Bernard Hopkins – When most boxing fans think of former middleweight and light heavyweight champ Bernard Hopkins, they reflect on how shrewd, tough, smart and adaptable he was in the ring as a fighter. Bernard was great at playing mind games with his opponents, he trained like a Spartan, could adapt to all fighters and their varying styles, and he had a black belt in bending the rules and getting away with it. And when it comes to lasting in the cruelest sport, how many fighters remained relevant past age 40? Yet Hopkins fought at the world class championship level at 50 and still, after 66 pro bouts, has never endured a real shellacking inside the ring. It wasn’t until his last bout against light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, two months shy of turning 50 years old, that he wasn’t really competitive.
Fighting as a middleweight during his prime years, Hopkins is without a doubt an all-time top-10 great based on a head-to-head confrontation on who would beat whom and career accomplishments. In fact based on career accomplishments he’s probably top three being that he held the title for a decade and is one of a handful of middleweights who moved up and won the light heavyweight title.
But that doesn’t come close to telling the Hopkins story.
As a high school junior during the winter of 1982, Bernard Hopkins was sentenced to 18 years in the state penitentiary following his conviction for a strong-arm robbery. As prisoner Y4145 Hopkins turned his life around. During the 56 months he was incarcerated, Hopkins earned his GED and won the national penitentiary middleweight championship three times. In 1988, Hopkins, a model prisoner, was granted parole. On October 11th 1988 in Atlantic City, fighting as a light heavyweight in his pro-debut, Hopkins lost a four round majority decision to Clinton Mitchell. After a 16-month layoff Hopkins returned to the ring 11 pounds lighter fighting as a middleweight under the guidance of respected trainer Bouie Fisher. All this has been well-chronicled, but it’s important to remember.
On January 8th, 1995, legendary middleweight champion Carlos Monzon was killed in a car accident at age 52. On April 29, 1995, Hopkins stopped Segundo Mercado in the seventh round of their rematch to win the IBF middleweight title. Monzon made 14 successful middleweight title defenses, more than any middleweight champion in history. That was until his 14 successful defenses were usurped by Hopkins 20.
On December 17th, one month shy of turning 52, Hopkins will fight 27-year-old light-heavyweight Joe Smith Jr. 22-1 (18) at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Hopkins 55-7-2 (32) has not fought since November 2014 when he was conclusively defeated via unanimous decision by Sergey Kovalev. The storied ring career of Bernard Hopkins is well known but what has often been missed is just how well, I mean really well, Hopkins understood the business side of boxing. When it comes to professional boxers knowing the business of boxing, most think of Floyd Mayweather. However, when it comes to understanding ring combat and how the business of the sport works….Hopkins, who self-managed himself for the most lucrative period of his career, is Mayweather’s father.
And the reason I say that is that when Mayweather turned pro, he had two big things in his favor to give him a running start, things that Hopkins lacked. Floyd was an Olympic medalist at the 1996 games. The games were held in Atlanta and Floyd received a lot of coverage from the American press. Secondly, Mayweather had name recognition. His father fought Sugar Ray Leonard in a high profile bout when Floyd Jr. was only a year old and his uncle Roger Mayweather, who trained him for a majority of his big fights, was an accomplished world champion fighter during the 1980’s. Compare that with Hopkins, an ex-convict starting out with no money or name recognition.
There have been a few fighters who had an idea about how the business of boxing operated, but none took the time to learn it the way that Hopkins did. Hopkins grasped early on that winning inside the ring is what was most important, and that’s four-fold if you don’t have the boxing establishment (promoters, media and, television networks) backing you. He knew that as long as he kept winning fights, promoters, sanctioning bodies and even other fighters could never hold all the leverage over him. He was fully aware that he was always one loss away from being at the mercy of a decentralized system. He learned how much and where the money comes from and how it is divided and that made it much tougher for the “good ‘ol boy network,” as he called it, to bully him, not that it stopped them from trying.
Hopkins achieved everything that a fighter could possibly achieve. He won multiple titles in two divisions, had a 10-year reign as middleweight champ, posted career-defining wins over other great fighters, and he was over 40 years old during some of those bouts. He was versatile and there was no blueprint on how to fight and beat him in the ring. He roughed up elite boxers, took the bullets out of the guns from strong guys and big punchers, and when he needed to, he out-willed and out-worked everybody else. And if that weren’t enough, he is one of the few fighters who earned the biggest purses of his career during his twilight while managing himself.
And to think Bernard Hopkins realized all that without an Olympic medal or corporate money behind him, without looking like the kid next door with a million dollar smile, and fought in a style that usually wasn’t crowd pleasing or fan friendly. In the ring Hopkins didn’t put his opponents away like Thomas Hearns, didn’t dazzle them like Sugar Ray Leonard, and didn’t awe them with his presence, tenacity and snarl like Roberto Duran. He just morphed into whatever it took to beat them. Some nights he boxed, other nights he counter-punched, and on a few occasions he fought like a street fighter with an elite boxer’s acumen. He also took a great punch and it never appeared as if he was really winded or was searching for a way out of a bad spot. In the ring there wasn’t a place he couldn’t go, and he self-managed himself greater than any fighter who has yet lived, especially when you take into account he started out as an ex-con.
Hopkins made a few mistakes along the way, making him like everyone else who ventured into a field where they had to learn while on the job, but his ring accomplishments are remarkable. His career compares favorably with any fighter who ever held a world title, but it was the way Hopkins conducted his career outside the ring that separates him from great fighters of the past who also had longevity.
We’ll never see another fighter the likes of Bernard Hopkins again for as long as we live. How ironic is it that he’s closing out his once-in-a-lifetime career fighting a guy named Joe Smith. Perhaps the most unconventional and unique world champion boxer in history, and he’s calling it a day against a fighter with one of the most common names in the book!
Bernard Hopkins / Frank Lotierzo can be reached at GlovedFist@Gmail.com.