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02 SEPTEMBER 2014

 

Bernard Hopkins: History in the Making


Bernard Hopkins: photo by Holger Keifel
Bernard Hopkins: photo by Holger Keifel

By Thomas Hauser

Egos are big in boxing and few people in the sweet science have a bigger ego than Bernard Hopkins. “He talks so frequently about himself in the third person,” writes Stephen A. Smith, “that some would say he’s a bit challenged grammatically.” Bernard himself admits, “Your ears can get tired listening to Bernard Hopkins.”

Hopkins is a writer’s fighter. He’s quotable and charismatic with marvelous ring skills to match his persona. He’s also an exceedingly complex man with personal potential that has yet to be fully tapped. He doesn’t like being wrong, and rarely admits it when he is. He can be smart and foolish, diplomatic and brusque, funny and mean, charming and cruel. At times, he’s wise.

In Bernard’s world, relationships are often tenuous. Allies like longtime trainer Bouie Fisher and promoter Lou DiBella (who was instrumental in the later stages of Bernard’s rise to stardom) are cast aside. Some people marvel at how Hopkins makes pacts with the devil (e.g. Don King and Bob Arum), breaks them, and comes out ahead. DiBella voices a different view and queries, “How can Bernard Hopkins make a pact with the devil? He is the devil.” But in the next sentence, the promoter acknowledges, “There are a lot of very appealing things about Bernard as a person. That’s why, when he turned on me and revealed that other side of his character, it hurt me so much.”

Love him or hate him (and there’s reason for both), Hopkins deserves respect for what he has accomplished. There have been many controversies in his life, some of them ugly; but he has kept his name free of scandal. When he was released from prison at age 23, he had meager vocational skills and little margin for error, in the ring or out of it. Then he lost his first pro fight.

“That was a gut-shot,” Bernard says. “I had to make it in boxing to get to where I wanted to go in life. There was no Plan B. But I never begged, I never pleaded, I never lay down. And it all worked out for me.”

Boxing is about who executes best in the fractions of a second when an opening is there. The outcome of a fight is determined by which fighter does what has to be done in those fleeting slivers of time. Forget about the costume mask and executioner’s hood that Hopkins often wears to the ring. He executes; that’s the key.

“Bernard knows the art of boxing,” says Freddie Roach, who stepped in to train Hopkins when Naazim Richardson suffered a stroke on March 29th of this year. “He studies it; he knows this game well. He thinks. He sets things up. He doesn’t make mistakes. You should watch him shadow-box.  His feet are always under him; his balance is perfect; his chin is always down.  He’s not your usual fighter; that’s for sure.”

“There are times when I’ve been in Bernard’s corner during a fight,” says Richardson. “I’ve seen something and said to myself, ‘When Bernard gets back to the corner, I want to tell him this.’ And before the round ends, he’s made that adjustment.”

But the key to Hopkins’s success is his work ethic. A lot of fighters maintain discipline while they’re on the way up. Some keep it for a few years after they become a champion. What makes Bernard special is that he has kept his discipline for almost twenty years.

“Bernard gives more of himself than any fighter I’ve ever known,” says Richardson. “Most fighters, if they tried to do what Bernard does, they’d break. There are very few human beings who can give what Bernard gives, mentally or physically. He’s extreme in a lot of what he does. Sometimes you have to tell him to back off and slow down. There are times when something isn’t working right and he’ll just work it harder instead of trying a different approach. But I’ve never seen a fighter get up mentally fight after fight like Bernard does. Each time he steps in the ring, it’s like his first championship fight. Boxing is as hard as everyone thinks it is, harder; and Bernard does it right. Every trainer who ever lived would like to work with a fighter like Bernard Hopkins.”

“A lot of people talk a good fight; I back it up,” says Hopkins. “I have a problem with losing. I don’t take that well. Patience is the key to winning a fight. You have to wait for the right time to make things happen. There’s patience, discipline, and it helps to have luck. We never know how the dice roll. There are no guarantees in boxing. You can train right and live right and still roll snake-eyes when you get in the ring. But I promised myself a long time ago that, every fight I have, I’m giving myself every chance possible to win.”

