picture supplied by Holger Keifel
By Thomas Hauser
Glory came late for Bernard Hopkins.
Bernard’s first pro fight was at age 23 for a purse of four hundred dollars. He lost, sat out for sixteen months, returned to the ring in 1990, and was defeated only once over the next fifteen years. In 1995, he captured the IBF middleweight crown with a seventh-round knockout of Segundo Mercado. Ultimately, he made twenty consecutive title defenses. But it wasn’t until he beat Felix Trinidad in a 2001 title-unification bout at Madison Square Garden that he achieved superstar status.
Most fighters fade badly after age 35. Looking at some of boxing’s greatest middleweight champions; Sugar Ray Robinson was 37-15-4 after his 35th birthday. Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon were retired at 35. Hopkins has had thirteen fights since he turned 35 and lost only twice; each time by a razor-thin margin to Jermain Taylor. During that time, he has beaten Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya (his glitziest victory), and Antonio Tarver (a legacy-defining triumph).
Indeed, one can make a credible argument that, at age 41 (his age on June 10, 2006, when he beat Tarver), Hopkins was the best over-forty fighter ever. Archie Moore had thirty fights after age forty, but didn’t beat any elite opponents during that span. George Foreman, at age 45, triumphed over Michael Moorer but his other post-forty victories were unremarkable. Hopkins, at 41, was in the top-five on everyone’s pound-for-pound list. That’s extraordinary. He even had a flashy new nickname (“B-Hop”) to go with his old moniker (“The Executioner”).
Hopkins retired from boxing the night he beat Tarver. “There’s nothing else to do,” he told a post-fight press conference. “I’m done.” That was in keeping with a promise he’d made to his mother, who had died of cancer several years earlier. “My mom knew Joe Frazier,” Bernard further explained. “She saw what happened to Joe. And from a mother’s love, she didn’t want me to wind up like that, so I promised her that I’d retire before my forty-first birthday. I missed it by a few months; that’s all.”
But Hopkins grew bored with retirement; and before long, he was planning a return to the ring. His first proposed target was Oleg Maskaev, who’d captured the WBC heavyweight crown with a twelfth-round knockout of Hasim Rahman in August 2006.
“I’m serious,” Hopkins said two months after Rahman-Maskaev. “Bernard Hopkins fighting a heavyweight would be shocking at first. But when people think about it, it’s not that crazy. The heavyweight division is not in good shape in America or in good shape period. I need to save the reputation of heavyweight boxing in America so Joe Louis can rest in his grave, so Jersey Joe Walcott and Floyd Patterson can rest easy. I’m the last hope for the American heavyweights, and I believe the American people would support that. We are being dominated by other countries, and I don’t like it."
“I won’t go in the ring to take a fight I can’t win,” Hopkins continued. “I got a blueprint on fighting Maskaev. I’ve watched him fight. I’ve sparred with guys 190, maybe 200 pounds. I’ve never been hit by a 235-pound heavyweight with ten-ounce gloves. I would be taking a huge risk. People will either see a train wreck or see Bernard Hopkins pull off history again. But people will take me real seriously once they realize I’m hiring Mackie Shilstone again to help me prepare myself safely and correctly. I’ll be 205 by April, and I’ll look even better at 205 than I did at 175 against Tarver.”
Shilstone, of course, worked with Hopkins for his fight against Tarver and also with light-heavyweight champions Michael Spinks and Roy Jones Jr prior to their successful challenges against Larry Holmes and John Ruiz.
As for the pledge that he‘d made to his mother, Bernard declared, “I know I made a strong personal promise to my mom. She’s up there listening, and I’m asking her and God for forgiveness. I was 34 years old at the time I made that promise. How was I to know that I’d be at my peak in my forties? Now what has happened is, my four sisters and my wife have replaced my mother and they’ve given me their express approval to come back.”
On October 18th, Richard Schaefer (the CEO of Golden Boy, which promotes Hopkins) acknowledged, “Bernard is really serious about it. He gave me the instructions to seriously explore if the [Maskaev] fight can be made. I have had conversations with Dennis Rappaport [Maskaev’s promoter] about the fight being held in the spring. They are open to it.”
On November 25th, Hopkins formally unretired. “Still got the fire; still got the legs,” he proclaimed. “If the opportunity lays out to be fair on my side, you’ll see the most historic, the most anticipated, the most courageous thing that anybody in boxing will ever witness. The only thing that will get Bernard Hopkins back to the ring is to fight for the heavyweight championship of the world. That’s the only risk that will motivate me to train as hard as I always did; to go in there with the mentality of upsetting the world, upsetting the critics, and cementing my name furthermore in boxing history for all times.”
Hopkins fighting against an elite heavyweight would have been compelling drama. Alas, it never happened; so Bernard turned his attention to Roy Jones, who had defeated him on a twelve-round decision in 1993.
The loss to Jones still rankles Hopkins, largely because he knows that he fought Roy the wrong way. He tried to box cleverly, when he should have gone into the trenches, mauled, brawled, and done everything possible to rough Jones up.
