well.
- Throwing the right cross over a lazy or mistimed jab from his opponent to counter over the top.
- Using his jab to set up the right-hand cross. Mainly by occupying the guard or opponents’ vision before firing.
- Pull away the opponent’s guard to create an opening for the right hand.
- While he would like to use the lead right hand to quickly close the distance and get on the inside. He did expertly vs the like of southpaw Antonio Tarver landing multiple times throughout the fight.
He would also like to throw this punch when his opponent’s lead hand would be in a lower position as he knew the momentum of his body would help him land. While he knew his head potentially clashing would create caution further caution when he threw this punch.
Another brilliant example of Hopkins setting up a right-hand cross slight variation of a typical 1-2 was against Semenov. Where he instead used a blinding jab to set up completely catching him with a clean right hand before getting the knockdown.
B-hop would also use it as a way to benefit his leverage for the left hook due to the transfer of weight from the right to the left and vice versa.
See some of what I discussed about below:
Bernard Hopkins setting up and using his right hand
Defense & Counter Punching
Now, this was where that real slick fighter of Hopkins would really start to come out through his solid defense and counterpunching.
For me, the best point of his defense was when he was using that Philly shell. The first pinpoint to make is he would always make sure his chin was tucked right on the centreline. While his right hand was ready to block and counter.
If an opponent would attack with a jab or right hand he would get behind his lead shoulder. This is where would also utilize his counterpunching by firing a right hand back after slipping to his right or rolling his shoulder after the opponent threw a jab and going over the top.
If he was in the center ring he would sometimes look to use solid fundamental footwork by using a wide to narrower stance moving linearly away from the opponent before resetting himself.
In the pocket or the ropes, though it was a different story. This is where we would see the more typical slip-and-roll and counter-movements on the inside while in his Philly shell stance which is a beautiful watch for boxing purists. And you must applaud his reactions to do this well into his 40s.
Check out Hanzagod’s video below of some of his best defensive moves:
Though in B-Hop’s best performance, he wouldn’t get careless and stay there too long. And he would look use roll or waist movements before using a pivot or lateral footwork or even alongside check hook to get off the ropes.
But whenever he would stand his ground it almost always acted as a way to lure an opponent to get closer or throw unnecessary punches he could counter, and even more, the experienced fighter would get caught trying to get closer to him.
Hopkins though would not just count on his Philly shell for defense, as he would look to use his lead hand as a way to block punches and also counter with it. But he knew the lead arm would also act as a shield for him.
Inside fighting and dirty tactics
Now inside fighting is something that is get misassociated with dirty boxing at times and is almost a lost art with many modern fighters.
Fighting on the inside is a great way to slow down the pace of the fight and land shots up close.
Now in terms of B-Hop, as he got older and his athleticism declined. He had to look for other ways to cause damage to his opponents, spoil their rhythm, and fight on his terms. And of course, this is where a lot of people would get frustrated when watching Hopkins.
Bernard would look to fight on the inside and make it a messy fight on lots of occasions. But B-Hop for the most part knew a lot of fighters don’t like to fight on the inside or even know how to. Thus forcing them to fight here and him using dirty tactics as a way to get the upper hand until the ref would intervene.
There would be a lot of low blows at angles refs could see, using his head, punches behind the head or even fake injuries to probably give himself a breather.
However as much as I don’t like these types of tactics, I do understand why B-Hop would try to fight like this against less experienced, bigger, and stronger guys as he knew he would have the upper hand in fighting this way.
It’s also important to note, that this is the fight game and professional boxing. And as much as we want to see a clean. This sport is not for the faint-hearted and sometimes it gets dirty.
Art of feinting and setups
Feinting is a crucial skill every fighter should learn, especially if you wish to condition your opponent to set up punches yourself.
Hopkins was very good at using feints to make his opponent react to his movements all so he could set up punches and create openings.
But most importantly to set up and create a pattern of his movements before quickly feinting and changing his attack. Bernard would usually try to fake the body before going up top, or vice versa.
These constant changes of patterns through feints would therefore create a state of uncertainty which Hopkins took advantage of. He wanted to put them in the following mindset
Paranoia or fear state of mind
A great fight to watch was against Kelly Pavlik by just putting his body in a position to set up the left hook from different angles. This in turn actually hurt Pavlik who was more cautious of this punch. Leading to Hopkins to really make his attack a lot more dynamic and varied, therefore, creating that paranoia state.
Finally, I can’t forget his most famous finish of all vs Felix Trinidad as put on a dominating display too only put the icing on the cake by knocking him out in devastating fashion in 12 rounds. However, if you take a closer look at the knockout itself, you could make the argument that he set up this exact combo.
At first, it looks like he throws the left uppercut, but in fact, is used to help draw out Tito’s deadly left hook. This then leads to the perfect opening to land the sharp right hook on the chin of Tito.
He also almost uses the same move for knockdown vs Tarver by using a shovel hook that makes him throw the left hand leading to a beautifully timed right hand down the middle.
These seem like simple things but it really is high-level ring IQ. And he truly is one the best I’ve ever seen create openings through the deception of feints and body position.
Watch some of this in action below:
Hopkins knockout set up vs 'Tito' Trinidad
Disciplined mentality and longevity
Finally, I felt it was also very important to touch on B-Hop’s mental discipline. As mentioned before Bernard was in the prison system from a young age and this no doubt helped create the hardened discipline it took him to reach the top.
Coming from violent beginnings alongside his insane discipline made Bernard into a very dangerous man in the ring. You just have to watch his early years as a middleweight and he would show exhilarating hand speed and knockout power he had.
However as he reached his late 30s many continued to say this was the end for Hopkins, that father’s time would catch up in each in every fight he had. It almost gave him an advantage over all these younger guys he faced as he totally outfoxed them.
But his big secret wasn’t that he was really from another Planet (lol), but the fact he treated his body like a temple. Especially through diet and recovery as he knew his opponents would be relaxing out of camp or partying after a fight. He would instead look after himself.
When you look back at Hopkins’s career, he is without a doubt a man that defied the odds completely. From having lost his first-ever fight to becoming a hall of famer just shows you the determination this man had to reach the top.
Having learned the trade of boxing in the jail cells of Philadelphia to then become undisputed middleweight champion and a unified world light heavyweight champ. The fact he fought and competed at the highest level till the age of 51 just shows you how disciplined and dedicated this man was to the sweet science
For me, he is one of the most intelligent fighters I have ever witnessed, sure some of his tactics may have been considered boring to some. But if you have ever boxed before and been under the heat of punches being thrown at you. You can’t help but appreciate how Hopkins instead used his ring IQ and slick style to frustrate and beat younger, bigger, and more talented men.
His discipline can also not be disregarded and there are very few boxers that have or even match what he did throughout his career. As Jim Rohn said
“Discipline is the bridge between goal and accomplishment“– Jim Rohn
This discipline by Hopkins in learning all the intricate details of the sweet science while also putting in the work in training while keeping clean outside the ring should be an inspiration to anyone who appreciates pugilism.
Thanks for reading this boxing style breakdown, if you want more like I recommend you check out my Andre Ward breakdown. Or check out more middleweight champion style breakdowns below.