I am a fan of long reigning, undisputed middleweight champions. In these days of Jeff Gannon, Armstrong Williams and media sources that spin news more than disseminate it; I need to clarify where I stand. The first fighter I remember rooting for was Marvelous Marvin Hagler before his fight with Thomas Hearns. I had watched Ray Mancini a couple times before that and I even remember hearing of both of Ali-Spinks fights. But before Hagler I didn’t really know or care much about boxing. Hagler and his 8 minute war with Hearns changed all of that. And it opened my eyes to middleweights; the perfect balance between the bone cracking power of heavies and the lightning speed of the lightweights.
As Bernard Hopkins’ career progressed and he piled up successful title defenses he took on the guise of the Marvelous One of this generation. In Hopkins we see a crafty, roughhewn man who toiled in relative obscurity for years, honing his skills and learning his craft away from the sparkle and glitz reserved for some of boxing’s superstars. The ex-convict turned pro-fighter, the Executioner imagery; Hopkins cultivated some of the same primal archetypes that the bald skull and the punches he’d throw at himself before the bell, did for the Marvelous One. They also share the Philadelphia connection.
For Hagler, some of his toughest fights and two of his three losses took place in Philadelphia. Bernard Hopkins is the first born and bred Philadelphia middleweight king; it seems natural to imagine the two in the ring against each other. And it is because we can envision them squaring up, feinting at each other, slipping and winging bombs; because we can see it so vividly we know Hopkins now occupies that legendary place in boxing that is reserved for only the greatest of champions. So when this writer had the opportunity to sit in on a luncheon that Hopkins was to attend at The Mohegan Sun, there was no way it could be missed.
Meeting Bernard Hopkins and listening to him speak is a privilege for anyone with a passion for the Sweet Science. He is very lean, and appears taller than expected. His eyes are clear and alert; there is no dullness in his gaze that can sometimes be seen in fighters whose careers were not as successful, filled more with punches absorbed rather than punches landed. There is no scar tissue in Hopkins’ brow and his gait is precise and sure-footed, far more like a dancer than a brute.
The occasion that brings this luncheon to Todd English’ Tuscany is a press conference to announce an upcoming bout that features Hopkins’ cousin, Willie Gibbs. The undercard features promoter Rich Cappiello’s newly signed prospect Elvin Ayala who is also present. It is Ayala’s presence and the way Hopkins begins speaking to the young man across the table immediately giving him tips about lifestyle and training that first gets Bernard Hopkins talking.
After the formalities of the press conference it is Hopkins’ turn to speak again and once turned on there is no turning off Bernard Hopkins. He is never at a loss for words. And the words are never uninteresting or uninspiring. He cut his teeth at Graterford State Penitentiary; spending five years, his adolescence, 17 to 23, behind bars. It isn’t long before he references his time there and what it taught him.
“So, I say again, I’m not that lucky. There’s a reason why things happen in the life of Bernard Hopkins. And I go back to this simple word…It’s a simple word…certain educated people don’t have the common sense of realizing that. Patience. How’d you get it, Bernard? I got it when I was 17 years old. You think I didn’t think about escaping? Some people hang themselves, some people went crazy. Patience…You gotta understand, it takes patience to be a young person in a situation where you can’t walk out when you want…”
There is a man at the table, a friend of the promoter who is also an ex-con, a man who Capiello reports as having spent 34 years under lock and key. Hopkins turns in the man’s direction, yielding a sort of instant street cred to this unnamed man.
“I should shut up and let him talk,” says Hopkins. The room fills with laughter but Hopkins is serious.
“’Cuz the bottom line is, we have a relationship. I don’t know him, he don’t know me…Listen if I was saying anything that wasn’t accurate he would have cut me off a long time ago,” Hopkins smiles. Gesturing towards the rear wall of the dining room and the numerous bottles standing on the shelves, Hopkins gets everyone laughing some more about the prospect of this hardened ex-con using whatever he had to as a weapon.
“Because he’s got all these weapons here…these French bottles of wine…He knows survival tactics,” Hopkins says respectfully. And perhaps it is this that makes him fundamentally different than his nemesis, Roy Jones Jr.
Roy knows it too, I think. Jones has always admired the ferocious, the bloody thirsty, even though Roy’s boxing skills were not born out of that same source material. Why does Jones love the pit bulls and fighting roosters? Not because of their careful business savvy or their mastery of making an opponent miss, he admires their willingness to blood themselves in their need to do harm to the opposition. Hopkins was forged in the crucible of prison where violence and brutality are instruments through which one gains respect or keeps himself alive, that world where men tie bed sheets round their necks to choke off the pain of passing time.
When Hopkins talks of life of the sword and by the sword there is no mistaking he knows his subject. He isn’t ashamed to speak of his past transgressions or the time he served; there is no embarrassment or showing off in mentioning his incarceration.
“I don’t say it to brag or bullshit,” Hopkins says. And no one doubts him.
End of Part One…
Continue: Part 2 (Interview) Hopkins speaks on many things including Trinidad - Winky
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