Hopkins loves the sweet science and thinks long and hard about his place in boxing history. His proudest achievement is his string of twenty consecutive middleweight title defenses. He enjoys contemplating what might have happened had he faced off against the ring legends of another time. Keep in mind; the middleweights of old weighed-in on the day of a fight; not thirty hours before the opening bell as is the custom today. But doesn’t keep Bernard from visualizing what might have been.

“Sugar Ray Robinson at 147 pounds was close to perfect,” Hopkins posits. “But at middleweight, he was beatable. I would have fought Ray Robinson in close and not given him room to do his thing. He’d make me pay a physical price. But at middleweight, I think I’d wear him down and win. Me and Marvin Hagler would have been a war. We’d both be in the hospital afterward with straws in our mouth. We’d destroy each other. I wouldn’t run from Marvin. My game-plan would be, rough him up, box, rough him up, box. You wouldn’t use judges for that fight. You’d go by the doctors’ reports. Whichever one of us is damaged less gets the win. Carlos Monzon? I could lose that fight. Monzon was tall, rangy, did everything right. I see myself losing that fight more than winning it. I ain’t saying I’m number one, but I’m one of the best middleweights of all time. My legacy is what it is. If you want to be great, then beat Bernard Hopkins.”

On July 21st at the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Winky Wright tried to do just that.

It had been two years since Hopkins came to the oasis in the Nevada desert to fight Jermain Taylor in what he’d assumed would be a satisfying finale to his long and illustrious ring career. He would beat Taylor, perhaps fight an encore against a lesser opponent as a grace note, and then retire; or so it was thought.

Taylor won a controversial split decision to hand Hopkins his first defeat in twelve years. Five months later, there was a rematch and Jermain triumphed again. Thereafter, Bernard went up in weight and seized the light-heavyweight crown with a dominant performance over Antonio Tarver. That victory, at age 41, redefined his legacy.

Boxing needs competitive fights between elite fighters. Hopkins-Wright was that kind of match-up. Both men were in the top-five on virtually everyone’s pound-for-pound list. Neither man had ever been knocked out. Their encounter was for the Ring Magazine light-heavyweight championship belt, which was a bit disingenuous since the bout contract required them to weigh-in at 170 pounds or less rather than 175 (a concession to Wright who hadn’t fought previously above 160). But as Bernard observed, “One of the great things about fighting for the Ring belt is that there are no sanctioning fees.”

Much of the pre-fight reporting voiced the view that Hopkins-Wright would be a “boring” fight. That was unfair to the combatants, both of whom are genuine ring craftsmen. Yes, Bernard and Winky are known for defense. But if Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson faced off against one another next month and each man reached back to recapture his prime, no true baseball fan would complain about a 1-0 pitchers duel. It was exhilarating to watch Pittsburgh’s “steel curtain” defense and Minnesota’s “purple people eaters” perform on the football field years ago. Good defense isn’t necessarily bad. Hopkins dismissed the criticism with the observation, “The guys who write about this being a boring fight never took a punch. Maybe they took a punch or two in the playground, but not a real punch.”

Meanwhile, the match-up represented a special opportunity for Wright, who (despite two victories over Shane Mosley and another over Felix Trinidad) was still looking for his signature win. Winky has always been the “other guy” in big-money fights. He was the other guy against Vargas. He was the other guy against Mosley (who was later devalued as “too small”) and Trinidad (demeaned as “used goods” because of his loss to Hopkins). He was the B-side in the marketing of Taylor-Wright. Against Hopkins, Wright was once again the other guy.

Age matters in boxing, and Bernard’s 42 years were seen as a handicap. Although, as Bernard pointed out, “Winky is 35; he ain’t no spring chicken either.” As for the 170-pound weight limit, Hopkins noted, “People are saying, ‘Oh, Bernard is too big.’ They aren’t saying, ‘Bernard agreed to take five pounds off from what’s his best weight now so this fight could happen.’”

