By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
Now that his incredible, 28-year boxing journey is approaching its end, ageless wonder Bernard Hopkins took time to recall some of his most cherished memories with a writer that was there at the beginning. And no, they aren’t necessarily the ones with which his fans are most familiar.
Nearly 12 years after he promised his now-deceased mother, Shirley, that he would quit the ring at 40, and after two previously announced retirements that didn’t stick, B-Hop – who turns 52 on Jan. 15 – absolutely, positively ends his career as an active fighter on Dec. 17 when he takes on another opponent young enough to be his son, 27-year-old light heavyweight contender Joe Smith Jr., at The Forum in Inglewood, Calif., a scheduled 12-rounder that will be televised by HBO. It will be Hopkins’ first bout since he lost a wide unanimous decision in a 175-pound unification matchup with Sergey Kovalev on Nov. 8, 2014. That means Hopkins (who is going back to his original nickname, “The Executioner,” after a test run under the nom de guerre of “The Alien”) not only must overcome a youthful slugger who is coming off an impressive, first-round knockout of former world title challenger Andrzej Fonfara, but a career-long 25-month period of inactivity.
Although Hopkins’ reputation is such that he is slightly more than a 2-to-1 opening-line favorite, at least a few longtime observers of the fight game not only are picking Smith (who is rated No. 2 by the WBC, No. 4 by the WBA and No. 13 by the WBO) to win, but to become the first fighter to knock out one of the craftiest defensive fighters of all time.
And that’s just the way Hopkins wants it. He has made a habit of thwarting the dire predictions of so-called experts who keep waiting for him to succumb to Father Time, the one opponent no fighter can stave off indefinitely.
“Bernard’s kept himself in fantastic shape, as he always has,” said Eric Gomez, president of Golden Boy, Hopkins’ promotional company. “One of the things he told us is he didn’t want this fight to be a circus, that he wanted to fight a real guy, a credible guy. And that’s what Joe Smith (22-1, 18 KOs) is. He’s a big puncher. Dangerous. He fits the profile of what has personified Bernard Hopkins throughout his career. He always wants to fight the best.”
Said Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs), who has been down this path before: “Joe Smith is thinking he’ll be the young lion that beats the old lion. He’s taking a shot at doing something other fighters are reluctant to try. You got to respect that.”
The run-up to Hopkins-Smith is sure to pass over familiar ground: Hopkins’ watershed victories over Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal, as well as the fact he is the oldest fighter ever to win a widely recognized world title. Make no mistake, “The Executioner” easily slides into the role of elocutioner when discussing the most obvious milestones in his up-from-nowhere path to historical relevance. But there are other names and dates he holds just as close to his heart, earlier building blocks of a legacy that needed a foundation to be put down before the walls and roof could go up.
So Hopkins speaks glowingly of the encouragement he received from Rudy Battle, a former referee who is now the Philadelphia-area commissioner with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, and a confidence-building victory over Percy Harris that seems just as big to him now as it did when he was still an unknown ex-con and relative neophyte wondering if he really had the right stuff to climb the steep and slippery ladder of success.
“The great Rudy Battle came up to see me in Dallas (Pennsylvania, site of Graterford State Correctional Facility, in which the young Hopkins was incarcerated for 56 months on a strong-arm robbery conviction),” B-Hop recalled. “I saw him the other day at the 2300 Arena (in South Philadelphia). What I remember him telling me at Graterford is, ‘Stay out of trouble, come home and I know you can make it (as a boxer).’”
Hopkins came home to Philly, all right, but making it in his chosen profession did not happen quickly or easily. He lost his pro debut as a light heavyweight, by four-round majority decision to Clinton Mitchell on Oct. 10, 1988, a setback which so discouraged him that he did not fight again until Feb. 22, 1990, when he scored a four-round unanimous decision over Greg Paige at the Blue Horizon in North Philly. During the interim between the Mitchell and Paige bouts, and even afterward, Hopkins determinedly avoided the pitfalls of the street (crime and drugs) while holding down jobs as a roofer and hotel kitchen worker.
