It seemed so perfect, so logical, at the time. What better way to remind everyone of what a great fight town Philadelphia was than to pair two homeboys, one an Olympic gold medalist and the other a reigning world champion who would go on to set longevity records that might last forever? It would be the kind of pride-fueled neighborhood scrap that the City of Brotherly Love hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Spectrum Boxing in the 1970s, when headliners such as Bennie Briscoe, Cyclone Hart, Boogaloo Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe, Matthew Saad Muhammad, Kitten Hayward, Jeff Chandler and other hard-as-nails locals regularly thrilled audiences of 12,000-plus.
The pairing of David “The American Dream” Reid, who won the United States’ only gold medal in boxing at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, and Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins, then the IBF middleweight champion, was intriguing and seemingly inevitable even before the events of Jan. 31, 1998, at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, N.J., just 65 miles away from the North Philly streets from which Hopkins and Reid had arisen. But it was what happened after both men had appeared in HBO-televised bouts on the same card, Hopkins, 33, retaining his title on a sixth-round stoppage of Simon Brown and Reid, 24, in only his seventh professional outing, scoring an eight-round unanimous decision over Robert Frazier, that considerably raised the ante.
Hours later, in a hotel corridor, an insomniac reporter – uh, that would be me – came across Reid and his manager-trainer, Al Mitchell, and casually asked Reid what he had thought of Hopkins’ dispatching of Brown, a former IBF/WBC welterweight champ. Irked by comments Hopkins had made earlier in the week about his younger, less-experienced America Presents stablemate, Reid responded with a withering putdown of B-Hop, even as Mitchell vainly attempted to get him to tone down his comments to someone clearly holding a turned-on tape recorder.
“Bernard Hopkins can’t even hold my shoes,” Reid said, his anger rising. “Every second of that fight I could have beat (Hopkins).”
So, what was it that Hopkins had said that so enraged Reid? It was rather innocuous, actually. Correctly noting Reid’s limited pro experience in comparison to himself, Hopkins opined that the younger man was still something of a boxing neophyte who was “on Similac” who “needed to get on whole milk.”
“This baby would beat the pants off Hopkins,” Reid seethed.
Once Reid’s words made it onto the pages of the Philadelphia Daily News, however, the spat between the city’s two most prominent pugilists instantly became the hot-button topic, eclipsing the doldrums of another bland Philadelphia sports winter. Both were invited to appear on Daily News Live, a Monday-through-Friday 90-minute sports-talk television show which only occasionally devoted more than snippets of its allotted time to boxing. And while it was generally agreed by most fight fans that Reid, a future WBA super welterweight champion, needed to gain weight and seasoning before he was ready to test himself against Hopkins, the consensus was that it was only a matter of time before the two settled matters where it counted, inside the ropes.
Adding to the friction was the fact that Hopkins and Reid both trained at Champs Gym in North Philly, and, by virtue of his Olympic gold, Reid’s express-lane path to hefty purses, in contrast to Hopkins’ years of low-end compensation while he worked his way up the ranks. Oh, and there was that little matter of each having filed a lawsuit against the other.
“We speak to each other,” Reid said in 1999 of his training schedule that sometimes overlapped with that of Hopkins, who often arrived as Reid was finishing up. “But, I don’t know, maybe we shouldn’t. I think Bernard has a problem with me because of the money. I think maybe there’s some jealousy on his part.
“OK, I can deal with that. That kind of goes with the territory in this game. If somebody doesn’t like me, fine. Just say it to my face, not behind my back. Or better yet, don’t say anything at all.”
Truth be told, the frugal Hopkins – one of his IBF title defenses while with America Presents was for a rock-bottom $100,000 — probably did harbor some resentment toward Reid, who did not sign his first pro contract with Top Rank, as was expected, choosing instead to accept a $1 million signing bonus to become the first member of the start-up company’s stable of fighters.
“I was the one who put him in with America Presents,” Mitchell, who coached Reid from the time he was eight years old and was his head coach with the U.S. Olympic boxing team in Atlanta, said when contacted for this story. “They didn’t even have no boxers. Dave was their first. Not only did they give him that million-dollar signing bonus, but you know how much I got for his first fight on HBO? Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, for a four-rounder! I always made sure he got top dollar.”
Lou DiBella, then the senior vice president of HBO Sports, was aware of the tension between Hopkins and Reid, and figured it made for good television, especially if the fight was in Philadelphia and with a big and loud crowd on hand.
