Lately, boxers are in the habit of emerging for fights accompanied by deafening music from their homelands. In this respect American boxers have something of a cultural advantage — in hip-hop they have a brawler’s overture, entrance music that might have been created for the sport, what with its flow and flurries and self-aggrandizement.
Bernard Hopkins has only recently pressed this advantage. He likes rap, but through much of his career he has preferred to appear for fights to “My Way.” The song, first recorded 44 years ago, is a personal anthem. He has it committed to memory. Asked during a segment of the HBO show Real Sports to answer accusations that he’s a paranoiac who’s betrayed trainers and managers and promoters over the years, Hopkins didn’t exactly deny the charge, but said, “I’ve done it the Old Blue Eyes way.” Flashing the interviewer with a feline proto-grin that almost seemed an invitation to join in, Hopkins then went into song: “I crossed the bridge … I took the blows … I’ve done it my way.” The grin had by this point turned, imperceptibly, into a glower. “Frank Sinatra,” he said. “It’s a bad piece.”
In 2010, when he entered the Mandalay Bay arena for a long-awaited rematch with Roy Jones Jr., Hopkins was accompanied by “My Way” and by a 68-year-old Bronx garment magnate, his friend Artie Rabin, who walked alongside him purring new lyrics written for Hopkins into a cordless microphone. Harmonizing from the ring were The Sweet Inspirations, a trio that in its day, which was not recently, backed up Wilson Pickett. One could feel the Las Vegas crowd wondering — not of Rabin, but of Hopkins — how old is he? “And yes, Bernard Hopkins is 45 years old, but no one has been more disciplined, more of a committed professional,” the ringside announcer acknowledged, notes of apology and pride in his middle-aged voice. “And however much you look in the rear-view mirror, it isn’t needed. Lauding his past is so easy, but his current status is still the envy of so many fighters.”
Hopkins’ status was still more enviable on a Saturday night in October, when I watched him emerge onto the floor of the Staples Center in Los Angeles. He had won the Jones fight decisively if not prettily, a victory that brought him personal vindication but no belt, but since then Hopkins had fought to a draw and then defeated the 28-year-old Canadian bruiser Jean Pascal for World Boxing Council light heavyweight bragging rights, making Hopkins, by then 46, the oldest boxer to win a world title since world boxing titles were invented. (He took that record from George Foreman.) Feeling, apparently, that he didn’t need to explain to the crowd in Los Angeles whose way had led him back to a championship, Hopkins pressed the advantage and substituted the vain brilliance of Sinatra with that of Kanye West. As the lights dimmed, Hopkins’ fluorescent orange-and-pea-green gown flickered into view on the JumboTrons, and the opening chorale chant, then the baseline, then the King Crimson guitar phrase of West’s “Power” overtook the auditorium …
I’m living in that 21st century, doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
No one man should have all that power
The clock’s ticking, I just count the hours
Stop tripping, I’m tripping off the power
It was in its way as heroic a theme for Hopkins as “My Way,” and made for an entrance as vulgar and rousing as the one into the Jones fight had been charming and eccentric. And though I was there to record an impartial account of the bout to come, when the last line of West’s chorus echoed out — Twenty-first century Schizoid Maaaaan!!! — I and every other Hopkins admirer resolved there was no question but that he would — no, must — win. That was at 9:05 p.m.
At 9:26 p.m., Hopkins was writhing on his back on the canvas. He’d been tossed down there by “Bad” Chad Dawson, a normally congenial 29-year-old from Connecticut who for once had lived up to his ring name. The referee declared Hopkins the loser by technical knockout. Hopkins bared his mouth guard and winced and groaned, pointing to his left shoulder, while the ring filled with cornermen and seconds and Dawson bellowed at him in disgust: “Hopkins, you a pussy! You a pussy, Hopkins! Do you hear me? A pussy!” he yelled.
The crowd, including Hopkins’ admirers, quickly came to agree. Boos clabbered. “Get up!” people shouted. “Shame on you, Bernard! You destroyed your legacy!” a man behind me yelled. As they made their way out, seat-holders commiserated belligerently. An immense man in a beige suit buttonholed a smaller man.
“Bernard gave up on your money! On your money, brother!” the immense man insisted.
“You know what I’m talking about!?” the smaller man insisted back.
In the press room afterwards, reporters frowned. The place seemed planted with pro-Dawson hecklers. A man in a black-and-white polka-dot tie paced among the cameras theorizing, “Hopkins didn’t come to fight. Uh-uh. Didn’t want to fight.” Hopkins’ promoter, Richard Shaefer, a thick-set Swiss with a slicked-back widow’s peak, took the podium in ironed jeans and a blue blazer. With an air of boredom, he announced that Hopkins would not be speaking because he was in an ambulance, and that he would be protesting the outcome. Dawson’s orotund promoter, Gary Shaw, of Atlantic City, followed him, in sweatpants. “I wanted you to know exactly what happened,” he said, and then repeated Dawson’s string of “pussies” verbatim.
“Chad is really a great kid and soft-spoken,” he added.
Next to the firing line was Dawson’s trainer. “If anyone on the planet says that was a boring fight, it was certainly Bernard Hopkins’ fault,” John Scully, in denim shorts and a stud earring, said. “People are starting to see. People say (Hopkins is) old-school and all that, and I don’t agree necessarily. Georgie Benton was old-school. Archie Moore was old-school. Ezzard Charles. They didn’t run away and literally limit the action so that nothing happened. That is not old-school … If that was a four-round fight in New York City against two kids from New York, you know what they’d say? That kid doesn’t want to fight. He should quit. He should never box again.”
