“Boxing is a way of life. But the real thing, the thing that sends it right through you is the moment two strange men seek each other out in that ring. They come together and find out who will succeed and who will fail.” – Floyd Patterson, Former World Heavyweight Champion
Bernard Hopkins made it clear as he spoke to a national Canadian television audience that he absolutely believes he must win his rematch with champion Jermain Taylor by a knockout. “There is no doubt… I must take him out!” His eyes sunken and blackened with what appeared to be fatigue, Hopkins gave the impression of a man bundled inside the kinetic energy of frustration fed by irritation. By comparison Jermain Taylor looked invigorated and youthfully energized, his eyes shifting as if to see the completed vision just beyond viewing, his near future which he trusts will bring him an ultimate victory over the strident figure of the ex-champion Hopkins.
“I’m a lot less nervous than I was, you know, the first time going around. Now it’s a different kind of nervous anyway this kind of nerve. I want to go in here and I want to look good. I want to – I want to make sure all my punches land. I want to make sure every combination I throw hits him,” Taylor admits with assurance.
“I must execute… that’s the key difference… this time I must finish the job; I must execute,” was Hopkins counter. Hopkins’ body slightly lifts out of his seat as he says the word “execute.” Staying in the intensity of the committed moment, that’s what Hopkins has been doing in the run-up to their middleweight rematch showdown. Keeping on message, the verbal reiteration of bringing a definitive ending to brief reign of Jermain Taylor and showing that justice shall be served has kept Hopkins, almost via a hypnotic sense of certitude, grounded within a resolution of purposefulness.
The ex-champion looked almost burdened by the compulsion he bares, the hunger for revenge and the need to again be the middleweight champion. No doubt we are letting literary license and imagery run too far a field; of course, Hopkins encourages the use of descriptors and metaphors and indulgent symbolism himself. He’s made his late career fame out of such self-stylization. He often invokes phrases like “the American Dream” and “the people’s champion” and “I’m street, he’s country” to put himself forward as an iconic figure in his sporting time. We can let pop cultural mediation decide.
One thing we do know is that Hopkins has always been able to channel what we might call negativity and harness it for the purposes of self-interested intention. That’s why he’s been so careful to explain to boxing writers and other journalists how he has always reacted to facing up to rematches. Familiarity with the subject has, in Hopkins’ case, always provided him with ammunition and confidence to better him, to assert his dominating characteristics. Taylor remains unconvinced, almost indifferent to what Hopkins says about their rematch. As in the quote by Patterson above, Taylor seems that he’s already found out what he needed to know about Bernard Hopkins. Having engaged Hopkins, having encountered the man and the myth, Taylor stripped away his sense of unknowing, the inevitable doubt that manifests itself as apprehension.
“He put no fear in my heart,” the champion Taylor tells boxing fans. “All of boxing want to see a fight, a real fight and that’s exactly what I am going to give them… I’ll be a lot more relaxed in the ring.”
Taylor has met Hopkins at ring center; he’s mixed it up with Hopkins and in so doing has now reduced “The Executioner” to “just another fighter” whom he intends to defeat. The challenge of character and facing the unknown that Patterson referred to has already been encountered by Taylor. And in the days leading up to the fight Taylor has looked a man who doesn’t have to indulge in the nervous energy of doubt. That’s a transformation of major significance as he readies to fight Hopkins again. What Hopkins has been trying to seed in the mind of the champion is the notion of doubt as a portent to inadequacy. If Hopkins can internalize the battle, make it a contest of image projection and applied psychology, he believes he can dilute the champion’s fortifying reserves of emotional energy reserves, that natural bounty of the young he can take away that which separates them by the simple fact of chronology. There’s a lesson in how Marvin Hagler made Thomas Hearns wear himself down emotionally in the weeks and day leading up to their classic middleweight showdown.
