Training for his fights was his life, defending his IBF middleweight championship his vocation. His mature mission in life was to prove himself to the world, by recasting his body, regimentally disciplining his mind, incrementally mastering his ring technique, all to dominate his peers, intimidate the brave, befuddle the talented and thus to cash in on his version of the American Dream of individual redemption honed to stamp his pugilistic exceptionalism, his trademark and legacy. Continually frustrated was Bernard Hopkins in the summer of 1997; he stewed in Philadelphia trying to learn the rudiments of self-management all the while burning to unify the three middleweight championships. “The Executioner” felt that slick and lightening-quick though WBA champion William Joppy was, and awkward and consistent with the right jab though WBC titleholder Keith Holmes was, neither man was at his level. How could Hopkins get through to Don King’s men? Public challenges went unheeded. What leverage could Hopkins exert to coerce a middleweight unification, especially when he would not become a kept man in King’s stable?
Perhaps, waiting for the laws of inevitability would have to do. The pattering voice of veteran trainer Bouie Fisher hummed in his ear, challenging the ex-con, ex-light-heavyweight to bring all the elements of body, mind and heart down to their base elements of ultra-readiness and maximum adaptability. Somehow they would force the issue, find the right cord of humiliation or challenge. Hopkins decided all he could do was pursue his own agenda, make his money, learn the business of doing business and keep winning. Time itself might be unyielding, but if a man were to keep winning, keep putting him nearer the nexus of probability, someday, sometime, all relevant things would converge.
Teaming up with promoter Joe Goossen and coming off his slick styled win over John David Jackson, Hopkins and Goossen managed to get air time for his next title defense against the undefeated and stoically menacing Glen Johnson. Still, in essence, Hopkins saw himself as a lone wolf, a graduate of personal self-immolation and negativity who – having found his passion in life – was driving himself toward greatness on his own terms.
Beyond trainer Bouie Fisher and an inside coterie of behind the scenes associates, Hopkins trusted no one in boxing. He learned to conditionally partner with promoters, learning what he could about the business of boxing, intent upon dealing his own futures some day in the not too distant future, perhaps in the new century looming. But in the summer of 1997 he knew taking a fight on CBS, for inconsequential money, was a bitter pill worth swallowing, since he could showcase his skills and personality to a nationwide audience in the US. At 32, Hopkins felt he had just arrived at his prime fighting years, at the very summit of his technical ability, physical strength and mental readiness. If he was ever to reach the level of a Roy Jones Jr. he intuitively understood he had to start making his mark ASAP; only by keeping to the endless rigors of training would he fashion an ever ready solitude, an at source essence of championship depth.
“I am more than ready; there’s no question I am the top middleweight out there. If Joppy and Holmes think they can face up to me, then let’s do it, let’s get down to business and make it happen. What are they afraid of? They got Don King to protect them… I know I can take them; thing is they know it too.”
Always ready to prove the distinctiveness of his middleweight reign, Hopkins went after undefeated challenger Glen Johnson, 32-0 (22), at the Fantasy Springs Casino, Indio, California. Just below at welterweight, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Ike Quartey battled on HBO, while Joe Calzaghe, Roy Jones, Dariusz Michalczewski and James Toney above him all fought on greater stages, enriching their bank accounts and international reputations. Methodically, in workmanlike fashion, “The Executioner” was extinguishing the viable rivals in ‘his’ division. Hopkins hoped to bleed the division dry of top contenders and force a box-off of champions. But it was Hopkins the independent agent – and a confrontational one at that – who openly challenged the conventions of boxing’s conventional model of the management-promotion-fighter interrelationship that had alienated him from the fast-tracking to stardom within championship boxing.
In keeping with his character, Hopkins was fighting mad, his patience worn thin at having been overlooked, circumvented and kept out of the pay-per-view loop. In his corner, going through his final checklist with Fisher, Hopkins glared across the ring at his challenger Glen Johnson. An air of imperious defiance cloaked the IBF champion. At the bell Hopkins sprang out of his corner with everything to prove to the fans and everyone who was anyone in boxing circles.
The champion launched a sucker right hand to open the action. He wanted Johnson – and the almost intrusively close gamblers crowd leered at them – to know he really was as mean and defiantly desperate as reputed. The small dimensions of the ring gave Johnson nowhere to hide, his defensive alertness not spontaneous enough to cover or parry the torrent of combination hitting coming from a champion on a mission. The pattern of the fight was set in the first minute of the first round. Though there would be variations on his dominating theme, Hopkins worked the left lead and right cross, stuffed in left hooks to the body and generally worked at a tempo he sensed, correctly, that was going to strain, and eventually drain, the very fit to skirmish Johnson.
