By Thomas Hauser: Drama is keyed to the personal lives of the participants. Regardless of what the rest of the world thought, the April 28th rematch between Chad Dawson and Bernard Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City was high drama for Dawson and everyone who cares about him.
Dawson, age 29, was born in South Carolina and grew up in Connecticut. He’s soft-spoken and laid-back with a gentle demeanor, a bit on the shy side with strangers but talkative when he feels comfortable with someone.
“My father had seven children by the time he was 21,” Chad recounts. “I have four brothers and two sisters. None of us has ever been in jail. We might not be the smartest people you’ll ever meet but none of us has a criminal record. Our parents taught us to be good.”
Chad and his wife, Crystal, have four sons ranging in age from eight to eight months.
“I enjoy being a father,” he says. “I’m most happy when I’m in my house with my kids. When I was little, my father never took me to school. I take the three oldest to school every morning, pick them up after school too. Having kids made me grow up a lot. I’m a lot more responsible now than I was before. My brothers and sisters and I grew up poor. I don’t want my kids not to have the things they need to live right but there’s a line you have to draw. I’m still learning how to say ‘no’ to them.
“It’s hard to get me mad,” Dawson continues. “I’m not an angry person but some of the stuff that goes on in the world; I watch the news a lot and I hate it when I see people hurting other people, especially kids. I don’t understand how a father and mother can hurt their own kids but they do. I’m a boxer and a father and I always separate ‘Bad’ Chad Dawson from ‘Daddy.’”
Dawson got into boxing at a young age. His father, Rick Dawson, fought professionally from 1982 through 1984, compiling a 1-6-1 record. The guy he beat, Carlton Brown, finished his career with three wins against 48 losses, 30 by KO.
“My father took me to the gym when I was eight and put me in the ring with my older brother, Ricky,” Chad remembers. “Ricky gave me a bloody nose but it was no big thing. He did that at home all the time.
“This is just my opinion,” Dawson says, choosing his words carefully, “but my father didn’t have a good career and, the truth is, I don’t think he expected me to make it. He looks at me now and I think he’s saying, ‘I was there; I could have done it.’ All the things he wanted to do in boxing, I’m doing them now. And he says to himself, ‘That should have been me.’ He doesn’t get as much joy out of what I’ve done in boxing as I’d like him to.”
Prior to facing Hopkins, Dawson had beaten some good fighters, most notably Eric Harding, Tomasz Adamek, Glen Johnson (twice) and Antonio Tarver (twice). His one loss was a technical decision at the hands of Jean Pascal in a fight cut short by an ugly gash caused by a headbutt above Chad’s left eye. At various times, he has held the WBC and IBF 175-pound titles.
The knock against Dawson has been that he lacks the fire inside that makes a fighter great, that he fights like he’d rather be doing something else and that he’s as happy outboxing opponents as he is blowing them away.
“I hear the criticism from the media,” Chad says, “but most of it comes from guys who never put on a pair of gloves in their life, so I brush it off. You need the media. The media gives us publicity. The media pays our salaries. But except for that, why should I care what they say?”
Still, Dawson is prone to adding to the conventional perception of his approach to boxing with thoughts like, “When I’m waiting in the dressing room before a fight, I want it to be over…Training camp is hard for me. Most of the time, I’d rather not be there. One of the kids starts talking and I’m not with him to hear it or there’s something else I miss that’s going on with my family…Right now, boxing is more of a job for me than anything else. I don’t like stupid stuff, ugliness, greed, disrespect. And I’ve been in boxing a long time, so I’ve run into a lot of stupid. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, I’d probably have given it up by now. But if I wasn’t in boxing, I don’t know what I’d do. Probably nine-to-five somewhere, go home at the end of the day and not worry about getting hit. You don’t want to get hit. It’s a bad feeling.”
“Boxing keeps you humble,” Dawson adds. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s not about becoming a big star or calling yourself a legend. It’s about winning fights.”
Bernard Hopkins is the antithesis of Chad Dawson. He loves fighting. And as Robert Ecksel wrote recently, “Hopkins is monomaniacal. He’s the sun around which all planets revolve. He’s the black hole at the center of our galaxy whose gravitational pull sucks everything into its maw. Always referring to himself in the third person, it’s Bernard Hopkins-this and Bernard Hopkins-that until one’s head throbs from the intensity.”
