WASHINGTON — As Bernard Hopkins snatched two championship belts displayed in front of Beibut Shumenov and moved them to his own spot on the dais, the light heavyweight from Kazakhstan sat expressionless, seemingly unmoved by the brashness of the ageless American.
Confrontational showmanship is not unusual in boxing news conferences. But Thursday’s event, promoting a title unification bout, was a fascinating look at how the 49-year-old Hopkins tried to gain a psychological edge on the 30-year-old Shumenov.
It’s an edge Hopkins hopes to exploit at the D.C. Armory tonight, when he attempts to become the oldest fighter to unify world titles. While Hopkins is the IBF champion, Shumenov holds the WBA and IBA belts.
With a victory, Hopkins would be in line for a fight with WBC champion Adonis Stephenson.
“This is an opportunity for me to represent the 40-and-up club, which is very much alive in the world,” Hopkins said. “Enjoy and understand that this is history. I’m defending something bigger than my title — my legendary, 20-plus-year legacy. That’s more important than anything around my waist.”
Shumenov (14-1) came to the U.S. seven years ago. When he captured the WBA title in his 10th professional fight, he was the least experienced boxer to win a world light heavyweight crown.
Shumenov’s star is rising, but leading up to this fight, it has been eclipsed by the charisma and resume of Hopkins (54-6-2), who won his first world championship when Shumenov was 11 years old.
“I know a little bit about him, but he knows a lot about me,” Hopkins said. “So get ready for school, student. This is no disrespect. This is logic. I am the professor, with a PhD-slash-IQ.”
Hopkins remains true to his words in the ring, where he frustrates foes with experience, guile and, most of all, defense. Since knocking out Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, 14 of Hopkins’ last 15 fights have gone the distance.
The only one that didn’t was stopped on a foul in the final round.
“When this is over with, let’s pray he has a career going forward, because I have a track record,” Hopkins said. “There’s a whole list of names that didn’t survive the mental beat-down. Physical is one thing. It’s the mental. ‘How can a 50-year-old man beat me like that?’ ”
After the press conference, Hopkins explained the difference between himself, raised in the projects in Philadelphia, and Shumenov, who lives in opulence in Las Vegas and says he has a law degree and speaks five languages.
“This has something to do with your inner spirit. What do you have to lose? He has a lot to lose. He’s a lawyer by profession,” Hopkins said. “You’re not fighting to feed your family. It’s a hobby. When a guy fights for a hobby, they don’t last long in the business of hard knocks.”
With a decline in the profile of the sport in recent decades, many in boxing believe that Hopkins’ age-defying feats are underappreciated.
“If Bernard Hopkins was an athlete in any other sport, you’d be sick of seeing him on the front of magazines,” said Hopkins’ trainer, Naazim Richardson. “People don’t know our sport. They don’t recognize 30 years old is old in boxing.”
Promoters have dubbed tonigh’s fight “History at the Capital.” His first world title bout came at RFK Stadium in 1993 against Roy Jones Jr. Two years later at USAir Arena in Landover, Md., Hopkins won his first world title when he knocked out Segundo Mercado. He also has had title fights at the Washington Convention Center and the Showplace Arena in Upper Marlboro, Md.
At the end of Thursday’s news conference the soft-spoken Shumenov stepped out of character and went off-script, interrupting the event’s host with a gentle nudge to his chest, and taking over the podium.
“You’re mistaken if you’re thinking I’m thinking I am fighting with (a fighter) 50 years old,” Shumenov said moments before taking back his WBA and IBF belts. “On Saturday night, we’re seeing who’s taking whose belt.”
But to the surprise of few, Hopkins had the last laugh, mocking Shumenov as he spoke.
“He’s got a pulse,” Hopkins said. “He’s got a pulse.”
Notes: A black and white photograph of Hopkins, taken by German photographer Holger Keifel, will become part of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s permanent collection. Hopkins also was presented a plaque of appreciation from the family of former boxing great Joe Frazier. Hopkins was instrumental in funding a statue in Philadelphia of the former heavyweight champion.