by Kieran Mulvaney
The city was humid, and the gym, like boxing gyms the world over, stifling. Whether because this city has become a boxing hotbed – which indeed it has – or because of the imminent arrival of a famous guest, the gym was packed. The gathered journalists were ushered to a far corner, and the guest’s arrival a few minutes afterward was marked by a drop in background noise as those who were working out briefly stopped skipping ropes and pounding heavybags to take the measure of the future Hall-of-Famer now in their midst.
He marched in, head down, hands already wrapped, offering the faint hint of a nod as he recognized one of the waiting journalistic throng. He did not smile, did not offer a hand.
Bernard Hopkins did not want to be there.
“In and out,” he had told his publicist beforehand. “In and out.” Two days before the fight, after a publicity blitz that had been arduous and at times contentious, there were other things he would prefer to do, other places he would prefer to be.
He shadowboxed for a few minutes in front of the wall mirrors, then abruptly walked to another part of the gym, drilling the speedbag as the other young boxers stopped and watched, videoing and photographing with their phones. He had already built up a thin layer of sweat, and as his sculpted arms punished the bag, it is possible that a 40-something sports writer, unable in Hopkins’ presence to use age as an excuse for his developing paunch, may have automatically sucked in his gut just a little after catching sight of himself in a mirror.
Hopkins climbed into the ring, engaged in an even more half-hearted display of shadowboxing and then clambered down to the floor to meet his media inquisitors. He refused the offer of a chair, insisting that he did not want to be filmed looking up at his interlocutors but would look them in the eye. And then he became transformed. The realization that the throng included American writers with whom he was familiar and comfortable seemed to relax him, and the sight of cameras and microphones energized him.
“I think people are starting to realize the last few years that this ain’t normal,” he said, of his continuing ability to perform at the highest level despite being, in boxing years, at an advanced age. “And I’d be the first to tell you I’m not totally normal. I’ve been hit in the head a few times in the last two decades. In the last few years this has become fun. But I’ve had my stages. I’ve had my rebel stance in boxing – with a cause. I’ve had my ‘Put Bernard on the shelf’ time in boxing. I’ve had so many chapters in boxing over all these years, I’ve lost count of them. But I’m still here, with dignity and respect and pride for myself, in and out of the ring.”
He recalled re-watching video of one of his middleweight title defenses, perhaps ten years ago, and hearing the commentators remark that, in his mid-thirties as then he was, Hopkins was considered to be getting on in years.
“For ten years, they’ve been calling me old,’ he said. “I think they should come up with another name.”
He kept on talking. He was in a groove now, telling tales of his time in the penitentiary, of his ability to hustle people on the streets, of turning his life around, of being intimidated by no other man. So much for an “in and out,” but it is always thus with Hopkins, who more than any fighter is willing – anxious, even – to seize on an opportunity to retell his life story and the lessons he has learned.
Those same American journalists with whom he was familiar slowly peeled away, appreciative of his openness but aware they have heard similar quotes from the same source many times before. They instead stood and smiled at the stunned looks on the faces of the local reporters, who had never before witnessed Hopkins’ ability to expound at occasionally circuitous length.
His media obligations fulfilled, he stepped back in the ring, this time to take photographs with the young boxers who had watched and waited for their opportunity. He joked with them, talked with them, even willingly engaged one especially confident rookie in a patented staredown, to hoots from the others clustered around, before breaking off in a smile.
Then, suddenly, the champion, his team, and the journalists were all gone, the sound of newly-inspired young fists pounding heavybags echoing in the distance as they stepped back out into the humidity of the Montreal evening.