It was a seemingly innocuous question about musical preferences, but with Bernard “The Alien” Hopkins, every question he asks or answers in response to someone else’s question probably has a hidden meaning.
“What’s your favorite rock band?” he inquired in the most recent of the several hundred conversations we’ve had over the 27 years we’ve known each other.
“The Rolling Stones, I guess,” I replied, after momentarily weighing the merits of Mick and Keith against those of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
“Well, I’m the Rolling Stones of boxing,” said Hopkins, the former middleweight and light heavyweight champion who turns 51 on Jan. 15 but is not quite ready to exit stage right. “How many people would want to see the Rolling Stones in concert one more time before they shut it down?
“HBO holds an option on me to do one more fight. I didn’t get a `Dear John’ letter after the one with Sergey (Kovalev). That tells me they want to showcase Bernard Hopkins again, in his farewell fight. And it is going to be big. It’s going to be a real event, a celebration.”
If all goes according to plan – and, in boxing, that is always an iffy proposition – Hopkins’ departure from the ring, as least as an active boxer, will be a challenge of WBO super middleweight champion Arthur Abraham (43-4, 29 KOs) in late January, and probably somewhere in Abraham’s home country of Germany. If he can pull this off, and win, it would be another milestone in a Hall of Fame career for Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs), who moved up from middleweight to light heavyweight without a stopover in the 168-pound weight class.
“I want it (his last fight) to be at 168, the division I skipped over,” Hopkins explained. “The idea of becoming a champion in three divisions excites me. And fighting me is good for Abraham, too. He sees this as a chance to boost his own legacy, and what’s wrong with that?
“I have a very important meeting next week in New York City with Ken Hershman (president of HBO Sports) and Peter Nelson (vice president of programming for the premium-cable giant) when I go there for the `Triple G’ (Gennady Golovkin) fight. We’re going to hash out what needs to be hashed out and get it done.”
There are those – hey, you know who you are – who were ready to stick a fork in Hopkins and declare him done after his most recent attempt to add another layer to his legend, last Nov. 8 in a light heavyweight unification showdown with Sergey Kovalev in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. Kovalev knocked Hopkins down in the first round and dominated throughout in winning a one-sided unanimous decision, but neither did B-Hop embarrass himself. At 49, the seemingly ageless wonder from Philadelphia had gone the distance with maybe the most devastating puncher in the light heavyweight division since Michael Moorer still could make 175, a Russian wrecking machine who had won 13 of his previous 14 bouts by knockout or TKO (there was one technical draw in there) and has since starched two more opponents. It says much about Hopkins’ unflinching belief in himself, and his willingness to keep testing himself at the highest levels, that he even considered swapping shots with the likes of Kovalev.
“I took the Sergey fight because I thought I could win,” Hopkins said. “He proved me wrong. But that’s the kind of guy I am, and will continue to be.”
Not wanting to take his leave on such a note, Hopkins figured he’d go after a super middle belt, making the procurement of such his swan song. For a time he thought he had something cooking with IBF champ James DeGale of England, but that didn’t work out. DeGale (21-1, 14 KOs) instead will defend his title against former IBF super middle champ Lucian Bute (32-2, 25 KOs) on Nov. 28 in Quebec City, a fight which will be televised by Showtime.
“You know how it goes,” Hopkins said of the failed negotiations with DeGale. “When people drop my name, they know I’m going to respond. And then things change quick when you call their bluff.”
It is Hopkins’ belief – well, at least his hope – that the Abraham camp is more intent on reaching a binding accord. If Hopkins must board a plane and go to Deutschland, where the 35-year-old Abraham, who was born in Armenia, moved to Germany when he was 15 and eventually become a naturalized citizen, is something of a national hero, he’s amenable to surrendering home-country advantage.
“Whatever makes sense,” he said of the selection of a venue. “I don’t mind eating at somebody else’s table if they give me enough food to satisfy me and it’s fair. I can go to Germany, no problem. It makes me even more motivated to beat a guy on his own turf.”
Hopkins has done the retirement cha-cha before. His unanimous-decision dethronement, as a 3-1 underdog, of IBO light heavyweight ruler Antonio Tarver on June 10, 2006, was supposed to be his finale. He was 41 then, a year past the deadline his mom, Shirley, had set for her son to walk away from his brutal sport. HBO executives even threw him a party to celebrate the occasion. But, 13 months later, Hopkins was back at his old stand and scoring another points nod over the crafty Winky Wright.
“I’m glad I came back,” he said. “Mama Shirley (now deceased) blessed me to go ahead and get 10 more years. I didn’t want to break my promise, but I had to satisfy myself. Can you imagine all that would have been missed if I really had quit at 40 or 41?
“Mama Shirley has been looking out for me these last 10 years, man. But now it’s time (to step away), or almost time. I’m ready. Age is age. This will be the last one, for sure. I know I’m not 35 or even 40 anymore. But I’m not like your normal 50-year-old, either.”
The trick is whether Hopkins, who treats his body as a sacred shrine and has never had a problem keeping his physique lean and chiseled, can get down to 168 without sacrificing strength and stamina. He’s convinced it won’t be a problem.
“I have to go to work, but then I always do in training,” he said. “I’d go down to Miami Beach, where I haven’t trained in years. I’m already near the light heavyweight limit. At 168, I’ll be as sharp and quick as I need to be.
“I was never the biggest light heavyweight anyway. I don’t have that kind of frame. My metabolism works different because of my clean lifestyle and my genetics. If I got to scratch and dig to take off another pound or two, it won’t take that much, if anything, out of me.
“The most I ever got up to since I’ve been boxing, not doing nothin’ for two or three weeks, probably was around 185. I might have been 190 after I got out of Graterford (a Pennsylvania prison), stopped eating that prison food and blowed up on starches. But then I started disciplining myself. The knowledge I have now, I didn’t have then.”
Regardless of what happens against Abraham, or even if nothing happens, Hopkins won’t regard the end of his long run as a fighter to be, well, the end of him as a person of substance. He says he is “at halftime” of his life, which must mean he expects to live to 100 or more. And however many years he has left, he does not intend to waste them staying home and reminiscing about past glories.
“I got a lot of things going on, with Golden Boy (his promotional company, with which he is an executive), with color commentating,” Hopkins noted. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, so buckle up.”