Bernard Hopkins is a Philadelphia fighter, but has a special history with Washington, D.C. When he announced his upcoming light heavyweight title unification bout with Belbut Shumenov, taking place at the D.C. Armory on Saturday, April 19, Hopkins alluded to his experiences fighting in the District.
“Here in D.C. you're only as good as your last vote,” said Hopkins. “At the end of the day, I've realized that you can be a champion yesterday, but if you dwell on yesterday you will never go forward.”
To be fighting at his level at 49, not focusing on the past is key, but Hopkins has had to take that approach since his first bout in D.C. That was, of course, when he lost a unanimous decision and the vacant IBF Middleweight title to Roy Jones, Jr., at RFK Stadium in May of 1993. Little did Hopkins know that he win that same belt in the D.C. area less than two years later.
After the loss to Jones, Hopkins won his next four bouts, and earned the No. 1 IBF ranking, which enabled him to fight for the open belt. Jones had vacated it to move up to Super Middleweight so Hopkins faced Segundo Mercado for the belt in front of his native crowd in Quito, Ecuador, on December 17, 1994.
The bout did not start well for Hopkins, as he found himself open to Mercado’s uppercuts. In the fifth round, Mercado sent him to the canvas for the first time in his career and then did it again in the seventh round. Hopkins won the later rounds and managed to escape with a draw.
On the undercard, Simon Brown knocked out Frank Newton, which earned him a shot at Baltimore native Vincent Pettway’s IBF Light Middleweight title. The two signed to meet on April 29, 1995, at the USAir Arena in Landover, Md., a D.C. suburb (Pettway won with a sixth-round knockout). A Hopkins/Mercado rematch was also added increase to the interest in the card that would also air on Showtime.
In this bout, Hopkins attacked early, using his right hand to land big punches in the third, fourth and fifth rounds, and avoided Mercado’s uppercuts. In the seventh round, he had Mercado against the ropes when referee Rudy Battle examined the Ecuadoran fighter and stopped the bout.
“I wanted to get him out early,” Hopkins said after the bout. “The right hand was key tonight. Being aggressive was also important.”
Following the win, Hopkins collapsed onto the canvas in relief and celebration. Not only had he finally secured the belt that had eluded for almost two years, he had become the first Philadelphian to win a middleweight title,
“It’ll be twice as nice going [into the ring] and being introduced as the new world middleweight champion, the first from Philadelphia, that’s right, North Philadelphia!” said Hopkins.
After the bout, Hopkins resumed his training regimen and watched his bout with Mercado to look for areas where he could improve. His legendary promoter, the late Butch Lewis, told reporters that he had a special fighter.
“Bernard Hopkins is not only a fine professional boxer, but he knows what it takes to make it in this sport,” he said.
Lewis was prime judge of talent, but it is doubtful that he knew how prophetic his words would be. Hopkins went on to defend the middleweight title a record 20 times (Mercado proceeded to lose seven of his next nine bouts so a rubber match between the two never happened.). He has also won the light heavyweight belt twice and his dominance in the ring in his late 40s may be the greatest age-defying effort in the history of sports.
Whatever the outcome of his bout with Shumenov may be, fans will see a fighter who never stopped improving his game no matter his age or greatness.