“Chad’s the champion!” polka-dot tie called out.
“Of course he’s the champion,” Scully said.
Finally, Dawson spoke. Holding his toddler son in his arms, he thanked Shaw and Scully, his family, his supporters, and “I want to thank Bernard — for making it an easy night for me.”
There was conspicuously little deference paid to that enviable status the ringside announcer spoke of. No one pointed out that this was the first knockout, technical or otherwise, Hopkins had suffered in 23 years of professional boxing — that it was, indeed, the first time he’d been so much as stopped. No one mentioned that Hopkins holds the record for middleweight title defenses (20); or that his 10-year-and-82-day reign atop the division falls short of only two men, one of whom is Joe Louis (the other is the WWI-era featherweight Johnny Kilbane); or that he’s the first boxer to unify a title under all four major sanctioning bodies; or that he did so by beating some of the best fighters of his time, men more naturally gifted, younger, faster, better favored, and far better paid than he, men like Jones, Oscar De La Hoya, and Felix “Tito” Trinidad. Maybe no one mentioned these things because, while Hopkins is one of the most impressive boxers of the modern era, his career is unheralded outside the shrinking ranks of aficionados. Or maybe it was because, even where it is heralded, he’s often distrusted or disliked.
Certainly, Hopkins would like to think so. After Dawson left the ring, announcer Max Kellerman asked Hopkins about the crowd’s booing. “They want me out of boxing,” Hopkins said. “They want me out of boxing. This is one of the ways to do it.” Kellerman didn’t ask who they were. He didn’t have to. For years Hopkins has been claiming that they are trying to push him from boxing, by they meaning more or less everyone — promoters, the press, TV networks — except himself.
He’s not entirely wrong, either, even if he is partly to blame. There was in the Staples Center that evening, in fact, the dispiriting shared suspicion, at which Scully had hinted, that perhaps Hopkins had not stuck around this long through resilience and spirit, but with ducking and bluster and elbows. Maybe he was an actor, a nagging sourness in the collective fightgoer gut whispered, an evasive paper tiger. In the past, even Hopkins’ detractors had to acknowledge his courage. Now they could assert that he was no longer fighting for love of the sport, but out of delusion, or vanity — or, worse, for checks. His record refuted this … and yet the sourness persisted.
In the background, meanwhile, buzzing like tape hiss behind this enmity-filled feedback loop, was that longer-standing, more dispiriting proposition that boxing fans live with every day — that the sport itself has become an act, a travesty stage for neurotic millionaire infants. A few weeks earlier, Floyd Mayweather had knocked out Victor Ortiz in the fourth round with two sucker punches after Ortiz head-butted him. Mayweather had made upwards of $30 million essentially to quarrel with his father on HBO. Hopkins had walked away with $1 million, Dawson with slightly less, for what? To train for a few weeks and get upstaged by their undercard, evidently. Scully was saying more than he knew, or perhaps he knew exactly what he was saying, when he spoke of Moore and Charles and Benton.
Two weeks after the fight, in the backroom of a gym in Philadelphia, I asked Hopkins why, in his opinion, the crowd in Los Angeles turned on him.
“First, what I heard with the crowd, was quiet. For a minute. Then booing. I don’t know if they were booing me. I think what they booed was the event,” he said. “The customer is a hard person to please when they don’t feel that they got their money’s worth … People come and see a fight. They spend their hard-earned money. There’s no greater time in the world, or at least in this nation. This is a legit beef that the fans have — based on, this is a boxing match, not wrestling, not UFC.”
“I was more pissed off than disappointed,” he went on. “I was pissed off that a young, strong 29-year-old, thinking I’m dirty, calling me dirty through the media, I guess he wanted to be dirty first. All these guys had an ax to grind, and jealousy, and envy.”
So what happened?
“He knew it was going to be a long, long, long night,” he said. “Chad Dawson knows that the longer the fight goes on and the more it goes on, history shows, I dissect the guy. I look at what I have for the first two rounds. And then I eventually and systematically take you apart …. In a way, it was a desperate but a smart move by him. I don’t think any 29-year-and-younger person wants a 46-year-old man on their record as getting beat. No young person wants to lose to an older person in anything. That’s been there for decades of life. Some get nasty, some get slick, some get cagey, crafty, but it’s all the same. They’re going to bite, stab, shoot, throw me down, do what they got to do before they get beat by Bernard Hopkins.”
“I don’t put nothing past anybody I fight that’s 29 and younger,” but “there’s not too many seasoned, big 35-and-up names to fight. So I got to feast off the babies.”
“Listen, I’ve been in court, in litigation, a lot of times. When you reaching for things, you will grab anything — you’re drowning — to hold on. You will kill someone else to save yourself,” he added. “It’s not like most people [are] going to be happy if Bernard Hopkins can bounce back. My personal feeling is that most of them will be having a party if I don’t.”
In the days and weeks after the fight, the second round was watched and rewatched, and Hopkins’ account of what had happened won ground. Dawson had clearly fouled him, as he’d claimed. The referee, Pat Russell, had clearly ruled precipitately. According to a doctor’s report, Hopkins had a separation break near the acromioclavicular joint. But suspicions lingered. The sourness lingered. Injury or no, Hopkins had put on a flop show. For his own reputation he must demand a rematch, people said. Online and on sports radio it was decided, not for the first time — nor the tenth — that he should retire.
Boxing fans feel jilted after many if not most fights, of course. If the combatants don’t oblige us and batter one another for twelve rounds, we think we’ve been cheated. Before a fight, hope springs eternal. So before the Dawson fight, in late September, I made the pilgrimage to Philadelphia, that lost capital of prizefighting, to watch Hopkins train.