“From an HBO perspective, I’d love to tell you that Hopkins-Reid was almost definite,” he said in February 1999, before Reid won the WBA super welterweight title on a 12-round unanimous decision over Laurent Boudouani in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. “It’s certainly a fight we’re very interested in and would love to help make happen. But there would have to be a clear demand for that fight in Philly. If there was, it would go a long way toward making it happen. We’d have to be pretty convinced we could put 12,000 to 15,000 people into one of the city’s larger venues.
“If Philly is still a great boxing town, it should be able to do that because this is as big a Philadelphia fight as you could find.”
Not so sure of that was veteran Philly fight promoter J. Russell Peltz, who was director of Spectrum Boxing when Bennie Briscoe and friends ruled the roost.
“I don’t know,” Peltz said when asked if Hopkins-Reid was as much of a no-brainer as DiBella and his successor at HBO, Kery Davis, believed, or at least professed to believe publicly. “There’s no track record. Neither of them are Philly fighters. I know they’re from Philly, but they’re not Philly fighters.
“Hopkins and Reid are not the street guys of the old days, not like Briscoe and Hart were. Those guys had their neighborhood followings. Bennie would hang on the corner of North Broad and Girard, outside Wimpy’s. Tyrone Everett, from South Philly, was another street guy. When was the last time Hopkins fought in Philly?”
(Note: at that time a pre-championship Hopkins had not fought in the city of his birth since knocking out Wendell Hall on Nov. 23, 1993.)
As things turned out, the timing was never right for matching up Hopkins and Reid. In 1997, the time of their shared-bill double feature at the Trump Taj Mahal, Reid was still considered a future star too green be thrown in with such a savvy veteran. By March 3, 2000, the night he relinquished his WBA super welterweight belt on a 12-round beatdown at the hands of WBC/IBF welterweight ruler Felix Trinidad, the prevailing school of thought was that Reid might never fulfill the promise he had flashed in knocking out favored Cuban Alfredo Duvergel to claim Olympic gold. Although Reid floored Trinidad with an overhand right in the third round, he went down four times himself thereafter, including three trips to the canvas in round 11. It was the beginning of a rapid fall from prominence for the onetime JC Penney stockroom clerk, who won three of his four remaining bouts, all on points against nondescript competition, before retiring after a ninth-round TKO loss to journeyman Sam Hill on Nov. 11, 2001.
Reid’s thrashing from Trinidad illustrates how unwise it would have been to put him in against Hopkins, who on Sept. 29, 2001, almost toyed with the Puerto Rican superstar before knocking him down and winning on a 12th-round stoppage in their middleweight unification showdown in Madison Square Garden.
In retrospect, perhaps the main factor in Reid’s inability to endure as an elite fighter was his drooping left eyelid, which four surgeries failed to correct. After Reid retained his WBA 154-pound strap on a less-than-impressive decision over Kevin Kelly on July 16, 1999, Sports Illustrated’s Franz Lidz wrote that “the left eyelid of the WBA champ is soulfully, Stallonefully adroop. He always looks as if he’s in the middle of a nap.”
Hopkins said the biggest problem for Reid was there for everyone to see, a target so inviting to opponents that it might as well have come attacked with a blinking neon bull’s-eye.
“If I was fighting David next week or next month, what do you think I’m going to go for?” Hopkins asked, rhetorically, in 1999. “I think that everybody he fights between now and the time he retires will go for a target that is so, so obvious.
“There’s two things you must have in this game: legs and headlights. You have to see what’s coming, and David has problems seeing.”
Nor was Hopkins the only marquee rival that Reid never got the opportunity with whom to swap punches. After he won his gold medal, it was widely presumed he would sign with Top Rank, ensuring a future megafight with the only American to take Olympic gold in 1992, Oscar De La Hoya. That never came off, and neither did a scrap with Reid’s 1992 Olympic teammate, Fernando Vargas.
Battling depression and with much of his boxing wealth gone, Reid, now 44, lives quietly in Marquette, Mich. He no longer goes to Mitchell’s gym there to help his old mentor train fighters, although Mitchell said he is always welcome to do so. Reid now finds solace in attending church twice a day, every day.
Some fights, it would seem, are better left unfought.
“It definitely wasn’t a bad thing that the fight (with Hopkins) didn’t happen,” DiBella said when contacted for this story. “It wasn’t as if we all were deprived of a fight that should have happened at the time we thought it should have happened.”
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