Bernard Hopkins did it his way
This story appears in the March 2017 issue of THE RING Magazine, which will be on newsstands on December 27. The digital edition of the magazine is available now. To order specific issues or subscribe to THE RING (print and digital), go here.
Bernard Hopkins is taking no chances this time, beyond the ones he has so often accepted as the risk of living the pugilist’s life.
Long ago Hopkins learned that few people can be trusted in boxing and that often includes the boxer himself. Prizefighting, you see, is the sport of deception as much as destruction, the path to victory often littered with traps set by opponents both seen and unseen. His ability to avoid some while setting others has long been one of his most enduring attributes. In many ways, it has been the foundation of his fistic success.
Perhaps because of that, in the final boxing contract he will ever sign, Hopkins included a clause that assured that at 51 years old this would be his final fight. There would be no more traps set. If he chooses to try and take another path to the ring after facing young Joe Smith Jr. on Saturday at the Forum in Inglewood, California, he will face a daunting task. He will have to sue himself.
Hopkins’ resolve to finally retire after a lifetime in boxing comes at an age when few men would even consider shadowboxing let alone the more vicious version he is still practicing. He has always been both real and a realist when it comes to prizefighting’s dark art and because of that, while he knows he can still beat many of the young fighters put in front of him, he concedes that time has taken its toll on him.
That was made clear 25 months ago, the last time he ventured into the war zone that is a boxing ring. That night Hopkins wore both the IBF and WBA light heavyweight title belts when he slipped between the ropes, having continued a string of fights in which each time he won he became once again the oldest man ever to hold a world title.
Hopkins first accomplished that feat on May 21, 2011, when he traveled to the Bell Centre in Montreal and wrested the WBC title from hometown hero Jean Pascal, avenging an earlier draw he felt was unjustified. He was 46 at the time he broke George Foreman’s record for championship longevity but went on to do it twice more in 2013 and then again in 2014 when, at 49, he retained one 175-pound title and claimed another by defeating Beibut Shumenov.
But then came a long night with WBO titleholder Sergey Kovalev, who surprisingly dropped Hopkins in the opening round and then outboxed him for the final 11 to win a one-sided and unanimous decision that unified three of the 175-pound titles. The belts Hopkins entered the ring with did not leave with him. Like all boxers at some point, he left the ring alone.
While it was surprising to see him on the floor, it was remarkable to watch him work his sly sleight of hand for 12 rounds against a man 18 years younger and with a level of skill few in boxing felt he possessed. Bernard Hopkins couldn’t find a way to win that night but he found a way to get by. Sometimes that is what life demands. Sometimes all you can do is survive the storm by refusing to give in to it and wait for a new day.
That day is this Saturday, when Hopkins will square off with young Smith in a fight Hopkins dubbed the “Final One.” That night he gives himself one last chance to come out a winner in the ring before ending his time in a sport that quite literally saved his life.
“A day comes when you have to stop, including in life,” said Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 knockouts). “This is it. I’m done. I’m working hard but I’m not tricking myself. I know I’m not the same as I was 20 years ago. I’m not the same as I was two years ago.
“I’ve camouflaged a lot of s— the last five, six years. I used to be more aggressive. The first half of my career I was very aggressive. I’m not that way anymore.
“In the second half of my career I couldn’t be the Philadelphia fighter no more. I had to fight a different way. I tricked people and made them pay for it.
“People say, ‘Bernard, you’re old. You’re rich. You don’t need to fight. Accept it.’ I’m not accepting s—. I’m going to challenge it. It comes down to choices until you go in the dirt and I choose this – one last fight.
“I’m not the same fighter but I’m the same guy. I don’t need an alarm clock to get up and go to work. I don’t need anyone to push me to spar or do cardio or to prepare for what’s coming. If I’m not up before 7 in the morning, you better come in and check my pulse.
“To do this thing in my 50s is different than in my 30s or my 20s. I understand that. But this fight is about more than just winning a fight against someone who is 27 years old. I want to make a statement that if you give yourself a chance, you win.
“The past is written in stone. This fight is not to go left or right or change or add on (to his fistic resume). In my career, there is much for people to debate. This fight won’t change that. I’m just making sure, while I’m on this earth, that there’s no stone left unturned. The truth is, in the end, Bernard is going to do what he wants if he believes he can do it.”
