Bernard Hopkins will be two months shy of his 50th birthday when he steps into the ring in Atlantic City tonight to face the hard-hitting Sergey Kovalev for the WBA/WBO/IBF light-heavyweight belts. What does it take to be a world-champion boxer at age 49?
“There’s a god of this world,” Bernard Hopkins was saying. ‘‘Some say the mass media is the god of this world. It’s like a song, like that ‘Happy.’ They shoved it down my throat. At first I hated it. Why I got to be happy? My dog died! But it ended up being one of my favourite songs. They put one of those songs out every 20 years. No matter how bad your life is, no matter how legitimate your reasons for being upset, they say, ‘Don’t worry, be happy.’
Song’s only three minutes, then you stop being happy. The way they control human beings, like cattle. How do a sheepdog keep 50 or 100 sheeps in order? I’m watching a dog keep a herd on TV, and I’m thinking that’s the way the system got most human beings: ‘Eat this. Drink that.’”
I had at some point asked him a question about boxing, but I hadn’t really expected a straight answer. Asking Hopkins a question is like trying to hit him.
He won’t let you, but the experience of being frustrated by him can be instructive. Among other things, it can help you understand how Hopkins, the oldest champion in the history of boxing, continues to hang onto the title, his money and his considerable wits at the age of — this is not a typo — 49. Hopkins currently holds two of the four major light-heavyweight belts and will try to further unify the division’s fragmented title tonight when he faces Sergey (Krusher) Kovalev, the unbeaten Russian knockout machine who holds one of the other two belts and who, though relatively untested, is widely considered one of the deadliest seek-and-destroy punchers of any size.
Unlike most other boxers, who train down to their fighting weight only when they have a bout coming up, Hopkins keeps himself right around the 175lb light-heavyweight limit. Fight people marvel at the ascetic rigour that has kept him perpetually in superb shape for almost three decades, his habit of returning to the gym first thing Monday morning after a Saturday-night fight, the list of pleasurable things he won’t eat, drink or do. But to fetishise the no-nonsense perfection of his body, which displays none of the extraneous defined muscular bulk that impresses fans but doesn’t help win fights, is to miss what makes Hopkins an exemplar of sustaining and extending powers that are supposed to be in natural decline. He has no peer in the ability to strategise both the round-by-round conduct of a fight and also the shifts and adjustments entailed by an astonishingly long career in the hurt business. He has kept his body supple and fit enough to obey his fighting mind, but it’s the continuing suppleness of that mind, as he strategises, that always constituted his principal advantage.
Opponents don’t worry about facing his speed or power. They fear what’s going on in his head.
On a hot summer afternoon, Hopkins was having his hands wrapped in preparation for a workout at Joe Hand Boxing Gym in North Philadelphia. I had asked if he ever felt tempted to dumb down his subtle and hyper-efficient boxing style — if he ever throws more punches than his exquisite ring sense tells him is necessary to win a round (which would increase the risk of being hit in return), for the benefit of ringside judges unequipped to appreciate his nuances.
“I understand and I don’t understand human beings,” Hopkins began, warming up for the filibuster to come. “In life — I’m gonna give you life and also sport, intertwined — in life, when you start being conscious of what people are thinking or judging, you’re in trouble.” From there, he took off on his disquisition on the hegemonic power of mass media. It’s one of his favourite subjects, and also, he didn’t want to talk about judges, in keeping with his disinclination to discuss any topic related to fighting or training that might give even the slightest advantage to the large subset of the human race he regards as potential enemies.
From “Happy” and sheepdogs he segued into a critique of the US prison-industrial complex, another frequently recurring subject for Hopkins, who learned to box in his early 20s while serving five years at Graterford Prison, outside his native Philadelphia, for assorted felonies. ‘‘It’s privatised,’’ he said. ‘‘You can buy stock in prison! That means, when I do something” — illegal, he meant, that leads to imprisonment — “you can buy stock in me.” He’s not shy about pointing out that both private and public interests invest heavily in the social failure of black men. All the more satisfying, then, to have beaten the odds: ‘‘But I flipped the script on the norm.’’
Hopkins is sure that ‘‘the shot-callers and string-pullers’’ yearn for his comeuppance. They and their pawns are always after him to quit, he said.
“‘You got enough money.’ Now they counting my money! ‘We don’t want to see you get hurt.’ Where were they when I was walking off nine?” — a reference to the nine years he spent on parole following his release from prison in 1988, a period of self-reform and toeing the line that he considers the hardest thing he ever did. It’s part of a litany of young troubles and redemptive turns, a personal Stations of the Cross composed of vividly emblematic scenes from a life story that begins in the Raymond Rosen projects in North Philly and eventually arrives at the big home in suburban Delaware where he now lives. Along the way came three stab wounds collected before age 14, a prolific career as a violent street criminal culminating at 17 in an 18-year prison sentence, jailhouse rapes and a murder he witnessed, the shooting death of his brother Michael, a Quran given to him by a fellow inmate that reawakened his faith, the bracing plunge via Graterford’s boxing programme into the icy clarity of the gym and the ring, the warden who supposedly said, ‘‘You’ll be back,’’ when Hopkins was paroled.
