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Behind the Scenes with The Executioner

Bernard Hopkins
Tom Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions
Glory came late to Bernard Hopkins, arguably the best over-forty fighter ever. He restated his case for greatness against Winky Wright

BERNARD HOPKINS is unique as a fighter in that he will be remembered more for what he accomplished in the ring when he was old than when he was young. That became clear on July 21, 2007, when at age 42, he defeated Ronald “Winky” Wright at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Boxing fans are familiar with the Hopkins saga. At age 18, he was sentenced to five-to-12 years in prison for multiple street crimes. “I don’t blame the judge,” he said later. “I’d been in court thirty times in two years. What else was he supposed to do?”

For fifty-six months, Hopkins was one of 3,000 inmates in Graterford State Penitentiary in Pennsyvania. When he was released at age 23, he had meager vocational skills and little margin for error. Then he turned to boxing and lost his first pro fight. He sat out the next 16 months, returned to the ring in 1990, and was defeated only once over the next 15 years. That was by Roy Jones in a 1993 IBF middleweight title bout when Bernard didn’t takes the risks he needed to take and was outboxed over 12 rounds. Then Jones went up in weight and, in 1995, Hopkins captured the IBF middleweight crown with a seventh-round knockout of Segundo Mercado. Ultimately, he made 20 consecutive title defenses. When he beat Felix Trinidad in a 2001 title-unification bout at Madison Square Garden, he achieved superstar status.

The Trinidad fight was the first time that Hopkins’s age was weighed against him in the pre-fight predictions. Bernard was 36; Felix was 28. But Hopkins dominated from start to finish and knocked his undefeated opponent out in the 12th round.

Bernard’s second signature victory – a ninth-round knockout of Oscar De La Hoya – came three years later. But in 2005, at age 40 against Jermain Taylor, Hopkins faltered. He came into the Taylor fight with a 20-1-1 record in world-championship contests and the third-longest championship reign in boxing history (10 years, 82 days). But Taylor outfought him en route to a razor-thin split-decision triumph and did it again by unanimous decision five months later.

At that point, a lot of people thought Hopkins was done as a fighter. After all, most boxers fade badly when accosted by Father Time. Sugar Ray Robinson was 37-15-4 after his 35th birthday. Marvin Hagler and Carlos Monzon were retired at 35. And while Hopkins’ signature victories over Trinidad and De La Hoya were against legitimate Hall of Famers, it was noted that they were Hall of Famers who had moved up to middleweight after beginning their careers 140 and 130 pounds respectively.

Then, confounding his critics, Hopkins went up in weight and seized the light-heavyweight crown with a dominant performance against Antonio Tarver. That redefined his legacy. One could make a credible argument that, at age 41 (his age on June 10, 2006, when he beat Tarver by unanimous decision), Bernard was among the best over-40 fighters ever.

Hopkins could be smart and foolish, diplomatic and brusque, funny and mean, charming and cruel. At times, he was wise. He didn’t like being wrong and rarely admitted it when he was. Among the thoughts he uttered were:

*          “In the ring, I’m a dangerous guy. I destroy careers. I ruin other people’s dreams.”

*          “There’s a time to be humble and a time for war. Boxing is war. It ain’t no joke. It ain’t no show. You have to think violent. I’m not shy when it comes to inflicting pain on people.”

*          “Nothing is fair, what fighters do. You hit behind the head? It’s not legal but it happens. There’s no such thing as a dirty fighter to me. It’s just an opportunity. Don’t cry and complain to the referee, We’re not in church; we’re fighting. If you want to not get a bruise, then go play golf.”

*          “In the ring, there’s a chance you can die or become a vegetable. I would rather it be him than me.”

But a mean streak only helps a fighter if he has the skills to go with it. Hopkins had the tools of a great fighter. He had remarkable genetic gifts. But the key to his success was his work ethic. He was always in shape and rarely walked around at more than a few pounds above his fighting weight.

“Bernard gives more of himself than any fighter I’ve ever known,” Naazim Richardson, who trained Hopkins in his later years, said. “Most fighters, if they tried to do what Bernard does, they’d break. There are very few human beings who can give what Bernard gives, mentally or physically. Sometimes you have to tell him to back off and slow down. I’ve never seen a fighter get up mentally fight after fight like Bernard does. Each time he steps in the ring, it’s like his first championship fight. Every trainer who ever lived would like to work with a fighter like Bernard Hopkins.”

