From the Archive: Bernard Hopkins – Just Deserts
Editor’s Note: This feature originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of The Ring.
BERNARD HOPKINS ONCE WAS OVERSHADOWED BY OTHERS BUT HAS OUTLASTED HIS RIVALS TO CLAIM BIG PAYDAYS AND UNIVERSAL RESPECT
More so than most, Glen Johnson understands what it is that spurs Bernard Hopkins to keep on keeping on at an age when most boxers are long since retired and, if they’re fortunate, basking in the glory of what used to be.
Johnson not only was 43 in his most-recent bout but he faced Hopkins on one of the very best nights of Hopkins’ Hall of Fame worthy career, B-Hop retaining his IBF middleweight title by an 11th-round stoppage on July 20, 1997, in Indio, Calif. Johnson went into that fight with a record of 32-0 (23 knockouts) and a misplaced belief that no 160-pounder then on the planet could handle him so convincingly.
In the years after that fight, Johnson and Hopkins became friends and colleagues of sorts. Whenever the Philadelphian would train in Miami, where Johnson, a Jamaican, was residing, they’d spend time in the gym together to the benefit of each.
“After me and Glen fought, I worked with him many times,” said Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 Kos), who, at 48, challenges IBF light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud (24-0, 19 KOs) on March 9 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We got each other in shape. I’m not going to say he was my sparring partner; he was my helper. Glen held a construction job for a long time. He knows what it’s like when other guys, guys who might not be any more deserving than you, are getting multimillion-dollar purses – which they deserved – and you’re, like, `When am I gonna get mine?’”
Johnson, known as the “Road Warrior” for his willingness to take on anyone at any time, even in the other fighter’s back yard, said the memory of short purses and little recognition keeps Hopkins in the fight game now that he is a handsomely-paid living legend.
“Bernard has to feel it’s time, and I don’t think he believes it’s time yet,” Johnson said when asked when Hopkins might decide to hang up the gloves. “You have to remember, for a big part of his career Bernard was ignored. He was in the shadow of Roy Jones and some other guys who were more in the limelight. Now, he’s finally getting his just due. It’s not something he’s going to walk away from until he absolutely has to.”
Hopkins, who trained for the Cloud fight at the gritty Harrowgate Boxing Club in the Port Richmond section of Philly, said Johnson’s assessment of his situation is spot on. He has outlasted some of the contemporaries who once overshadowed him, and he is convinced that history will treat him more kindly than them if he, well, keeps on making it.
“Who else in history competes only against himself?” said Hopkins, who hopes to replace himself as the oldest man to win a widely recognized world championship. He was 46 when he wrested the WBC 175-pound title from Jean Pascal by a unanimous decision on May 21, 2011, in Montreal, 192 days older than George Foreman was when Big George knocked out Michael Moorer to win the heavyweight title for the second time.
“I don’t think there will be another duplicate of Bernard Hopkins in boxing, somebody who will make 20 defenses in the same weight class (which Hopkins did as a middleweight) or win a world championship at 46. Fighters today jump around from one weight class to another. Some fight into their 40s, but usually not as champions or championship contenders.
“You can make money at this or that, but history never goes broke. History outlasts money. You can’t spend it all up or act like it don’t exist. I’m going against one of the premier, if not the premier, light heavyweights out there. That’s the challenge to me. It provides me with that itch I still need to scratch.”
Hopkins also has to scratch the itch to separate himself from the two fighters who were reaping the fat paydays and glory when he was toiling in relative obscurity in the 1990s, Roy Jones Jr. And James Toney.
“Roy Jones and James Toney were the Guys,” he recalled. “They were getting the big money and HBO dates when I was making title defenses off-TV for, like, $50,000. What Glen is saying now is 100-percent accurate.
I call it workman’s comp. Any blue-collar worker knows what that is. When people say, `Count your money, you got enough, you should leave,’ I think about the times that I fought – and I’m not crying about it or blaming anybody – and didn’t get what I felt I deserved.
