The Handshake

By Thomas Hauser
It's a time-honored axiom in boxing: "Never fall in love with a fighter; because if you do, sooner or later, he'll break your heart." Lou DiBella fell in love with Bernard Hopkins. Now Hopkins has broken his heart.

DiBella and Hopkins joined forces after the fighter defended his IBF middleweight title against Antwun Echols in December 1999 for $100,000. With DiBella's guidance, Hopkins made $500,000 for a May 2000 defense against Syd Vanderpool and $600,000 for a rematch against Echols later that year. Then, in 2001, DiBella engineered Hopkins' entry into the middleweight championship series. For that bit of business, Hopkins received $1,000,000 for fighting Keith Holmes, $2,750,000 for fighting Felix Trinidad, $50,000 in expenses for each fight, and a $200,000 signing bonus. In sum, before DiBella, Hopkins was an extremely talented fighter with limited name recognition who rarely made big money. With DiBella in his camp, he became a star.

Hopkins was aware of DiBella's contributions to his cause. In the ring immediately after knocking out Trinidad, he praised Lou on national television. Two days later, he summoned DiBella to his room at the St.Regis Hotel in Manhattan and gave him the gloves he'd worn in the signature bout of his career.

But Hopkins and DiBella never had a written contract. Rather they had what both sides called "a handshake agreement.''

Not long after defeating Trinidad, Hopkins felt he no longer needed DiBella. There were rumors; unreturned telephone calls; negotiations that took place without DiBella's knowledge. But never anything between them man-to-man or face-to-face. Finally, Bernard let Lou know through intermediaries that his services were no longer desired.

Then came the coup de grace. Hopkins accused DiBella of arranging to receive a $50,000 kickback from him while DiBella was still at HBO.

There's no gray area here. Either DiBella took a bribe or he didn't. I don't think he did.

Seth Abraham, DiBella's former boss and now Chief Operating Officer of Madison Square Garden, concurs. "I can tell you this," Abraham said recently. "I worked at HBO for twenty-four years. In the thirteen or fourteen years Lou worked with me, no fighter, no promoter, and no manager ever came to me and said Lou did anything improper. Even his enemies on the outside, and there were more than a few, never made such an accusation.''

Meanwhile, the damage to DiBella's fledgling company goes far beyond the loss of income from Hopkins. The major promoters are already gunning for him because he represents a threat to the status quo. Lou's relationships with HBO, MSG, and other centers of power are prickly at best. DiBella's success, if it is to be, will be founded on the goodwill of fighters who understand that he knows boxing, will battle on their behalf, and will never betray them. Bernard Hopkins was to have been the cornerstone of that trust.

Why did Hopkins turn on DiBella?

The guess here is that it began with money. Once Bernard made it to the top, he wanted to share the wealth as little as possible. It's also not unreasonable to suggest that Bernard might have been helped toward his conclusion by Don King. King understands the darkness in people as well as anyone ever. Whether it's greed, the willingness to cheat on one's wife, ethnic animosity, whatever; Don can find the darkness and, when he chooses, play on it.

Why didn't Hopkins, who's supposed to be a stand-up guy, tell DiBella to his face that he wanted to end their relationship?

Maybe he was embarrassed. Maybe he knew that what he was doing was wrong.

Why the accusation of bribery? Larry Merchant thinks he knows the answer.

"After Trinidad-Hopkins," says Merchant, "we all celebrated Bernard as an anti-boxing-establishment force who had prevailed against the odds. And that fit perfectly with Bernard's self-image, since he likes to think of himself as a rebel and as the good guy when it comes to confrontations. But then, as soon as he beat Trinidad, Bernard did the same thing to Lou DiBella that he used to accuse everyone else of doing to him. And it sounds to me now as though he's striking out in a rage because he's angry at having been branded an ingrate and a betrayer."

The irony of it all is that casting DiBella aside might not turn out to be very smart. The list of fighters who thought they could deal successfully with Don King on their own is painfully long.

Also, it should be noted that, despite his penchant for confrontation, Hopkins is quite facile and diplomatic when he wants to be. Bernard tells people off. But Bernard is also quite adept at telling people what they want to hear. He has stroked more than one writer with the words, "You're the only one who understands me." And he won a lot of praise after defeating Trinidad when he pledged in the ring to go to Puerto Rico and apologize to Trinidad's fans for his actions vis-à-vis the Puerto Rican flag. The people of Puerto Rico are still waiting.

Bernard Hopkins is a captivating individual. He's also a great fighter. And I understand full well that, when he goes in the ring, no-one is in there with him taking the punches. Still, like a lot of people, I'm disappointed by his recent conduct.

Hopkins himself once said, "You can't stay champion forever. If I only get respect for being champion and I don't carry myself properly, what happens when I'm not champion anymore?"

That's a good question. Bernard thrived in adversity. It remains to be seen whether or not he can handle success. Meanwhile, Hopkins used to be one of the few people in boxing I thought you could do business with on a handshake. No more.

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