By Jack Sumner @Jack_Sumner_
When Oscar De La Hoya returned to his corner following the third round of a certain 2004 middleweight unification bout, he had to be pretty content with how the opening stanzas of the fight had unfolded.
As he positioned himself onto his stool, his trainer Floyd Mayweather Sr placed both his hands upon the Golden Boy’s shoulders and beamed a smile before delivering an assured assessment of the opponent’s chances in the fight.
“The man’s an old man. Look at me, he’s an old man. He’s looking the worst that I’ve ever seen him.”
The old man who sat across the ring was a 39-year-old Bernard Hopkins. Throughout those opening rounds, a 31-year-old De La Hoya had outworked the bigger and stronger fighter with greater activity and hand speed, with Hopkins looking as sluggish and as ‘old’ as Mayweather Sr suggested.
But early in the fourth Hopkins would step up his work-rate, landing with a hard left hook and straight right hand that got the attention of De La Hoya. Hopkins may have lost some early rounds but he hadn’t been hit cleanly by Oscar and he proved just as elusive as the fight progressed, before eventually going on to stop De La Hoya with a well-placed liver shot in the ninth.
Conventional wisdom will tell you that at 39 a fighter might be too old to compete with a champion almost a decade his junior. But Bernard Hopkins doesn’t do conventional and now 48, he’s still mixing it with elite level talent in their twenties and early thirties.
On March 9th at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, Hopkins challenges IBF light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud in a bid to break his own record as boxing’s oldest ever world champion. In May 2011, aged 46 years, 4 months and 6 days, he took that distinction from a 45-year-old George Foreman when he defeated Jean Pascal by decision for The Ring and WBC titles on the Canadian’s home soil in Montreal, Quebec.
Many felt that Hopkins should have supplanted Foreman five months earlier, when his first bout with Pascal was scored a controversial draw. But he would get the nod from the judges the second time around and, to demonstrate his youthful fitness to the watching public, or more than likely taunt and further humiliate his 28-year-old opponent, performed push-ups in his corner between rounds and immediately after the fight. Following his history making accomplishments in the Pascal rematch, Hopkins then signed to defend his titles against former champion ‘Bad’ Chad Dawson.
It was over the course of two subsequent bouts with Dawson that father time seemed to have eventually caught up with Hopkins. In their first meeting, the fight ended in bizarre and controversial fashion when Dawson lifted Bernard off the canvas during a clinch and dropped the veteran on his back, leaving his adversary with a dislocated shoulder. Dawson was surprisingly awarded a TKO victory despite not throwing a punch in the exchange, yet the result was rightfully overturned and declared a no contest ahead of a scheduled return bout. Hopkins detractors however were skeptical, accusing him of feigning injury to retain his title after realising he was way in over his head. In the rematch, Dawson emerged with a majority decision win to dethrone the Philadelphia legend and although it was a competitive encounter, most observers believed it to finally be the end of Hopkins’ great career. With waning reflexes and a hesitance to pull the trigger, he really was looking ‘old’.
That, in April of 2012, was the last time we saw Hopkins in the ring. Then, in November, came the announcement that he would return in March to take on one of the light heavyweight division’s three beltholders, Nathan Cleverly, Beibut Shumenov, or Cloud.
He announced the fight with Cloud on January 15th, which happened to be his 48th birthday and five days after his unbeaten adversary had turned 31. Inevitably a section of doubters emerged, citing the performance in the second Dawson bout as a sure-fire indication that, finally, the end was nigh for Hopkins. Nigh the end may be, but to the doubters out there be mindful before dismissing this as a last hurrah for Bernard and leave a space in those long prepared eulogies in the event of there being another chapter. As Floyd Mayweather Sr and Oscar De La Hoya found out in September 2004, you write Hopkins off at your peril. An examination of The Executioner’s career will paint a picture of a man who has time and again been underestimated, with false ascertainment that he has suddenly gotten old overnight.
“They were calling me old when I beat Trinidad.”
