B-HOP’S TEMPORARY TATTOO — When former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins finally lowers the curtain on his incredible 28-year professional boxing career with a farewell fight against Joe Smith Jr. on Saturday night in Inglewood, Calif., much will be said, and rightly so, by the HBO announcing team about his incredible longevity (he turns 52 on Jan. 15), his division-record 20 middleweight title defenses and his signature victories against Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver and Kelly Pavlik.
Likely to go unmentioned is the mini-revolution he and associate Joe Lear helped spark on Sept. 29, 2001, when B-Hop took off his robe moments before the opening bell of his HBO Pay Per View middleweight unification showdown against Puerto Rican knockout artist Felix Trinidad in Madison Square Garden. The temporary tattoo on Hopkins’ back, pitching GoldenPalace.com, an online casino operating out of Costa Rica, instantly became a flashpoint of controversy that, at least for a few minutes, became nearly as much of a story as the masterful performance he would craft en route to stopping the favored Trinidad in the 12th round.
Perhaps surprisingly to Hopkins but maybe not, at least a smidgeon of the post-fight discussion involved that tattoo, which was sweated off by the third round. It might well have been that Hopkins, who has never been shy when it comes to self-promotion, knew exactly how much furor his unprecedented back adornment would cause within the boxing establishment. Then again, he might have agreed to wear it for a reason as simple as the $100,000 he was being paid over and above his purse of $2.7 million. The money was no small consideration to a fighter who, earlier in his middleweight title reign, had grudgingly accepted a couple of paydays for that relatively skimpy amount.
Asked about what his primary motivation was for accepting the deal offered by GoldenPalace.com, which was negotiated by Lear, Hopkins now says that cash and notoriety are commodities that always have gone hand-in-hand in professional sports. If some fighter was going to push the envelope, the brash and irrepressible B-Hop was just the guy to see how much he could get away with.
“It did get a rise out of people, didn’t it?” said Hopkins in recalling the incident that has become something of a footnote to his thick cache of career accomplishments. “I guess (criticism) from some of the higher-ups in boxing was because they couldn’t get any money out of it. So they took steps to stop it, but a lot of people thought it was a pretty smart move on my part.”
How smart was it? Hopkins, who has never been anything but supremely confident in his abilities, bet that $100,000 on himself at 2½-1 odds and walked away with $350,000.
“I feel like the guy who invented the lightbulb,” Hopkins said in May of 2002, three months after he did the temporary tat thing again in a 10th-round TKO of challenger Carl Daniels at the Sovereign Center in Reading, Pa., his first bout after the reputation-boosting conquest of Trinidad. “It was a big night, a big fight, but some people always are going to remember Bernard Hopkins wearing that tattoo on his back. “I’m probably going to be the answer to a trivia question 10 or 15 years from now.
“It was a gamble on my part. If I had lost badly to Trinidad, I probably would have been the biggest (idiot) in boxing. But I was betting on myself, and I’m not afraid to put my money where my mouth is.”
Boxing’s major advertisers, of course, saw GoldenPalace.com as a threat and they hinted at legal action to prohibit other fighters from following Hopkins’ lead. But they didn’t have a leg to stand on, the matter falling under the province of First Amendment protection. That enabled the temporary tattoo era to continue on for another couple of years, until promoters – at the urging of casino-hotels involved in big-time boxing, which understandably didn’t want some online operation siphoning any of their business – began including restrictions in contracts that fighters either had to sign or else. They invariably elected to sign because it was in their best financial interests to do so.
“We went to court about it,” said Marc Ratner, then the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic commission and now the vice president of regulatory affairs for mixed martial arts’ leading brand, Ultimate Fighting Championship. “It was a First Amendment right for boxers to wear those temporary tattoos if they wanted to, but it was a relatively short-lived thing. The money they were getting from the tattoos was kind of an add-on to their purses, but they wouldn’t be getting fights (at casino venues) in any case if they did not agree to those specific clauses in their contracts.”