A lot of people didn’t want to see Jones-Hopkins II happen. Bernard is better technically now than he was when he fought Roy. Jones isn’t. Bernard is close to being as gifted physically now as he was then. His legs aren’t the same and he’s a touch slower; but he’s just as strong if not stronger. Jones, by contrast, isn’t close to what he was physically in 1993. He’s slower; his reflexes aren’t the same; and his chin seems to have been rewired. Hopkins 2007 might beat Hopkins 1993. Jones 1993 knocks out Jones 2007. For some observers of the boxing scene, the appropriate tagline for a Jones-Hopkins rematch was, “Jones-Hopkins II: Better never than late.”
Not to worry. Jones took exception to the financial terms that were offered to him and turned the fight down with the advisory, “Bernard Hopkins uses De La Hoya as the front man to fuck you. He’s cute, but I don’t do dudes.”
So Hopkins turned to Winky Wright. They will meet in the ring on July 21st in Las Vegas at Mandalay Bay.
“Winky Wright has never been knocked out in his entire career,” Bernard said at the kick-off press conference in Las Vegas. “But he ran the light without his seat belt on when he signed for this fight, and there’s a truck coming. Winky thinks he’s better than me. I know I’m better than him. I’ll beat him and beat him until that drop of water where you didn’t fix the ceiling tears the floor up.”
“I know how to win,” Wright responded. “I’m gonna kill the boogey-man. People don’t have to be scared no more. The boogey-man will be gone.”
As is usually the case at his press conferences, Hopkins had the last word. “I can’t look back on my record years from now and see that a guy named ‘Winky’ beat me,” he said.
Not everyone sees Bernard’s comeback the way he would like them to. “Hopkins is like most other boxers,” Stephen A. Smith wrote in the Philadelphia Inquirer. “He just wants you to believe otherwise. He’s a champion who can’t let go. A pugilist fueled by dollars more than by his legacy. A man whose word evidently is not as strong as his ego, hunger, or business acumen, since he plans to fight long after he promised his mother he would be done.”
But Hopkins has an answer for his critics. “This isn’t a Holyfield situation,” he says. “In boxing, you’re only as good as your last fight. My last fight was against Tarver. Based on June 10, 2006, do you think I should retire?”
Why is he still fighting? Obviously, money is a factor. When a man has shopped at Costco for most of his life, it’s hard to turn down millions of dollars for one more fight, and then another. But there are other considerations as well.
“I’m not fighting because I need the money,” Hopkins says. “I’m fighting because I can. When it’s all said and done, I’m the one who has to be satisfied with my decisions, good and bad. I like hitting people without getting locked up. This is therapy for me.” Then he adds, “The best thing about being a fighter is that you’re in control.”
As for what kind of fight Hopkins-Wright will be; the naysayers have been out in full force. Bob Arum (who has no promotional stake in the bout) calls it “a businessman’s dance” and explains, “By that, I mean a fight where you have two guys and neither one wants to get hurt and both of them leave the ring looking the same as when they came in.”
Teddy Atlas says, “There’s a good chance it’s not going to be one of your more scintillating fights. Their styles call for them to cover up, counter, stay out of danger, take what the other guy gives them, and not necessarily force the issue. Do they care about changing to make the fight more fan-friendly? I don’t think so.”
Angelo Dundee calls it “a chess match” and adds, “I don’t think they’re going to try to please anybody. If you’re expecting blood and guts, it ain’t gonna happen.”
But Hopkins-Wright is a competitive fight between two superb boxers. And it’s a meaningful fight for each man in terms of his legacy.
People talk about Bernard’s twenty consecutive title defenses and his having been being undefeated in 26 consecutive fights over a twelve-year period. But Winky hasn’t lost in thirteen fights over the past seven-and-a-half years. That’s one reason why he opened as a 6-to-5 betting favorite over Bernard. And the odds haven’t shifted since then.
“We’re going to force this fight,” says Dan Birmingham (who has trained Wright since Winky’s amateur days). “We’re going to set a fast hard pace. You look at Winky’s past fights; he’s landed punches every five to ten seconds on every opponent, and Bernard’s not going to be any exception. We’re coming right at him. We’re going to start this fight hard and we’re going to finish this fight hard right up until the last second. We’re going to make Bernard fight. And if they think they’re going to wear us down, then I’m glad they’re thinking that way because it’s not going to happen. I guarantee it.”
“If you look at my last couple of fights,” Wright adds, “I’m always coming forward. With Jermain Taylor, I came forward. Ike Quartey, I came forward. Trinidad, came forward. I don’t go for the knockout but I can punch. You don’t see fighters just running in on me. If I couldn’t punch, they’d come right up to me. But I can hit, I got a great defense, I’m a smart fighter, and I come to win. It’s going to be a fight like he never fought. He never fought anyone like me.”
