It is one of the Philadelphia waterfront’s most exclusive addresses. From the 17th-floor penthouse of the condo that affords him a panoramic view of the Delaware River as well as his hometown’s skyline, former middleweight and light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, 53, has often considered how far he has lifted himself in a life that might now be tinged in glory, but could have taken a downward turn that would rendered him as just another grim statistic on a crime blotter.
The story of the strong-arm robbery conviction that sent a 17-year-old Hopkins into the Pennsylvania penal system for 56 months has become as much a part of his legend as his signature victories over Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Kelly Pavlik and Antonio Tarver. As an example of someone who dramatically transformed himself for the better, Hopkins’ redemptive tale has become a companion piece to the similarly uplifting evolution of George Foreman from menacing street tough into a rich, successful and, yes, widely admired heroic figure.
But the comparisons between Hopkins and Foreman go only so far. For one thing, Foreman was a gold medalist for the United States at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics, which served to gloss over some of the more sordid details of his youthful thuggery. For another, while Big George might have been someone to avoid in Houston’s crime-infested Fifth Ward, he never did hard time for a felony conviction. He only held up former heavyweight titlist Sonny Liston, he of the lengthy rap sheet and 19 arrests, as a role model in in the ring and not especially out of it.
In an expansive interview with two reporters, one of whom he has known for 30 years (uh, that would be me), Hopkins allowed how his personal metamorphosis from inmate Y4145 to two-division world champion, multimillionaire and globe-hopping executive and part owner of Golden Boy Promotions might have included an even darker chapter: murder for revenge behind prison walls. It would have been a real-life scene as played out in any number of movies depicting a violent world that law-abiding citizens can scarcely imagine, no matter how many times Hollywood has attempted to recreate it for dramatic purposes.
While incarcerated in the now-closed Holmesburg Prison, the already-feared Hopkins – who said that upon his arrival, he sought out one of the biggest, baddest inmates and knocked some of his teeth out as a means of sending the message that he was no one to be messed with – learned something that hurt him far worse than did any of the three stabbings he endured in the hardscrabble North Philadelphia and Germantown sections of Philly in which he was raised.
One of eight children born to Bernard Sr. and Shirley Hopkins, Bernard Humphrey Hopkins Jr., the oldest boy, learned during one of his allowable phone calls home that middle brother Michael had been killed, another senseless victim of the kind of violence that have turned America’s inner cities into veritable war zones.
“I called home like I’d normally do,” Hopkins recalled. “You had to stand in line ’til it was your turn to use the phone. I was talking to my sisters – Marcie passed the phone to Charmaine, Charmaine passed it to Yolanda, Yolanda passed it to Bernadette – and during all that I was told that Michael got killed the night before. I had to suck it up, leave the phone booth, show no emotion and go back to my cell before I broke down.”
But Hopkins’ wounded heart hardened when he learned that the individual who had been convicted of murdering Michael — the murderer’s street name was “Junebug” — was to go into Holmesburg’s general population, putting Hopkins and him on an inevitable collision course that almost certainly would have left one of them dead.
“You find out through the system,” Hopkins said of the word of Junebug’s arrival that might as well have been delivered via Western Union. “Anybody with a homicide (conviction), they don’t stay down in the detention center. Back then, they went straight to Holmesburg. And when this guy came in, my reputation was on the line. You kill my brother, you come into my prison and I do nothing, what does that say to the other inmates about me? If I don’t kill him, my credibility is shot. I’m a marked man. I’m a dead man.
“It’s a weird situation. Even if you let it go by for a month, what if he’s f—— scared and feels like he needs to get you before you get him? It doesn’t take much to kill a guy on the inside. You take a lock, put it in a pair of sweat socks and whack part of his skull off. That’s one weapon you could fashion. There are creative ways to make (a murder) happen. You could make a `stinger’ out of two batteries and an extension cord. You take a couple of rubber bands, tie ’em up like dynamite and zap!