Boxing is about who executes best in the fractions of a second when an opening is there. The outcome of a fight is determined by which fighter does what has to be done in those fleeting slivers of time. Forget about the costume mask and executioner’s hood that Hopkins sometimes wore to the ring. He was a smart conservative boxer who adhered to the view that every move mattered.

“I’m not a guy who comes to blast you out of there,” Bernard said. “I’ve never considered myself a one-punch knockout artist. I’m more of a technician. I take my time. I dissect. Eventually, I’ll beat you up.”

“Bernard is not a football player,” Richardson noted. “Bernard is not a basketball player. Bernard is a fighter. He’s one of the few out there today who has truly learned the craft of boxing.”

Hopkins-Wright was a crossroads fight for both men.

Wright was the antithesis of Hopkins. His public persona was easy-going. He didn’t stir passions. He just quietly did his job and hadn’t lost over the previous seven-and-a-half years, a span that included two victories over Shane Mosley and another over Felix Trinidad.

Age matters in boxing. Wright opened as a 6-to-5 betting favorite, in large part because of Hopkins’s 42 years, although, as Bernard pointed out, “Winky is 35; he ain’t no spring chicken either.”

 “We’re going to force this fight,” Dan Birmingham (who had trained Wright since Winky’s amateur days) said. “We’re going to set a fast hard pace. You look at Winky’s past fights; he’s landed punches every five to 10 seconds on every opponent, and Bernard’s not going to be any exception. We’re coming right at him. We’re going to start this fight hard and we’re going to finish this fight hard right up until the last second. We’re going to make Bernard fight. And if they think they’re going to wear us down, then I’m glad they’re thinking that way because it’s not going to happen.”

“I know how to win,” Wright added. “I’m gonna kill the boogey-man. People don’t have to be scared no more. The boogey-man will be gone.”

Hopkins, of course, had a contrary view.

“There is no puzzle in a boxing ring that I can’t solve,” Bernard said. “This fight is based on who can figure out the puzzle and make the other guy do what he don’t want to do. Winky is like a turtle. He likes to go into his shell, but I’ve seen every style and fought every style. I know everything that Winky has, and I also know that Winky don’t have as many weapons in his arsenal as I do. I’m going to get the turtle to stick his head out of his shell and then I’m going to knock it off. I’m undefeated against southpaws; ten and oh with nine knockouts. There’s nothing Winky can do that will surprise me. Winky’s going to get hit more in this fight than he’s been hit in any fight in his life. Winky thinks he’s better than me. I know I’m better than him. I’ll beat him and beat him until that drop of water where you didn’t fix the ceiling tears the floor up.”

There was also the matter of size. The contract weight for the fight was 170 pounds. At six-foot-one, Hopkins was three inches taller than Wright. His most recent fight (against Tarver) had been at 175 pounds. By contrast, Winky had never fought above 160.

“Do you know what it took with this body for me to make 160 pounds all those years,” Hopkins asked rhetorically. “I went through torture for 13 years to make 160 pounds. I’ve got a new body now, and it’s like driving a new car.”

Boxing needs competitive fights between elite fighters. Hopkins-Wright was that kind of match-up. Both men were in the top-five on virtually everyone’s pound-for-pound list. Neither man had ever been knocked out. Their encounter was for the Ring Magazine light-heavyweight championship belt, which was a bit disingenuous given the 170-pound contract weight. But as Bernard observed, “One of the great things about fighting for the Ring belt is that there are no sanctioning fees.”

Bernard Hopkins entered dressing room #4 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena at 5:55 on Saturday night. A rush of “smart” money had raised the odds to 9-to-5 in Wright’s favour.

Hopkins was wearing blue jeans and a black-and-gold hooded shirt with a navy-blue doo-rag on his head. Sitting in a cushioned chair, he put his feet up on a folding chair in front of him and smiled.

“I slept all afternoon,” he said. “Weighed myself in the hotel right before I left; 184 pounds tonight.”

For most of the next two hours, Hopkins chatted amiably with those around him. He was remarkably relaxed with a kind word for everyone who was part of his team.

Freddie Roach had assumed the role of lead trainer for the fight because Naazim Richardson had been hospitalised for five weeks after suffering a stroke. But Naazim was in the dressing room too, having taken solid steps toward recovery. His speech was good and he was moving well although there was still some weakness on his left side.

“How you feel, Naazim?” Hopkins asked.

“Blessed to be here with my warrior.”

Bernard turned to cutman Leon Tabbs.

“Leon, my man. I ain’t needed you yet, but it’s good to know you’re here.”

“I’m ready, champ.”