“Yeah, I finally got there. But I was held back for so long by boxing politics or whatever, because I refused to do what this guy or that guy told me to do when they tried to run my life and my career.”
There are those – hey, you know who you are – who will insist that the very best of Jones and the very best of Toney was better than the very best of Hopkins. But even B-Hop’s most persistent critics would be obliged to admit that Hopkins’ longevity at a world-class level surpasses that of Jones, who, although still active at 43 is a shadow of his onetime luminescence, and Toney, 44, whose brilliance inside the ropes was blunted by his lack of personal discipline outside them. Toney’s mother operated a bakery in Michigan, and it must have seemed that her son was her best customer as over time his official weight soared from 157 pounds to 257. Contrast that with Hopkins, who likes to brag that he never had eaten a cookie or a slice of cake for 20 years, a claim that those who know him well swear isn’t just hot air.
“It’s remarkable,” Johnson said of Hopkins’ fanatical dedication to staying in peak condition, even when not in training. “It’s a tribute to how well he takes care of himself, takes care of his body. That’s the difference between Bernard and fighters who use alcohol and drugs, who smoke, who eat too much food and the wrong kind of food. You do any of that and you have your body fighting against itself. It’s especially important when you’re an older athlete like Bernard. Then again, he’s never really done any wrong things as far as taking care of himself, has he?”
But treating your body as a holy shrine can’t indefinitely postpone the aging process, and Johnson sees subtle signs that Hopkins, who has dropped hints that he might continue fighting to the absurd age of 50, has lost that proverbial step. Still, B-Hop’s mental dexterity at least partially compensates for whatever physical attributes he has yielded to Father Time.
“The part of Bernard that is still at its best is his mind,” Johnson said. “He has a great boxing mind. When I fought him he was much sharper, much quicker, much stronger physically. He was a youthful man, and I wasn’t as seasoned and as ready for that fight as I thought I was. I was still learning when I fought Bernard.
“But even now, after all this time, Bernard’s mind is still sharp. He knows what he wants to do and he knows his limitations. He knows how to get what he wants, when he wants it.”
Hopkins admits to giving some thought to retirement after his last fight, a majority-decision loss to Chad Dawson on April 28 of this past year, which cost him his WBC light heavyweight title. The task then fell to Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer to determine if there was another bout out there that would sufficiently pique Hopkins’ interest.
“Bernard told me after the Dawson fight that the only reason he would come back would be if there was something to further cement his legacy, something that was historically important,” Schaefer said. “Bernard’s entire career has been built on putting together events that will stand the test of time. If you’re holding all these records, it becomes more and more difficult to trump your own achievements.
“When we were able to reach an agreement with the IBF champion, Tavoris Cloud, it was exactly the kind of challenge that Bernard was looking for.”
Hopkins joked that he would have preferred one of the two other alphabet light heavyweight titleholders: Wales’ Nathan Cleverly (25-0, 12 KOs), the WBO champion, or Kazakhstan’s Beibut Shumenov (13-1, 8 KOs), the WBA titlist, to the 31-year-old Cloud.
“I wanted the youngest guy out of the bunch, but I wound up getting the oldest,” cracked Hopkins. “But Cloud is a hard worker, determined, strong mentally and physically. He reminds me of (past Hopkins opponents) Antwun Echols and Robert Allen – muscular, good puncher, a knock-down, drag-out type. He’s going to press me, try to wear me down, try to overpower me. I normally pick those guys apart.”
Johnson sees Cloud as just the kind of fighter that Hopkins, at 48, should do very well against. “The one thing Tavoris Cloud has problems with is movement,” he said. “In my opinion, the last guy he fought [Gabriel Campillo, whom Cloud beat by a split decision last Feb. 18] beat him with movement. If the guy had been a stronger puncher, Cloud might have found himself on the floor. Fortunately for Cloud, they gave him the decision.
“Bernard, I don’t think, is as fast as (Campillo), but he’s a master boxer. He moves extremely well for his age. He’s going to pick, pick, pick his shots, and I think he’s going to be successful.”
