Street fighter Bernard Hopkins continues to defy expectations

On Saturday the ex-con from North Philly will fight for the 65th and final time, aged 51

One long ago October Tuesday evening in Atlantic City, two men climbed through the ropes to make their professional debuts. One was an ex-con from North Philly, fresh out of a five-stretch in the joint where he’d taken on all-comers inside and, sometimes, outside the ring.

The other, a promising 25-year-old from Brooklyn, trailing a Golden Gloves pedigree. There is no extant report of this long-forgotten light-heavyweight clash save for the agate type that denotes a facile victory for the New Yorker. A majority decision after four rounds, a footnote in fistic history.

The winner, Clinton Mitchell, fought only four more times in a career truncated by diabetes and was last heard of working as a security guard in Harlem. In defeat, Bernard Hopkins took home $350 and the certain knowledge he was so far away from being ready to compete that he didn't box again for nearly 18 months.

All the more remarkable then that at The Forum in California on Saturday, 28 years later, he fights for the 65th and last time. A month short of his 52nd birthday, headlining a live show on HBO, simultaneously capturing the best and worst of the sport.


Street fighter

A street fighter of old cliché, prepared to do whatever is necessary to win, including liberal use of the elbows and head, Hopkins never shirked a challenge and, unlike many of his peers, always sought out the best available opponent in and around his weight class.

Between 1995 and 2005, he successfully defended his middleweight crown 20 consecutive times and, a by-product of boxing’s ridiculous alphabet soup of rival governing bodies, became the first fighter to unify four belts in one division.

Among the names on his Hall of Fame resume are Roy Jones Jr, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Jermain Taylor. In 2011, he surpassed George Foreman as the oldest man to win a genuine world title, and, perhaps most amazingly given the way the sport traditionally operates, managed to make and to keep a small fortune, even buying a minority stake in De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions. All of which begs the question as to why somebody in their sixth decade, with no pressing financial need, is still lacing them up.

“Just because you started off one way don’t mean the ending of the book has to be the way you started,” said Hopkins last week. “Most people remember the ending of the book more than the beginning and the middle. To make them talk about the book, they must have a memory of the ending. I am the ending of my book.”

In a game rife with exploitation, maybe his greatest achievement is retaining control of his own narrative and, even by boxing standards, this is a particularly epic tale. Growing up in Philadelphia’s notorious Raymond Rosen projects, his father was a drug addict, and his mother a drinker. Stabbed three times in his early teens, he joined a gang and put together a lengthy rap sheet that included assault, armed robbery, drug possession, and making terroristic threats. The most troubled part of his story culminated in an 18-year sentence to Graterford Prison. At 17.

He was inside when his brother Michael was shot dead. The trigger man ended up in the same institution though wisely chose to serve his time in lock-up, away from the general population. Away from Hopkins. “I’m glad he did. I’d have been forced to kill him or get him killed.”

Behind bars, Hopkins witnessed the customary panoply of horrors, including rape and murder, and found enough solace in the Koran to become a Sunni Muslim. He also discovered a former boxing prospect, Smokey Wilson, whiling away a life sentence (for gunning down a 15 year old on a Philadelphia street) in the gym, passing on his ring craft. He ended up training the newcomer to several prison championships.

“You’ll be back here in six months,” shouted a warden as Hopkins left Graterford for the last time.

Second act

Smokey and boxing ensured that when he did return it was in 2005 to unveil a mural in his honour. By that point, his legend was already secure even if after Taylor finally dethroned him, the clock appeared to be ticking on his career. An impressive and ground-breaking second act as a light-heavyweight in his mid-40s drew plaudits but sparked inevitable speculation about steroid use. Strenuously denying any allegations of cheating, he instead ascribes his longevity to a famously tee-total, almost ascetic lifestyle.

Age finally caught up with him against Sergey Kovalev two years ago. Downed in the first, he rose and somehow stayed in for the duration, despite losing every round. Whether courageous or stupid at 49, it was definitely an ignominious way for a champion to bow out.

Which may explain why he hasn’t fought since and his final opponent is the unheralded Joe Smith Jnr. A 27-year-old construction worker from Long Island who has only fought once on national television, Smith is a puncher with a better back story than a future at the elite level. Yet, after all these decades, Hopkins’ name retains enough wattage to turn this bout into an event.

“I’m about to be 52 with more than 60 fights and I can still hold a sentence,” he said.

The temptation when talking about any retiring boxer is to worry and to wonder for how long.