“This could very well be the night where age catches up to Bernard Hopkins.”
It seems like that phrase has been mentioned before every Hopkins fight for the past four years. Every time I hear it, I’m reminded of a Snickers commercial. “Gonna be here a while…?” Lately, it’s been offered as the best scenario for undefeated challenger and alleged heir apparent Jermain Taylor to knock Bernard off of his perch this weekend (Saturday, July 16, 9PM ET, live on HBO PPV from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas).
The long-reigning middleweight kingpin turned forty this year, but it’s the rest of the boxing world that has grown old waiting for Hopkins to start showing his age. Sure he’s slowed down some. Some try to suggest that he’s still in the prime of his career. A comparison of his win over Howard Eastman this past February on HBO to that of his dismantling of then-undefeated Glengoffe Johnson on CBS eight years helps dispel that myth.
But a legend like Hopkins doesn’t rely on frivolous matters such as optimal prime, speed and power advantages, or youth to carry him through the day. You get older, you get wiser.
The difference between Bernard and most people is he didn’t wait for middle age to settle in before exuding his wisdom. He has been forced to make adjustments his entire adult life, in and out of the ring.
His incarceration as a teenager has been well-documented. After serving nearly five years at Graterford State Penitentiary for armed robbery, a then-23-year-old Hopkins was faced with a choice: return to the mean streets of Philly and live the same life that earned him the trip behind bars, or make an honest – if far less lucrative – living.
Bernard chose the latter, fulfilling the first of many promises he would make in the years to come. The prison warden made it a point to greet Hopkins on his way out of the pen. “I’ll see you again when you wind up back in here,” was his final comment to soon-to-be former prisoner number Y4145. “I ain’t ever coming back here,” was Bernard’s response.
Seventeen years later, he remains true to his word.
He found gainful employment as a roofer, but quickly gravitated to the gym. Bernard started boxing at an early age, but took to the sport far more seriously while behind bars. “Boxing was my best therapy,” says the champ. “It saved my sanity.”
It wasn’t enough, however, to parlay into a successful pro debut. Hopkins entered the ring as a light heavyweight, dropping a four round decision to Clinton Mitchell.
Lesson learned immediately. It was the first, last and only time he entered the ring as a light heavyweight. He would only lose once more in seventeen years – a points loss to fellow all-time great Roy Jones, Jr. twelve years ago for the vacant IBF middleweight title. After the loss – a lackluster affair from both sides – Hopkins would make another promise: “I will never lose on my feet ever again.”
Twelve years later, Hopkins stays true to his word.
Segundo Mercado would find this to be true, not once but twice. Hopkins traveled to Mercado’s hometown of Quito, Ecuador in December 1994 to once again challenge for the vacant IBF middleweight title. Not even Hopkins’ inability to properly acclimate himself to the high altitude would lead to defeat; nor would a pair of knockdowns early in the fight. Hopkins arose from adversity and battled back well enough to escape Ecuador with a draw.
All parties involved claimed robbery. Mercado and promoter Don King believed Hopkins lucky to leave with a draw, while Hopkins and then-promoter Butch Lewis considered the decision to be along the lines of the hometown variety.
All questions would be answered four months later. Bernard took full advantage of the second opportunity, overwhelming Mercado in seven one-sided rounds to kick off the middleweight reign.
Joe Lipsey would also find this to be true – in emphatic fashion. The undefeated southpaw was supposed to offer the then-31-year-old champ his stiffest test to date. Four rounds later, Lipsey made his way to the highlight reel – on the business end of one of the more spectacular knockouts in recent memory. A right uppercut toward the end of the fourth round nearly beheaded the Massachusetts native. Lipsey remained frozen, as Hopkins put the finishing touches on his second defense of the crown with a final four-punch combination that sent his foe down and out. Referee Mitch Halpern slid across the ring to prevent Lipsey’s head from crashing against the canvas, waving off the bout without a count.
The loss was Lipsey’s first and only. He never fought again after that afternoon.
Glen Johnson would fight on after suffering the first loss of his career at the hands of The Executioner. In fact, he would go on to win a world title at light heavyweight and earn “Fighter of the Year” honors last year. But seven years earlier, he earned an introduction to big-time boxing, losing nearly every round of their June 1997 bout on CBS before being mercifully stopped midway through the eleventh.
Johnson didn’t just lose; the eleven-round trashing changed the way he viewed the sport.