Hopkins has prepared for fights in hallowed boxing hideaways — the Poconos, the Catskills, Miami Beach — but these days he works out at a new gym, Joe Hand’s, in the Northern Liberties neighborhood of Philadelphia. In view of the high-rise central business district and abutting the colonial brick of Old City, Northern Liberties is a postcard for gentrification, its factories now sports bars, its refurbished row houses home to young professionals who’ve pushed up rents and pushed out such places as Champs, the gym where Hopkins trained for his first fights. Situated above an auto body shop, Champs had kerosene heaters, horsehair heavy bags, and no showers. Its fighters were known to be so tough that Sonny Liston — Hopkins’ forebear in murderous glowers — relocated to Philadelphia to train there.
Joe Hand’s still smells too much of new paint and cleaning chemicals to be taken entirely seriously, and the days of the Philadelphia gym wars, the brutal weekly brawls between neighborhood boxing clubs that forged Hopkins and many others, are just lore here, though the owners try their best: On the walls, below local union banners, hang life-size vinyl sepia posters of local lights like Joey Giardello, Gypsy Joe Harris, and Willie “The Worm” Monroe. (During one visit, a poster came to life: By the double-end bags hangs a teenaged Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, the rangy middleweight who was the first to beat Marvin Hagler; as I stood looking at the crouched young southpaw, out of the locker room came trainer Bobby Watts, 31 years after the Hagler fight, his left eye immobile and half-closed, a Velcro brace wrapped around his waist, his hand extended in greeting.)
A stretch of wall near the front is given over to framed photos of Hopkins, who made his amateur debut, not far from here, at age 10. Bernard Hopkins Sr., a garbageman and drinker who later died of liver cancer, had boxed, as had two uncles, JuJu Hopkins and Artie McCloud, the latter a promising middleweight until he was locked up. Like him, Bernard, the second of eight children, enjoyed trouble too much to focus on training. Some of it was a matter of familial pride — “My sisters benefited from my behavior, because when they had boyfriends, they thought twice about slapping them or abusing them,” Hopkins once said, “the downside is they had less boyfriends” — but most of it wasn’t. He was arrested a total of about 30 times, by his estimate, on charges of assault, robbery, making terroristic threats, receiving stolen property, resisting arrest, and marijuana use, and stabbed in three separate altercations, before being sentenced to 18 years in prison. He had just turned 17. While he was inside, his younger brother, Michael, was shot to death. Hopkins’ mother, Shirley, said of her only remaining son, “I felt safer when he was in there.” (Shirley died in 2002.)
When she visited Graterford Penitentiary every week, Hopkins kept from her the stories of his stints in solitary confinement, of the beatings he administered and witnessed, the rapes he overheard. He told her instead about an imam in D-block who’d given him a Koran to study. Having seen Hopkins in the ring, the imam also gave him a newborn Muslim name: Saladin Abdul Muhammad, after the 12th-century warrior sultan, scourge and envy of crusaders and coreligionists alike. In the prison gym, meanwhile, Hopkins came under the tutelage of Smokey Wilson, a prospect from the north side who’d landed a life sentence. When Hopkins left Graterford, Wilson, there to this day, gave him a photograph of the two of them. “You will be the middleweight champion one day,” read the inscription.
In the latter half of his career, Hopkins has become known as a defensive genius and stinting puncher. That is the 21st-century man. An earlier Hopkins did something very mean to the middleweight field of the late 20th century. After getting out of prison, he scored 23 consecutive wins, 16 by knockout, 12 in the first round. He knocked out Wayne Powell in 21 seconds to win the U.S. Boxing Association middleweight belt. It took three seconds more to floor Steve Frank and retain the International Boxing Federation belt. In a 1993 bout, Hopkins was by the third round punishing Wendell Hall so surgically, so factually, that Hall’s trainer threw his towel into the ring. That deserves italics: Hall’s trainer threw his towel into the ring. Now, it must be noted that cornermen usually don’t throw towels into rings, not because it’s embarrassing, but because it doesn’t do anything. No one, not even a trainer, can stop a fight by throwing a towel into a ring, a convention only in language and the cinema for as long as anyone can remember. Hall’s trainer knew this. But still he threw a towel into the ring. That’s how frightened he was — his finely honed trainer instincts reduced to Rocky IV cliché. You could watch boxing all your life and never see that.
Fright was, admittedly, the sane emotional response to Hopkins, who fought with what announcer Jim Lampley once called “devilment in his eyes,” a description that stopped too high. Devilment seemed to emanate from Hopkins’ body, too, a machine-like instrument not of god-given pugilistic evil, but the precision wickedness that comes with deprivation and autodidactic repetition. The trainer Pat Burns recalled “he worked so damn hard, he just got better and better and smarter and smarter. Every fight I’d watch him improve. He was always better than in the fight before.”
Though fast, he never had the natural flow of his idol, Sugar Ray Robinson, nor of a Muhammad Ali nor Roy Jones; he put punches together, rather, in hoving, gouging rhythms, like Joe Frazier or his second-favorite, Hagler. The Hopkins jab was, when he found time to pull it out, a fashioned shank, the left hook, if not of prescription North Philadelphia strength, still suggestive of renal failure when applied to midsections. His real arsenal was his right, which produced, sometimes in the course of a single flurry, a pawing cross; a leaping hook; an uppercut that when it missed stabbed two feet into the air like a pump jack; an up-sloping right something that called to mind a power hitter taking batting practice with a scythe; and an overhand right, now his signature punch.
