Behind the Scenes with The Executioner

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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