Hopkins began play-acting a scenario in which they look for a weakness with which to bring him down. ‘‘‘We gotta discredit him. Do he drink? He don’t drink. Do he run with whores? He don’t. He lives clean. He don’t party. He don’t use drugs. Who cooks his food? He cook his own food. He stands in line at Whole Foods with everybody else.’ So they try to find guys to beat me, and I beat them, and I get rich. They become part of my discipline.” Then he was off on another of his regular topics: the conspiratorial failure of Whole Foods, Nike and other corporations to make a “poster boy” of him, a bad boy who became a good citizen and the most potently healthy-living middle-aged man imaginable. How come the marketers, who ate up George Foreman’s fuzzy-bunny routine and Lance Armstrong’s lies, aren’t lining up to pay for the celebrity-pitchman services of an outspoken Sunni ex-con who abjures alcohol, caffeine, refined sugar, processed grains, tap water, performance-enhancing drugs, weakness and just about everything else other than winning fights and making money? This grievance is part of the eternal drama of Hopkins, a renewable energy source that helps keep him going strong in and out of the ring.
Hopkins climbed through the ropes and onto the canvas, stretched and shadowboxed for a while, and then spent a few rounds working on the mechanics of not being hit. A burly young man named Bear came after him with a blue foam wand in either hand, trying to tap him with simulated punches. Hopkins timed Bear’s advances, shifting the range between them to forestall blows, then stepped in close to put his shoulder on the bigger man, driving him back by expertly shifting his own weight. When Pharrell Williams’s ‘‘Happy’’ came on the gym’s sound system midround, Hopkins gave me a significant look over Bear’s shoulder: They never rest. There are masters of defence who rely on will-o’-the-wisp elusiveness, making a spectacle of ducking punches. Others build a fortress with their gloves, arms and lead shoulder, deflecting incoming blows. Hopkins can slip and block punches with the best of them, but his defensive technique is founded on undoing the other man’s leverage by making constant small adjustments in spacing and timing that anticipate and neutralise attacks before they begin. It’s somehow never quite the right moment to hit Hopkins with a meaningful shot. Boxers, especially big hitters, feel a kind of click when the necessary elements — range, balance, timing, angle — line up to create an opening to throw a hard punch with proper form. Hopkins doesn’t run away, but an opponent can go for long stretches of a round without ever feeling that click.
Frank Lotierzo, a former boxer from Philadelphia who is one of the fight press’s best analysts of ring style, broke down some of Hopkins’s defensive habits for me: ‘‘You’ll notice he’s looking down a lot, watching the other guy’s front foot to see when it comes up, which it does when you step into a punch, and that’s when he makes his move. He ties up opponents’ elbows on the inside; you control the elbows, you control the arms. He never backs straight up; he’ll give you an angle every time. He will pick a side and go away from your power, isolate one side of your body, step over and fight you on your blind side.’’ Drawing from that repertory, Hopkins went around and around with Bear in a state of tautly maintained détente, discouraging wand-blows but not throwing any punches himself.
One key to his longevity at the top of the fight world is that he has come to consider it ‘‘barbaric’’ to exchange blows with an opponent. Hopkins, who listens to Sun Tzu’s ‘‘Art of War’’ while he does roadwork, will employ any tactic at his disposal, fair or foul, to frustrate an adversary — fighter, manager, promoter, TV executive, conversational foil — while he applies his strategic acumen to the problem of divining that adversary’s deepest intention and coming up with a scheme to nullify it while absorbing the absolute minimum of punishment.
After Hopkins’s record-setting reign as middleweight champion from 1995 to 2005, it was widely assumed that he would retire and duly enter the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Instead, he retooled his body to move up two weight classes, straight to 175lbs from 160 without pausing at 168 (super middleweight), an unheard-of leap in the modern era, and thrashed the light-heavyweight champion, Antonio Tarver, who was heavily favoured to beat him. In middle age, Hopkins has made a speciality of flummoxing and defeating younger men who were supposed to have too much power for him: Tarver, Felix Trinidad, Kelly Pavlik, Tavoris Cloud, Jean Pascal.