After an announcer remarked that one of his knockouts resembled an execution, Hopkins assumed the nom de guerre The Executioner (it switches duty with his newer hip-hop age sobriquet, B-Hop). In a marketing ploy at once asinine and an oddly touching contemplation of the role reversals offered by prizefighting, he took to emerging for fights in custom-made leather executioner’s masks, sometimes trailed by shirtless attendants carrying prop battle-axes. This pomp had the unfortunate effect of lulling opponents. Before a 1996 fight, for instance, Joe Lipsey chuckled at the display. Then, in the fourth round, he threw a left hook; Hopkins slipped it, and as he did launched from his back foot and caught Lipsey with a left hook of his own, following it with a right uppercut that moved with such force it left Lipsey hovering in the middle of the ring, bent at the waist, arms quivering faintly at his sides. The immediate and unmistakable visual reference was of a broken-necked corpse dangling from a rope. Realizing Lipsey had already been rendered unable to continue the fight (at best) on his feet, the referee went to embrace him, but before he could Hopkins landed a four-punch combination that sent Lipsey to the canvas in a dropping quarter-circle, like a car’s speedometer needle when the brakes are slammed. Now horizontal, Lipsey lay in the same cadaverous posture he’d assumed on his feet, his whole body quivering. “Execution” wasn’t an aggrandizement, but merely the most accurate analogy available — and, until Lipsey revived, a possibility.
Tending this dervish was English “Bouie” Fisher, a saintly son of South Carolina sharecroppers. Fisher adopted 11 grandchildren in his old age. He regarded Hopkins as a son. Their styles were complementary. Famous trainers are known for their exhortation and cajoling, but Fisher never resorted to such crudities. His frizzy halo of gray hair bobbing serenely above bifocals and a white sash (it had belonged to Robinson), he would offhandedly remark to Hopkins between rounds, “I’d like to see you double up on the body” or “keep your mind on this job.” In the hours of Hopkins fights I’ve watched, the most anxious thing I’ve heard Fisher say to him is “Now, don’t get careless.”
Even that was unnecessary. Careful knockout artist isn’t a term, but that’s what Hopkins was. To this day he’s never been cut in a fight, and his gloves have touched the canvas legitimately on only two occasions, both in draws. In both cases he bounced up at once, an amused expression on his face.
“He’s a really, really smart fighter,” Roy Jones Jr. told me. “He thinks out a fight before he goes into it. He has a guy figured out before he goes in the ring. He knows how to change a fight and change the pace. He has control the whole fight.” Hopkins and Jones faced off for the first time in 1993. Hopkins lost, but after Jones moved up weight classes, Hopkins won the IBF championship. He would remain atop the field for over a decade. And yet little fame and less money came to him. At 30, years into his sultanate, he was still working part-time in a transmission repair shop. His predicament was summed up by Lampley, who, as he watched Hopkins superintend a six-round razing of Simon Brown, mused: “There was a time, a long time, many decades, in boxing when a lot of glamour would automatically have attached to the identity of being the best 160-pound fighter in the world. Bernard Hopkins is by most accounts the best 160-pound fighter in the world, and he carries virtually no glamour as the result of it.”
When Hopkins is on his way to Joe Hand’s, his assistants trickle in before him and the manager clears out the members and replaces the hip-hop station that is normally on the radio with an oldies soul station. On a sparring evening in early October, with the Dawson fight a little over a week away, Smokey Robinson was followed by Sam Cooke as the autumn light faded, and the atmosphere drifted backward in time. I half expected to see Liston in the corner skipping rope to “Night Train.” By the time James Brown came on, Hopkins’ door-minder, a looming old presence named Akbar, had taken up his post at the back entrance, swaying to the music like an unmoored campanile.
“Is that the Mashed Potato or the Slide?” a gray-haired man in glasses and a fuzzy sweater called out from a chair by the ring. This was Leon Tabbs, Hopkins’ cut man, who works with him more out of loyalty than necessity. I sat down and asked Tabbs if he’d spoken to Hopkins that day. “No, I don’t call him,” Tabbs said. “I wouldn’t call him. He talks too damn much. Talks his ass off.” He first saw Hopkins fight, Tabbs said, at Champs, soon after the latter got out of prison. “He was a bad mama jama even then.”
Naazim Richardson arrived next; Bouie Fisher’s longtime assistant, Richardson took over the corner in 2005. Brother Naazim, as he prefers to be called, is also Hopkins’ Bundini Brown, a booster and poetic foil. Like Hopkins a reformed juvenile delinquent, he has thick, powerful arms that he drapes over a stolid middle, and is never seen in public without a colored kufi to match his color-coordinated training suits. I asked Richardson how he was. “Holding on with both hands, man,” he said.
Hopkins had driven down from his home in Delaware, where he lives with his wife, Jeanette (they’ve been together for 17 years), their two daughters, and a new son, Bernard III. He emerged from the locker room, in spandex leggings, beat-up Asics boxing shoes, and a T-shirt, and sat down in reverse on a folding chair as a short, peppy assistant, Danny Davis, wrapped his hands. Over the years, Hopkins’ muscles have receded from his chest and back and accumulated in his arms and legs. When he was young he resembled, not just in his pouncing fighting style but in his visage, a cat, with watchful eyes and a ramp nose. His eyes are the same, but the cartilage in the bridge between them has collapsed, giving his face the contours of a Roman bust or a well-worn coin. A dusting of hair sat on his head, flecks of gray in a two-day beard.
