IF ever a man proved that it’s not the mistakes but the reaction to them that’s important, it’s Bernard Hopkins.
Born on January 15 1965, Hopkins embraced the crime ridden streets and got involved; by the age of 13 he’d been stabbed, he’d dished out muggings, he’d stolen. Incarceration looked like the only destination for young Bernard and at 17, he was sentenced to 18 years inside Graterford Prison. It was there he learned to box.
Six years passed before his early release and, vowing never to return, he turned professional almost immediately. He was 23 when he lost his debut. Another six years elapsed and Bernard tirelessly honed his skills, before securing a vacant IBF middleweight title shot against Roy Jones Jnr, a man he had grown to dislike, in 1993.
Jones deserved the 12-round unanimous decision, and despite the cumbersome chess-match nature of the battle, it represented a huge turnaround for Hopkins: Convicted criminal to world title challenger. It was not enough, he knew he could do better, and the rage that fuelled his early misdemeanours fed his appetite for greatness.
18 months after his second loss, he was presented with another opportunity to claim the again-vacant IBF belt. Dropped twice, he escaped from a bull ring in Ecuador with a draw against local hero Segundo Mercado. Another blotch on his record, another lesson to ingest.
Hopkins halted Mercado in the rematch and never looked back, embarking on an incredible 10-year run atop one of the sport’s most prestigious divisions. Naysayers may point to a weak era, but an unbeaten Glen Johnson, a heavily favoured Felix Trinidad, fellow titlist Keith Holmes and the great Oscar De La Hoya were victims of repute. In all, Hopkins made 20 defences while fixing a fractured crown.
It was after beating Trinidad, in 2001, when Hopkins began to taste the respect he’d craved. Don King’s middleweight tournament had not only been designed to create one recognised king, but Trinidad was the man for whom the crown was intended. A frightening puncher, Trinidad was 40-0, but Hopkins took him to school. It was a performance of the ages, particularly when you consider Hopkins was 36 at the time.
All this makes his subsequent achievements special. When Jermain Taylor beat him twice in 2005 it looked like the end, but he rebounded to beat linear light-heavyweight boss Antonio Tarver and defend against Winky Wright. When Joe Calzaghe edged him in 2008, his then-trainer Freddie Roach urged him to quit, but he began a five-fight run that set new records and netted more gold.
Kelly Pavlik, a feared and unbeaten slugger, was exposed with shocking ease. Old rival Roy Jones Jnr, admittedly faded, barely won a round of their rematch. And then, after being held to a draw by WBC light-heavyweight champion, Jean Pascal, a 46-year-old Hopkins clearly triumphed in the return.
Two forgettable encounters with Chad Dawson failed to register a win for Hopkins, and yet again, the end looked nigh. But he was not done yet. In a glorious lap of honour, Hopkins annexed the IBF title from the previously unbeaten Tavoris Cloud – beating his own record as the oldest world king – before trumping Beibut Shumenov to add the WBA belt.
But perhaps we shouldn’t write off the oldest world champion in history, who has repeatedly illustrated if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.
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