In 2001, Hopkins headed into his clash with the unbeaten Felix Trinidad as a 3-1 underdog. B-Hop was far from ancient, but mature to say the least at 36 and was aiming to equal Carlos Monzon’s middleweight record of 14 straight title defences. He’d dominated the 160lb division for several years and was the WBC and IBF titleholder, however the task in front of him was daunting, or at least that’s how it was perceived. Puerto Rico’s Trinidad was 28-years-old with an unblemished record of 40-0 with 33 knockouts and was regarded by many as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. After an impressive move up from light middleweight to win the WBA title via fifth-round stoppage of William Joppy, the general consensus was that Trinidad would be too fast and strong for the older champion in this unification bout. Hopkins of course didn’t see it that way and after selling the advertising space on his back for $100,000 to online casino site Golden Palace.com, placed the entire amount on himself to win the fight. That’s what you call confidence.
If only everybody else had been as confident in Hopkins, who thoroughly dominated Trinidad en route to pulling off the upset by stopping his rival in the final round to become the first undisputed middleweight champion since Marvin Hagler. It still remains perhaps the defining fight of Hopkins’ great career. Yet even after the Trinidad fight, people still thought it was safe to write off The Executioner.
Hopkins would go on to eclipse Monzon’s record with a tally of 20 succesful middleweight title defences. The 21st would come against rising star of the division Jermain Taylor, who subsequently ended Hopkins reign with a close split-decision victory that many writers at ringside scored in the champion’s favour. But after Taylor beat Hopkins more decisively in the rematch and with Hopkins approaching his 41st birthday, retirement beckoned for Bernard whose time at the top was clearly over. Instead, Hopkins shunned retirement and decided to step up two weight classes to light heavyweight, where he would challenge the recognised 175lb champion Antonio Tarver.
Hopkins delivered a boxing clinic to win a near shutout decision, dropping the ‘bigger’ man in round five and bamboozling Tarver who had no answer to Bernard’s superior ring smarts. It was a career re-birth in a new division and Hopkins followed it up with a unanimous decision victory over Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright, who hadn’t lost for over eight years and had earned a draw with Taylor two bouts previous. Another setback would follow, in the shape of a split-decision loss to Joe Calzaghe. But back came Hopkins again with a thorough dismantling of the undefeated Kelly Pavlik, seventeen years Hopkins junior and a 1-4 favourite before the fight who many picked to be the first man to knock Hopkins out.
He just keeps on going, like some kind of ageless fighting wonder and Hopkins is a totally unique case in terms of his career accomplishments at such an advanced age. You couldn’t write his career, it’s almost like the script of a movie. Rocky meets Highlander, an underdog turned immortal warrior of the boxing ring.
Not bad for a guy who was heading off the rails as a teenager and served five-years for armed robbery before leaving prison at 23. A guy that could have been in and out of jail but found employment as a roofer, struggling to finance the newfound passion for boxing that he discovered behind bars. A guy that lost his first professional fight and without his steely resolve could have hung the gloves up without a victory. Who could have foreseen then what he would go on to become? That victory in his next fight would be the first of fifty-two, and counting.
Where Hopkins is today is the result of a tremendous amount of determination and hard work and insiders say he is undoubtedly one of the hardest trainers in the sport. He is meticulous in his preparation for fights, mentally as much as physically. A fantastically well-conditioned athlete, he leaves no stone unturned when devising a gameplan for his opponents and that includes being able to get under their skin, which he seems to be able to do like no other.
He’s in bed by eight every night, up for roadwork at four the next morning and trains 365 days a year. His trademark head-down defensive style is the result of many arduous hours throwing punches with a tennis ball tucked under his chin. That cagey, trademark Hopkins style that can make any fighter look bad is perhaps the reason why he’s been able to stay at the top for so long, not taking clean punches and never being dragged into wars.
Whatever happens on March 9th and even if he spectacularly fails to rewrite his own history books, Hopkins will leave a unique and lasting legacy on the sweet science. Just like those delayed eulogies of his career has been the delay of his certain entry into the Canastota Hall of Fame. He’s fought all the best fighters of his era, or eras, and has beaten most of them emphatically. A modern-day legend, a phenomenon, there’s been no other fighter quite like Bernard Hopkins.
He may well continue to be that fighter for some time to come.