Give Hopkins credit for going in tough. He’s at a point in his career where he has the luxury of fighting who he wants to fight. Yet he fought back-to-back bouts against Jermain Taylor; then took on Antonio Tarver; and now he’s facing Wright.
“Tarver was a puncher,” Hopkins notes. “He was a scary kind of fighter, but Winky brings his own set of problems to the table. Winky can box. People don’t jump up and down to fight Winky Wright.”
Not many people stand in line to fight Hopkins either.
Bernard has been a champion for so long because he always trains like a challenger. He doesn’t just prepare well during the weeks or months leading up to a fight. He has lived a Spartan lifestyle for almost two decades. He is as disciplined as any fighter ever.
“I watch tapes of a guy before I fight him,” Hopkins says. “I’ve watched tapes of Winky going back to the amateurs. I want to know everything there is to know about my enemy. This is war.”
Hopkins prepared for the Tarver fight with Naazim Richardson as his head trainer and John David Jackson as the number-one assistant. Earlier this year, Richardson suffered a stroke and Bernard turned to Freddie Roach for guidance.
As for how Hopkins-Wright will evolve, Bernard says, “There is no puzzle in a boxing ring that I can’t solve. This fight is based on who can figure out the puzzle and make the other guy do what he don’t want to do. Winky is like a turtle. He likes to go into his shell, but I’ve seen every style and fought every style. I know everything that Winky has, and I also know that Winky don’t have as many weapons in his arsenal as I do. I’m going to get the turtle to stick his head out of his shell and then I’m going to knock it off. I’m undefeated against southpaws; ten and oh with nine knockouts. There’s nothing Winky can do that will surprise me. Winky’s going to get hit more in this fight than he’s been hit in any fight in his life. I’m gonna punish him and then I’ll knock him out.”
Hopkins elaborated upon that theme during a July 11th conference call. “Winky has the ability to absorb a lot of punishment,” Bernard told the media. “That’s where you’ll see a reincarnation of Bernard Hopkins and William Joppy. His face will change from round one to round two to round three or whenever his corner and the referee feels that he’s had enough. Remember what you all said. ‘Winky Wright has the best defense in boxing. No one can figure it out. His elbows is low; he keeps his hands up. He has those jabs, one hundred a round.’ Remember you all said that, and then look at his face when the fight is over.”
Pat Burns, who trained Jermain Taylor for his two fights against Hopkins, believes that Bernard has to fight more aggressively than he has lately in order to prevail.
“To beat Winky,” Burns says, “you have to back him up. You cannot let Winky Wright come forward. Usually, Bernard fights hard for about sixty seconds a round. To beat Winky, he’ll have to raise that to seventy-five or eighty.”
Roach is an offensive-minded trainer. The fact that Hopkins decided to work with him might be an indication that he agrees with Burns’s logic. In that vein, Freddie says, “The pace will be set by Bernard. I’d like to see him pick it up a bit and start a little sooner than he usually does. Hopefully, the body shots will get to Winky and take a toll late in the fight. Winky’s defense is good but it’s not unbreakable.”
Both Hopkins and Wright are exceedingly difficult to play catch-up against, so the early rounds will be particularly important. Winky doesn’t have one-punch knockout power, so Bernard can take more risks than he usually does.
Hopkins’s big edge in the match-up might be his size. The contract weight is 170 pounds. At six-foot-one, he’s three inches taller than Wright. His most recent fight was at 175 pounds. By contrast, Winky has never fought above 160 and his last fight was against Ike Quartey (who began his career at 140 pounds and now fights at 154).
“Do you know what it took with this body for me to make 160 pounds all those years,” Hopkins asks rhetorically. “I went through torture for thirteen years to make 160 pounds. I’ve got a new body now, and it’s like driving a new car.”
Still, if weight is Bernard’s edge, age might be Winky’s advantage.
Boxing fans have come to accept the proposition that Hopkins is ageless. He isn’t. The sweet science is the most physically demanding of all sports. And by the time Bernard steps into the ring on July 21st, he will be have been out of combat for 407 days. At some point, he simply won’t be able to perform like a great fighter anymore. The question is when.
“Everybody has their time end,” Hopkins acknowledges. “I’m not a robot. I got aches and pains like everybody else. Boxing is a young man’s sport; and in any sport, even golf, forty-two is old. I don’t know how long it’s going to last.”
“Michael Jordan went to Washington and, all of a sudden, young guys were slamming on him,” Bernard continues. “Allen Iverson almost broke Michael’s ankles on a crossover. That hasn’t happened to me yet; but if I stay around long enough, it will. There comes a time for every fighter when he thinks he can do it; but then he gets in the ring and his body tells him that he’s wrong. You can win a fight and still know from the way your body feels that it’s time to retire. My body will tell me when it’s time to go. But I’ve never been cut. I’ve never been beaten up. It’s twelve years since I was stunned. There’s some miles on this car but it’s still in good shape. I’m in this game at age forty-two because I can still do it. And if anyone thinks different, prove it to me in the ring that I’m wrong.”
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org