Three months ago, Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins raised his gnarled hand to fight the most dangerous light heavyweight on the planet. Many wondered why. Those who did so aloud found themselves rebuked by a serious man: “Have you been paying attention to my career?” I have. His career is a study in bootstrap pride and star-flung ambitions. One of his ambitions is to surpass the achievements of the Ursa Major of geriatric pugilists, Archie Moore.
Twenty years ago he was a workman toiling in the long shadows of Roy Jones Jr. and James Toney. Few saw him for who and what he was. The truth of him was obscured by more than an executioner’s hood or an alien mask. What is the truth of him? Ask him and you’ll be in for mind-bending misdirection. He knows better than you that words don’t matter. The answer has been unveiled, gradually, since he lost the middleweight crown at the ripe old age of forty. It’s in a remarkable campaign that saw him seize the light heavyweight crown at age forty-six, lose it at forty-seven, and spend the last seventeen months spanking top-ranked contenders twenty years his junior. But it’s his decision to face Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev two months before turning fifty that would make Moore tip his top hat.
“Alien vs. Krusher” was televised live from Atlantic City on HBO Saturday night. I wasn’t about to watch it from the couch. I put on a suit and boarded an Amtrak train at Boston.
The fellow traveler I shared a space with was too riveted to an iPad to acknowledge my greeting. He was watching a college football game, drinking Bloody Marys like my Camaro drinks gasoline, and cheering at turnovers with increasing bravura. Once, glancing up from Liebling’s essays, I found him in a fighter’s pose -his right fist cocked as if. He looked closer to fifty than me, but probably knew not a whit about Bernard Hopkins and what he was risking and reaching for that very day.
My seat faced backwards. For a sentimental sort who prefers books to iPads, this gives the unwelcome feeling of being pulled kicking and screaming into the future like a reluctant astronaut. I looked out the window at the things receding behind us. At Central Falls, Rhode Island a prison appeared, sprawled behind fences and great concentric circles of barbed wire. Hopkins history. The future fighter was convicted of armed robbery when he was seventeen and his name became a number. Inmate #Y4145 spent five years at Pennsylvania’s Graterford Prison thinking about life and all that comes with it. Archie Moore also did time after stealing seven dollars from a street car. Both counted those lost years as a turning point. Both found an older mentor inside, a necessary man who showed them the ropes and blessed the boxing ring and their place in it. “It was then that I made up my mind,” Moore said. “There were two ways to go, you understand, and only two.” One was surrender and single-file between cinderblocks. The other was hope and what Moore called “the glass mountain.” Hopkins knows what that is. Many who came out of big-city housing projects will tell you it’s the black man’s experience -two steps up to slide four steps down, scratching and clawing in a desperate effort “to touch that peak with outstretched fingertips.”
Moore and Hopkins made vows to climb.
It took years, but they proved their mettle as men and champions. And they wouldn’t let the formative past recede out of reach. They made it a point to visit reform schools and penitentiaries to place a strong hand on the shoulders of outcasts. They brought hope. In the early 1990s, Hopkins actually held a training camp at Graterford. “I’ve seen how Bernard inspires the inmates,” a promoter said. “I’ve seen their eyes light up. After sparring, he’ll sit down and talk to them for hours.”
I had a five-hour train ride to think about the fight and all that comes with it. Images strangely fitting flashed by the window; at times like archetypes, at times like credits in a movie trailer. Military trucks and other objets d’guerre at ease in Pawtucket and rubble strewn along the tracks in Providence called to mind the Russian puncher. Antique tractors of no use to anyone anymore, half-sunk in the ground. Somewhere near New Haven I saw cars piled like metal corpses in a dirt morgue, tires stripped, hoods open-mouthed. Only the graffiti had vitality. Crossing into New York City brought plenty -of graffiti, not vitality. Some of the tags took on a power of suggestion that a subtle-minded theorist like Hopkins would not miss: “Solo” “Shock” “Bard” “Stoic” “Distort” “Duzzit” “Ready”. One was not so subtle. Toward the end of a sun-splashed tunnel, twenty-feet of sharp angles and pastel green went racing by that read “Alien Intelligence.”
It got my hopes up.
In 1952, A.J. Liebling boarded this train at Penn Station when he covered Jersey Joe Walcott’s world title defense against Rocky Marciano in Philadelphia. Across the aisle from him was a contingent of Brocktonians laying 5 to 1 odds on their hero. “They might have been either union officials or downtown businessmen,” he observed. They were on the train with me, sixty-two years later, only the subject was less stirring than a championship bout and less historic than Hopkins’ battle against two destroyers in Time and Kovalev. “The Eagles lose their quarterback. The Giants can’t get out of their own way,” said one. “They’re supposed to have this lightning quick offense and they’re fumbling on their own line!” said another. I yawned.
