ON April 28, 2012, Chad Dawson fought a rematch against Bernard Hopkins at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Hopkins’ World Boxing Council light-heavyweight title was on the line. But the stakes were higher than that for Dawson.
Dawson got into boxing at a young age. His father, Rick Dawson, fought professionally from 1982 through 1984 and compiled a 1-6-1 record. The one fighter he did beat finished his career with three wins against 48 losses and 30 KOs.
Prior to facing Hopkins, Dawson had beaten some good fighters; most notably Eric Harding, Tomasz Adamek, Glen Johnson (twice), and Antonio Tarver (twice). His one loss was a technical-decision defeat at the hands of Jean Pascal in a fight cut short by an ugly gash caused by a head butt above Chad’s left eye. At various time, he had held the WBC and IBF 175-pound titles.
“My father took me to the gym when I was eight and put me in the ring with my older brother, Ricky,” Chad would reminisce at the peak of his own career. “Ricky gave me a bloody nose, but it was no big thing. He did that at home all the time.”
“This is just my opinion,” Dawson added, choosing his words carefully. “But my father didn’t have a good career and the truth is, I don’t think he expected me to make it. He looks at me now, and I think he’s saying, ‘I was there; I could have done it.’ All the things he wanted to do in boxing, I’m doing them now. And he says to himself. ‘That should have been me.’ He doesn’t get as much joy out of what I’ve done in boxing as I’d like him to.”
Four years after Rick Dawson retired, Bernard Hopkins turned pro following a 56-month period of incarceration in Graterford State Penitentiary.
“I didn’t plan what happened to me in boxing,” Hopkins said later. “I planned to not get in trouble again. I never wanted to go back to prison. So I did things right and made myself the best that I could be, and great things happened.”
In the ring, Hopkins projected an aura of strength, physically and mentally. He talked like a street fighter but fought like a scientific one. “I love the fundamentals of boxing,” Bernard said. “I love the art of boxing. I love the hit and not get hit. I love that you can be aggressive but you can be aggressive smartly. It keeps my fire always burning. Yes, you’re seeing talent. Yes, you’re seeing genetics and a little bit of good fortune. But what you’re really seeing are the benefits of planting my crops; taking care of my life, my body, and my mind. I’ve invested in eating the best foods, staying away from drinking and smoking and partying. There’s people who hate me but they respect me. I didn’t kiss ass. I didn’t sell out. I didn’t buck dance. Nobody gave me anything. I fought my way to the top. I took it. I’m cut from a different cloth than other fighters.”
Hopkins and Dawson had met in the ring once before – on October 15, 2011, with Bernard’s WBC title up for grabs. In round two, Dawson had picked up the pace with Hopkins trying to blunt the action. With 22 seconds left in the stanza, Bernard missed with a right hand, leveraged himself onto Dawson’s upper back, and appeared to deliberately push his right forearm down on the back of Chad’s neck. At the same time, he wrapped his left arm around Dawson’s torso to steady himself and apply additional pressure to Chad’s neck.
“Bernard was on his back and was more physical than he should have been,” HBO commentator Emanuel Steward noted later.
Consider for a moment what it feels like to have Bernard Hopkins climb onto your back and jam his forearm into your neck. The intelligent response is to throw him off as fast as possible, which is what Dawson did to keep Hopkins (who was fouling) from damaging the back of his neck.
Chad rose up and, using his shoulder, shoved Bernard up and off. Hopkins fell backward to the canvas, landed hard on his left elbow and shoulder, and lay there in apparent pain. In response to questioning from a ring physician and referee Pat Russell, he said that he couldn’t continue unless it was “with one hand.” Russell then ruled that Bernard’s trip to the canvas was not caused by a foul and declared Dawson the winner by knockout at 2 minutes and 48 seconds of the second round.
“He ran from me for three years,” Dawson said in a post-fight interview. “I knew he didn’t want the fight. He keeps talking about Philly and about being a gangster. He’s no gangster. Gangsters don’t quit. He’s weak physically and mentally. He has no power. I was going to get on him, and he knew it.”
Then, after a hearing, the California State Athletic Commission reached the dubious conclusion that the result of the fight should be changed to “no contest.” That ruling allowed Hopkins to retain his Ring Magazine and WBC belts and led Dawson to declare, “I really don’t believe Hopkins was hurt. We didn’t see any doctor’s notes or anything like that. I’m going to keep saying this; Bernard did not want to be in the ring with me that night. Maybe he undertrained and he didn’t expect to see what he saw. Maybe he needed more time to get in better shape. I don’t know; but I know I looked into Bernard’s eyes, and Bernard did not want to be in the ring that night.
