From THE RING Magazine: Bernard Hopkins learned discipline in prison
This story is in the special December 2014 issue of THE RING Magazine, which previews both the Bernard Hopkins-Sergey Kovalev and Manny Pacquaio-Chris Algieri fights. Just click on the link above to purchase the magazine. Or buy it on a newsstand near you.
“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute and it seems like an hour,” Albert Einstein said. “Sit with a pretty girl for an hour and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.”
One of the greatest minds of his or any other era was never a guest of the Pennsylvania penal system but his theory of relativity, represented by the famous equation E=mc2, is easily understood by at least one former inmate who had his hand on that figurative stove during his 56 months of imprisonment.
Bernard Hopkins, a former street tough, was sent to the Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution at Graterford on a strong-arm robbery conviction when he was just 17 and remained there until he was 23. He tried to burn as much time as fast as he possibly could behind those high walls. That included his introduction to boxing and time spent with an unlikely role model, a convicted murderer and former boxer named Michael “Smokey” Wilson.
That’s where and with whom Hopkins’ legend began to take root.
“When you came up from nothing it’s not easy to have the patience or discipline to change your life,” Hopkins said. “Boxing had to work for Bernard Hopkins because, really, what other choice did I have? Prison taught me to maximize every second of every day. I’m always conscious of the clock because, when you’re incarcerated, you want to burn time. I couldn’t have gotten that discipline on the street, not like I got it now.
“Being locked up in a cell is no fun but I survived it. Maybe I wouldn’t survive it again. That’s why I made a vow to myself never to go back inside. I dreamed about a lot of things back then. But for guys like me, dreams usually don’t come true. Now that I’m living the dream, I’m never going to allow myself to get too comfortable or to forget the past.”
Today, three decades later, he is free to chase still another dream and more boxing history to embellish an already breathtaking legacy of accomplishment. Hopkins, who will be 50 on Jan. 15, is hoping to give himself still another stay of professional execution when he faces Sergey Kovalev on Nov. 8 in Atlantic City. The Russian, widely considered to be the most dangerous many in the 175-pound weight class, no doubt has designs on making some history of his own by becoming the first man ever to knock out the ageless wonder from Philadelphia.
Can Hopkinsfind a way to reach back in time again and make not only the clock stand still but the calendar as well? And if he somehow crafts still another addition to his list of semi-miraculous victories, how long can he expect to keep defying the natural laws of diminishing returns?
“I’m fortunate in that I’m not damaged goods,” said Hopkins, who has never been cut during his 26 years as a pro and has been floored only four times. “Look, people were calling me old when I fought Tito (Trinidad, whom he stopped in 12 rounds in a career-defining performance on Sept. 29, 2001). I’m still here, but I know I ain’t the same as I was at 35 or even 45. Nobody stays on top forever. I look at tapes of my old fights and see how many more punches I was throwing then. I even had hair. I’d be in total denial if I tried to say I’m the same fighter I used to be. But what’s left is still plenty good.”
Among Hopkins’ proudest possessions – as much as his collection of bejeweled championship belts, if not more so – is a framed certificate from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections congratulating him with successfully completing all of his parole requirements. For nine years, Hopkins avoided any semblance of trouble except those inside the ring, avoiding even so much as a parking ticket.
But not adding his name to the long list of recidivists whose freedom was shortlived doesn’t mean B-Hop has forgotten the lessons he learned on Cell Block D as prisoner Y4145. There is some good that can be wrung from even the harshest of circumstances, if only an individual is strong enough to recognize the traps into which so many of those who run afoul of the law keep falling. Hopkins swore he’d never go back to Graterford again, other than in a voluntary capacity, and he hasn’t. But whenever he needs to dredge up a memory from those days that might serve him well against a gloved opponent, he can draw from that well, too.
“Where do people think I got that toughness, that discipline?” he said. “It’s so obvious. I’m not perpetrating a fraud. That’s who I was when I was ignorant. I never got stabbed in prison, but I got stabbed three times out on the street. Didn’t bother me. I wasn’t afraid to die. In life, you’re either a wolf or a lamb. I was a wolf. People scattered when they saw me coming.”
The teenage wolf had been in and out of the juvenile system often enough to have an idea what he could expect when he was sent to a place where hardcore criminals were burning time, some entire lifetimes. To hear Hopkins tell it, one of the first things he did upon entering this new and more harrowing world was to seek out one of the most frightening inmates in the yard and to knock out some of his teeth. It was his way of announcing to the population that, his tender age notwithstanding, he was nobody’s lamb.
“In this place, you go after the biggest dude to earn your respect,” Wilson said several years ago, “this place” meaning Graterford. He is still there. “Kick his ass and everything else just falls into place. People see you take on and take down someone like that, nobody is going to mess with you.”
But Wilson – a three-time middleweight champion within the Pennsylvania penal system – saw something else in Hopkins, something of value that could someday prove to be the angry young man’s ticket to a better life on the outside.
“Bernard was another young kid who could go one way or the other,” said Wilson, who knew only too well that in such cases the pendulum frequently swings in the wrong direction. “His life was the same as those of a lot of kids growing up in the inner city. Many are going to get in trouble and keep on getting in trouble. Some, thankfully, won’t.