There’s also the matter of additional motivation, another log to toss onto the fire that forever burns within Hopkins. Cloud is promoted by Don King, who used to promote B-Hop and who is still a target of Hopkins’ ire. On the night of what many consider to be Hopkins’ greatest victory, his 12th-round stoppage of the undefeated and favored Felix Trinidad for the fully unified middleweight championship on Sept. 29, 2001, at Madison Square Garden, King – who also promoted Trinidad – had waved a small Puerto Rican flag and loudly proclaimed, “Viva Puerto Rico!” It was a ritual King had been performing since the matchup was announced.
“He was my promoter, too, and it was obvious he wanted the other guy to win,” Hopkins recalled. “The Sugar Ray Robinson Award was to go to the winner, and they had already engraved it with Tito’s name! I had to wait almost a week to be presented something they would have handed to (Trinidad) right away if he had won.
“So now this fight comes along. Cloud believes he is the best, that he can beat anybody. I’m not surprised he took the fight. I am surprised King agreed to it because Cloud losing to me will shut down what’s left of King’s operation. He’s pretty much down to Cloud and Devon Alexander.
“Cloud is Don King’s last big hope. Who would have thought I would have stayed around long enough to destroy Don King? I started the process with Tito. Look, I made a history of beating Don King fighters. Robert Allen, John David Jackson, William Joppy, Keith Holmes, Trinidad. That’s five so far. There’s probably more.”
Of course, there is no guarantee that Hopkins will do what he expects to do. Another loss probably would mean a forced end to a nearly 25-year professional run that even Hopkins admits is at a “one-and-done” stage. It seems reasonable to assume that someday Hopkins will go to the well once too often and find that it has run dry. The question is whether or not that day is March 9.
Hopkins, who never has lost inside the distance, gave a clue as to what it might take to permanently exile him from the ring after another Philly fighter and member of Golden Boy’s stable, 24-year-old Danny Garcia, had knocked out aging Mexican icon Erik Morales on Oct. 20.
“Now that’s the way you put a legend into retirement,” Hopkins said of Garcia. “When you’re a young champion, you’re supposed to make a statement just the way Danny did. I’m 47 years old. If some young guy slayed me the way Danny slayed Morales, maybe I wouldn’t still be out there in the mix.”
Will Cloud be the man who finally slays B-Hop? Or will he simply be the agent of inevitability representing the natural laws of diminishing returns?
“Tavoris Cloud is going to want to do something to me that nobody’s done before,” Hopkins said. “I’m a basketball fan. I remember Allen Iverson doing a crossover on Michael Jordan in Washington, when Jordan was in his final season with the Wizards. Michael Jordan, I’m sure, had to know that when AI did that and left him stuck in cement, it probably was time to go.
“At some point, you realize there’s nothing left to prove anymore. Once I reach that point, or lose the desire to push myself the way I always have, I’ll know it’s time to get out. Believe me, I’ll know.”
- Hopkins won a convincing unanimous decision over Cloud on March 9, 2013.
Notable 40-something fighters (including number of fights and both overall and title records after turning 40):
49: Archie Moore (43-4-2, 8-2) 44: Ray Robinson (30-10-3*, 0-0) 25: Roberto Duran (18-7-0, 0-1) 24: Larry Holmes (21-3-0, 0-2) 20: George Foreman (17-3-0, 2-2) 17: Jack Johnson (12-5-0, 0-0) 12: Bernard Hopkins (7-4-1, 4-4-1) 11: Bob Fitzsimmons (6-3-1*, 1-1) 10: Willie Pep (9-1-0, 0-0) 9: Evander Holyfield (4-5, 0-3) 9: Glen Johnson (3-6, 0-3)
Note: Moore’s year of birth is disputed. His mother said he was born in 1913, the year we used here. He claimed he was born in 1916.
* Robinson and Fitzsimmons had one no-contest each after turning 40.