Trainer Switch Adds Intrigue to Hopkins’ Farewell Bout

BERNARD HOPKINS FAREWELL FIGHT — Some fighters change trainers as often as they change their underwear, so when they shuffle the deck it doesn’t seem like that big a deal. But Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins’ unexplained switch from longtime chief second Naazim Richardson to John David Jackson, less than a month before the nearly-52-year-old legend’s Dec. 17 farewell bout against Joe Smith Jr., lends an additional element of mystery to a matchup that would have been highly intriguing in any case.

Hopkins put in the call to Jackson — with whom he has had an off-and-on relationship dating back to the early 1990s when the West Coast-based Jackson was WBA middleweight champion and then living in B-Hop’s hometown of Philadelphia — in the immediate aftermath of Andre Ward’s razor-thin split decision over WBA/IBF/WBO light heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev, who is trained by Jackson, on Nov. 19.

“We came to a decision that Naazim is not capable of fitting in this fight because of his situation, personally,” Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) said during a Wednesday teleconference with the boxing media to hype his HBO-televised swan song at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., against the 28-year-old Smith (22-1, 18 KOs), a day laborer from Long Island, N.Y., who burst into prominence when he knocked out the favored Andrzej Fonfara in one round on June 18.

With those few words, Smith became even more of a bit player in what, fairly or not, already was being cast as a virtual one-man production, with Hopkins again assuming the role of tweaker of Father Time’s nose before beginning the five-year countdown to his slam-dunk, first-year-of-eligibility induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

“Joe Smith Jr. wants to make his name,” B-Hop said when the questions finally drifted away from his surprising shakeup of his corner team. “He’s going to push me to bring my greatness out. You can’t talk your way out of being great. If you do (talk a lot) and you don’t show that you’re great, you will embarrass yourself in front of the world. I don’t like being embarrassed.”

Hopkins clearly doesn’t expect to be embarrassed, not now and or ever when it comes to doing his thing in the ring, even though he hasn’t had a bout that counted since losing all 12 rounds on each judge’s scorecard in a whitewashing against Kovalev on Nov. 8, 2014. That’s 25 months of inactivity, for those of you keeping tabs at home, during which even so singularly accomplished a fighter as Hopkins might have taken on a layer of ring rust or – gasp! – finally let his guard down against the creeping ravages of age.

The late Bouie Fisher, Hopkins’ first trainer and the one of longest standing, was asked if there was a chance Hopkins, then 37, might “grow old overnight” following his most cherished victory, a 12th-round stoppage of Felix Trinidad on Sept. 29, 2001, in Madison Square Garden. Fisher, who was 83 when he died in June 2011 after a 21-month battle with rectal cancer, said it can and does happen in boxing, but wasn’t likely to do so any time soon for Hopkins, whose zealous training regimen and superb physical conditioning enabled him to retain a youthful vigor even as he edged ever closer to middle age.

But that was 15 years ago. A lot can happen in 15 years, or even in seven months, which is the time it took for Fisher, who once proclaimed that “Bernard is like one of my sons,” to have the first of two acrimonious splits with his finest pupil. By the time of the 77th annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner on April 26, 2002, at which Hopkins was to be honored as Fighter of the Year and Fisher as Trainer of the Year, the two no longer were working together.

“People have disagreements,” Hopkins said in explaining the rift. “I talked to this guy who had been married 40 years and got a divorce. I said, `What happened? You’ve been married so long.’ He said, `She just got tired of me and I got tired of her.’ I mean, things happen. Sometimes you have to separate business from friendship.”

Hopkins and Fisher reunited not long afterward, although their relationship was not as tight as it had been. And when they fell out again, Fisher filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Hopkins, alleging that he had been shorted $1.3 million in unpaid training fees for bouts against Oscar De La Hoya, Howard Eastman and Jermain Taylor. Hopkins won the court case, and that warm and fuzzy familial feeling between he and his erstwhile father figure took a nasty turn.

“I don’t know if anybody believes me, but I really do wish him the best,” Fisher said in 2006 after his 18-year run with Hopkins had irrevocably run its course. “But I’ve been kicked around so much in my dealings with Bernard Hopkins, it really doesn’t matter anymore. I just want to recuperate from Bernard Hopkins and let him go about his business.

“All the wrong deeds you do, you pay for. For all the history Bernard has made, one day he’ll see that he wasn’t right about a lot of things.”

Is the apparent ending of Hopkins’ long association with Richardson, who served as his assistant trainer under Fisher before ascending to the top spot, a replay of a situation that’s taken place twice before?

“It was Hopkins’ decision,” said Richardson. “I go back to my business as usual and he calls me when he needs some help. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but with Bernard I’m not surprised. From the time I’ve worked with him, at one point I was the only guy that he hadn’t fired. But these (elite) guys become great by being who they are, so you can’t knock it.”

In addition to Fisher and now Richardson, Hopkins has employed, for terms of varying lengths, Sloan Harrison and the celebrated Freddie Roach as his trainers. He said he has picked up tricks of the trade from all of them, including convicted murderer Michael “Smokey” Wilson, whom he met when both were inmates of Graterford State Correctional Facility in Pennsylvania.

“I’ve taken something from a lot of people,” Hopkins said of his journey from rough-around-the-edges neophyte to master craftsman. “I learned from everybody. I got knowledge from the cradle to the grave. Just because you start off with someone doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with them. Some will die, some will leave. It’s part of life. It don’t necessarily have to be negative. It just has to be what it is.

“I can function under any circumstances. I have proven that. I’ve been here before. I can do a lot of things at one time, and Joe Smith will see that on Dec. 17. He has to train for four, five, six, seven different styles that I might show him. Let’s see if he can handle that.”

Given his remarkable longevity – Hopkins turns 52 on Jan. 15, and a strong case can be made that the long-reigning former middleweight champion (a division-record 20 defenses) is still one of the three or four best light heavyweights in the world – you have to wonder if Hopkins subscribes to the Larry Holmes-forwarded theory that, once a truly special fighter has stored as much as he needs to in his memory bank, a trainer’s input is almost superfluous.

“I think a trainer is very important at the beginning of a fighter’s career,” the former heavyweight champion once stated. “Over time, you don’t really need a trainer. You’ve got to train yourself. And I don’t think anybody can put that in you. You have to have that all by yourself.”

In addition to their long-ago sparring sessions at Champ’s Gym in North Philly, Jackson challenged for Hopkins’ IBF middleweight title on April 19, 1997, losing on a seventh-round TKO in Indio, Calif.  And when Jackson was an assistant trainer under Richardson, Hopkins gave him a shout-out for helping him not only upset the favored Antonio Tarver on June 10, 2006, but for beating the “Magic Man” to a fare-thee-well en route to a one-sided unanimous decision.

“John David Jackson – and I’ve said this many times – is very overlooked,” Hopkins said. “To me, he’s one of top three or four trainers out there. He has the tools to give you the right information. You have to have confidence and trust in your coach. To me, John David Jackson has been representing that to me for many years. It was a perfect transition. We’re comfortable. He trusts me, I trust him. That’s the key.”

Still, Hopkins noted, “Whether it’s John David Jackson or Naazim, I’m going to look great no matter what. I know I can do a lot more than Joe Smith will ever learn in the game of boxing.”

Hopkins’ musical tastes vary, but again his entrance song on Dec. 17 will be Frank Sinatra’s My Way. Now, maybe more than ever, it appears that it is, and always has been, his way or the highway.

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