“Courage isn’t crying and complaining and pretending you got hit low or your shoulder is hurt when things aren’t going your way,” Dawson continued. “A real champion gets up off the canvas and tries to fight. Bernard Hopkins is the opposite of courage. What he did to me in that fight; that was going to be my night, and he took it away from me by play-acting and crying. I lost all respect for him. I don’t like him, I think he’s a phony.”
In due course, the fighters signed for a rematch. But Dawson was forced to accept the short end of a 70-30 purse split as a consequence of Hopkins’ “injury” in their first encounter. That left Chad uncharacteristically angry.
Dawson is a softspoken man with a gentle demeanor, a bit on the shy side with strangers but talkative when he feels comfortable with someone. “My father had seven children by the time he was 21,” Chad told this writer in the days leading up to Hopkins-Dawson II. “I have four brothers and two sisters. None of us has ever been in jail. We might not be the smartest people you’ll ever meet, but none of us has a criminal record. Our parents taught us to be good.”
Chad and his wife, Crystal, had four sons. “I enjoy being a father,” Dawson told me. “I’m most happy when I’m in my house with my kids. When I was little, my father never took me to school. I take the three oldest to school every morning; pick them up after school too. Having kids made me grow up a lot. I’m a lot more responsible now than I was before. My brothers and sisters and I grew up poor. I don’t want my kids not to have the things they need to live right, but there’s a line you have to draw. I’m still learning how to say ‘no’ to them.
“It’s hard to get me mad,” Dawson continued. “I’m not an angry person. But some of the stuff that goes on in the world; I watch the news a lot and I hate it when I see people hurting other people, especially kids. I don’t understand how a father and mother can hurt their own kids, but they do.”
The knock against Dawson was that he lacked the fire inside that makes a fighter great; that he fought like he’d rather be doing something else. “I hear the criticism,” Chad said, “But most of it comes from guys who never put on a pair of gloves in their life, so I brush it off.”
Still, Dawson was prone to adding to the conventional perception of his approach to boxing with thoughts like, “When I’m waiting in the dressing room before a fight, I want it to be over… Training camp is hard for me. Most of the time, I’d rather not be there. One of the kids starts talking and I’m not with him to hear it or there’s something else I miss that’s going on with my family… Right now, boxing is more of a job for me than anything else… I don’t like stupid stuff, ugliness, greed, disrespect. And I’ve been in boxing a long time, so I’ve run into a lot of stupid. If I didn’t have a wife and kids, I’d probably have given it up by now. But if I wasn’t in boxing, I don’t know what I’d do. Probably nine-to-five somewhere, go home at the end of the day, and not worry about getting hit. You don’t want to get hit. It’s a bad feeling.”
Meanwhile, Dawson’s disdain for Hopkins was on display when the fighters met at Planet Hollywood in New York for a press conference to promote their rematch.
“I want to make one thing clear,” Chad told the assembled media. “I came to fight, and he pulled a stunt. Legends don’t act the way this guy acts. Legends don’t do the things this guy does. Legends don’t punk out.”
Then Dawson stepped away from the podium, stared directly at Hopkins, and challenged, “Don’t be a punk this time.”
★ ★ ★
Chad Dawson arrived in his dressing room at Boardwalk Hall on fight night at 8.20pm. The core of Team Dawson was with him. Trainer John Scully, lawyer-advisor Walter Kane, cutman Rafael Garcia, strength and conditioning coach Axel Murrillo, Steve Geffrard (one of three sparring partners Chad had worked with in training camp), Chad’s father, his brother Jermaine, camp aide Charles Robinson, and “G” (a close friend).
Dawson sat on a folding cushioned metal chair and put his feet up on another chair in front of him. He spent the next 35 minutes in that posture, listening to music through a pair of headphones with his eyes closed, nodding his head in rhythm to the sounds that were echoing through his mind.
At 8.55pm, referee Eddie Cotton came in to give Chad his pre-fight instructions. “The referee will be important,” Scully had said earlier in the day. “We need a referee who’s smart enough to see what Bernard is doing and also has the mindset to stop it when Bernard goes over the line, which he’ll do as long as he gets away with it.”
Dawson removed his headphones. Cotton went through the standard litany of instructions ending with, “Do you have any questions?”
Scully held out his hands, palms up. “You know,” he began.
“I know,” Cotton interrupted. “I saw the last fight.”
Scully proceeded to list a series of tactics that Hopkins had employed throughout his ring career.
Cotton, as referees always do, promised to keep a close eye on things.
After Cotton left, Dawson put his headphones back on and resumed listening to music. At 9.15, with the headphones still on, he put on his ring shoes, stood up to see how they felt, and sat down again.
Rick Dawson went down the hall to watch Hopkins’ hands being taped. Naazim Richardson (Bernard’s trainer) arrived moments later to watch Garcia tape Dawson’s hands.
Garcia worked quickly. In 20 minutes, the job was done.
All the while, Chad’s headphones were on.