Hopkins turned pro in 1988 after a 56-month stint in Graterford State Penitentiary. He lost his first fight and went on to craft a ring career of monumental proportions.
“I didn’t plan what happened to me in boxing,” Bernard says. “I planned to not get in trouble again. I never wanted to go back to prison, so I did things right and made myself the best that I could be and great things happened.”
Hopkins is very much into control in all aspects of his life.
“There’s a lot of fighters that are as talented as me,” he says. “There’s some that have more natural gifts than me. But no one – no one, no one, no one – is more disciplined than me. Every fighter is hungry when he’s poor. The great ones stay hungry when they’re rich.”
In the ring, Hopkins projects an aura of strength, both physical and mental. He talks like a street fighter. “I want to throw punches that hurt. When I hit someone, I want to be able to take some of your soul with me.”
But he fights like a scientific one.
“Hopkins is precise,” Bart Barry observes. “His motion is efficient. He does not take two steps if one suffices. He strikes more than he punches. His fists go to the place he wants them. He hits you where he desires.”
“Bernard is not a football player,” adds Hopkins’s trainer, Naazim Richardson. “Bernard is not a basketball player. Bernard is a fighter. He’s one of the few out there today who has truly learned the craft of boxing.”
“I still love the fundamentals of boxing,” Hopkins says. “I still love the art of boxing. I still love the hit-and-not-get-hit in boxing. I still love that you can be aggressive but you can be aggressive smartly. I love it. It keeps my fire always burning.”
Hopkins is unique as a fighter in that he will be remembered more for what he accomplished in the ring when he was old rather than when he was young. His age was first weighed against him when he fought Felix Trinidad in 2001. Bernard was 36; Felix was 28. Hopkins dominated from start to finish before knocking out his undefeated foe in the 12th round.
There have been setbacks since then when Bernard’s age showed, most notably in losses suffered at the hands of Jermain Taylor (twice) and Joe Calzaghe. But one could be forgiven for starting a Bernard Hopkins birther movement, that is, demanding to see his long-form birth certificate to determine if he was really born in 1965.
“There’s nothing unique I’m doing other than what’s supposed to be done by anybody that has discipline,” Hopkins told Tom Gerbasi last year. “Yes, you’re seeing talent. Yes, you’re seeing genetics and a little bit of good fortune. But what you’re really seeing are the benefits of planting my crops, taking care of my life, my body and my mind. I’ve invested in eating the best foods, staying away from drinking and smoking and partying. I’m like a luxury antique car that’s in the best condition you can find.”
Jean Pascal (who Hopkins fought twice) had a different view of Bernard’s success and asked that he be subjected to “Olympic-style testing” for performance-enhancing drugs prior to their second encounter. That led an enraged Hopkins to declaim, “When a guy says something about my legacy and my history, the things that were said were deeper than having a guy in my bedroom, in my house with my wife, butt-naked. I can forgive that before I can forgive what he said. When a guy says something to me to discredit me and have people thinking, ‘Oh, this thing that he’s done all these years is now under question,’ yes, the ambulance will be right by any fight that happens. There will be one there and don’t be surprised if he’s in it. I’m coming for him and he better be ready. We’re going to war. Emile Griffith and Benny ‘Kid’ Paret.”
That said, Hopkins declined to submit to the testing. His promoter, Golden Boy (which has championed “Olympic-style testing” for several recent Floyd Mayweather Jr. fights), was silent on the issue.
Bernard wants to be regarded as a superstar and legend on the order of Jim Brown, Bill Russell and Satchel Paige. Hence, the Hopkins mantra: “The reason that a lot of great basketball players who are in the Hall of Fame never got a ring is Michael Jordan. The reason that a lot of great fighters never got a ring is Bernard Hopkins…Tell your granddaughter, your grandson, your kids that you’re watching a person in this era like when Ray Robinson was in his; Ali was in his; Ray Leonard was in his because this is the legacy I leave…I’m motivated by history, what other people did in the past and what history will say about me when I’m gone. When you get a taste of history, it’s like being a drug addict. You can’t let go.”