Richardson had brought in a group of left-handed sparring partners. In the early rounds with a young southpaw from New Jersey with the curious ring name of Derrick “Take It to the Bank” Webster, Hopkins threw only the occasional counterpunch, but controlled the ring with meticulous footwork. By the fifth round, Webster was winded, and Hopkins began to dig in and put combinations together off of a tentative jab and the overhand right. They didn’t have much on them — until they did. He caught Webster with one of the latter and knocked his head guard off. After the bell ending the tenth round, Hopkins paced in a circle, deep in thought, as Richardson sat down on the ring apron. “If I was to fight Bernard Hopkins,” he said, “I’d have it put in the contract — I need to see that motherfucker’s birth certificate.”
In the late 1990s, Hopkins started adjusting his style for longevity, punching less, maintaining more distance. He used to study Robinson and Hagler. Now he carries DVDs of Archie Moore and Jersey Joe Walcott, whose smart styles allowed them to fight into middle age. Some people would say he’s become too smart. Roy Jones called Hopkins the smartest fighter he’s ever faced, but also said, when I asked which of Hopkins’ punches are most dangerous now, “His head … and his overhand right.” Jones was joking and not joking. Partly to make up for lost power and speed, partly to avoid counterpunches, Hopkins now steps forward with his right foot and thrusts his head and torso behind his rights. He’s also known for swinging his elbows into his hooks. When I asked Jermain Taylor, the only man to beat Hopkins twice, how he did it, Taylor said, “There’s no way to have a strategy against a man who fights with his head and elbows … It was just go in there and beat this man up.”
But Hopkins can be revelatory. In a 2008 match against Kelly Pavlik, his hand speed and accuracy were that of a man half his age. Pavlik never recovered. Against Pascal he reintroduced his jab, largely dormant for years. By that point he was referring to himself as “the Satchel Paige of boxing.” He didn’t just beat Felix Trinidad, but moved so flawlessly it appeared he’d somehow choreographed the fight beforehand. (Hopkins was a 4-to-1 underdog against Pavilk, 3-to-1 against Trinidad.) Boxing scholar Bert Sugar was one of the few who picked Hopkins to win that fight. “Ring smarts,” Sugar said, when asked why. “Hopkins is one of the savviest, craftiest, most guileful fighters I have ever seen.”
At Joe Hand’s later in the week, after another ten rounds, Hopkins was sitting in a folding chair beneath a speed bag, a towel draped over his head as his masseur rubbed his legs. He and Richardson resumed a running dialogue. The subject, for reasons not readily apparent, was Red Bull.
“It’s going against nature,” Hopkins, who is a strict vegetarian and does not drink, said of the beverage. “You can’t go against nature. Your body wants to sleep, and you drink a Red Bull? You go on the 95 and kill four people — and yourself.”
“The first Red Bull came in a brown can with Chinese writing on it. No English. Remember that? I don’t touch the stuff,” Richardson said.
“It fucks with your nervous system,” Hopkins concluded.
Hopkins talked himself into a confident mood with the help of the room. “Dawson’s big. I love fighting big guys, because I’m fast,” he said. “I’m not a big, light heavyweight. I can move. I can get inside on them. I’m inside, I’m wrestling with them, and they’re just wrestling, but all the time I’m chopping, I’m slapping.”
“You’re a boxer,” his masseur observed.
“Bernard is one of the few strategists, one of the few technicians, still in boxing,” Richardson said.
Hopkins picked up the edge of the towel, slipped in a set of false teeth, and beckoned me over. I pointed out that his sparring partners had both done a better job of keeping their hands up than Dawson was known to do. He agreed, and lamented the declining work ethic of young boxers. “It’s that whole generation, man. The microwave society. They ain’t willing to put the work in. They figure you got a better chance of being Jay-Z.” This in turn brought him, as many subjects will, to his disdain for professional boxing — “I love boxing. The business I don’t” — and he soon launched into a 20-minute soliloquy. The schizoid man emerged. By the time Hopkins arrived at the still-sore subject of his first promoter, a Don King protégé whom Hopkins sued, successfully, for $700,000, after finding he’d lied about contracts — “I went to jail for snatching a chain that was worth $500, and someone took $700,000 from me!? When I see that — and from a Muslim brother!” — he was standing up, his arms in the air. Akbar averred.
“But they couldn’t beat me,” Hopkins said. “What they going to do to me I haven’t already been through? They’re going to have to kill me. That’s the only way. I got — look,” he said, lifting up his shirt to reveal three knife scars on his torso and back. “You can’t lose when you’re coming from this. Even losing I win.”
“Uh-huh,” said Akbar.
“They’re trying to play god to you. That’s what they tried to do — to break my will, make me surrender. And they tried to use me as an example. They wanted to say, ‘Look what happened to Bernard.’ But they didn’t know I was going to win. I stumbled over history by them trying to set me up. It’s hard to beat a soul like that. It’s hard to beat a mind like that. I don’t want to fight that guy” — meaning himself — “We’d both land in the hospital.”
“You’re a soldier,” said Akbar.
“Now, it’s easy to say these things when you got the 17,000-foot mansion, when you got the Lexus. But I was doing this, saying these things, when I was, when I was — ”
“When you was flat-foot hustling,” Akbar offered.
“When I was flat-foot hustling!” Hopkins agreed.
“Mmm,” Akbar said.
“Don’t you understand that’s the fire in the belly that keeps me going? It’s not the money. It’s not all that bullshit. It’s not the cars. The hotels. I don’t even carry cash around. I ain’t Mayweather. They ain’t coming into my house for 24/7, see how much my chandelier cost. I’m the guy still driving a Nissan. What you want, you want me to start popping bottles?”