The dialogue continued with others.

“How’s your wife? How’s your kids?”

There was a 50-inch flat-screen television at the far end of the room. Michael Katsidis was in an undercard fight against Czar Amonsot that was developing into a bloody brawl.

Hopkins took off his jeans and shoes and pulled on a pair of royal-blue boxing trunks. Then he sat down again and stretched out his legs. Richardson covered his chest and legs with towels.

Bernard leaned back and closed his eyes.

“That’s a time when all sorts of whispers cross my mind,” he said later. “So I shut out the world and think about my mom.”

No one talked. The only voices heard were those of Bob Sheridan and Dave Bontempo on the international television feed. Bernard opened his eyes periodically to watch the action on the screen unfold.

Everything was methodical, measured, and calm. Bernard took a sip from a bottle of water. “No sense using up energy now,” he said. “I can turn it on and off. Watch me when the time comes.”

At seven o’clock, assistant trainer John David Jackson went next-door to watch Wright’s hands being wrapped.

Roach began taping Hopkins’s hands.

Katsidis-Amonsot ended and the semi-final bout between Oscar Larios and Jorge Linares began.

At 7:20, the taping was done. Bernard lay down on a towel on the floor and began a series of stretching exercises, his first physical activity since entering the dressing room.

Referee Robert Byrd came in and gave the fighter his pre-fight instructions. After Byrd left, Hopkins stretched some more and began shadow-boxing.

At 7:45, Bernard gloved up and began working the pads with Roach.

“Somebody cut a towel and put it over my head,” he said after five minutes of work. “I’m sweating like a mother**ker.”

At eight o’clock, the pad-work stopped and the room fell silent. There was a prayer in Arabic, ending with “Allahu Akbar” [God is great].

More pad-work with Roach.

“How much time?” Hopkins asked. “What are we working with?”

Richardson looked at the television monitor. “Ninth round,” he answered.

“Naazim,” Bernard said, still hitting the pads. “They couldn’t keep you in no bed.”

“This ain’t your first time down this path,” Richardson responded. “Just be you, soldier. Nobody ever made you fight at their pace. You control.”

Linares stopped Larios in the 10th round.

Hopkins finished hitting the pads with Roach, sat down on a folding metal chair, and stretched his legs out on the floor. Then he opened his mouth and, with his tongue, pushed out a bridge of false teeth.

“It’s all mental,” he said. “That’s what great fighters are made of. But the psychological stuff means nothing if you can’t fight.”

Hopkins stood up. Now there was a street-alley sneer on his lips. His eyes were mean.

The Executioner was ready to kill.

It was a good fight; two extremely talented professionals each of whom had come to win. In the early going, they traded rounds. Wright showed his jab, and Hopkins was Hopkins. He boxed and mauled, taking what was given to him and more. Regardless of age, he still had a nasty righthand lead that scored when Wright stood still for a fraction of a second in front of him.

Early in round three, a clash of heads opened a hideous gash on Wright’s left eyelid. It was ruled unintentional. But Bernard’s head movement, more than Winky’s, was the cause. Thereafter, Hopkins compounded the handicap by rubbing his head and gloves against the cut from time to time, not to mention punching at it. On several occasions, Robert Byrd warned Bernard about holding and using his head on the inside. But he never took a point away and ignored the occasional low blow.

The first six rounds saw a lot of action with Wright forcing the pace. Then the action slowed. After eight stanzas, the fight was close. But the final rounds belonged to Hopkins, who emerged victorious on the judges’ scorecards by a 117-111, 117-111, 116-112 margin.

“Winky comes to fight,” Bernard acknowledged in his dressing room after the bout as Leon Tabbs held an ice-pack to the swelling around his left eye. “Winky can be dead tired and he still does what he does. Winky don’t go away when things get tough, and Winky is strong.”

Remarkably, after beating Wright, Hopkins fought for another nine years. He had one last big win left in him; a unanimous decision triumph over Kelly Pavlik in 2008. But there were losses to Joe Calzaghe, Chad Dawson, and Sergey Kovalev and, at age 51, a career-ending knockout defeat at the hands of Joe Smith. His final Hall of Fame ledger stands at 55 wins, 8 losses, and 2 draws with 32 of his wins coming by way of knockout. He loved fighting but acknowledged that there was a downside to being a professional boxer: “You do get hit.”

Thomas Hauser’s email address is thomashauserwriter@gmail.com. His next book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing  – will be published by the University of Arkansas Press this autumn. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. He will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame with the Class of 2020.

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