In Final Battle, Aging Bernard Hopkins Opts for Danger by Taking on Joe Smith Jr.

Photo: Jeff Fusco, Hoganphotos/Golden Boy Promotions

By Eric Raskin

The plot of the sixth installment in the "Rocky" series seemed far-fetched, with the ex-champ in his mid-50s insisting on one last fight. But fellow Philadelphia native Bernard Hopkins is doing his part to make the movie appear plausible. Just a month shy of his 52nd birthday – a full decade removed from the night he upset the man who played Balboa's foe, Mason “The Line” Dixon, in real life – Hopkins is taking one last fight.

At least that’s what he says. And this time, he seems to mean it.

“I was called old at 36,” Hopkins told HBO.com over the summer. “And now to go from 36 all the way to 51, be 52 in January, I ain’t gonna lie: I don’t have two fights in me. But I do have one.”

So on Dec. 17, at the “Fabulous” Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Hopkins will squeeze that one last fight out of his freakishly fit body. And in typical Hopkins style, he has insisted on challenging himself, taking on some risk. He could have picked an opponent who was over the hill. He could have picked a light-hitting opponent. Instead he picked Joe Smith Jr., a 27-year-old banger fresh off a career-best win, a stunning first-round knockout of then-top-five light heavyweight Andrzej Fonfara in June. For a bit of perspective, Hopkins turned pro on Oct. 11, 1988; Smith was born on Sept. 20, 1989.

“Joe Smith is a hard puncher, he won’t run, is a union guy, he won’t lay back, and he won’t try not to execute me,” Hopkins said on a December media call. “However, Joe Smith has to be trained to pass four, five, six different styles that I will utilize in the ring, and he is going to have to be smart.”

Some are speculating that Smith’s style will be made to order for Hopkins, and if we’re talking about various past iterations of “B-Hop,” there’s little doubt those analyses are correct. From the 36-year-old Hopkins who proved his greatness by dismantling Hall of Famer Felix Trinidad, to the 43-year-old Hopkins who ruined rising star Kelly Pavlik, we’ve seen how a relatively one-dimensional, offense-minded fighter brings out the best in the former middleweight and light heavyweight champ. But at age 49, Hopkins’ luck against undefeated knockout artists ran out when Sergey Kovalev dropped him in the first round and dominated the next 11. Was that because Kovalev was just that good? Or was it because Hopkins had lost a few steps? Twenty-five months of inactivity later, it’s unlikely that Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) has gained back any steps. A prime Hopkins probably toys with Smith (22-1, 18 KOs). But this isn’t a prime Hopkins.

Smith is actually the Rocky Balboa in this scenario, the relative nobody hand-picked to play a supporting role on the superstar’s stage. He’s not an “Italian Stallion,” he’s an “Irish Bomber”; and he isn’t from Philly, he’s from Long Island, N.Y. But the comparison mostly fits. Based on supremely generic name, it’s easy to look at Smith and assume he’s just some bum from the neighborhood. He’s out to prove otherwise.

“I go into every fight the same way. Whether it is a legend or a nobody that is standing in front of me, they have the potential to hurt me,” Smith said. “I believe that I throw some of the best jabs in boxing. Most of my fights end early, so I don’t get to show off my boxing capabilities. I think most people will be impressed by my boxing performance as I take on Bernard.”

Smith isn’t taking Hopkins lightly or expecting him to hit the wall – he seems to realize he’ll need to be at his very best to win, even against an opponent nearly twice his age. Hopkins’ promoter, Oscar De La Hoya, certainly believes that to be the case.

“I know that Hopkins isn’t a fighter that is going to turn old overnight,” De La Hoya said at Hopkins’ Dec. 5 media workout at the Joe Hand Gym in Philadelphia. “I don’t think that’s going to happen to Hopkins. I see him as a guy, 51 years old, still doing this because he can, because he takes care of himself.”

There’s no question about the latter point. Hopkins fights at 175 pounds and at no point during his two-year layoff did he get much above the low 180s. He’s quite likely the most disciplined athlete the sport of boxing has ever known. But there was one interesting wrinkle to his training camp this time around: Longtime trainer Naazim Richardson was out, replaced by long-ago Hopkins opponent John David Jackson. That will probably prove irrelevant on fight night, however, since Hopkins stopped needing a teacher or a pugilistic strategist sometime around when Joe Smith was in middle school. If anything, the trainer switch serves primarily as a telling personality point for Hopkins, who did the same thing when he replaced Bouie Fisher with assistant Richardson in the early 2000s. Hopkins does things his way. He’s the boss in his camp. His mother can tell him to retire by age 40, and he can promise her he will, but in the end, Bernard gets the final say.

I interviewed Hopkins in 2011, before his second fight with Jean Pascal, the one in which, at age 46, he made history by becoming the oldest ever to win a lineal title, and there was one particular riff he went on that stays with me. I brought up Pascal’s insinuations that Hopkins’ enduring success came from PED use, and he responded, “I am on something. And I’ve been on it for a long time. It’s called proving people wrong. And let me tell you, that is the worst narcotic you can have in your system.”

Hopkins has nothing left to prove to anyone. There are no doubters anymore. So he’s ready, finally, to walk away. And he’ll do so on his terms – provided he can do to Joe Smith what he’s done to so many ambitious young punchers who’ve stood in his way over the last 28 years.