Hopkins, who used to be known as the Executioner but now styles himself as the Alien, has a record of 55-6 with 2 draws; he will turn 50 in January. Imagine, if you’re looking for parallels in other sports, that the linebacker Ray Lewis did not retire at 36 last year and was still playing in the Pro Bowl and Super Bowl in 2026; or that Derek Jeter, who was 14 when Hopkins had his first professional fight, decided to play on past 40 and was still making the All-Star game and the play-off s in 2023. But getting old in the ring is a far more brutal and unforgiving process than getting old on any playing field. Winning title fights is the highly visible part of a much larger spectrum of effort that includes giving and taking countless blows, weathering the grind of making weight, training more consistently and shrewdly than anyone else, guiding his own boxing and other business affairs, preserving the integrity of his fortune and brain function and priming his seemingly inexhaustible motivational engine. Even great boxers tend over the long haul to lose the desire to do what it takes to win fights, but Hopkins’s sense of purpose, like his fighting mind, shows no signs of flagging. If anything, it’s getting sharper and stronger.
“To me, Bernard ain’t no real gifted athlete,’’ says Robert Allen, a former middleweight contender who was in his early 30s and already in decline when Hopkins (who is four years older than Allen) beat him in 1999 and 2004.
‘‘He’s just a little of everything on the average: average punching power, average hand speed.’’ Measured by the absurdly high standards of elite fighters, Hopkins’s only outstanding physical attribute is his ‘‘chin’’ — the ability to take a punch — which has less to do with natural gifts than with conditioning, technique, experience and will. Hopkins’s ‘‘ring generalship’’ is what sets him apart, Allen says. ‘‘The ring is like his home. It’s like he’s sittin’ on the couch watchin’ TV, relaxing. He’s like a snake, not even breathin’.”
Sometimes he shaves his margin of victory too fine, or the other man is just a little too active and strong, and Hopkins loses a close decision, but nobody ever gives him a beating. Louts who lust for blood may boo when Hopkins works his punch-expunging magic, but Sun Tzu — who taught that a wise general wins by attacking his opponent’s strategy rather than by risking the contingencies of pitched battle, would approve.
Hopkins’s former opponents describe fighting him as an ordeal and an education. First come the pre-fight head games. ‘‘He touched me, pushed me in my face at the weigh-in, and it worked,’’ Winky Wright told me. ‘‘It made me want to hurt him and knock him out, instead of outbox him.’’ Once in the ring, ‘‘he won’t allow you to do what you want to do,’’ as Allen put it; I heard versions of that phrase over and over from men who fought Hopkins. And when an opponent does sense an opening, that could well be a trap.
“He’s always five steps ahead of you,’’ De La Hoya told me. Hopkins set him up for the diaphragm-paralysing left hook to the body that ended their fight by letting De La Hoya delude himself into believing that he was coming on strong. ‘‘He let me throw some punches for a couple of rounds, let my confidence build up,’’ De La Hoya said. ‘‘I got a little too confident, let my guard down, and that’s when he hurt me with a punch I didn’t see.’’ Smiling ruefully, he added, ‘‘I really thought I was going to win the fight!”
A skilled fouler, Hopkins will also hold-and-hit, punch low, step on an opponent’s instep and follow through with his own smooth-shaved skull after a punch to initiate a clash of heads. And he shamelessly complains about the dastardly things supposedly being done to him by the other guy.
‘‘When he bent over like I’d hit him low, he looked so wronged,’’ said the former super-middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe, laughing. ‘‘But he was just buying some time.’’
Hopkins has hung around in boxing long enough to profit from the passage of time. (The same goes for his extensive real estate holdings in once-depressed and now-gentrifying neighbourhoods in Philadelphia). Sixty or 80 years ago, when the sport was more popular and more deeply embedded in day-to-day life in industrial America, there were several fighters in every weight class who knew all the little things that together add up to Hopkins’s big edge in the ring. But no longer. Hopkins is an enduring atavism, a one-man history lesson in the boxer’s craft.
The men he has fought, even much younger ones, have slipped away into retirement in his wake. The will to fight diminishes, and the once-peerlessly toned body follows. ‘‘Oh, man, I’m done,’’ Kelly Pavlik said when I asked him if Hopkins’s longevity gave him ideas about a comeback. De la Hoya said, ‘‘More power to him, but I’m done.’’
Winky Wright said: ‘‘I’m done. I play a lot of golf. It’s easier.’’
Hopkins makes a habit of putting his hands on potential opponents to size them up, assessing their strength and feeling for weakness. In July, I watched him do roughly the same thing to a Showtime producer. Hopkins made a joke about being camera-shy — he’s not — just so he could laugh and slap the man’s shoulder, run a hand along his ribs, get a feel for whom he was dealing with. This habit can turn sitting and talking with him into a contact sport. He scoots his chair up to yours and bumps your knee with his own, as if striving for position. Leaning in so close that you can feel his hot breath on your face, he pokes and prods a shoulder, a forearm, jabs stiffened fingers into your torso just a little too hard, nominally to illustrate a point he’s making about digestion or human frailty or whatever. When I asked him about it, he said: ‘‘Feeling for softness is important to my diagnosis. Sometimes you can see and look, but you gotta feel to really check.”