“The Hopkins fight was the only time I ever felt overwhelmed in my career,” Johnson admitted last year in recalling the first loss of his career. “After that fight, I realized that I was doing so many things wrong. I thought I could get away with what I had, and Bernard removed those thoughts immediately. I had to rededicate myself to the sport after that fight.”
Robert Allen thought he had the answers when the two fought for the first time in August 1998. Described by many as one of the dirtier fights in recent memory, Allen did all he could to frustrate Hopkins in his eighth defense of the title. The foul-plagued affair came to a crashing halt late in the fourth, when Hopkins dislocated his shoulder after being accidentally shoved out of the ring by referee Mills Lane. The occurrence came when Lane was attempting to break up one of many clinches in the dogfight. In doing so, he sent Hopkins flying through the ropes, and crashing onto the arena floor.
It was the closest Hopkins came to defeat and the only title defense in which he would trail on a scorecard at the end of the fight.
Allen looked to bring more of the same in the rematch six months later. He found himself climbing off of the canvas repeatedly, twice from legitimate knockdowns, and several other times due to alleged low blows. Some did stray south of the border, in fact, enough for Hopkins to lose a point on the cards. Others were borderline and just above the belt, though Allen collapsed to the canvas all the same each time they landed. Referee Rudy Battle eventually had enough, waving the bout off in the seventh round when it was obvious Allen wanted no more.
He would get some more six years later, though making little attempt to derail the 39-year-old Hopkins. The two waltzed to a twelve round decision. Allen disappeared from the title picture once and for all. Hopkins remained.
Once wasn’t enough for Antwun Echols, either. He started and ended strong in their December 1999 encounter on FoxSportsNet. The bookends were his lone bright spots, as Hopkins put on a clinic during every round in between. Echols earned the shot in racking up a series of high-profile knockouts. In fact, all of his wins to that point had come inside the distance. Twelve rounds later, he earned a boxing lesson from Hopkins, one month away from his thirty-fifth birthday.
The IBF decided one year later that Echols deserved another shot at Hopkins, who would receive a then-career-high $650,000 for the rematch. He would also receive a separated shoulder midway through, as one of many wrestling exchanges resulted in the weight of Echols’s body driving Hopkins to the canvas. Bernard got up, and was given the opportunity to accept a win by disqualification. Most fighters – never mind one at age thirty-five – would have nursed the injury and accepted the easy way out. Hopkins bravely elected to fight on, and stopped Echols midway through the tenth after pitching yet another shutout.
Once was all it took for Puerto Rican legend Felix “Tito” Trinidad to learn his lesson. He and promoter Don King believed Hopkins to be a mere speed bump on the road to immortality. Such was why the 2001 middleweight tournament was pieced together. Hopkins was forced to sign with King in order to gain entry. Through the assistance of then-advisor Lou DiBella, Bernard worked out a deal which would finally allow him access to the other divisional belt holders after five years of failed attempts to secure unification bouts.
Once allowed through the door, Bernard found his way around the room just fine. In collecting the WBC and WBA titles, Hopkins barely lost a round against Keith Holmes and Trinidad. Very few gave Hopkins-Holmes much thought; it was the lone bout of the middleweight series that didn’t make its way to the main room at Madison Square Garden. The 5,000 or so who crammed into the Theatre watched Hopkins fend off a seemingly disinterested Holmes, becoming to the first fighter since Marvelous Marvin Hagler to win a middleweight unification bout.
The good fortunes were supposed to end five months later, when the 36-year-old was to face the streaking Trinidad. The legend of Cupey Alto, Puerto Rico was coming off a 2000 campaign that earned him two-thirds of the junior middleweight crown and near-unanimous selection as Fighter of the Year by the boxing media. Tito carried the momentum over to 2001, blasting out William Joppy in five to capture the WBA middleweight title in front of a near capacity crowd at the Garden.
The win over Joppy accentuated Trinidad’s status as the star attraction of the tournament. Hopkins knew the score, and looked for ways to absorb some of the spotlight leading up to their September 2001 encounter. His actions would be the first peek on a worldwide scale into what truly made Bernard tick.
Determined to prove that he would not succumb to the hype, Hopkins showed Trinidad how little he regarded him at press conferences in New York and Puerto Rico. Not once but twice, Hopkins would grab “la bandera” – a/k/a the Puerto Rican flag – and toss it to the ground. The act in Puerto Rico led to a near riot, as Hopkins was forced to run for his life, and change into a disguise in order to flee from the hostile crowd.