Freddie Roach was confident in the days leading up to the fight. Prior to the start of training, he’d confided, “Bernard probably knows more about boxing than I do, but I might know a few things that he doesn’t. The hard part will be getting to know each other because we don’t have much time. But Bernard is a hard worker and I’m pretty straightforward, so I don’t anticipate any problems.”

As fight night approached, Roach (who has struggled to get fighters like James Toney in shape) said with pleasure, “I’d heard that Bernard works hard, and he does. I’d heard he was disciplined, and he is. It’s nice not to worry about your guy going home and eating the wrong meal and staying out late partying. Bernard makes that part of the job easy.”

As for strategy, Roach declared, “If Winky comes out aggressive, Bernard will go with him. He might think he wants to push Bernard because of Bernard’s age. But when the fight starts, he’ll think something different. The Fernando Vargas fight exposed Winky a bit. They say it was a bad decision; but no matter how you look at it, it was close and Winky left himself vulnerable to the body during exchanges. And I saw some things in Winky’s fights against Shane Mosley. Shane just wasn’t big enough to take advantage of them.”

“Long layoffs are never good for fighters,” Roach acknowledged, referring to Hopkins’s 407-day absence from the ring. “It’s hard to fight once a year and be sharp. But we’ve done extra sparring to cover that and gone ten rounds a couple of times. Everything has been working well in the gym.”

“People will be shocked at how dominant I am in this fight,” Hopkins added. “Winky Wright can’t beat Bernard Hopkins just on defense. We got a thing in boxing called offense. To win a fight, you got to throw punches and do damage with them. Winky Wright has two bullets in his gun; his defense and his jab. Winky can only do two things. I’m an all-around fighter.”

Meanwhile, the psychological warfare between the fighters was ratcheting up.

Wright is the antithesis of Hopkins. His public persona is level and easy-going. He doesn’t stir passions. He just quietly does his job.

Still, by virtue of their trade, any two fighters in the ring have more in common with each other than with virtually anyone else in the arena. And there are other similarities between Winky and Bernard, including the fact that each of them enters the ring as a confident fighter.

In the weeks leading up to the fight, Hopkins engaged in his usual “executioner” rhetoric. “When I go in the ring, I try to hurt my opponent real bad,” he said. “I beat guys up before I knock them out. It’s like foreplay before the orgasm. When Winky looks across the ring and sees a bald-headed guy with that penitentiary look staring at him, and everybody else in his corner is going down the stairs, he’s gonna wish he wasn’t there. I know when fear is there; I read fear well. Winky is scared.”

But Wright wasn’t scared. He meant it when he said, “Bernard is talking a lot of trash, and I want to shut his mouth.” Then, in a July 10th conference call with the media, Winky labeled Hopkins a dirty fighter.

“Bernard’s always going to be a dirty fighter,” Wright declared. “Bernard’s a tough fighter, he’s awkward, and he does a lot of dirty things. The way he uses his head, the way he hits you on the cup and hits you on the leg. It’s definitely things he does on purpose; and he’s been fighting for so long, he knows when to do it and when the referee is on the other side. That’s how he fights. He’s just a dirty fighter.”

“What am I going to do?” Hopkins said in response. “Argue and plead that I’m not? I’ve been called worse names than ‘dirty’. I take it as a compliment. I’m going to kick his ass whether I’m a dirty fighter, a clean fighter, a nice fighter. It’s not his job to worry about nothing but fighting. That’s why we have a referee. People have watched me for years. If you think I’m dirty, then I think you should throw in a tape of Rocky Marciano or Benny Brisco. Go back to the 40’s and 50’s when they was fighting, real fighting. If Winky feels that I’m doing something, he has the right to defend himself by any means necessary. I think he’s just trying to put people on notice for him to start crying when things don’t go his way. Winky is starting to realize the reality of his fate, and he’s trying to put the message out there so he can get some help. Boxing is boxing. No fight is clean.”

