By Thomas Hauser
When Oscar De La Hoya versus Bernard Hopkins was announced earlier this year, there were a lot of naysayers who said the fight would never happen. Now the only potential stumbling block appears to be the possibility that Hopkins will pull out because of laryngitis.
Barring the unexpected, September 18th will see an updated version of Sugar Ray Leonard versus Marvin Hagler; a Golden Boy with Olympic pedigree going up in weight to challenge a dominant blue-collar champion.
De La Hoya (pic by Tom Hogan
bristles at that categorization. "A lot of people think I had everything handed to me on a silver platter," he says. "People see the actual fight and say, 'Wow, he won all this money in one night.' Or they think it was easy and that they can do it. But it's not that easy. I started when I was four years old. People don't realize how many sacrifices I've had to make over the years. It was a long road to where I'm at now. It's not easy being an athlete, especially at this level; and on top of that, being a fighter."
Both men are fighting for immortality. And both men have such strong personalities that their ethnic differences have hardly been noticed.
The contract weight is 158 pounds; two pounds below the middleweight limit. But that shouldn't be a problem for Hopkins, who is rarely more than a few days away from making weight.
"Bernard Hopkins is very, very dangerous," De La Hoya acknowledges. "This guy is strong, an animal. I know I'm in deep water, but I'm willing to put my life on the line to make history. I was born to fight. Boxing runs through my veins. It just won't go away. It's not for money. I can make money against anyone. I love to fight and to rise to the occasion. What's bigger than beating Bernard Hopkins?"
This is Hopkins's second coming-out party. The first was three years ago when he devastated Felix Trinidad, knocking him out in the twelfth round. As Patrick Kehoe later wrote, "To fight the fight of your life in your most momentous outing defines a champion."
If there's a knock against Hopkins as a fighter, it's that he always seems to get in the ring against littler guys. But he has successfully defended various versions of the middleweight crown eighteen times. And in the process, he has stamped his persona on boxing.
"Hopkins," Tom Gerbasi observes, "is all about what's right for him. That has burned a lot of people; from promoters to managers, from the media to his own trainer. It wasn't personal. They served their purpose and were let go. He travels light. You're either with him or against him. There is no room for dissent or questions. That's business; and business is not about friendship, loyalty, or doing the right thing by those who have done right by you."
Hopkins stands for the proposition, "Life is tough, but I'm tougher." He's self-absorbed with emotional wounds that scar over but never really heal. He's an angry man, and his anger fuels him. He acknowledges as much when he declares, "Motivation can come in all shapes and forms with me. If I go outside and all my tires are slashed, that's motivation. When things run smoothly, somebody has to break a glass. Some people need bumps in the road to make things happen. It don't always have to be downright dirty ignorant stuff. It just has to be some type of motivation. I need that. Maybe, in some cases, I've interacted and made it to the point where I brought it upon myself."
"I don't think a lot of people will get ulcers or cry all day if Bernard Hopkins don't come up with a win," Hopkins continues. "I was born with something that everybody ain't born with; my heart. Not just a heart that's beating, but a heart to stand up and balls to stand up and courage to stand up. It's easy for me to stand up because that's me. They call me an ingrate. Why is that? Is it because I refuse to be fucked, or is it because I prefer to be the one fucking?"
One denizen of the boxing world who has crossed swords with Hopkins is promoter Dan Goossen. When reminded of the Will Rogers saying -- "I never met a man I didn't like" -- Goossen responded, "Obviously, Will Rogers never met Bernard Hopkins."
Still, as Hopkins observes, "People can say what they want about my character. One thing everyone agrees is, in the ring, I'm not a liar. When it gets hot, I'm not jumping out of the kitchen."
That's true. As his trainer, Bouie Fisher, notes, "Bernard is a throwback fighter when it comes to dedication in and out of the ring. Boxing never leaves his thoughts. He lives, eats, and dreams boxing. He puts in the work that's necessary to be great."
To date, Hopkins has been respectful of De La Hoya. "Oscar is known as the darling boy of boxing," he acknowledges. "But you can't hate him for that. Oscar brings a lot to boxing and Oscar is a great competitor. You can say a lot of things about him, but the man comes to fight and he's never ducked anyone. He's the money-man, the big draw. He got more money for fighting guys you all say shouldn't have even been in the ring with him than most of us do for fighting the biggest and most difficult challenge of our lives. He didn't have to take Bernard Hopkins; that was strictly Oscar's call. This fight is happening because Oscar wanted it to happen, and that tells me a lot about the man."