At 4:10pm, I disembarked with Liebling’s book where Liebling did at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Before boarding the New Jersey Transit to Atlantic City, I scanned the concourse for some tribute to Hopkins, a statue maybe. I found one, though it was a memorial to other warriors from a greater war. “Angel of the Resurrection” by Walker Hancock features a forty-foot bronze Archangel holding up a fallen soldier. It was dedicated in August 1952. Liebling waddled past it only a month later on his way to the Municipal Stadium where he would witness “old man Walcott” collapse at Marciano’s feet. In September of 1955, he would witness the Ole’ Mongoose himself in the same undignified position. Both fell and could not get up.
I saw Youth deck Age yet again when Kovelev slung a right hand like an iron ball on a chain. It landed, literally and figuratively, on the temple of the Philadelphian.
But the Philadelphian got up.
Kovalev’s tendency to sling first and think later was tempered by a masterful strategy. He began with a statement of power to keep Hopkins at bay. It worked. After Hopkins was decked, he adjusted his distance from the perimeter (only a half-step away from Kovalev’s chin) to just off the perimeter (a full step outside Kovalev’s reach). This adjustment was made early and told the story of the fight.
By round five, Nazim Richardson knew what was happening. He saw very human impulses of self-preservation. “You’re not trusting your weapons,” he told Hopkins in the corner. “Relax, get inside, and smother.” But Hopkins could not relax and had no inclination for close encounters of that kind. Kovalev only had to feint to send thirty years of drills into complete disarray. Jabs likewise forced the thinking veteran to think again while a debilitating body attack depleted his already suspect energy reserves. What had been well-timed invasions against lesser opponents became infrequent forays against Kovalev. He seemed content to hover.
Hopkins noted Kovalev’s strategy of stepping out of range after landing his punches, though there was more to it. When Kovalev wasn’t stepping back, he was finishing his combinations with a left hook or a jab. It’s called “finishing on your left” and Marciano’s trainer recommended it because it naturally returns the conventional fighter to the ready position. It does something else too; a left ‘going away’ is a surprise to opponents. A big right at the end of a combination registers as an exclamation point, a signal that the worst is over, and most fighters will follow it with their own attack. They don’t expect a left to pop them on the nose. Not even Hopkins could figure it out.
Plan B from Outer Space
Hopkins was forced to reconfigure his whole motherboard. As winning became more and more remote, his objective was reduced and he found new answers to new questions. He would do what neither Walcott nor Moore could do against Marciano. He would take him the distance. Kovalev, who had yet to stand around in his own sweat after twelve or even ten rounds waiting for judges’ scorecards to be read, would have to tonight. Hopkins switched into defensive overdrive and displayed a vast array of old ring foils to find an advantage. In the third round he landed a left hook to the body and at the same time swung his right foot behind Kovalev’s front foot, jammed his forearm under Kovalev’s armpit, and pushed him down. Then he raised his hands in hopes that the referee would take the cue and start a count. It was an underhanded version of the Fitzsimmons Shift, which is over a century old.
In the eighth round, Hopkins was hurt by a right hand. He sagged and stumbled like a septuagenarian in a stairwell-and what does he do? He does what he did in the first round when he got knocked down-he glances down at the canvas. It was a ploy to stunt Kovelev’s adrenalin-fueled rush with a suggestion that perhaps, just perhaps, he he’d slipped.
In the tenth round Hopkins surprised everyone. He gritted his dentures and landed a right blast that repeated all the way to the nosebleeds. Kovalev’s leg shuddered and the Russians seated near me jumped up and spilled their vodka. “Rossiya! Ataka!” they hollered as their hero resumed control of the bout.
Bernard Hopkins finished the fight going to toe-to-toe with Time the Destroyer and getting the worst of it. The crowd roared. I saw the glass mountain. I saw an old black man scratching and clawing in a desperate effort to touch that peak with outstretched fingertips.
It was 3:26am Sunday when the New Jersey Transit pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station. Eleven hours earlier, I hadn’t noticed its magnificence as a work of architecture. A coffered ceiling looms a hundred feet overhead and six Corinthian columns stand at the main entrances. The design of the building combines Neoclassicism with Art Deco -old with new.
With two hours to kill before the arrival of my Boston-bound train, I lingered with the low echoes in the main concourse. The chandeliers were dimmed and it was almost deserted. Spectral shoes clacked now and then on marble floors. An off-duty conductor was stretched out on a bench, snoring like three men in a chamber.
I wandered underneath Walker Hancock’s war memorial and was reading the inscription when I sensed a presence over my shoulder. An old man stood there gazing up at the angel and the fallen warrior. I didn’t hear him approach. His skin was the color of good coffee; gray mutton chops graced his face. He was smiling, as if he knew the answers.
And then he was gone.
Resources include Robert Seltzer’s article “‘E xecutioner’ Visits Prison” (Philadelphia Inquirer, 12/3/92); Archie Moore’s “glass mountain” found in his autobiography Any Boy Can: The Archie Moore Storywith Leonard Pearl (Prentice-Hall, 1971); Charley Goldman recommendation to “finish on your left” was found in A.J. Liebling’s The Sweet Science (Viking, 1956). Special thanks to Jason McMann for coming through in a pinch.
Springs Toledo is the author of the newly-released book, The Gods of War: Boxing Essays (Tora,2014,$25).Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for signed copies.