Bernard Hopkins: Craftsman At Work

By Thomas Hauser
Greg Sirb, Chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, stood outside the Sovereign Center in Reading, Pennsylvania, last Saturday night and savored the moment. Bernard Hopkins (right) was about to defend the undisputed middleweight championship of the world against Carl Daniels. If successful, it would be his fifteenth defense, breaking Carlos Monzon's record of fourteen consecutive middleweight title defenses.

Reading is an old industrial town with 80,000 residents. Victorian houses and stone churches are much in evidence, but so are signs of urban blight. Fighting back against marginalization, the community has launched an ambitious downtown redevelopment program intended to make it an economic anchor for all of Berks County. The 9,000-seat Sovereign Center is the lynch-pin of Reading's plan. Meanwhile, Hopkins-Daniels was the biggest sports event in the history of the county, and Sirb was aware of its importance.

"We do fifty fight cards a year in Pennsylvania; the most of any state in the east," Sirb said. "But we're not a gaming state, so we get very few showcase events. It's mostly club fights. But I'm going to tell you something; they're great fights. I say it all the time: If you want to see boxing, go to the casinos. If you want to see fights, come to Pennsylvania. Everyone knows about Philadelphia fighters, but some of the best fights in the world take place in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Allentown, Erie, and Reading. We don't have high rollers; we don't have beautiful people; but we have fans. In Las Vegas, people come into the arena at the last minute for the main event. Here, they're waiting outside when the doors open. The problem is, we get to see the fighters coming up but, when they reach a certain level, we can't afford them anymore. Now Bernard's fans have the opportunity to see him in the ring as champion. Not on TV; in person. This is huge for us. Anyone who wants to can buy a twenty-dollar ticket to see Bernard Hopkins fight. Think about that. It's fantastic! When's the last time anyone could pay twenty dollars and see one of the greatest fighters in the world? It's Christmas in Reading."

This was Hopkins' first fight in his home state since 1993, when he stopped Wendall Hall in three rounds. Tickets were priced from twenty to one hundred-fifty dollars. Hopkins was fighting for his legacy, but he also saw the bout as part of his ongoing quest for respect.

Bernard remembers slights; and during his career, there have been many of them. "People didn't just give me the credit I deserve," he said recently. "I forced them to give it to me."

Hopkins hasn't forgotten the photo shoot at HBO last July, when still ads and commercials were shot to advertise Trinidad-Hopkins. "I did shots for seven or eight hours," he complained later. "I was the test rat for Trinidad. I was on that little thing that goes around and around. Then Trinidad comes in, and he's out in an hour. I was pissed. But as much as I talk, I didn't say anything. Then I had to listen to Ross Greenburg saying to me, 'Bernard; if you beat Trinidad, your picture will be right there where his is.'"

Hopkins beat Trinidad. And as Larry Merchant noted, "Coming off a great victory and fighting to break a historic record, you'd expect this fight to be in a historic venue or in Bernard's hometown of Philadelphia.

" It didn't happen. Promoter Don King and HBO said they sought a venue in Philadelphia, but that all of the satisfactory sites had been previously booked. Hopkins himself told reporters, "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that it isn't in Philly. That's the city where I learned my trade, and I'm proud to be part of it. If I had a magic wand and could put the fight in Philly, I would."

To some, the fact that the bout was being held in Reading was a slap in the face to Hopkins. Cynics said the venue was a good longterm business move for Don King. The gate would be small, but HBO's license fee was driving the fight. And the fact that Bernard couldn't fill a moderately-sized arena at bargain prices would be a factor when everyone sat down eventually to negotiate purses for Roy Jones, Jr. versus Hopkins. Economic failure would temper Bernard's feelings of empowerment and, from King's point of view, keep his purses as close as possible to the previously-agreed-upon contractual minimum.

But on fight night, a crowd of 8,243 showed up despite the fact that not a penny was spent on local advertising. That didn't put Hopkins at the head of boxing's economic pound-for-pound ratings, but it was awfully good.