“You ain’t popping no bottles.”
“I ain’t popping no bottles,” Hopkins said. “That materialistic life, that’s not my god.”
“He’s preaching, man.”
The hem of his shirt still in hand, Hopkins said, “See this shirt? I make this shirt. This shirt don’t make me. It’s not the shirt that makes the man, it’s the man that makes the shirt. I probably got this shirt for three dollars at Costco.”
“Two dollars,” Akbar said.
“Well, three with tax. But here it is. I make this shirt, this shirt don’t make me. I make this shirt. Wait — Delaware doesn’t have no tax. Two dollars. You did me right on that, Ak.”
The rant was typical not just of his winsomeness, but of a persecution complex outsized in a sport that attracts people with persecution complexes. Hopkins is suspicious not just of promoters, the alphabet soup sanctioning bodies, and cable cartels, who warrant the ill favor, but of trainers, fighters, corporate sponsors, referees, athletes in other sports. Other drivers worry him. “I’m so observant. I play my mirrors, in case somebody’s following me on 95. I play my rear-view,” he told me of his habits when on the highway. When I asked why someone would be following him, he said “Anything. Who knows? Home invasions. Anything.”
Some say that Hopkins’ suspicions have crept into the ring. He’s been described as dirty, craven, boring, fake, or all of those things. “When I was fighting him, he was putting on an act,” Jermain Taylor said. “He’s been doing it this way for a long time and winning. He’s a great fighter, but a lot of it is bluff.” Hopkins can turn victories into pity parties, too. After beating the walloping ex-Marine Robert Allen, he ran from the ring in a huff. Afterwards he told baffled reporters, “How can I be in a sport, stand in the ring, and let the hypocrites shower me with the belt, give me the fame, and they take the fortune?”
Even his critics concede that Hopkins is a surpassingly clever fighter, but an overlooked fact is that he is, moreover, a brave one. With the clock ticking, he hasn’t just counted the hours, but has chosen to fight some of the best (and youngest) opponents available. It may be overlooked because with him bravery and bravado, and, finally, sadism, blend. Watch Hopkins’ bouts from the late 1990s and early 2000s, and you’ll see him dismantle an opponent in the first half of a round, only to step back and play defense in the second. On at least half a dozen occasions that I can recall he’s seemed on the brink of scoring a knockout, only to inexplicably take the bite off his punches. It wasn’t fatigue — Hopkins doesn’t really tire. Mercy? No. Nor was it a tactic, at least not a conventional one — by convention boxers turn the juice on in the ends of rounds, to impress judges … and it called to mind a cat toying with a mouse before killing it too much for that. No, I’ve become convinced that it was a way of signaling his superiority and mastery of self to the crowd, a way of making an example of his opponent, perhaps, just as he believes boxing has tried to make an example of him.
He can be cruel outside the ring, too. In 2001, after nine title defenses, he was to earn his first seven-figure purse against Trinidad. (Trinidad earned $8 million for the fight, Hopkins $2.8 million.) So he undertook an intimidation campaign against the good-natured Puerto Rican. At a press conference in San Juan, he threw a Puerto Rican flag to the ground. An enraged crowd rushed the stage, and Hopkins leapt over a wall to escape. Then, at a Madison Square Garden press conference, he tossed a bag of rice and one of beans at Trinidad. He told Trinidad supporters, “If anyone out there really believes that Trinidad can beat Bernard Hopkins, then bet your green card on it.” After two Pennsylvania lawmakers asked Hopkins to apologize and blocked a state resolution honoring him, he told Philadelphia Magazine that one of them “has been driving without a license for 30 years” and the other “must not be satisfying his wife enough if he’s going to worry about Bernard Hopkins.”
Maybe the best characterization of Hopkins’ fighting style is that it is litigious. He is also literally litigious, though he’s probably been sued more than he has sued. He was made to pay a former promoter, Lou DiBella, more than half a million dollars in a libel suit after accusing DiBella of soliciting a bribe. DiBella called him a “selfish ingrate.” Another former promoter who’s sued him, Dan Goosen, said Hopkins is “really not a good person.” Even Bouie Fisher sued Hopkins, after accusing him of withholding pay. They reconciled before Fisher died, in June.
Giving testimony may be his natural state. He was one of the few boxers who accepted invitations to testify about corruption in the sport before the National Association of Attorneys General and, later, the Senate. He dreams about a federal boxing commission, he told me, and were one ever to be created, he’d lobby to be appointed its head. He has that avuncular side. Trainer Pat Burns said, “He’s perceived as a hard-ass, an ex-con. But that’s not really Bernard. He has a soft spot in his heart. I think he regrets a lot of the things he’s done in the past.” When the press came to Joe Hand’s for a public workout before the Dawson fight, a reporter pointed out the gray in his beard. Hopkins responded with a meditation on age worthy of Robert Frost. “They say gray is wisdom,” he said. “We all changing. I’m definitely changing. I feel that when you have something that shows your maturity and your wisdom, why camouflage it. Society tells you when you see gray go and paint it black so you can look young. Anything nature says is supposed to happen at the right time, I want it to happen.”
Hopkins arrived in Los Angeles six days before the Dawson fight. He didn’t bring his family, whom he stopped allowing to come to fights after the foul-ridden Jones rematch. It’s better this way, he said. “I like to go in there like I’m alone, though I’m not.”
The fight began normally enough. As Dawson and Hopkins touched gloves and came out of their corners, announcer Max Kellerman said, “In Hopkins’ mind, he hears the warden. When he was getting out of prison, as a young man, the warden said, ‘You’ll be back in six months.’ And that voice has been ringing in his ears since then. Can he beat the warden one more time?”