A handful of fighters have crossed over into America’s public consciousness since Muhammad Ali left center stage. Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, George Foreman and Oscar De la Hoya head the list. Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. come close but aren’t quite there. As for Hopkins, let’s be honest; Bernard could walk through Times Square tomorrow and most people would have no idea who he is. He’s a big fish in what has become the small pond of boxing.
Let it also be said that, while Hopkins purports to shake off criticism the way a duck shakes off water, he is, as Bart Barry notes, “fantastically preoccupied with others’ opinions of him.”
Still, Bernard is on solid ground when he says, “There’s people who hate me but they respect me. I didn’t kiss ass; I didn’t sell out; I didn’t buck dance. Nobody gave me anything. I fought my way to the top. I took it. I’m cut from a different cloth than other fighters.”
That brings us to Bernard Hopkins vs. Chad Dawson.
They met in the ring for the first time on October 15, 2011. Prior to that fight, Hopkins touted his experience.
“You take my résumé,” he said at the August 9, 2011, kick-off press conference in New York. “You take Chad Dawson’s résumé, Harvard, community college. Who are you going to hire? Experience counts. I’ll go with the professor over the guy who just got his degree every time.”
But when the fight came, it was a non-event. With 12 seconds left in round two, Bernard missed with a right hand, leveraged himself onto Dawson’s upper back and appeared to deliberately push his right forearm down on the back of Chad’s neck. At the same time, he wrapped his left arm around Dawson’s torso to steady himself and apply additional pressure to Chad’s neck. In response, Dawson rose up and, using his shoulder, shoved Hopkins up and off. Bernard fell backward to the canvas, landed hard on his left elbow and shoulder and lay there. Asked by a ring physician and referee Pat Russell if he could continue, he said only if it was “with one hand.”
Initially, Russell declared Dawson the winner on a second-round TKO. Ultimately, the California State Athletic Commission changed the verdict to “no contest.” That ruling allowed Hopkins to retain his The Ring magazine and WBC belts.
Bernard’s partisans are fond of saying that their man has aged like fine wine but on the night of Hopkins-Dawson I, the wine tasted like vinegar.
Antonio Tarver, who fought and lost to both Hopkins and Dawson, told FightHype.com, “Bernard reminds me of an old, slick con-artist. This man didn’t even attempt to fight. Look at the tape. Chad Dawson knew that he was going to take that out. He was furious that Bernard was trying to cop out to an injury like that. You want to prove that you’re hurt; I need to see an MRI. Where was the shoulder deformed? If you pop something out, you gonna see the bone sticking out of the shoulder. Bernard should have got off of the canvas and attempted to fight and not just hold his arm like he couldn’t use that arm and like the arm couldn’t move. He should have attempted to fight. He never attempted because his mind was already made up. He made the decision to lay on the canvas and cop out to whatever shoulder injury he claims he had. I don’t know how Bernard can live with himself, robbing the public like he did. He put the mask on and stuck up every pay-per-view buyer that night.”
Dawson was equally skeptical, branding Hopkins a “quitter” who performed his own personalized version of “No mas.”
“Courage isn’t crying and complaining and pretending you got hit low or your shoulder is hurt when things aren’t going your way,” Chad said. “A real champion gets up off the canvas and tries to fight. Courage is [Gabriel] Campillo getting knocked down twice in the first round by [Tavoris] Cloud and getting up hurt and fighting his way back into the fight. Bernard Hopkins is the opposite of courage. What he did to me in that fight, that was going to be my night and he took it away from me by play-acting and crying. I lost all respect for him that fight. I don’t like him and I think he’s a phony.”
Give Hopkins credit in that he signed for a rematch. But Dawson’s antipathy remained; fueled in part by the fact that, as a consequence of Bernard claiming injury in their first fight, he was forced to accept the short end of a 70/30 purse split in Dawson-Hopkins II.
“I really don’t believe Bernard Hopkins was hurt,” Chad said during a teleconference call to promote the rematch. “He said he dislocated his shoulder but we didn’t see any weakness in his shoulder. We didn’t see any doctor’s notes or anything like that. I’m going to keep saying this; Bernard did not want to be in the ring with me that night. Maybe he undertrained and he didn’t expect to see what he saw. Maybe he needed more time to get in better shape. I don’t know but I know what happened that night. I looked into Bernard’s eyes and Bernard did not want to be in the ring that night.”