Then came an ugly confrontation.

The weigh-in is the last public ritual before a big fight. In recent years, big-fight weigh-ins in Las Vegas have been open to the public and held in the arena where the fight will occur. They bring fans into the casino and are covered on television, which engenders pay-per-view buys.

Fighters tend to be irritable in the hours before a weigh-in. They’re thirsty; they’re hungry; and they have a fight coming up. Moreover, a big-fight weigh-in is very different from the press conferences that precede it. The two combatants strip almost naked to face each other and their physcial condition is gauged. Psychologically, it’s a taste of the ring.

On Friday afternoon at 2:30, Hopkins and Wright climbed nine stairs to a small 8-by-16-foot stage in the Grand Arena to weigh in. Bernard is a master of weigh-in intimidation. Many observers felt that Antonio Tarver was beaten the day before he and Hopkins fought when the fighters faced each other at the scale. Conversely, Bernard’s inability to intimidate Jermain Taylor at a weigh-in confrontation prior to their first fight was seen by some as a significant moment.

Standing on the platform, Hopkins tucked his elbows against his ribs, raised his fists to his face, and mocked Wright’s defensive style. That was followed by a few awkward jabs that drew a laugh from the crowd. Each man weighed in at 170 pounds. The fighters were brought together for a staredown. Then things got out of hand.

There were too many people on the platform. Each fighter had been told that he could be accompanied by his trainer and one security guard, but both camps had exceeded that number. Add in Nevada State Athletic Commission officials, Golden Boy Promotions personnel, an ESPN camera crew, and a boy from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and the situation was ripe for disaster.

Being in a fighter’s entourage at a big fight is a heady experience. You’re with The Man. Sometimes, part of The Man’s machismo rubs off on you in your own mind, albeit not in anyone else’s.

Wright’s entourage was jawing at Hopkins. “That escalated everything,” Freddie Roach said later. “They were staring down and talking like they were the ones who’d be fighting on Saturday night.”

“Too bad you can’t fight for him,” Hopkins told them.

“They don’t have to,” Winky countered. “I’ll fight for myself.”

Then Hopkins crossed over the line that separates ritual from chaos. He reached out and, with an open hand, shoved Wright hard in the face. Wright shoved back. Suddenly, punches were flying. Before order was restored, Roach was pushed sideways, hit his ribs against the edge of the stage, and careened to the concrete floor four feet below.

After the incident, the Nevada State Athletic Commission announced that it would withhold ten percent of Bernard’s purse pending a disciplinary hearing in August. A bigger concern within the Hopkins camp was how the incident might affect referee Robert Byrd’s conduct of the fight.

After the weigh-in, theories abounded as to why Hopkins did what he’d done. Bernard implied the next day that it had been a calculated move to build pay-per-view buys, but that’s nonsense. There was too much danger inherent in the situation. An innocent bystander could have been seriously injured. If either fighter had fallen from the platform, the fight could have been cancelled.

A more likely explanation lies in the fact that, throughout the build-up to the fight, Hopkins had been jawing at Wright and Winky had just laughed at him. He wasn’t intimidated, and that was getting to Bernard. So when Bernard started jawing at the weigh-in and Winky laughed again, Bernard went to the next level for a psychological edge, if not to intimidate Winky then to motivate himself.

“Bernard comes from a world where he can’t escape that mentality,” Naazim Richardson said afterward.

Why did Hopkins shove Wright in the face?

Because he wanted to.

At 5:55 on Saturday night, wearing blue jeans and a black-and-gold hooded shirt with a navy-blue doo-rag on his head, Hopkins entered dressing room #4 at the Grand Arena. A rush of “smart” money had raised the odds to 9-to-5 in Wright’s favor. It was 9-to-2 that the fight would go the distance.

