A FEW hours after Bernard Hopkins beat Felix Trinidad, I was having poached eggs with Budd Schulberg and he was telling me about arresting Leni Riefenstahl.
“She was beautiful,” Budd told me that morning. “But she mixed with evil men.”
I was in a city where other evil men had done their work a few weeks earlier and forced the fight to be pushed back two weeks. The dust was still heavy from the fallen towers during my unforgettable five days in New York City. Budd had coughed as we emerged that Sunday morning, the sun bright and the memory of a truly epic fight, 12 rounds at middleweight, the night before at the Garden fresh in our heads.
“It really was one of the finest,” Budd added. I agreed.
The words and sound of Ray Charles singing America the Beautiful as Bernard walked to the ring lingered. What a night. In the seats next to me, hundreds of firemen clutched each other in desperate grips and cried and howled. Many came straight from the ruins of the twin towers, dust and dirt still smeared on their faces, broken only by their tears. They had filed in at 9.45pm, a show of walking defiance and the greatest standing ovation I have ever heard. It was a drama, make no mistake.
Don King dabbed at his eyes, waved his two flags and nodded at the men and women of the police and fire service. The place was wet with sorrow and grief and then Hopkins walked to the ring. And Ray Charles sang.
The ring had been full before the first bell. Roberto Duran, Emile Griffith, Jake LaMotta and Vito Antoufermo. Icons on a night of pride, more than just a parade – they were men who had their big nights in New York City.
I made a little note about King’s flags: “His flags have faded so much; they look like relics from a battle. Flags displayed in a museum.” They blended in on a night washed clean of colour by the horror just a few miles away.
Tito wore a policeman’s hat; Hopkins a red mask and his team held up firemen’s helmets. Oh, boy. And Ray Charles sang.
The old Garden had been many things over the years, that night it was the scene of a global and very public wake for the thousands that died. It was also the perfect venue for the delayed and truly brilliant Trinidad and Hopkins fight.
The pair had met at the conference, not the one in Puerto Rico where Hopkins stood on the flag. This was the one, four days before the fight, where Hopkins offered Tito some beans and rice. Even King knew that was clunky. However, Hopkins was magnificent with his time that day, talking about the terrorists, talking about his firm beliefs in Islam and talking about the fight.
“Those guys that took the planes and did what they did,” Hopkins said. “They followed a message like a soldier – don’t be a follower, because it can lead you straight to the hellfire. Ask questions, look for answers; read the book.” He was on edge, ready. By the way, he was getting a guarantee of six million dollars less than Tito’s guarantee. Hopkins just knew; the bookies had 40-and-zero Tito as their favourite.
King finished the conference by asking everybody to just pause for a second and then told us: “Tell someone you love ’em.” Ten minutes later, Hopkins said: “There’s no love in the air. I have to block out what happened.” It was cold, very Hopkins. His black bandanna had three letters in white: WAR. He had 500 made before the attack. Sensitive executives at the Garden and on television decided to let him continue wearing it. “It’s war in boxing for him, it’s always war in boxing for him,” King pointed out. Hopkins would have refused to drop the simple fighting message. “I’m not looking to cash in on a tragedy,” he said. “I’m at war, I’m always at war.”
King and Tito had visited Engine Company No. 54 and King never mentioned the fight. The city was consumed by the death and destruction, but King had rightly, in my opinion, refused to move the fight to Las Vegas or Detroit. “New York City deserved it,” King insisted.
Hopkins had been in New York when the attack happened. He had watched the smoke. He was due to train at the Waterfront gym in the shadow of the Twin Towers that day at 11am. He had flown in from Las Vegas two days earlier. “I saw the first plane; I thought it was nuts. I saw the second plane, that was it. I forgot all about the fight,” Hopkins told me. It was part of the revised week.
It was set for the wonder in the ring. Hopkins in masterclass. Tito broken, his father in tears. The end in the last round was brutal. At nine, Tito’s father intervened. It was a special fight. Never forget it or the city or the crime.
I spoke to Lou DiBella, a fight fixer and fixture in New York for so long, in the waiting huddle at the post-fight press conference. He still seemed a bit dazed. “I can’t remember a time when a great fighter at his peak was beaten so thoroughly and totally.” DiBella was Hopkins’ adviser for the fight.
Hopkins was gracious that night, respectful, kind to the man he had just ruined. Trinidad was broken, I could see and sense that after the fight – he was broken in the way unbeaten fighters, who have been told they are unbeatable, suffer when they lose. “I said for months it would be an easy fight,” Hopkins added. He was so right on the night, so perfect, so Hopkins.
Yep, Bud, it really was one of the finest.