But nowhere was Dawson’s disdain for Hopkins more clearly on display than at Planet Hollywood in New York when the February 22nd, kick-off press conference for the rematch was held.
“I want to make one thing clear,” Chad told the assembled media. “I came to fight and he pulled a stunt. Legends don’t act the way this guy acts. Legends don’t do the things this guy does. Legends don’t punk out.”
Then Dawson stepped away from the podium, stared directly at Hopkins and challenged, “Don’t be a punk this time.”
As fight night approached, Dawson was a 7-to-2 betting favorite. The general feeling was that he was too fast and too strong for Hopkins to handle and that he was also a more confident fighter than he had been in the past. One reason for his confidence was that he had reunited with trainer John Scully.
Scully fought professionally from 1988 through 2001 and was good enough to go the distance with the likes of Michael Nunn and Henry Maske. By the end of his career, he’d compiled a 38-11 record with 21 knockouts and one “KO by” loss. If one throws out the last 10 fights on his ledger, it improves to 35-4.
“I loved fighting,” Scully says. “When you’re in the ring, even if it’s just a four-round preliminary fight, you’re the star.”
Dawson has made the rounds of trainers during his pro career. He started out with Brian Clark (who trained him in the amateurs). Clark was followed by Scully, Dan Birmingham, Floyd Mayweather Sr., Eddie Mustafa Muhammad and Emanuel Steward. After a lackluster May 2011 performance against Adrian Diaconu, Dawson returned to Scully.
“Chad is positive he’s going to win this fight,” Scully said in the days leading up to the rematch. “He was confident the last time but this is something more. Now he’s sure he’s going to win.
“Chad has always had the ability to be a great fighter,” Scully continued. “Now he’s ready to put it all together and fight great for an entire fight. All this ‘legends’ crap that Hopkins does gets in the head of the guys he’s fighting. Jermain Taylor ignored it and beat him. Joe Calzaghe ignored it and beat him. Hopkins will try to get into Chad’s head but that won’t happen.”
Gary Shaw, Dawson’s promoter, was in accord, adding, “I’m very confident. I never thought Hopkins was hurt last time. We never heard anything about his going through rehab or anything like that. My only fear is that, somewhere in this fight, Bernard will find a way out again.”
However, there was an alternative view. Too often, Dawson is a reactive fighter rather than a proactive one. His work rate can be slowed by an opponent’s inactivity- and Hopkins has a master’s degree in delay, frustration and opportunistic counterpunching.
“Fighters fight to be able to say, ‘I told you so,’” Bernard noted. “I was called old when I fought Felix Trinidad and that was 10 years ago. I was called old when I fought Antonio Tarver and that was six years ago. I was called old when I fought Kelly Pavlik and that was almost four years ago.The well isn’t dry yet.”
* * *
Chad Dawson arrived in his dressing room at Boardwalk Hall on fight night at 8:20 p.m. The core of Team Dawson was with him. Trainer John Scully, lawyer-advisor Walter Kane, cutman Rafael Garcia, strength and conditioning coach Axel Murillo, Steve Geffrard (one of three sparring partners Chad worked with in training camp), Chad’s father, his brother Jermaine, camp aide Charles Robinson and “G” (a close friend).
Wearing a navy blue warm-up suit with white stitching on the jacket, Dawson sat on a folding cushioned metal chair, putting his feet up on another chair in front of him. He spent next the 35 minutes in that posture, listening to music through a pair of headphones with his eyes closed, nodding his head in rhythm to the sounds echoing in his brain.
At 8:55, referee Eddie Cotton entered the room to give Chad his pre-fight instructions.
“The referee will be important,” Scully had said earlier in the day. “We need a referee who’s smart enough to see what Bernard is doing and also has the mindset to stop it when Bernard goes over the line, which he’ll do as long as he gets away with it. The worst thing would be if the referee lets Bernard do his thing and has a different set of rules for Chad. I’ve told Chad, again and again, he can’t go into this fight walking on pins and needles because of what happened last time. If Bernard pulls down on his neck again, Chad has to throw him off again. He cannot let Bernard manhandle him.”
Dawson removed his headphones. Cotton went through the standard litany of instructions ending with, “Do you have any questions?”