Live on CBS’s national feed, Hopkins wanted to show the entire range of his technique, the menace of his manhood and the undeniably daunting fitness he could bring to his championship defenses. Opening up and producing a hail of combinations to the head and body, Hopkins forced Johnson to fight defensively, even as the resident of Miami tried to take the initiative. The champion produced reflex counters and his signature left hook either to the head or body with absolute precision. Though Johnson’s trainer Pat Burns implored his fighter to match up more on the exchanges, the futility of such council was made crystal clear in the second round when Hopkins unleashed a savaging fifteen punch combination. Hopkins threw jabs with right hands in behind and hooks angled to the body in clusters punctuated by inside uppercuts that made Johnson look statuesque at times. And this pattern happened round after round. So confident of his punching stamina was Hopkins that he did not feel the need to preen or box capriciously; no amusements or bluster were necessary.
The sheer tenacity and concentration of the champion’s applied mastery was spellbinding. Blow by blow, be they nanosecond tactical assaults, computationally primed or instantaneously fired as meaningful scattershot, Hopkins leveled punishment with near impunity. The best Johnson could do was to attempt to target the body of Hopkins; the price he paid for his efforts was to absorb wave after wave of head blows. Hopkins didn’t need to make openings; he was finding the fissures in Johnson’s high guard, alternating his attack instantaneously up and down, down and up. Hopkins boxed with savagery and clinical acumen, those terms in no way contradictory, as Hopkins surged to inflict a raw beating upon the gallant Jamaican.
Longtime boxing observers were interested to see that against Johnson, in the full stream of total concentration, Bernard Hopkins didn’t feel the need or the impulse to resort to holding or fouling or any of the marginal tactics he’d been accused of employing in the proceeding years. Even after being decked by a flagrantly low left hook to the cup by Johnson, Hopkins’ concentration on technical repetition held. There was also a surgical efficiency especially to his unorthodox combinations: in a one minute span in the tenth round – the next to last round – Hopkins threw and landed, a classic one-two, a right cross lead, followed by a right cross lead-left jab, a left hook-right hook, and a left jab lead, only to finish with a right hook-left jab-right to the body, followed by a left hook combination. His versatility defined his offensive flourishes as certainly as his ability to set and collapse defensive distance into attack routes.
Then curiously at the moment of Hopkins’ total ascendancy he choose to turn, circle away from a puffy eyed and battered Johnson, jabbing and back-peddle just to engineer a mock defensiveness, right as the brave-to-a-fault Glen Johnson was ready to be stopped. If it were anyone but Hopkins, compassionate consideration might have been suspected. So the one-sided contest went briefly onward, Hopkins picking, poking, punishing until the curiously diffident referee Pat Russell had had his fill.
Those who had born witness to Hopkins’ performance knew they had witnessed something special. Such was the completeness of Bernard Hopkins’ victory, the measured manner and definitive method produced a signature victory, a small masterpiece beyond what he had ever achieved as a professional fighter. Those who saw the fight knew that everything was on display, that Hopkins’ range and prowess was formidable, no matter the level of opposition. He’d assiduously and viciously proven he was a towering talent, more than just a guy with one of the middleweight belts.
And he’d proven his larger point. He, Bernard Hopkins, truly was a fighter in need of a serious challenge, something against which his range and rage could be tested. What the man from Philadelphia needed was a big name. Desperately he called out to the rest of his generation to give him his chance to prove himself on the big stage for the kind of money and glory he’d been dreaming about interminably, one aching day after another.
In the summer of 1997, Bernard Hopkins, IBF middleweight champion, tried every day to get over the empty feeling that all his victories were leaving with him. He knew he was more than ready and that there was no man anywhere near his weight he could not take to the limit or take apart. Unfortunately, for the rest of the century, his off off-Broadway brilliance couldn’t push past Tyson’s bite, Holyfield’s heroism, De La Hoya’s glamour or Roy Jones’ cosmic singularity.
Of course, waiting and winning, as we know, did pay off for Mr. Hopkins and in New York or all places. For a long, long time, it seemed Bernard Hopkins, the physical specimen, the fighter, the primed punisher never left that summer of 1997.