“Four-thirty in the morning me and my co-workers had to meet up when I was doing roofing,” Hopkins said. “You had to start before the sun came up because it was brutal later in the day when you were outside. Later on, I worked in the kitchen at the Penn Tower Hotel, which is not there anymore. People see me now, driving a nice car and wearing nice clothes, and they think it was always that way for me. They have no clue.
“Look, I know everybody has a story. Some stories are more horrific than mine. I understand that. I’m not in a contest about who has the worst story. The grave we all go into is the same size for a rich man or a poor man.”
Hopkins was still fighting off-TV and for short money when he was paired against a Top Rank-affiliated middleweight, Percy Harris, who was 8-0 with six knockouts to the relatively unknown B-Hop’s 5-1 with four KOs. Heading into the fight – on the undercard of a show headlined by the instant-classic matchup of heavyweights Ray Mercer and Bert Cooper at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall — Hopkins admits to harboring doubts as to his ever realizing his dreams of ring stardom.
“I finally had an idea of what might happen in my career when I beat Percy Harris (on a six-round unanimous decision),” Hopkins said of the Aug. 5, 1990, bout few expected him to win. “He thought he got put in with a ringer. He asked me, `Are you sure you’re just 5-1?’”
“Man, winning that fight meant so much to me. I definitely was not the A-side. I was the opponent, the guy who was supposed to lose. But I whipped his ass when no one was paying any attention to me. Then again, I didn’t think of myself as a designated victim. I was young and brash enough to believe I could beat anybody. Beating Percy Harris in the biggest fight I was in to that point was proof that maybe I really could become as good as I thought I was. Who knows? If I had lost that fight, I might have wound up back in the penitentiary. Maybe I would not have even continued to box.”
Before Smith got the gig as the guy in the other corner for Hopkins’ fistic farewell, B-Hop had floated the names of super middleweight champions James DeGale and Arthur Abraham, the idea being that it would be kind of neat to add a 168-pound world title to the ones at 160 (a division-record 20 defenses) and 175 pounds he already had won. But the clear-cut loss to Kovalev made Hopkins a non-title-holder, removing a bargaining chip that might have lured one of the big names in a different weight class to the table.
“I’ve never been someone who was afraid to take chances,” Hopkins said. “How many guys were, and still are, afraid to fight Sergey Kovalev? He beat me, but I finished on my feet against a great champion who pretty much knocks everybody out. I’m one guy he didn’t knock out. Kovalev didn’t lose any street cred because he didn’t take me out. In fact, he might have gained some because he proved he was more than a big puncher. He made adjustments and proved he was a better boxer than some people thought.”
It is that willingness to dive into the deep end of the pool that separates great fighters from talented wannabes who choose to play it safe. Hopkins is not hesitant to point an accusatory finger at those who cherry-pick their opponents to minimize risk.
“Real fighters fight, even when it’s not always in their best interest,” he said. “It’s the puppet masters pulling the strings that keep some great fights from being made. You think some managers are concerned about their fighters’ legacies? You have any idea how often I was told not to fight this guy or that guy because he was too young, too strong, I was sure to lose?
“Have I lost a couple of fights I was advised not to take? Yes. But if you want to be the best, you got to fight the best. You got to run through the fire. Adonis Stevenson (the WBC light heavyweight champion) is what, 37 or 38 years old? (He’s 39). He’s got a belt, but is he going into the Hall of Fame? No, and he doesn’t seem to care. He won’t fight Kovalev and I was 49 when I did.”
Hopkins is not really saying goodbye to boxing; he will continue to serve as a Golden Boy executive and analyst for HBO. But if this really is his last go-round as an active fighter, it comes with the realization that nothing lasts forever, not even the career of someone whose introduction to the pro ranks began in the closing months of the Reagan administration and ends with the Obama administration winding down. In between were the presidencies of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
“In a way, stepping away from this is a little like death,” he said. “Over. Done. Never going to happen again. But you know what? I’m ready to go out with a bang.”