Meanwhile, as noted by Peyton Sher who has been a fixture at Don King fights for three decades, "When you have a big fight in big city, you're just part of the overall picture. But here, the whole community welcomes you and supports you. The entire community feels like this is something big."

And it was. As Saturday drew close, boxing insiders were much in evidence at the Lincoln Plaza Hotel, which served as fight headquarters. The weigh-in at the hotel was open to the public and drew a standing-room-only crowd, although women were barred. "After all," one local official explained, "the boxers have to take their pants off to make weight." The night before the bout, the hotel bar and restaurant were jammed as "fight people" mingled with local residents.

Then came the fight. And it was less a competitive bout than a performance by a brutal craftsman at work.

Carl Daniels is a good journeyman fighter, but Hopkins is a warrior of legendary proportions. Everyone understood that, to win, the challenger would have to do things he'd never done before and Bernard would have to fight badly. Neither eventuality occurred. Hopkins was exquisitely prepared as always; and Daniels was never in the fight.

"It's a street thing; it's not a Harvard thing," Hopkins has said about dominating opponents. "Once I sense that slight sliver of fear, it's over."

This one was over early. Daniels fought from round one on like a man who'd be happy to lose a non-violent twelve-round decision. All night long, it was Hopkins stalking, while the challenger threw stay-away-from-me jabs and tied up the champion whenever he moved in close. Hopkins never got frustrated. For the second fight in a row, he boxed beautifully, stayed within himself, fought foul-free, and broke his opponent down while putting round after round in the bank. This time, the left hook to the body was his money punch. In round nine, the hurt began to show. After ten rounds, Daniels told his trainer Tommy Brooks, "I have no more," and the fight was stopped. Each judge gave the champion every round. It was a dominant performance by a consummate professional against an opponent who didn't want to fight.

As for what comes next; boxing fans and HBO are hoping for a Hopkins rematch against Roy Jones, Jr., who defeated Bernard nine years ago for the vacant IBF middleweight crown. But any one of three problems could KO that bout.

The first problem is weight. Jones fights regularly at 175 pounds, and Hopkins at 160. Bernard wants Roy to meet him halfway at the super middleweight standard of 168. But Jones says that would be forcing him to enter the ring at less than his best. And he has a point. When Sugar Ray Robinson challenged Joey Maxim for the light-heavyweight crown, they didn't fight at a catch-weight. Maxim entered the ring with a 15-1/2 pound advantage. That was the difference between the two men on a night when Robinson wilted from the heat. But that's boxing.

The second problem is money. Jones says that, because he won the first Jones-Hopkins fight, he's entitled to a 60-40 purse split in his favor. Hopkins is demanding 50-50. Moreover, even if the two men can agree on percentages, the numbers to make the fight happen might not be there. Jones gets $5,000,000 a pop for fighting the likes of Glen Kelly, so he'll want close to $10,000,000 for Hopkins. And if Bernard got $2,500,000 for fighting Daniels, he'll want $6,000,000 or $7,000,000 for fighting Jones. But in the past, neither man has shown himself to be a major pay-per-view attraction. Money is the real matchmaker in boxing, and lack of funds might kill Jones-Hopkins.

And then there's problem number three. Hopkins seems to want the bout, but Jones doesn't. For all his talent, it has been years since Roy Jones, Jr. sought out the best available opposition. Roy is a great fighter, but he doesn't want to be great in the way that great fighters are asked to be.

Still, it's worth speculating on what will happen if the bout takes place. The last time they fought, each judge scored the bout 116-112 for Jones. But the last two rounds belonged to Hopkins. Roy says he hurt his hand. Bernard says that, as the fight wore on, he figured Roy out.

Jones has gotten bigger since then. Hopkins has gotten better. If they do meet again in the ring, it will be a fight.

If you would like to contact award-winning writer Thomas Hauser, he can be contacted at email address: ">
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