How do we consider then the irony that it was Hopkins who’s looked slightly frayed this week? Taylor puts it clearly, “I’m the champion now; he’s got all the stuff in his head because I have all the belts now.” It’s an interesting notion of transference. For months Hopkins has denied the validity of the middleweight belts and that Taylor usurpation of them only proves how vacuous his standing is. But the new middleweight champion stands his ground then changes the course of the preflight war of words by saying, “I’m going to have to work every round and now I know that… I feel like Bernard has no power, he has no speed. He’s just looking for a way out. And I’m going to give it to him!”
So we must infer that Taylor has been listening, at least to some of Hopkins’ ranting rhetoric about being denied his just due, victimized for being a career long critic of “the system” as he calls it in Oliver Stone terms. But Taylor listens to bantering Bernard and hears rationalization and excuses. Where is the calmed assurance of knowing, the deep unspoken belief in the obvious? Probably, the champion is applying traits he fancies he would show were he in Hopkins’ situation. Still, when the champion says he believes that Hopkins, warrior extraordinaire and divisional menace is “looking for a way out” we cannot help but take notice.
Does Taylor really believe that with the right amount of applied pressure it will be the bully in Bernard that will come to the surface and not the avenging spirit of Philadelphia maulers past? No Mas! No Mas? Astoundingly that one very contentious line of quote passed earlier this week – until now – almost innocuously, not so much as raising a comparison to Duran and Leonard. Was it just a passing phrase, an exaggeration on the part of a fighter feeling the movement toward the absolute prime of his career? If the truth can be ascertained, it appears that Taylor’s self-belief is more deeply founded, his confidence more essentially grounded in the total belief he’s now the force in the middleweight division. Naturally enough Hopkins radiates his own sense of missionary conviction, though there’s a strained willfulness where once there was brazen certitude. Are we splitting semantic hairs merely for the sake of doing so or have we defined variance, the generational cleaving from one dominating persona to the next figure of the middleweight high command?
We restate to make our case transparent. Championship boxing has been Bernard Hopkins’ life as it is becoming Jermain Taylor’s way of life. How essential the mantle and recognition of being a world champion is to both fighters. Between them remains only the issue of their personal vanquishing of the other, the figure in the mirror, haunting them, shadowing them. Since his July 16th loss to Taylor, Hopkins has effectively denied the factual basis which has rendered him and labeled him a former world champion. Each day “The Executioner” lives out the personal conviction envisioning him bringing himself back to ‘his’ championship, though stating all the while – as if by common report – his status as “the People’s Champion”; Bernard will always be Bernard.
The former heir apparent and now middleweight champion Taylor has done his best to embody the championship, his final stewardship, of course, still all for the making. Rhetorically unsophisticated, shy by natural temperament and as well mannered as a diplomat, Taylor’s public face has matured over the four and a half months since his title win. Speaking with something like reticent assertiveness – charmingly contradictory – Taylor declares his intention to “leave no doubts this time” and effectively silence Hopkins on the matter of their rivalry for good. He’s not about symbolism or self-aggrandizement or the insulting invective, not this middleweight champion. He’s never even thought about an all-time middleweight dream opponent for himself; he’s just dealing with his own near future, the responsibilities he feels to his loved ones, his fans and his sense of himself as a champion. Jermain Taylor has his feet on the ground; he dug in, ready to rumble, intent on laying some serious heat on the old man he once had nothing but respect for.
But you cannot engage, let alone beat, Bernard Hopkins without throwing out the rule book, getting down to the basics and taking it to him, right where he lives. That’s what it means to fight Bernard Hopkins. For all the disciplined applications of technique necessary to match up with Battling Bernard, you have to fight it out. In the end, the man that beats Hopkins, the guy that banishes Hopkins from the middleweight thrown for good will have to subdue and destroy him as a predatory force, a relentless survivor of all-out championship fighting. There’s nothing neat and analytical to be done with Hopkins raging at you; even as he boxes, he’ll find moments to hold and hit and go low and butt and forearm and generally break the rhythm and eventually the mind and heart of the man who dares to better him.
In the end, victory for Taylor can only be about vanquishing, winning about annihilating, because masterful threats of mere excellence Hopkins counters with ease, eats it for lunch. Just how basic can Taylor get? If Hopkins is ‘street’ then Taylor will have to leave him for lost, deep in the woods.