Scully held out his hands, palms up. “You know,” he began.
“I know,” Cotton interrupted. “I saw the last fight.”
Scully proceeded to list a series of tactics that Hopkins has employed throughout his ring career.
Cotton promised to keep a close eye on things.
The referee left. Dawson put his headphones back on and resumed listening to music. Scully and Garcia engaged in quiet conversation.
At 9:15, still listening to music, Chad put on his ring shoes, stood up to see how they felt and sat down again.
Rick Dawson went down the hall to watch Hopkins’ hands being taped. Naazim Richardson arrived moments later to watch Rafael Garcia tape Dawson’s hands.
Garcia worked quickly. In 20 minutes, the job was done. Richardson nodded in Rafael’s direction and told the state athletic commission inspector who had overseen the process, “I have the utmost respect for this man. I’ve been watching him for a long time.” Then Naazim clasped Garcia’s hand. “Thank you, sir. It’s always a pleasure.”
All the while, Chad’s headphones stayed put.
At 9:55, Dawson took off his track suit and put on his protective cup followed by steel-gray trunks with green trim. He then stood and began shadowboxing in the center of the room, his first exercise of the evening.
Garcia gloved him up.
At 10:25, Chad and Scully went to work, hitting the pads in earnest.
Earlier in the day, the trainer had told his charge, “There will be times tonight when you wonder what Hopkins is doing.” At that point, Scully had postured, wiggled his body and moved his shoulders in exaggerated fashion. “He’s resting is what he’s doing. Don’t let him do it.”
Now the instructions were more pointed.
“Jab…Jab…There you go. You got it…One jab…One jab…Double-jab…When his hands go up, go to the body…Don’t let him get comfortable…Push him back…One-two…Hook up top…There you go; perfect…You’ve done all the hard work. It pays off now…If he gives you rounds, take them big…Nasty jab…Nasty jab…That’s it. Stick him…If he comes inside, dig to the body…Jab…Long left…Attitude…You got the legs; he doesn’t…One-two…That’s it…Don’t try to be perfect. Let your hands go and you’ll hit what’s there. Anything you can hit, hit it…Stay mentally strong…Close the show.”
15 minutes later, Dawson was sweating profusely. Garcia helped him into his robe and Scully offered some final words of motivation.
“You got too much for him but you got to bring it. You know what you can do. Go out and do it. Be what you’re supposed to be. Take what’s yours.”
* * *
The ethos of the fight was set early with Dawson seeking to engage and Hopkins fighting as though he wanted a 12-round staredown. Bernard avoided exchanges to the greatest extent possible by means of lateral movement and retreat. When that didn’t work, he clutched, grabbed, led with his head, mauled, went low, hit on the break and did everything else he could to blunt Chad’s assault.
There was a time when Hopkins debilitated opponents with vicious body blows. “When they knock down a building,” he once said, “they don’t start at the top. They break down the foundation.” But against Dawson, Bernard largely eschewed the body, preferring to fight at a safer range.
Prior to the fight, Carlos Acevedo had suggested, “The bout might end with members of Human Rights Watch storming the ring to prevent further abuse of the crowd.”
That didn’t happen but in truth, Dawson-Hopkins II was short on action.
Dan Rafael called it “a horrible, almost unwatchable fight filled with mauling, clinching and feinting, mostly initiated by Hopkins.”
David Greisman observed, “It was ugly, as everyone expected it to be. And that was Hopkins’s fault, as everyone expected,” adding, “Do any of the people who were booing Saturday night in Boardwalk Hall want to tell me what they expected to happen?”
Indeed, after round four, HBO commentator Jim Lampley advised a national audience, “Somewhere there are some great light heavyweights rolling over in their graves at the dreadful action so far.”
Lampley’s comment came shortly after a key moment in the fight. 30 seconds into the fourth stanza, a Hopkins headbutt opened an ugly gash on the outside of Dawson’s left eye.
“Keep your composure,” Scully told his fighter between rounds. “Keep fighting. Let the cutman do his job.”
Garcia did a masterful job of controlling the blood from that point on.
Near the end of round five, Dawson spun Hopkins around and Bernard made a beeline for the ropes, looking very much like a man who wanted to dive through them to end the fight. The crowd reacted accordingly.