Bernard sat in a cushioned chair, put his feet up on a folding chair in front of him, and smiled. “I slept all afternoon,” he said. “Weighed myself in the hotel right before I left; 184 pounds tonight.”

For most of the next two hours, Hopkins chatted amiably with those around him. He was remarkably relaxed with a kind word for everyone who was part of his team.

Naazim Richardson has worked with Bernard since 1997. He’d been hospitalized for five weeks after his stroke but made a remarkable recovery. His speech is now good and he’s moving well, although there’s still some weakness on his left side. His presence was a reminder that the human brain is fragile.

“How you feel, Naazim?”

“Blessed to be here with my warrior.”

Bernard turned to cutman Leon Tabbs.

“Leon, my man. I ain’t needed you yet, but it’s good to know you’re here.”

“I’m ready, champ.”

The dialogue continued with others.

“How’s your wife? How’s your kids?”

“That’s the way Bernard is,” Richardson said. “The only time I felt tension in the lockerroom was before Bernard fought Robert Allen the last time. We needed that one for the fight with Oscar to happen, and Bernard was worried that something might go wrong.”

There was a 50-inch flat-screen television at the far end of the room. Michael Katsidis could be seen going to the ring for his undercard fight against Czar Amonsot. Katsidis was wearing an elaborate Greek-warrior helmet with an imposing protective mask.

“Look at that mask,” Richardson chortled. “He’s got you beat, champ.”

Hopkins smiled.

Katsidis versus Czar Amonsot began. Soon, Roach and most of the others in the room were watching the fight, which was fast becoming a brutal bloody brawl. Roach and Hopkins had discussed how Bernard likes things done in the dressing room before a fight. Freddie was following protocol by leaving the fighter on his own.

Meanwhile, Roach had his own problems. He’d suffered a torn muscle over his rib-cage when pushed from the stage during the weigh-in fracas the previous afternoon. There was an ugly welt on his left side. Mario Chavez had broken one of Freddie’s ribs in a 1981 fight that Roach won. “This feels similar,” the trainer said. “It’s killing me.”

Hopkins took off his jeans and shoes and pulled on a pair of royal-blue boxing trunks. Then he sat down again and stretched out his legs. Richardson covered his chest and legs with towels.

Bernard leaned back and closed his eyes.

“That’s a time when all sorts of whispers cross my mind,” he said later. “So I shut out the world and think about my mom.”

No one talked. The only voices heard were those of Bob Sheridan and Dave Bontempo on the international television feed. Bernard opened his eyes periodically to watch the action on the screen unfold.

There wasn’t a lot of intensity in the air. Everything was methodical, measured, and calm. Bernard took a sip from a bottle of water. “No sense using up energy now,” he said. “I can turn it on and off. Watch me when the time comes.”

At seven o’clock, assistant trainer John David Jackson went next-door to watch Wright’s hands being wrapped.

Roach began taping Hopkins’s hands.

“Winky’s a parttime boxer now,” Bernard said. “And those parttime boxers are soft. Body shots early.”

Katsidis-Amonsot ended and the semi-final bout between Oscar Larios and Jorge Linares began.

At 7:20, the taping was done. Bernard lay down on a towel on the floor and began a series of stretching exercises; his first physical activity since entering the dressing room.

Referee Robert Byrd came in and gave his pre-fight instructions. There was no mention of the previous day’s shoving incident. After Byrd left, Hopkins stretched some more and began shadow-boxing.

At 7:45, Bernard gloved up and began working the pads with Roach. “Somebody cut a towel and put it over my head,” he said after five minutes of work. “I’m sweating like a motherfucker.”

At eight o’clock, the pad-work stopped and the room fell silent. There was a prayer in Arabic, ending with “Allahu Akbar” [God is great].

More pad-work with Roach.

“How much time?” Hopkins asked. “What are we working with?”

Richardson looked at the television monitor. “Ninth round,” he answered.

“Naazim,” Bernard said, still hitting the pads. “They couldn’t keep you in no bed.”