“I’m just glad Bernard didn’t kill no one. I’m glad he was able to get out of here. To me, he’s the epitome of what rehabilitation is, or is supposed to be. He never came back. He showed what, given the opportunity, an individual – any individual – can do.”
It was almost an inevitability that Hopkins, who had an idea of becoming a boxer upon his release from prison, and Wilson would gravitate toward each other. Years before Hopkins heard the sound of that gate slamming shut behind him, his now-deceased uncle, Art “Moose” McCloud, who posted an 11-8 record as a pro, had swapped punches in the ring with Wilson. But it was not an inevitability that Wilson and Hopkins would form a bond, one of mutual respect and appreciation, that has lasted as long as it has.
“Artie could have been good, but the street got him,” Hopkins said. “Anyway, once Smokey found out I was Artie’s nephew, we sort of got attached. He started training me. We had tournaments against other prisons. Two times a year, we had box-offs. I was middleweight champion for 4¾ years, the Pennsylvania equivalent of (former light heavyweight contender) James Scott in Rahway (a New Jersey prison).
“Smokey was like my Gandhi. If I had run into somebody else in prison, with a different set of values, the world might have never known one of the greatest boxing talents ever to come out of Philadelphia. Me and Smokey are not biologically related, but we might as well be. When I’m fighting in that ring, I’m fighting for some souls that can help others and for some lost souls that don’t want to help others. But they’re all God’s children, you know?
“Everybody inside those walls don’t make it. Yeah, I know what Smokey is in for. He never has tried to hide the fact of what he did. His story is kind of like Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter’s, except that Smokey isn’t saying that he’s innocent.
“Regardless, to me, Smokey is more of an asset to society than a threat. Look, I’m not advocating prison. Prison is a bad, bad place. But the discipline that I have today, that is where it was developed. Smokey showed me that just because you start out doing wrong, it don’t have to be like that forever.”
Hopkins understands that some fight fans, those who have never done time, are put off when he brings up the misdeeds that landed him in the joint. But learning experiences are where you find them, and some of the hardest lessons must be learned in the hardest of places.
“If I didn’t go to the gym at 1 o’clock, guess who came looking for me? Smokey Wilson,” Hopkins said. “And let me tell you, there were days when I didn’t feel like training. I know that sounds hard to believe now, but where do you think I got that from? Smokey taught me to stick it out, even in the worst days of my life. He was like a big brother looking out for a little brother.
“When you leave prison, the odds are so stacked against you. People figure that if you were a criminal, you’re always a criminal. And the fact is, 80 percent of people who get locked up and get out come home [to prison] eventually. Eighty percent! But what else can they do? You got to have some reason to believe in something better. If we want to save these young people, they have to know that they can make it. They don’t have to become victims or victimizers.”
Wilson, a member of a street gang called the Moroccos, was drunk and high on Oct. 10, 1970, when he shot and killed 15-year-old Gregory Davis because, he said, he thought Davis was reaching into his pocket for his own gun. It was later determined that Davis possessed neither a weapon nor a police record.
“What I saw in Bernard was someone who could be saved,” Wilson said. “I’d been in the system since I was 17. I didn’t see the extreme hardness that a lot of boys come in here with. I saw in him a disposition that he wanted to show his mother (Shirley, now deceased) that he wasn’t really the person he had been to wind up in this place. We started talking about boxing. He had a kind of tenacity to him, you know? He wanted to be a fighter. I just liked his attitude.
“Bernard was a natural. A lot of guys didn’t want to spar with him. He was that good. He was even good when he started out. And he knew enough to stay away from the drugs and the guys that weren’t really about anything good. He worked hard at boxing. You didn’t have to tell him to go out in the yard and run; he was doing it.”
Hopkins’ commitment to his new profession was put to the test immediately, when he dropped a four-round decision in his pro debut to Clinton Mitchell on Oct. 11, 1988. He didn’t fight again for 16 months.
“I had to ask myself if I wanted to [continue to box] or go back on the streets of Philadelphia,” he said. “From 1988 through half of 1990, I was inactive. I had to come to grips with whether I was going to live, think, eat and dedicate myself to boxing. I made my choice to do just that.
“When I made that decision – and it takes a strong mind, strong discipline and strong character – I never fell off the wagon again. I told myself this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to go back to prison and I didn’t want to end up dead.”
On April 12, 2005, Hopkins did return to Graterford, for the dedication of a 20-by-40-foot mural of him in the prison gym. He signed it, “Bernard Hopkins, champ, 4/12/05.
“I fought Felix Trinidad and I didn’t cry,” a misty-eyed Hopkins said at the dedication. “I fought Oscar De La Hoya and didn’t cry – he did. But seeing this ÔÇª”
Wilson said most, but not all, of Graterford’s inmates cheer for Hopkins to win every fight because they see him as one of their own and a role model whose success offers them something of a blueprint for their own post-prison lives.
“There are some people in here who want to see him lose because there’s always going to be jealousy and envy,” Wilson said. “That’s just human nature. It’s the same in here as it is in the world.
“But most of us in this place want Bernard to win because, in a way, he’s fighting for us. He showed that it is possible to leave prison, make it on the outside and never come back.”
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