At the time we were sitting face to face on folding chairs in the media room of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Hopkins, a minority partner in Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya’s company, which he joined a couple of months after he knocked out De La Hoya in 2004, was in town to boost a fight promoted by Golden Boy. But we were talking instead about how he learned the business side of boxing. This part of his story is essential to understanding his longevity because it’s about rigorous self-knowledge. A great strategist knows his enemy, Sun Tzu says, but he also knows himself. Hopkins performed his own diagnostic routine on himself as a young felon and didn’t like the resulting self-portrait — that of a doom-seeking knucklehead — and so he found the discipline in boxing to go straight and make good. He examined himself again as a rising middleweight in his late 20s and, again, didn’t like what he found: a patsy who dutifully did all the hard work at the behest of others who took more than their share of the money.
So, armed only with native smarts and a jailhouse General Educational Development cert, Hopkins set out to turn a weakness into strength. ‘‘I started asking questions, trying to figure out how everybody else was making more than me, and I’m taking the punches,’’ he said. ‘‘I had to learn the business — international rights, marketing, licence fees, the gate, concessions, merchandising, sponsors.”
He did it on the sly at first. “I didn’t want to let people know I was trying to learn, or they would have tried to stop me, so I would ask questions about other fighters who set an example for me not to do.”
By 1995, he felt ready to take over his own boxing affairs, and he has managed himself ever since, employing lawyers and other ‘‘soldiers who do the legal mumbo jumbo’’ to help negotiate deals that allow him to take home a much greater share of the money he makes in the ring. ‘‘I started getting mines late in the game, once I realised I should know this before I became another fuck-up fighter,’’ he said. ‘‘If you don’t know your own value, somebody will tell you your value, and it’ll be less than you’re worth.’’
Hopkins, who has put his ring earnings into a conservative business portfolio strong on real estate and bonds, resolved long ago not to end up punchy and cadging for handouts, as so many former fighters have. In addition to looking out for himself, he has wife, Jeanette, and three children to provide for. He offers advice to younger fighters, like undefeated super middle-weight Andre Ward, who told me: ‘‘He’s always hammering home: ‘Nobody gets paid unless you get in the ring. So get what you’ve got coming, and save your money. Everybody likes nice things, but wait.’”
When I asked Hopkins about advising other fighters, he said, ‘‘I was perceived as a troublemaker’’ when he began managing himself, ‘‘because I was a slave who learned to read. Maybe I’m more of a troublemaker now — somebody trying to stand up for themselves and maybe influence others, teach the other slaves how to read.’
Bernard Hopkins may well be the best old fighter ever. Sugar Ray Robinson and Muhammad Ali, whose names come up often in discussions of the greatest fighters of all time, were both over the hill by their late 30s. Even among the few greats who fought into their 40s — Bob Fitzsimmons, Archie Moore, George Foreman — it’s difficult to find parallels to Hopkins’s late-career run of lucrative high-profile victories over top-flight competition. Others who fought into middle age have typically ended up taking a pounding that made them look pathetic, but Hopkins gets hit less than ever these days, and his post-40-year-old losses have been by debatable decision. And of course, Hopkins and his few near-peers in long-term success are all exceptions to the fight world’s Hobbesian norm of short primes followed by brutal declines.
Consider Mike Tyson, who is a year younger than Hopkins. Tyson peaked in 1990 at 24, and was effectively finished as a serious fighter by 1997.
Hopkins may be richer, more sophisticated, more patient and (according to those who work with him) mellower and less abrasively paranoid than he used to be, but he’s constitutionally unequipped to grow over-comfortable in success. When I asked if he had been concerned, back when he started managing himself, that he might be blacklisted by the powers that be, he said, ‘‘I feel like I was blacklisted in 1965’’ — at birth.
‘‘I don’t get blinded by a few successful peoples, like Jay-Z or Oprah. I look at the people who didn’t make it — the penitentiaries, the thousands.” A handful of champions make serious money, but boxing remains fundamentally a sport for those who, like Hopkins as a young man, feel they have nothing to lose. While he had to outgrow that earlier version of himself in order to survive and prosper, he hasn’t lost touch with it. He used a mug shot of him taken in 1984 as wallpaper for his phone. He looks older in it than he does now, he says.
I asked, ‘‘Are we talking about the motor that makes you go?’’ and he wrong-footed me by coming back with a straight answer. ‘‘Yes,’’ he said.
‘‘Being the person I became, this is the person I am.’’
nThe author is director of American studies at Boston College and of “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles and Other True Stories.”
(c) New York Times 2014
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