While his rugby league notoriety assisted him, Millward correctly observed that since Hopoate had won the Australian heavyweight title against Aussie folk hero “Big” Bob Mirovic in a brutal, gutsy battle on September 10, 2008, there had been a new level of respect forthcoming for him.
“The public perception on him has changed,” noted Millward. “People stop him in the street for a photo or an autograph now and they say, ‘there’s Hoppa the fighter.’”
“I think that (the respect) came along after I beat Bob Mirovic,” agreed Hopoate. “Until I beat Bob, all of my fights had finished early. No one gave me a chance to win. They thought that if Bob got me into the fifth round, then I was finished.”
The dramatic 9th round TKO victory over Mirovic also dramatically increased Hopoate’s own confidence in himself as a boxer.
“I have noticed a change in him since he beat Bob Mirovic,” said Millward. “John believes in himself as a boxer. He really believes in himself. Before, he may have questioned himself in boxing and wondered whether he was ever going to go anywhere in the sport. Now, he is a completely different fighter.”
Those new levels of confidence will be important for Hopoate if he is to beat 44 year-old McCall 51-9 (36).
Like 34 year-old Hopoate, McCall has had many ups and downs in his career. After sensationally knocking out Lennox Lewis in two rounds to win the WBC world title in September 1994 in London, McCall defeated Larry Holmes on points, before losing the belt to popular Brit Frank Bruno in September 1995. A series of out of the ring problems with drinking and substance abuse followed. The “Atomic Bull” was famously arrested one night after throwing a Christmas tree through a hotel lobby window. The only identification police officers found on him that night in his back pocket was an uncashed cheque for US$1 million from promoter Don King.
In February 1997 in a rematch with Lewis for the vacant WBC belt, McCall suffered an inglorious meltdown in the ring where he refused to fight and wept openly, prompting referee Mills Lane to stop the match in round 5.
“McCall has had a few problems in his career,” said Hopoate. “It is a fight between two controversial blokes. That’s what it comes down to. But I am there to fight and I am there to win.”
Hopoate travelled to Los Angeles and spent time with his sister in Anaheim as he broke new ground in his preparation for McCall.
Working out at the Fortune Gym on Sunset Boulevard, Hopoate continued his development with impressive performances in sparring sessions against Americans Lionel Butler and former WBO world heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster.
Former Australian heavyweight and successful Los Angeles based trainer Justin Fortune was impressed with what Hopoate brought to his busy gym.
“John was real good,” said Fortune. “He just did some huge stuff sparring with Lamon. He was pulling some angles on Lamon Brewster that heavyweights just don’t do. He listened and he responded straight away. His fitness is great. He works very well. He couldn’t get better sparring leading into this fight with McCall.”
Trainer Millward could not find the words to describe how happy he was with Hopoate’s efforts in a new training environment.
“John’s angles were very impressive,” he gushed. “His jab was strong. He didn’t get hit a lot. He was throwing punches from everywhere. Lamon Brewster was shocked at how quick John was.”
Hopoate had some concerns as to how he would be treated going into his LA sparring, but the assistance he received from Brewster and Butler quickly dispelled his doubts.
“It was excellent for me,” Hopoate told SecondsOut. “Lamon was just a real gentleman. There is no mug about him. Both Lamon and Lionel have been helping me out, telling me what to do and what not to do. I feel my strength and speed is matching up well with these guys, but I can see their experience in the ring. Just in getting through the rounds. When I was getting tired, they were just pushing me through it. It has been great sparring. My speed has been up to it. When I was doing my angles, I was right up there with them. It has just been a learning curve for me.”
Sparring is sparring though and Hopoate realises that he will be in a real fight on Friday night, against a man who in his prime had one of the most lethal right hands in heavyweight boxing.
“I have seen his last few fights and his right hand is still pretty lethal,” admitted Hopoate. “The fights that he lost were to guys who put a bit of pressure on him. That sort of suits my style. That will be my game plan, to put the pressure on. He has the experience. It is just the little things, the holding and pushing away. You have to try not to get frustrated. These levels guys have been around and know all the tricks. I have to just try and overcome it.
“I think I have got him on age. A lot of people say I have got good power. I think I am more committed. He has not fought for a year or so. McCall may have a lot of experience, but I don’t think he will be able to take some of my power at his age. After the training I have been doing, I am prepared for this fight.”
Even for the people who are close to him and know him really well, Hopoate is a hard man to categorise such are the many strings to his personality.
“Hoppa is an unusual kind of guy,” admits Millward.
The rugby league ‘bad boy’ tag reputation sits alongside his family man role. You don’t raise eight children without having a special love for family. The leader of his church youth group, Hopoate’s 17 year-old eldest son William, last year signed a A$300,000 deal to play rugby league with the Manly Sea Eagles.
After his media workout in Sydney, Hopoate openly paraded around in a hooded “Dora the Explorer” sleeveless towel. The much loved cartoon character is a favourite of many of Hopoate’s younger children, so Hopoate thought it was a great way to embrace an important figure in their lives.
On the flip side, promising to wear it into the ring before his fight, Hopoate also knows it will put some extra questions marks in the mind of McCall.
“It’s also another ploy for McCall to look at me and think, ‘Who is this poof coming over to fight me?’ He will be very surprised,” laughed Hopoate.
All jokes aside, Hopoate realises what a step-up he is taking in this fight and what a win will mean for his career.
“It is true. I can step up a few levels very quickly,” he said. “If I win this fight, so many doors will open for me. I am pretty happy to be going over there to fight McCall in Las Vegas. Growing up, I watched guys like Mike Tyson fighting in Las Vegas. You would dream about things like this. I am blessed to be given the opportunity to go over there and fight.”
“I think for anyone from Australian sport who goes to compete in America,” said Millward, “it is always going to be a big step up. John believes in himself and I believe in him.”
While he believes that he has done everything possible to be ready for this vital match with McCall, a religious Hopoate is still hoping on a little help from a higher power upstairs.
“This fight means everything to me and my family,” said Hopoate. “This is the sort of fight you dream of. I never thought it would happen to me. When the opportunity came along, I jumped at it. I am very confident, but everything is left in God’s hands, he has the ultimate plan. Whatever plan he has for me, I hope I can win.”
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