Saturday, October 18, 2008

Bernard Hopkins is One of the Special Ones

The ageless wonder is always in exquisite chape shape and always ready for another challenge - even at age 43.

Whether you love him or hate him, one thing you can be sure of is that Bernard Hopkins is one of the special personalities that make boxing is what it is.

Over the past decade the corporate suits that now call the shots in the sport have tried to wash away the grime from professional boxing. But try as they as they might, Bernard Hopkins is a constant thorn in their side and a constant reminder of what boxing used to be and what a real prizefighter truly is.

When Bernard Hopkins is gone, this game they call boxing will be a little less like old times.

Oh sure, he can get on your nerves. And as a boxing writer there have been times when I have asked him a question and by the time he was done answering the question - I had forgotten what I had asked him. He can wear you out with his rhetoric and with his mouth as much he wears out opponents with his fists.

But that’s what makes Bernard Hopkins – Bernard Hopkins.

I’ll always remember the many occasions that I have been afforded the opportunity to be within his inner circle for an afternoon. But there is one day in particular that sticks out in my mind.

We were at the International Boxing Hall of Fame on a June afternoon back in 1999.

It was before he made it really big. Before he was known as “B-Hop.” Before he felled Felix Trinidad in New York City like the terrorists felled the Twin Towers only two weeks before. Before he humiliated Oscar De La Hoya and made him writhe on the floor in open-mouthed agony. Before he became the pound-for-pound king of the entire sport. Before he became a partner in Golden Boy Promotions and before he went on to become the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing history with a record that will likely never be broken - 20 successful defenses of the 160-pound crown.

Hopkins has always liked to talk and he is as deft in front of a microphone as he is when he is in front of an opponent.

On this day in 1999, Bernard Hopkins showed up in Canastota, New York and it was just he and his then trainer, the white-headed, toothpick chewing, Bouie Fischer. There was no entourage back then, no bodyguards and no pretensions.

He was simply Bernard Hopkins back then. Everybody knew his story of spending fifty-six dark months behind the tall walls of Graterford State Penitentiary. Everybody knew of his battles with the boxing promoters that he had summoned into courtrooms from Denver to Philadelphia to New York. Everybody knew of his rants against the establishment that he perceived to be keeping him down.

Everybody knew that he was an outspoken critic of the political crookedness within the sport that could make any straight arrow bend. Bernard Hopkins was the incorrigible, the truant that lived by his own set of rules and he was a sometimes bitter man that made you remember the hardened molds of Larry Holmes and Marvin Hagler.

But all along, Hopkins seemed to feel that if he talked loud enough and long enough that his life in boxing would take a turn for the better. Even then he alluded to what the future might hold for him.

“I always knew that I’d get another opportunity in life to redeem myself,” he told me on that afternoon as he and I and Angel Manfredy watched a video of him knocking out William ‘Bo’ James. “The boxing business can’t break my spirit and neither could the penitentiary.”

And then as he watched Bo James slowly unravel again before his eyes to become his third title defense victim, he asked me: “Did you see that bodyshot?”

I answered him that, “Yes, I did.”

“I was aiming for the liver. I always aim my punches. Let me make one thing clear to you,” he said. “Nothing I ever do in the ring is by accident. Everything has a purpose, every punch has a reason.”

Hopkins was brilliant against Antonio Tarver in June 2006 when he won a unanimous decision and recognition as the Light Heavyweight champion.

And let me tell you, when Bernard Hopkins looks right at you, I mean right at you, he doesn’t leave you much choice but to believe that what he says is the truth. He’ll also convince you that just as everything he does inside a boxing ring has a purpose – so to does everything he does outside the ring.

Watching him over the past 15 years has made me see that he is a man with a single-minded determination. He was a young 34 years old on that June day in 1999, but one look into his eyes then told you he was a man that had already lived a lifetime. And believe it or not, on that day, he told me his thoughts were about fighting Joe Calzaghe – a fight that wouldn’t actually happen for another nine years.

Looking back on what he said about Calzaghe then, it makes me understand that for Bernard Hopkins time is of no hindrance. He has no problem waiting and it’s like he says, “Prison will you give you all the patience in the world.”

So if it takes Bernard Hopkins a while to get where he wants to go, it doesn’t matter.

He spent nearly five years locked up in one of Pennsylvania’s toughest prisons, 10 years as middleweight champion and now he’s in his 20th year as a professional boxer. Here he is at age 43 getting ready to fight a 26-year-old middleweight champion destroyer named Kelly Pavlik and it’s a fight many give Hopkins a great chance to win. He is still a physical marvel that is capable of feats inside a boxing ring that most people half his age can’t even fathom.

“Age is just a number,” he says as he smiles and chuckles. And when he says it he reminds you of another happy-go-lucky ‘Old Man River’ in boxing trunks who went far into later life as a pugilist – Archie Moore.

In a boxing career that has spanned 20 years Hopkins has accomplished more than enough to ensure that he will be a first ballot hall of fame inductee.

But as much as he can be engaging and witty, Bernard Hopkins can be intimidating, too.

Quiz him on a topic that he doesn’t really want to talk about and he’ll look at you with those coal black eyes and with somewhat of a sinister sneer. All of a sudden you realize what it must have been like when he stood over unsuspecting victims in the back alleys and side streets of the Philadelphia ghetto demanding their money, their gold chains – or else.

I found that out on a May morning in 2006 in Las Vegas. We were in the media room at the MGM Grand Hotel and later that night Oscar De La Hoya would bounce Ricardo Mayorga off the canvas a few times before knocking him out in the sixth round.

But all Hopkins, who was dressed like a casual businessman in a blue blazer and a pair of jeans, wanted to talk about was what he was going to do to Antonio Tarver when he got him in the ring in another month. The very same ring that he will fight Pavlik in tonight.

I dared ask Hopkins what he would do should he lose to Tarver and he shot me a glare that, in all likelihood, I won’t ever forget. He thought for a second about his answer, which is rare for him.

“What makes you think that I could lose that fight?” he asked in an accusatory tone as he rose his chin and looked down his nose at me from across the table.

“What have you seen in me, in my career in boxing - in my life – that would ever lead you to the conclusion that Bernard Hopkins could lose to Antonio Tarver?”

I had to admit that I didn’t have an answer for that one. My eyes drifted downward, I just shook my head and didn’t say anything. Hopkins could see that I had gotten the message to back off a little bit.

Hopkins is an intense individual that will challenge fighters and writers.

And sure enough, a month later, Hopkins put on a boxing clinic and totally befuddled Tarver over twelve tortuous rounds to claim a clear unanimous decision, and as he said, “I accomplished something even my hero ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson couldn’t do – win the light heavyweight championship of the world.”

In spending some time around Bernard Hopkins over the years I’ve learned that no matter what happens when he steps through the ropes tonight in Atlantic City - the one thing you can be sure of is that you are watching an old master at work – inside the ring and out.

Everything has a purpose.

And you can be sure that Bernard Hopkins is one of the special ones.

October 2008

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