“Of course, if I had done that I wouldn’t be talking to you guys now,” said Hopkins, who did not mention that old prison stand-by, the piece of metal sharpened into a shiv and smuggled out of the machine shop, of the variety of methods in which a revenge slaying could be done, said of the plot he fully intended to see through to fruition.
Nor did the aggrieved party actually have to personally settle the score.
“If I had gotten killed or he’d have gotten killed, they (prison officials) knew something would have had to go down in any case because I had such a big reputation,” Hopkins said. “Even if I couldn’t get close enough to the guy to do it myself, I’d have paid somebody else with a carton of cigarettes to do it for me. Cigarettes are like money on the inside. You can get two lives (killings) off a carton of smokes, if you pay the right guy. It’s a different world in there, man.”
But Hopkins’ quest for vengeance was thwarted when he was transferred to Graterford State Correctional Institution. He never did hand over a carton of cigarettes to a stand-in hit man, and at his new high-walled home he came under the influence of an older inmate, Michael “Smokey” Wilson, who became his friend, mentor and someone he came to refer to as “my Gandhi.” Irony of ironies, Wilson, who also was incarcerated at 17, had been convicted of murder. Even more ironically, the recently paroled Wilson has become a member of Hopkins’ staff, constituting payback of a different sort.
“I’m just glad Bernard didn’t kill no one,” Wilson told me several years ago during a phone interview from prison. “I’m glad he was able to get out of here. To me, he’s the epitome of what rehabilitation is, or is supposed to be. He never came back. He showed what, given the opportunity, an individual – any individual – can do.”
Hopkins now refers to his prison stretch, and the time that led up to it, as the period in which he “was ignorant,” unable to differentiate between the better and more dangerous sides of his nature. “I wasn’t afraid to die,” he said of his attitude before Wilson helped convince him that boxing – Hopkins was a three-time champion of the Pennsylvania prison system – was the means through which he could free himself of the real and imaginary shackles which have resulted in an almost-unimaginable recidivism rate for those who have been branded as lost causes.
“When you leave prison, the odds are so stacked against you,” Hopkins said in a previous interview. “People figure if you were a criminal, you’re always a criminal. And the fact is, 80 percent of people who get locked up and get out come home (to prison) eventually. Eighty percent! But what else can they do? You got to have some reason to believe in something better. If we want to save these young people, they have to know that they can make it. They don’t have to become victims or victimizers.”
True to his word, to the world at large but most especially to himself, Hopkins never did return to prison, except for a voluntary visit to Graterford on April 12, 2005,for the dedication of a 20-by-40-foot mural of him in the prison gym. He is, as always, his own man, as he was then, but, in his parlance, he no longer views life as having to make the choice between being a wolf or a lamb, with little or no room for other options. Nor is he content to rest on his deserved laurels as a fighter, which surely will gain him first-ballot induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2021. His last fight, an eighth-round knockout loss to Joe Smith Jr. on Dec. 17, 2016, did not mark the end of his story, merely the end of that particular chapter.
A book on his life and a possible movie are in the works, as is an HBO documentary. He has created a website, bhoplifestyle.com, which lays out methods in which anyone with the gumption to try can follow the rigorous dietary and workout regimens that have made Hopkins a standard for self-discipline and physical fitness. He said his weight is currently “around 182 pounds,” not far off the 175 he had to make in the latter stages of a 28-year ring career when he campaigned as a light heavyweight and became the oldest person ever to win a widely recognized world title.
Not only that, but he is the rovingest of roving ambassadors for his sport, with recent trips to Turkey, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Boston and Indio, Calif., with penciled-in visits to other far-flung outposts into November.
“There are a lot of demands on my time,” admitted Hopkins, who said his busy schedule demands that he maintain his mind and body so that he always is able to deliver a peak performance in whatever function is required of him.
“You train. You discipline yourself. You get proper rest,” he said of the current version of himself. “You basically do all the things you’ve been doing for 30 years. The adjustments I’ve had to make since I retired as a fighter were easy to make. They’re really not that different from the adjustments I had to make when I came home from prison.”
Check out more boxing news on video at The Boxing Channel