At 9.55, Dawson took off his navy blue track suit and put on his protective cup followed by steel-gray trucks with green trim. Then he began shadow-boxing in the center of the room, his first exercise of the evening.
Garcia gloved him up.
At 10.25, Chad and Scully went to work, hitting the pads in earnest. Earlier in the day, the trainer had told his charge, “There will be times tonight when you wonder what Hopkins is doing.” At that point, Scully had postured, wiggled his body, and moved his shoulders in exaggerated fashion. “He’s resting, is what he’s doing. Don’t let him do it.”
More importantly, the trainer had told Chad, “You can’t go into this fight walking on pins and needles because of what happened last time. If he pulls down on your neck again, you have to throw him off again. You cannot let him manhandle you.”
Now the instructions were orientated toward technique. “Jab . . . Jab . . . There you go. You got it . . . One jab . . . One jab . . . Double jab . . . When his hands go up, go to the body . . . Don’t let him get comfortable . . . Push him back . . . One-two . . . Hook up top . . . There you go; perfect . . . If he gives you rounds, take them big . . . Nasty jab . . . Nasty jab . . . That’s it. Stick him . . . If he comes inside, dig to the body . . . Jab . . . Long left . . . You got the legs; he doesn’t . . . One-two . . . That’s it . . . Don’t try to be perfect. Let your hands go and you’ll hit what’s there. Anything you can hit, hit it . . . Stay mentally strong . . . Close the show.”
Fifteen minutes later, Dawson was sweating profusely. Garcia helped him into his robe and Scully offered some final words of motivation. “You got too much for him, but you got to bring it. You know what you can do. Go out and do it. Be what you’re supposed to be. Take what’s yours.”
Despite being the challenger, Dawson was a 7/2 betting favorite. The general view was that he was too fast and too strong for the 47-year-old Hopkins to handle. But there was an alternative view. Too often, Dawson was a reactive fighter rather than a proactive one. His work rate could be slowed by an opponent’s inactivity. And Hopkins had a master’s degree in delay, frustration, and opportunistic counterpunching.
The ethos of the fight was set early with Dawson seeking to engage and Hopkins fighting as though he wanted a 12-round staredown. Bernard avoided exchanges to the greatest extent possible by means of lateral movement and retreat. When that didn’t work, he clutched, grabbed, led with his head, mauled, went low, hit on the break, and did everything else he could to blunt Chad’s assault.
After round four, HBO commentator Jim Lampley advised a national audience, “Somewhere, there are some great light-heavyweights rolling over in their graves at the dreadful action so far.”
Lampley’s comment came shortly after a key moment in the fight. Thirty seconds into the fourth stanza, a Hopkins head butt opened an ugly gash on the outside of Dawson’s left eye.
“Keep your composure,” Scully told his fighter between rounds. “Keep fighting. Let the cutman do his job.”
Garcia controlled the flow of blood from that point on.
Near the end of round five, Dawson spun Hopkins around and Bernard made a beeline for the ropes, looking very much like a man who wanted to dive through them to end the fight. The crowd reacted accordingly.
“It looked to me like he was starting to jump out of the ring,” Chad said in his dressing room after the fight. “And then he figured the fans wouldn’t buy it.”
As the bout progressed, Hopkins showed that he has one of the best chins in boxing. And he pulled the trigger on his righthand lead pretty fast for an old man. When Dawson landed solid shots to the head, which he did on occasion, Bernard fired back. That said; by the late rounds, Chad was landing two-for-one in exchanges and scoring well to the body.
In round 11, Hopkins was clearly tired and looking for a breather. Toward that end, he sank to the canvas in a clinch and, moments later, tackled Dawson in a move that sent both men to the canvas. Cotton had warned Bernard for infractions on several occasions earlier in the fight but had never taken a point away for cumulative fouling. That would have been an ideal time to do it.
Then came the decision of the judges. Luis Rivera’s score was announced first: 114-114, a draw. When the fighters entered the ring, Hopkins had been cheered and Dawson booed by the crowd. But the fans in attendance were fair-minded enough to react derisively to Rivera’s scorecard. Steve Weisfeld and Richard Flaherty restored sanity to the proceedings with 117-111 ledgers in Dawson’s favour.
“He’s a slick-ass fighter,” Chad said in his dressing room after the fight. “Low blows, hitting on the break; you name it, he did it. He head-butted me seven, maybe eight times. It was obvious that the head-butt that caused the cut was on purpose. There were a couple of times when I almost lost my composure because of all the dirty things he was doing. But Scully kept telling me to stay disciplined, keep the heat on, keep my composure. Don’t throw it all away on something dumb.”
Chad shook his head and smiled. “It’s funny the way things work. Now that I beat him, there’s a different feeling inside me about him than I had before. I don’t feel sorry for him. But a lot of the bad feeling I had is gone.”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Broken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honour – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.