The turn of events was the only competition Hopkins would receive in dealing with Trinidad. In a performance that confirmed his status as an all-time great, Hopkins finished what Oscar De La Hoya started two years prior, overwhelming Trinidad in front of a packed house at the Garden. He appeased the wishes of longtime trainer Bouie Fisher to “close the show”, finishing off the Puerto Rican superstar early in the twelfth and final round. To his credit, Trinidad attempted to rise and continue, only to be rescued by his father and trainer Felix Sr., who knew better.
Oscar De La Hoya didn’t know any better. His eye on greatness, the “Golden Boy” believed 2004 to be the perfect time to realize his longtime goal of winning world titles in six different weight classes. Forget for a moment that one of the six was the spurious WBO junior lightweight belt he racked up in 1994. What was considered more ridiculous was his belief that he could take out the long-reigning champ.
Oscar did more harm than good in showing up out of shape and barely escaping Vegas with a controversial points win over WBO middleweight titlist Felix Strum three months prior to his superfight with Hopkins. Still, many mistook Hopkins’ own lackluster performance against Allen in the co-feature as signs that perhaps he was ripe for the taking.
Whether or not Oscar believed it to be true was another matter. What he did believe was that a catchweight of 157 pounds would help enhance his chances of making history. Forcing Hopkins – four months from his fortieth birthday – to weigh in at his lightest weight in seven years was the best plan Oscar could come up with. Boxing certainly didn’t work, at least not once Hopkins decided to pick up the pace in the third round. The moment Bernard closed the gap between the two, the fight ceased being competitive. By round seven, it was clear that Oscar wasn’t going to win another round. He was eventually put out of his misery in the ninth round, when Hopkins would land the infamous liver shot which forced De La Hoya to roll around in pain while receiving a ten-count.
Oscar learned what so many others were taught over the years by The Executioner: Older does not always mean old.
Howard Eastman failed to realize this, as did many in the media. Long touted as the leading middleweight challenger, “The Battersea Bomber” was considered by many to have the best chance at unseating Hopkins heading into their title fight last February. It was insisted that the 40-year-old champion was finally facing a middleweight bigger than him, and that such would be enough to bring the longest title reign in middleweight history to an end.
Eastman believed the hype. He believed what many were selling – that his loss against William Joppy in 2001 was solely due to his clowning early in the fight. The suggestion was that a stronger start would force Hopkins to expend energy early, and that he would eventually wilt against the supposedly naturally bigger fighter as the fight wore on.
Someone forgot to relay the message to Hopkins, as the exact opposite turned out to be true. Eastman did start off strong, offering a decent account of himself after five rounds. But unless you score a knockout, five rounds does not win you a championship – nor does the assumption that Hopkins will eventually act his age. By fight’s end, it was Eastman who looked more like a 40-year-old fighter, as Hopkins put on the usual clinic en route to title defense number twenty.
So here we are this weekend, once again hearing the same “rationale” for Hopkins’ reign to come to an end. In Taylor, we are told that Hopkins is fighting a bigger man, one who possesses the skills to make Hopkins look his age. The 26-year-old former Olympian is supposed to be the fastest and strongest fighter Hopkins will have ever faced. Roy Jones, Jr. might have something to say about that. He can definitively claim is to be the last fighter to have defeated Bernard in the ring. The only loss Bernard has been dealt during his title reign has occurred in a courtroom, by Lou DiBella, Taylor’s promoter. DiBella won a $610,000 settlement in 2002, stemming from Hopkins’ claims of extortion and bribery that he suggested took place two years prior.
Much like his pro debut and first shot at a world title, Hopkins can chalk up the courtroom loss to inexperience. He instead uses it as motivation for this fight, which he has hinted might be his last ever as a middleweight. A win over Taylor – to whom Bernard refers as “the last remaining middleweight worth fighting” – may lead to one last shot at a light heavyweight win. Hopkins plans on challenging light heavyweight kingpin Antonio Tarver in a superfight that should carry him into retirement. His forty-first birthday comes in January, 2006, and Bernard made a promise to his mother a long time ago that he would not fight past the age of forty.
Hopkins has kept his promises for seventeen years, so why should we expect him to start breaking them now? That would be like waiting around for Bernard to start growing old.