HOWARD EASTMAN, a former British, Commonwealth and European middleweight champion had only fought outside of the UK once before in a points defeat to William Joppy in Las Vegas. “Nothing about him impresses me. Some people say he’s the best in the world but I don’t share their opinions,” said Eastman in the build-up to his shot at world middleweight king, Bernard Hopkins.
The 40-year-old champion, was aiming for an historic 20th title defence, matching Larry Holmes’ record of 20 consecutive defences. He had been at the top of the sport for a decade and had not lost in almost 12 years since being outpointed by Roy Jones Jnr in May 1993. He had amassed a record of 45-2-1 with one no contest compared with Eastman’s 40-1-0 record with 34 of those wins coming inside the distance.
Boxing News noted in their preview that since Hopkins’ 50-fight career started with a four-round points defeat in 1988, he had stopped Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Glen Johnson (by now the leader at light-heavyweight) plus outpointed William Joppy and Keith Holmes. The latter two victories held significance in that Joppy was the only man in 41 fights to have beaten Eastman, while Holmes, simply outmuscled and outworked by Hopkins, was a tall, rangy type like Howard.
Eastman was hoping to emulate the great overseas triumph of Lloyd Honeyghan against Donald Curry 19 years before, and in doing so become the first Brit since Alan Minter to be universally recognised as world middleweight champion.
Featuring on the undercard was a 26 year old Jermain Taylor, 22-0 (16), taking on Daniel Edouard, 16-0-2 (9), as chief support. The emerging Taylor was being eyed as a possible challenger to Hopkins later in the year. Also, British and Commonwealth super middleweight champion Carl Froch was scheduled to open the show in his US debut but his Californian opponent, Christian Cruz, came in 14lbs overweight and no replacement could be found in time.
In the main event, the challenger was so outclassed that not in one round did the judges unanimously give him the nod. That was not to suggest Hopkins had it easy, the champion put aside any urge to entertain and instead focused on what he had to do to impress the judges by avoiding most of Eastman’s punches while sneaking in his own accurate punches in return.
Howard was too measured and predictable much of the time. He was too slow on his feet and Hopkins knew that going backwards, inviting Eastman on to his punches, was the shrewdest means to victory.
Even by the halfway point in the fight when Eastman was clearly behind, he still had no answers to offer, instead continuing to fight the champion’s fight. Late on, when it was apparent that Eastman would require a knockout to win, he was still confined to throwing single jabs to the body and paying for these with sharp counter right hands and left hooks. The three judges at ringside scored the bout 119-110, 117-111 and 116-112 all for the champion.
The ideal path ahead for Hopkins over the next year was to beat Taylor, then secure a rematch with Felix Trinidad (if he overcame the challenge of Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright in Las Vegas in May), and then meet Glen Johnson in what would be his final bout should Johnson overcome Antonio Tarver in a rematch in April. These three fights over the next year would allow Hopkins to honour the promise he made to his late mother by retiring at 40, as champion.
However, Trinidad lost to Wright and quickly announced his retirement. Glen Johnson dropped a unanimous decision to Antonio Tarver, and later that same year Taylor famously notched two consecutive and controversial victories over Hopkins.