Belief in himself is one thing Hopkins has always had. Even at times when no one else seemed to share it, his opinion has always been that he was more than people’s opinions of him were.
He set about proving that 30 years ago and, after a long struggle, he changed minds and opinions. He made his case. He won more than fights. He won respect, sometimes grudgingly given but given all the same.
It is one reason why, in recent years, Hopkins has often made his ring walk to the Frank Sinatra anthem “My Way,” a song written by Paul Anka but made a philosophical life statement by Sinatra. Its words seem to encompass Hopkins’ approach to life, a life that has not been easy.
Sent to Graterford Prison for nearly five years at the age of 17 after having gravitated toward a life of petty crime and violent encounters, Hopkins seemed an unlikely candidate for long-term success.
When he was released from prison, warden Buddy Rush told him he’d be waiting for him when he returned in six months. Hopkins vowed that would never happen and it did not, despite having to walk off nine years of parole in neighborhoods of Philadelphia where a life of crime was one of the few means of upward mobility for a young black man with a limited education.
Hopkins was reacquainted with boxing in Graterford and turned pro not long after returning home but he lost his first fight to a fellow named Clinton Mitchell and didn’t enter another prizefight for a year. By the time he did, Mitchell was gone, disappearing for five years himself in the way young men can when their options are limited.
During that year between fights, Hopkins went to a particular trade school. He went to the gym, where he learned to work with his hands in a deadly trade. He prepared himself for the life of a boxer. And when his second chance came he seized it.
It took him seven years to win the IBF version of the middleweight title but once he captured it he refused to relent. Despite well-documented disputes with promoters and television executives, Hopkins would make a record 20 defenses of that title, finally becoming the first to unify the middleweight championship since Marvin Hagler had done it 14 years earlier.
He would defeat big name opponents like Felix Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya, but his methodical nature, both in and outside the ring, defied the logic of being nicknamed “The Excutioner.” It bothered fans and led to considerable criticism of his business practices – such as fighting only once in 18 months after beating Trinidad – but Hopkins pressed on and become a millionaire boxer with a Hall of Fame resume, always marching to the sound of his own drummer.
As important as those things are to him now, as the final curtain is set to fall, what is even more important is that he knows his battle hymn truly reflects his story.
“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you knew
“When I bit off more than I could chew
“But through it all, when there was doubt
“I ate it up and spit it out
“I faced it all and I stood tall
“And did it my way”
Indeed Bernard Hopkins did. He faced the challenge of every name opponent of his era and beat most of them. Some, like Trinidad, he beat against long odds.
He didn’t always win, of course, because no one does if he stays in the arena as long as Hopkins has. But that is not really the point.
“My legacy is not just winning because sometimes I didn’t win,” Hopkins said. “In life, you will be challenged. Sometimes you will lose because life is about loss as much as it is winning.
“Everybody loses things in life. People. Titles. Money. What do you do after those losses? What do you do when those challenges come?
“In the boxing ring, there’s no rich or poor. There’s just fighting. In training, you can correct problems that arise. You can prepare. But if you step into that ring when the lights are on and you’re not ready, you have a problem.
“I’ve always tried to balance my thinking. To talk with confidence I must train to have that confidence. That’s what keeps me going to Joe Hand’s Gym (in North Philadelphia). Sure, I got muscle memory and my memory is good but I still got to put in the work if I want to call myself a fighter.
“There’s something about the ending that sticks with people longer than the rest of it. People remember how it ended. I understand that. It is what drives me now.
“I want people to remember me. ‘He was 51 and he beat that boy’s butt.’ If this is the last chapter of the book, I want it to be an ending people will remember.”
So did Sinatra when he sang “My Way.” Remember the ending?
“For what is a man? What has he got?
“If not himself, then he has naught
“To say the things he truly feels
“And not the words of one who kneels
“The record shows, I took the blows
“And did it my way
“Yes it was my way”
Start to finish, win or lose, right or wrong, that’s how Bernard Hopkins did things. That, more than his ring records and championship belts, is the true legacy of Bernard Hopkins. In an often down-and-dirty sport, he stood tall, he did it all, and did it his way.