Although Hopkins invariably is given the credit, or blame as the case might be, for launching the temporary tat era, it might not have happened without the involvement of Lear, whose job at the time was lining up endorsement deals for the not-yet-fully-celebrated middleweight champ. Lear had arranged for four such income-raising tie-ins, all of which involved Hopkins wearing advertisers’ logo patches on his trunks for his epochal clash with Trinidad.
But in the lead-up to that showdown, Hopkins twice threw down the Puerto Rican flag at press conferences meant to hype the event. The companies with which Lear had made verbal arrangements suddenly decided they didn’t need or want Hopkins as their commercial representative.
“I’d been working with Bernard since his first fight with Antwun Echols (in 1999),” Lear said after the temporary tat spit hit the fan. “I got him his first (endorsement) deal before he fought Syd Vanderpool (on May 13, 2000). Later on, I’d get him something for $10,000 here, $20,000 there. Nothing really big, but it all added up.
“Before he fought Trinidad, I had deals with four companies to wear patches on his trunks. Those deals cumulatively came out to a nice number. But when Bernard threw the flag down, those companies withdrew. They thought he was a crazy man, and it’s tough to sell crazy.”
Not that Hopkins was trying to lose money; his plan for success was predicated on rattling Trinidad well before the fight. But while Hopkins succeeded in gaining a mental edge before he stepped into the ring, Lear needed something to compensate for the sponsorships that had dried up outside it. And, well, you know what they say about necessity being the mother of invention.
“My job is to get endorsement deals for Bernard, and I was desperate,” Lear continued. “Anyway, I was in Los Angeles for the Roy Jones fight (vs. Julio Gonzalez) and I saw a college football game on television. All the cheerleaders had, you know, those little temporary tattoos on their cheeks.
“I remember thinking, `What if we get one of those tattoos, a bigger one, and put it on Bernard’s back?’ I recall someone having done something like that before, in England or Germany, so I can’t take credit for the concept. But I figured if people would pay to advertise on ring posts, which nobody really cares about seeing, they’d pay for an ad on the back of a fighter in the largest pay-per-view boxing event of the year.”
Hopkins’ tattoo proved more temporary than the GoldenPalace.com folks might have preferred. Beads of sweat carried away the vegetable-dye lettering by the third round, but the impact the tattoo created in the advertising world was no less significant than the boxing implications of Hopkins’ dramatic stoppage of the undefeated Trinidad.
In short order, temporary tats with more staying power, made with henna – a concoction that includes a henna plant and a dye known as p-phenylenediamine, or PPD – came into vogue, but not without additional controversy. The new and improved temporary tats were banned in the New Jersey communities of Wildwood and North Wildwood because people said the mixture left them with rashes and chemical burns on their skin. But its durability had the tattoos popping up on the backs and shoulder blades of fighters on nearly every television card, creating revenue streams for the athletes that even Lear found astounding.
“I didn’t expect it to last longer than that week,” Lear of his brainstorm, which spread like wildfire after Hopkins had schooled Trinidad . “I feel like the silent prince of boxing. Now, promoters give me the evil eye, but the fighters call me all throughout the day and night, trying to get deals. I’m a friendly guy, but I’ve never been this popular. These fighters all want the extra money.”
But the calls stopped when revised contracts, expressly forbidding temporary tats, became standard.
There is more money than ever pouring into sports, the revenue streams of just a decade or so ago having swollen to raging floods. The NBA, which banned the appearance of “corporate insignia” on players’ uniforms and bodies in 2002, except on shoes and league-supplied gear, became the first of the United States’ four major professional sports leagues to allow ads on jerseys, beginning in the 2017-18 season. The ad space will be sold as part of a three-year pilot program and will take the form of a 2.5-inch square patch that is tailored to a sponsor’s logo and will appear on the left shoulder of players’ uniforms.