But then Hopkins adds, "Twenty successful middleweight title defenses is my goal. I think it would be a long time before anyone beat that record. To me, Oscar is number nineteen; that's all."
On September 18th, De La Hoya will be going into the ring as an underdog for the first time in his professional career. Most pundits think Hopkins will win. Many of them don't even think it will be a competitive fight.
"I have a lot of respect for Hopkins," says De La Hoya. "He's a great champion, but I believe that my speed will be the difference. I'm not Trinidad. Trinidad is a one-dimensional fighter, easy to figure out. I'm not that easy, and I guarantee that Hopkins won't figure me out. People expect that I'll stick and move and run a lot, like Leonard did with Hagler. But I'm going to have to take it to Hopkins, at least a little bit. I have to get that respect. If I don't, he'll run right over me. But once I have his respect, I'll make it my fight. I don't have to have a big punch. I am not counting on a knockout. My focus is on going the distance and winning. Don't underestimate the little guy."
Then there's the matter of Hopkins's age. On fight night, he'll be four months shy of forty.
"Do I get more aches and pains then I did five or six year's ago?" Bernard asks rhetorically. "Absolutely. Do I get more rubdowns, more chiropractors? Absolutely. We all deteriorate. I hate to say it like that; but the longer we live, the more we're going to hurt."
But then, in the next breath, Hopkins declares, "My body has been put together different by God than any other body that's living. Once you start thinking old, you become old. I haven't started thinking old yet."
De La Hoya might think that, against Hopkins, he can revert to the fighting style of his youth. But he won't be able to. Bernard won't let him. And more significantly, Oscar no longer has the physical tools to fight the way he once did. He's not young anymore.
De La Hoya's record is 6 and 3 in his last nine fights. One can argue that the decisions he lost to Felix Trinidad and Shane Mosley (in their second encounter) were questionable, but so was his victory over Felix Sturm. And other than Sturm, the only fighters Oscar has beaten over the past five years are a blown-up Derrell Coley, a blown-up Arturo Gatti, a one-dimensional Javier Castellejo, a drug-ridden Fernando Vargas, and a shot Yuri Boy Campos.
Hopkins hit the nail on the head when he assessed De La Hoya's performance against Sturm. "He wasn't moving to his left or his right quickly," Bernard noted. "And Sturm was just eating him up with those jabs. I thought Oscar was using some kind of macho thing, which is unprofessional because you don't want to show that you can hang in with the middleweights by taking punches. Then, as the rounds went on, I said, 'Wait a minute. He can't get past this guy's jab.'"
Moreover, Hopkins might be stretching reality when he proclaims, "I'm perfect when it comes to boxing." But his fists are nasty weapons, and he has both the skills and attitude to use them to maximum effect.
"I'm not shy when it comes to inflicting pain on people," says Hopkins. "Nothing is fair, what fighters do. You hit behind the head? It's not legal, but it happens. There's no such thing as a dirty fighter to me. It's just an opportunity. You're dirty only when you get caught. In the ring, there's a chance you can die or become a vegetable. And the reality is, I would rather it be him than me."
"De La Hoya won't see twelve rounds," Hopkins continues. "Somewhere along the line, his corner will have to make a decision. He'll still have his movie career if they stop the fight in time. They'll be smart enough to know that we'd better stop it right now while we still got an eye left or a lip left. It's up to them; it's their call. I don't think they're going to let De La Hoya get punished like Joppy did [in his fight against Hopkins last year]. I think that his corner has enough sense to do what Joppy's corner didn't do; throw the towel in."
In sum, De La Hoya versus Hopkins has the markings of a man beating up a boy. On paper, Oscar doesn't have the tools to win. But this is boxing. And regardless of what has happened in the past, fighters who face one another in the ring start from scratch each time out and must perform every time.
If, as expected, Hopkins wins, neither man's legacy will change. But if De La Hoya finds a way to prevail, historical perspectives will be revised. Is an upset possible? As Hopkins himself noted last month, "It only takes one shot to shatter your dreams."