For the first round, Dawson, a tall almost-heavyweight who throws a solid jab and fine metronomic combinations, stalked Hopkins, poking at him. Hopkins ducked and blocked, controlling the pace not with his arms but with his feet. He kept one step ahead of Dawson by keeping his lead left foot on the outside of Dawson’s right, pivoting in anticipation, switching directions, dragging Dawson around the ring. Twice Hopkins threw the overhand right lead followed by the head, and twice Dawson wrapped him up, a knowing look on his face. Dawson had said his plan was to throw between 70 and 90 punches per round. At the bell he’d thrown 31, Hopkins half that.
Halfway through the second round, Hopkins threw the lead right again, this time without the head, and Dawson countered with a right that Hopkins circled around. Lampley noted: “If you have a reputation as a defensive genius, as Hopkins does, you can let the air out of the bag, the fight can be lousy and dull, and you benefit from that … It’s one of the big advantages for great defenders like Hopkins and Mayweather.” As soon as he’d finished this point, as though on cue, Hopkins threw another right lead, followed by his entire body. This time, instead of absorbing it, Dawson ducked to his left, allowing Hopkins to drape over his back. He grabbed Hopkins’ left calf and right hip and straightened up, lifting Hopkins, and dropped him onto the canvas. Hopkins landed on his side, his head outside the ropes. Lampley: “That’s a tackle by Chad Dawson.” Hopkins’ face went into a grimace. Dawson waved his glove dismissively and walked off in disgust.
Hopkins floundered on his back. Referee Pat Russell told him to stay down so the doctor could look at him. Hopkins pulled himself back into the ring with his right arm.
“Can you continue?” the doctor asked.
“With one hand, yeah,” Hopkins answered, in a tone somewhere between sincerity and sarcasm.
Within seconds boos filled the Staples Center. The ring filled with people. Hopkins lumbered up and sat on his stool. Russell repeated that Dawson had not committed a foul and Hopkins would lose by technical knockout if he didn’t keep fighting — and that’s what happened, faster than it would have seemed possible. Dawson was proclaimed the winner. Kellerman hopped in the ring. Now wearing a T-shirt that read “World Champion,” Dawson told him of the toss-off, “I don’t even want to talk about that. I want to talk about the fact that Bernard Hopkins disappointed a lot of fans tonight. That’s what he did. Disappointed a lot of fans. I was looking forward to a great fight. I was looking forward to coming out there and performing. Bernard cut my night short.”
Kellerman got to Hopkins.
“The reaction of this crowd, how do you — ”
“They want me out of boxing,” Hopkins said. “They want me out of boxing. This is one of the ways to do it.”
That sourness in the gut …
In late October, the World Boxing Commission ruled the fight a technical draw, and Hopkins kept the title. The belt he’d never relinquished ? during the pandemonium, Danny Davis had snatched it back from one of Dawson’s camp. In December, the California Boxing Commission ruled it a no-contest after Pat Russell admitted he made the wrong call.
Two weeks after the fight, I sat down with Hopkins in the back room at Joe Hand’s. He lifted up his shirt to show me his shoulder, where a faint bump was apparent. He rolled it, and it clicked. “That’s the gristle that’s been building up,” he said. “Right now this shoulder feels like a toothache I didn’t get fixed.”
I pointed out that in a rematch with Antwun Echols, 11 years earlier, something similar had happened. In the sixth round, Echols picked Hopkins up and threw him to the canvas. Hopkins told the ring doctor his right arm was injured. But when Fisher suggested they stop the fight, Hopkins refused. “I can’t lose the belt that way,” he said. Hopkins went on to win by technical knockout. (Watching this, Larry Merchant remarked, “We’ve talked about his anger at the system? He’s afraid that somehow, somehow, the system will do him in if he doesn’t fight his way out of this.”)
What had changed in the decade since? I asked.
Nothing, Hopkins insisted.
“I was fighting my fight,” he said of the less-than-five-minute encounter with Dawson. “When you hear statements about age all the time, you know your opponents are reading that also, and they feeding into that. And they believe that. And they’re going in there with This an old man, he ain’t gonna be able to move, I’m gonna pressure him, pressure him, pressure him. And then they see me doing it and I’m not breathing hard. I just need them to think about that. Wait, he’s not getting tired. But I’m getting a little winded trying to hit him, and missing. And so now the match changes styles. And then I come on,” he said. “And then, after that, he sees that I go down. He sees that I’m in pain. Whether he knew or not, what the significance of that pain is, he automatically flagged me. Like ‘It’s not real, you’re faking.’ He calls me a pussy.”
Did you want to keep on fighting?
“Yes,” he said, rolling his chair up and leaning in and staring at me. “My belt’s on the line? Absolutely. Bernard, if you don’t fight it’s gonna be a TKO! I would have got up. It would have been drama at its high peak! Bernard fighting a 29 year-old 6-foot-3 southpaw Chad Dawson with one arm! That wasn’t even a conversation.” In his estimation, then, this was yet another example of the boxing establishment trying to undermine him. He’s convinced it will never stop.
He no longer needs the money. His legacy is secure. So why keep boxing?
“I still do it now because I always feel that boxing has a debt to pay that they didn’t pay to the Ray Robinsons, that they didn’t pay before me, that they didn’t pay to fighters who, humbly enough, did the right things, and still got the bad end of the powers-that-be stick.” The faint aroma of boilerplate was apparent to both of us. So he offered another answer. “The reason I don’t go away is because they telling me to go away. When you tell me to go away, I hear the warden.”