“Jersey sponsorships provide deeper engagement with partners looking to build a unique association with our teams and the additional investment will help grow the game in exciting new ways,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in announcing an “experiment” that is sure to become permanent if the projected goal of an additional $100 million in revenue to the league is reached, which seems a sure thing. “We’re always thinking about innovative ways the NBA can remain competitive in a global marketplace.”
The NBA pilot program could well signal a stampede by other U.S. sports leagues to further add to their bottom lines. In 2010, Sports Illustrated reported that 20 English Premier League soccer teams earned $155 million by selling ad space on their jerseys for a single season. A year later, New York-based Horizon Media estimated that America’s big four sports leagues were missing out on $370 million a year by not following suit.
Major League Soccer predated the NBA by selling ads – really large ones – on the front of teams’ jerseys in the spring of 2007, a practice that has continued. Similarly prominent ads have been standard issue on WNBA jerseys since 2011, and NASCAR is awash in ads, covering virtually every inch of the cars and drivers’ helmets and fire-retardant outfits. Stadium naming rights don’t come cheap (AT&T pays $19 million to have its name attached to the Dallas Cowboys’ home field) and identifying marks of sports-apparel companies (Nike, adidas, Reebok, Under Armour) appear on so many uniforms, from kiddie leagues to the big time, that they have become ubiquitous.
Boxing also is finding a way to turn a profit from ad placements, if not to the same extent of the major team sports. For the highest-grossing prizefight of all time, the May 2, 2015, pairing of welterweight superstars Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand, there was a pitched battle between Tecate and Corona to become the “official” beer of the event. Tecate, which has long been associated with Pacquiao, won out with a winning bid of $5.6 million to $5.2 million for Corona. The fight was contested with a large Tecate logo painted on the ring, and signage for the company was everywhere throughout the MGM Grand.
“It was a big auction,” Todd duBoef, president of Top Rank, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We had to see who would come through with the biggest deal, and Tecate had Corona throw in the towel.” Added Scott Becher, chief integration officer at Zimmerman Advertisers: “Tecate vs. Corona was the greatest boxing undercard of all time, and Tecate scored a knockout.”
But hefty endorsement opportunities for fighters, even elite ones, remain relatively few and far between. Although ads can and do appear on trunks – one of the longer-lasting and more lucrative such partnerships involved Mexican legend Julio Cesar Chavez and Maseca, a Mexican flour manufacturing company that targeted Hispanic supermarkets in the U.S. as well as Central and South America – it is not the same as a LeBron James or Peyton Manning selling their images to the highest bidders. Besides, boxers don’t wear jerseys that can be affixed with paid-for logos.
Lear noted that no-chance British heavyweight Julius Francis accepted an offer of $50,000 from a London newspaper (The Mirror) to sell advertising space on the soles of his shoes when he fought Mike Tyson in Manchester, England, on Jan. 29, 2000. Francis got knocked down six times before being stopped in two rounds, his feet flopping wildly in the air whenever he crashed to the canvas, so you can say the paper got its money’s worth.
“But Bernard was not some old guy trying to get retirement money at the 11th hour, even though I’m sure some people thought that when he took off his robe,” Lear said. “Yeah, he wore the tattoo, but he did it with pride, dignity and respect. He made it OK to do it. I’m not sure that would have been the case if he had gotten knocked out.”
Be it against Trinidad or Daniels, his second and final time to do the temporary tat thing, the notion of his being embarrassed inside the ropes never crossed Hopkins’ mind. He always expects to win, and if there’s a bit more cash that can picked up along the way for doing something that had little or no influence on the outcome, so much the better.
“You hear the word `tattoo,’ you think permanent,” Hopkins said three months after he had disposed of Daniels. “Joe told me it was temporary, and it was. By the third round of the Trinidad fight it was completely sweated off.
“Bu for my fight with Carl Daniels, they’d improved things with that henna stuff. (The tattoo) stayed on my back for 2½ months. I’m not sure if Nettie (Hopkins’ wife Jeannette) liked it when I got out of bed, but it stayed on. You have to take a lot of showers before it wears off.”
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