Early in his pro career, Bernard Hopkins was known more for his bizarre ring entrances than his skills.
That “Executioner” get-up was peculiar and a little scary. There he was, with a black mask over his head, surrounded by a buff, shirtless entourage with black masks over their heads. It was an odd scene that was seemingly purchased in a Philadelphia-area adult book store.
So it was ironic when Hopkins actually started fighting. Because there was nothing unusual about his style. It was as traditional and as grassroots as boxing gets.
Blue collar, bring-your-lunchpail-to-work, hard-working and in-your-face.
Fifteen years later, we know that the entrance was more or less an act. The fighting was legit.
But it was a long, hard haul for Hopkins, a former prisoner who turned his life around and became one of the greatest middleweight champions in the history of boxing. His story mirrors that of another great middleweight, Marvin Hagler, who also took the hard road to fame and glory.
Like Hagler, Hopkins was denied in his first bid for a world championship. Hagler earned a draw with then-middleweight king Vito Antuofermo in 1979, but it was Antuofermo who went home with the title. Similarly, Hopkins dropped a unanimous decision to Roy Jones Jr. for the IBF middleweight crown in 1993. It was a boring, tactical affair, with the faster Jones staying clear of the hard-punching Hopkins' big guns.
There was nothing to suggest that Hopkins would go on to become the best 160-pounder since Hagler.
And people forget that, in his second chance at the IBF title that Jones vacated, Hopkins was staggered, hurt and almost stopped by Segundo Mercado before a crazed throng in Mercado's native Ecuador. The bout was scored a draw, and the rematch was considered a toss-up.
Then Hopkins transformed from ordinary to extraordinary.
Hopkins cleaned Mercado's clock in the rematch four months later, stopping him in the 7th round. It was impressive, but, even then, there was nothing that really stood out about Hopkins other than that weird entrance.
Then the title defenses began to pile up.
There was Steve Frank, who was dusted off in 30 seconds. Then Joe Lipsey, who never fought again. Then Bo James and former sparring partner John David Jackson. Tough contenders like Glencoffe Johnson and Andrew Council and Carl Daniels tried, and failed, as well as washed up veterans like Simon Brown.
There were three defenses against the Lazarus-like Robert Allen. Allen was only competitive in the first. Hard-punching Antwun Echols earned a couple of shots, performed well, but fell well short. Undeserving types like Morrade Hakkar and Syd Vanderpool couldn't get it done. Top-flight guys like Keith Holmes and William Joppy were crucified.
And even an all-time great like Felix Trinidad was thrashed. Suddenly, Hopkins had broken Carlos Monzon's middleweight record for title defenses, and was considered untouchable.
That's what Oscar De La Hoya will be going up against Saturday. A hard-nosed Philadelphia tough guy who went to prison, got out, and proceeded to become a somebody through sheer will and heart, and more than a little talent. Like Hagler, he won't give up his title easily, and he will almost surely be on his feet when this one ends.
So whether Bernard Hopkins wins Saturday as expected, or gets upset by a younger fighter, one thing is for sure: He'll be remembered for a lot more than those ring entrances.