“It looked to me like he was starting to jump out of the ring,” Chad said in his dressing room after the fight. “And then he figured the fans wouldn’t buy it.”
As the bout progressed, Hopkins showed that he has one of the best chins in boxing. And he lets his right hand go pretty fast for an old man. When Dawson landed solid shots to the head, which he did on occasion, Bernard fired back. That said, by the late rounds, Chad was landing two-for-one in exchanges and scoring well to the body.
In round 11, Hopkins was clearly tired and looking for a breather. Toward that end, he sank to the canvas in a clinch and, moments later, tackled Dawson in a move that sent both men to the canvas. Cotton had warned Bernard for infractions on several occasions earlier in the fight but had never taken a point away for cumulative fouling. This would have been an ideal time to do so.
It might also be noted that Hopkins didn’t drop to the canvas and do push-ups late in the fight as he did to show off his conditioning in his second outing against Jean Pascal.
Then came the decision of the judges. Luis Rivera’s score was announced first, 114-114, a draw. When the fighters entered the ring, Hopkins had been cheered and Dawson booed by the crowd of 7,705. But the fans in attendance were fair-minded enough to react derisively to Rivera’s scorecard.
Steve Weisfeld and Richard Flaherty restored sanity to the proceedings with 117-111 ledgers in Dawson’s favor. This observer also had Dawson on top by a 117-111 margin.
It’s possible that Rivera is counting on some lucrative judging assignments when Golden Boy (Hopkins’ promoter) begins its series of monthly shows at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn this October. The New York State Athletic Commission shouldn’t give them to him.
Hopkins left the ring after the fight, refusing to do an interview with HBO. “What did he do to win that fight?” he demanded in typically churlish fashion. “They [the two judges who scored the fight for Dawson] did what they wanted to do. The only way I knew I would win is if I knocked him out. The public can judge for themselves.”
So let’s answer Bernard’s question: “What did Dawson do to win the fight?”
Hopkins has said in the past, “I have two rules for boxing. Number one: I hit you. Number two: You don’t hit me.”
According to CompuBox, Dawson outlanded Hopkins in 10 of the 12 rounds and was even in the other two. He had a 126-to-82 edge in “power punches” landed, pressed the action throughout the fight and was in better shape when the contest ended.
“He’s a slick-ass fighter,” Chad said in his dressing room when the battle was over. “Low blows, hitting on the break, you name it, he did it. He headbutted me seven, maybe eight times. It was obvious that the headbutt that caused the cut was on purpose. There were a couple of times when I almost lost my composure because of all the dirty things he was doing but Scully kept telling me to stay disciplined; keep the heat on, keep my composure. Don’t throw it all away on something dumb.”
Chad shook his head and smiled.
“It’s funny the way things work. Now that I beat him, there’s a different feeling inside me about him than I had before. I don’t feel sorry for him but a lot of the bad feeling I had is gone.”
The post-fight press conference was marked by mutual respect between the fighters. They shook hands and Hopkins went so far as to call Dawson “a worthy champion.”
One observer noted that Bernard and Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer had the look of corporate raiders who were planning to make a run at signing Dawson (whose promotional contract with Gary Shaw expires in August). There are people in boxing who like Shaw and people who don’t but virtually everyone agrees that Gary has done an exceptional job in getting Chad to where he is today.
Hopkins, in all likelihood, will continue to fight. In the past, he has acknowledged, “Father Time is nobody’s friend. My body will tell me when it’s time to go,” but has also declared, “I’ll fight as long as I have the desire to continue to win and not embarrass myself and embarrass the sport. I’m not still fighting because I can’t turn the lights off and leave the room. I’m still fighting because that’s what I do. It’s what I am.”
Bernard can still beat a lot of fighters. Given the politics of the game, he can still win a phony belt. But the reality of the situation is that, over the past seven years, he has had 12 fights and won six of them. He hasn’t knocked out anyone since Oscar De la Hoya in 2004.
Meanwhile, Chad Dawson isn’t claiming greatness. He isn’t telling everyone within earshot that he’s a legend. But right now, he’s the best light heavyweight in the world.
Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His most recent book, Winks and Daggers: An Inside Look at Another Year in Boxing, was published by the University of Arkansas Press.