Bernard Hopkins Continues To Add To His Legacy

Hopkins throws a right habd at Jean Pascal
Hopkins throws a right habd at Jean Pascal
When will it all end for Bernard Hopkins?

By Matthew Hurley: His extraordinary professional career has stretched on for twenty-three years, and although there have been losses, both controversial and spot on, along with some uneven, tentative performances bordering on the tedious, he continues to persevere. And like many great, aging fighters as he loses a bit of speed in his step he finds himself forced to fight with more grit and heart than near unmatched technique, making him more compelling to watch.

Hopkins’ career hit its apex all the way back in 2001 when he faced off against heavily favored Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden for the undisputed middleweight title. That night he schooled a fighter who had captured the boxing public’s imagination with his punching power and undeniable charisma. Trinidad wasn’t just supposed to win, he was supposed to win easily. So easily in fact that rumor had it that promoter Don King, perhaps in collusion with HBO (never a friend to Hopkins), had already engraved his name on the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy to be awarded to the winner of this final matchup in that celebrated middleweight tournament.

Well, Hopkins had waited years for that special night on the grand stage to prove his brilliance to the masses. He was determined to become the Marvelous Marvin Hagler of his era and on that night, just weeks after the tragedy of 9/11, he fought the perfect fight and ruined the plans of all those who had assumed he would fall after Trinidad connected with one of his thunderous left hooks.

The boxing establishment, concerned with long-term contracts and cross over star appeal, simply didn’t want a Hopkins victory. It didn’t want the snarling, confrontational former prison inmate as a flagship fighter for the sport. It wanted the smiling, gregarious Trinidad, or the corporate Golden Boy, Oscar De La Hoya, or the flashy, gentlemanly Sugar Man, Shane Mosley. It speaks to how loathed this rogue character was that HBO later built up and heavily hyped his “heir apparent” Jermain Taylor at Hopkins’ expense. The two would fight twice, with Taylor winning two hotly disputed decisions.

Those two wins by Taylor were supposed to usher in a new boxing era. But Hopkins was having none of it. He felt he had won those two fights and his bitterness, mirroring much of what Hagler had gone through, only made him meaner and more focused.

Taylor, despite his unquestionable heart, never matured into the fighter many had hoped for. One of the main reasons being he had none of Hopkins in between fight resolve. He was not a gym rat, gorged himself on junk food and never mastered his craft as Hopkins did over years of torturous physical workouts.

Hopkins simply refused to go away. And somehow, with age, he got better, trickier, and became a pure technician in the ring. Unfortunately, that brilliant technical prowess also reduced many of his bouts into mundane affairs. So, he would never be quite the fan favorite as the aforementioned Trinidad, De La Hoya and Mosley – despite conclusively knocking out both Tito and Oscar.

And yet, he may well be the preeminent fighter of his generation. Fans of Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather will scoff at that notion but one only has to look at their respective accomplishments and opponents faced alongside Hopkins’ record to realize just how truly remarkable The Executioner’s career has been.

His twenty successful middleweight title defenses against the likes of John David Jackson, Glen Johnson, Antwun Echols, William Joppy, Trinidad and De La Hoya is a record that will probably never be broken. At light heavyweight he has turned back the challenges of Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright, Kelly Pavlik, Roy Jones and he most recently took the WBC strap away from Jean Pascal to become the oldest fighter in boxing history to win a championship. And he did so in highly entertaining fashion.

Dubious decision losses to Taylor and Joe Calzaghe only further enhance the scope of his accomplishments when one considers just how disputed those losses really were.

In fact, should Hopkins defeat the highly touted Chad Dawson in his first defense of that newly acquired light heavyweight belt on October 15 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles Bernard Hopkins, at forty-six years of age, should be the front runner for Fighter Of The Year honors for 2011. He’s won the award once before, ten years ago in 2001.

The only glitch in this upcoming bout is that because of their styles, both are economical punchers and lean heavily toward defensive posturing, this has all the earmarks of a slow, deliberate chess match. And that is where Hopkins has not ingratiated himself with that section of the boxing public that craves blood, guts and action – and an overwhelming section it is.

But should Hopkins fight in the manner he did against Pascal in their 2011 rematch, aggressive and willing to trade shots, and deliberately pull Dawson out of his comfort zone, the fight might just exceed its rather low expectations.

Bernard recently addressed his recent pleasing style with HBO’s Jim Lampley. When asked, “Why are you fighting more offensively now?” Hopkins replied with a sly smile, “The fans seem to like it more than ducking.”

If he wins, in whatever fashion, it will be yet another jewel in a crown he has worn on and off for nearly fifteen years.

The stats are astonishing. The complete professionalism in the ring, albeit sometimes marginalized by questionable verbal antics outside it (usually spouted in order to enhance promotion) is lauded in every corner. And his willingness to step into the ring against younger, stronger, supposedly hungrier fighters as an underdog and often make those opponents look foolish is a testament to his ongoing greatness.

Bernard Hopkins won’t be around forever, although that’s been said about him every year for the past ten years, so boxing fans should embrace this lingering member of the old guard while they can. His personal story, filled with rage and redemption, is utterly compelling and his remarkable career will not only land him in the International Boxing Hall Of Fame but will place him high atop any respectable list of the greatest pugilists of all time.

And because Hopkins has never sustained a prolonged beating inside the ropes and remains mentally sharp, witty and opinionated, in time he could become the retired elder statesman of the sport we often miss out on. So many great fighters either leave the game physically and emotionally damaged that we never see them behind the microphone or leading a promotional junket tour. Hopkins seems a perfect fit, and he looks great in a designer suit or tuxedo.

Whatever happens against Dawson, or possible future opponents, don’t expect Bernard to simply fade away. He loves the sport too much, and he loves the camera and the ego gratifying attention that comes with it. We’re lucky to have him, and if it took so many so long to appreciate just how lucky, at least the majority of the boxing public has finally come to that appropriate conclusion. Bernard Hopkins knew it all along, we just had to catch up with him.

October 3, 2011
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