“This ain’t your first time down this path,” Richardson responded. “Just be you, soldier. Nobody ever made you fight at their pace. You control.”

Linares stopped Larios in the tenth round.

Hopkins finished hitting the pads with Roach, sat down on a folding metal chair, and stretched his legs out on the floor. Then he opened his mouth and, with his tongue, pushed out a bridge of false teeth.

“It’s all mental,” he said. “That’s what great fighters are made of. But the psychological stuff means nothing if you can’t fight.”

Hopkins stood up. Now there was a street-alley sneer on his lips. His eyes were mean.

The Executioner was ready to kill.

It was a better fight that the critics said it would be. This wasn’t two aging guys hanging around for one last pay-day. It was two extremely talented professional boxers coming to win.

In the early going, they traded rounds. Wright showed his jab, and Hopkins was Hopkins. He boxed and mauled, taking what was given to him and more. He looked older than the last time he stepped into the ring. Then again, he was. And regardless of age, Bernard still has a nasty righthand lead that scores when an opponent stands still for a fraction of a second in front of him.

Eight seconds into round three, a clash of heads opened a hideous gash on Wright’s left eyelid. It was ruled unintentional; but Bernard’s head movement, more than Winky’s, was the cause. Thereafter, Hopkins compounded the handicap by rubbing his head and gloves against the cut from time to time, not to mention punching at it. On several occasions, Robert Byrd warned Bernard about holding and using his head on the inside. But he never took a point away and ignored the occasional low blow.

The first six rounds saw a lot of action with Wright forcing the pace. Then the action slowed. After eight stanzas, one could have made an argument that B-Hop was B-hind. But as is usually the case, the final rounds belonged to Bernard. This writer scored it 115-113 for Hopkins. The judges gave it to him by a 117-111, 117-111, 116-112 margin.

“Winky comes to fight,” Bernard acknowledged in his dressing room after the fight as Leon Tabbs held an ice-pack to the swelling around his left eye. “Winky can be dead tired and he still does what he does. Winky don’t go away when things get tough, and Winky is strong.”

As for what happens next; one assumes that Hopkins will fight again.

“This is an addictive sport,” says Freddie Roach. “It’s hard to give it up. I know; I was there. I loved the crowd, but what I missed most after I retired was the pat on the back and someone saying, ‘Good fight.’ It’s sad when it’s over. But 42 is just a number. I was washed up at 27. Age in boxing comes from how many wars you’ve been in, and Bernard hasn’t taken any beatings.  The way he looks now, he should be able to fight at least a few times more.”

It’s remarkable to watch a fighter add to his legacy at age 42 rather than chip away at it. At age 42, with 53 fights and 19 years of boxing behind him, a boxer isn’t supposed to perform like Hopkins. And there are no tell-tale signs of damage outside the ring. Bernard talks as fast and verbalizes as well as he ever did.

“My plan is one fight at a time,” Hopkins says. “Time beats every athlete, and Father Time will hit me some day. The time will come when I can’t control my destiny as a fighter anymore, but that time isn’t here yet. We all know the fighters who stay in the game too long. It’s not a secret. But I’m not showing signs like Evander Holyfield or Arturo Gatti or some others we can all name. I ain’t some fool in denial about a career that’s over. Nobody is embarrassed about Bernard Hopkins getting in the ring.”

“For each fight now, it has to be historically right,” Hopkins continues. “It has to be financially right and it has to motivate me. There’s no harm in making money, but that’s not the priority for me anymore. I’m doing this to add to my legacy and because I enjoy it. I’m in the position now that Roy Jones was in six, seven years ago in terms of choosing my opponents. Look at who Roy fought then and look at who I’m fighting now.”

The future for a 42-year-old athlete is usually bleak, but Bernard Hopkins is on his own timetable. “Love me or hate me; they will never be another one like me,” he says in closing. “Not many people have the same spirit that Bernard Hopkins has. Enjoy me while I’m here. Don’t rush me away until it’s my time to go. You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”


Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com





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