Then a third: “When a person like myself and people like me that exist has that mentality, like Bill Gates, like the Apple guy that just passed.”
“Jobs, right,” he said. “Every time they said it! ‘Why you making another phone?’ someone is saying. ‘Why you making another computer?’ And I don’t want to hear that’s not making something, not getting hit. It’s all the same. It takes energy. It takes spirit. It takes confidence. It takes I’m gonna outdo the next phone. So i4, i5, i6, i7, as long as he’d have stayed alive, you woulda outdid the iPad! … They had to debate whether Joe Frazier should be in the Boxing Hall of Fame or not. I’m making sure that it would be a felony to sit down and debate whether or not Bernard Hopkins deserves to be in the hall of fame.”
I pointed out that 50 years ago, Gay Talese wrote a profile of Floyd Patterson after Patterson had lost to Sonny Liston for the second time. Patterson admitted to Talese that he suspected he fought because he secretly thought himself a coward. Did that resonate?
Hopkins shook his head. “No. I think a coward don’t get in the ring from the beginning. I think a coward is scared to even attempt to put gloves on, let alone leave the dressing room. Every time I step in the ring, I feel so sincere about what I’m about to do. It’s always a case of death.”
Death? Did he ever face an opponent he wanted to not just beat, but hurt — kill?
“Everybody I step in the ring with I want to hurt. We’re in the hurt business. Same thing that my police record shows: assaults, assaults, assaults. Now I’m getting good money for it, without getting a criminal case. How fantastic is that? When they say great country? I’m mad at myself that I didn’t know that earlier. I would have saved about five years of hardship. You mean to tell me that I went to jail for taking five dollars, then I get to step in the ring and legally have the right to assault and physically bash somebody’s face in, possibly kill them, and then get a check? There’s no other country in the world that I would want to be in.”
And that may be Hopkins’ saving grace. For all his complaints of underpayment and insufficient appreciation, for all his self-defeating and self-serving contempt for his profession, Hopkins stays with boxing for the same irreducible, awful reason that the rest of boxing does, including us caviling fans — because in boxing, faces get bashed. He may be a neurotic infantile millionaire. He may enjoy the screams from the haters too much, and trip off the power. But that doesn’t make him any less glorious a face-basher.
“When I step in that ring, even though there’s three guys behind me and somebody’s carrying a belt and whatever, I’m alone. It’s only me. I look for no way out, nobody to help me, nobody to rescue me. And I go in there and believe it’s me against the referee, the judges, and the fighter,” he said, in what may have been his moment of purest honesty. “Me against you. I’m alone. Are you alone? Are you alone?”
What makes Hopkins a more endearing face-basher than, say, Floyd Mayweather, is that, unlike Mayweather, he’s indifferent to glamour (Lampley’s lament hinted at this). Neither Las Vegas nor California beckon — Hopkins prefers Delaware. In his 40s, he’s stopped buying $2 shirts at Costco and taken to dressing well, in an understated woolen way, and recently signed a contract to wear and promote Prada eyewear. Its main appeal, he confided, is the free glasses. As a Muslim, he necessarily lionizes Muhammad Ali and has a framed photograph of him in the pool room of his home — it shows Ali falling at the hands of the workingman’s heavyweight, Joe Frazier. Upstairs, in the kitchen, hangs a portrait of him fighting Antonio Tarver. It was not painted by a professional, but by an inmate at Graterford, where Hopkins often returns to counsel young men and check in on Smokey Wilson.
It can be argued — and in his worse moods Hopkins argues it — that he is also among the unluckiest of prizefighters. He’s cheated time, but time had it coming. Had he been born a few years earlier, he could have been part of the great middleweight era of the 1980s; a few pounds larger, the heavyweight renaissance of the ’90s. When he finally lost the middleweight title to Taylor, in 2006, after 20 defenses, it said less about the talent of Taylor, who disappeared soon after, than about the depletion of the division, once boxing’s premier battleground. “You either get rewarded or penalized by history as to whom is there for you,” Sugar said. “Part of greatness is meeting and beating other greats.”
Naazim Richardson put it another way: “Bernard won the lottery but lost the ticket.”
But Hopkins doesn’t count it unlucky that boxing is enjoying a resurgence in popularity — thanks largely to the neurotic, infantile, and supremely gifted Mayweather and sunnier personalities like Manny Pacquiao — as he makes his slow exit from the sport. If he is an aficionado’s acquired taste, Hopkins knows he has also contributed to that resurgence. Though, unlike George Foreman, he never had to make a comeback, because he never went away. Unlike his fickle fandom, Hopkins personifies boxing’s resilience. In another asinine but oddly touching display, on his 47th birthday, earlier this month, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! Auditorium in L.A. unveiled a wax statue of him. He’s also a recent addition to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Before leaving Joe Hand’s, I asked Hopkins whether he worried that boxing, its recent revival notwithstanding, was in danger of dying out in America. He thought about this for a while, and then said, “Boxing has a recession every now and then. But as long as you have people that won’t be doctors, as long as you have people that won’t be politicians, as long as you have people that won’t make $500,000 a year, you’ll have boxing. See, boxing will always survive and always be here in America because America has to have a certain balance — that is, the ghetto. The first recession didn’t kill boxing. The corruption of boxing that was well known back in the heyday of the mob didn’t kill boxing. The subterfuge and deceit that goes on now, then, the past, and in the future didn’t and won’t kill boxing.”
“Boxing ain’t going nowhere,” Hopkins said.
This is James Verini’s first article about sports. You can read his work at www.jamesverini.com.