One Last Run: A Day with Bernard Hopkins

By Kieran Mulvaney | Photos by Ed Mulholland

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 13, 2016 –

6:42 a.m.: A hotel lobby in downtown Los Angeles

Incoming text message: “Good morning. Bernard is getting ready. Standby.”

On Saturday, Bernard Hopkins – born Jan. 15, 1965; turned professional on Oct., 11 1988; aged 51 years and 11 months – fights for the 65th and final time, when he brings down the curtain on a remarkable career with a 12-round contest against Joe Smith Jr. at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif. Four days ahead of that final outing, he is about to begin his day by doing what he has done so many times before, and will likely do for many years after he has retired. On a surprisingly chilly and gray Southern California morning, he is going for a run.



After about a half hour, he emerges with his team. He is wearing earphones and a T-shirt emblazoned with his nickname: “BHOP.” His head is down and he seems not to initially even notice the two guests who join the group as it heads down the escalators to a pair of waiting black SUVs. He climbs into the center of the back seat of one of the vehicles, so he can stretch his legs out between the two seats of the middle row.

“What kind of music you like?” he asks. “I have a feeling you know your music. What kind of music you think I listen to when I’m running? People think it must be DMX or something, but that’s just what ‘The Executioner’ [his former – and, for his final fight, restored – ring persona] walked out to. I don’t listen to anything heavy or fast.”

He takes his iPod, gazes with his searching eyes for signs of recognition and understanding – Hopkins is constantly sizing up those around him, especially those with whom he is not intimately familiar – and presses play, surprisingly releasing the tender tones of Nina Simone. And Curtis Mayfield. The "Superfly" singer is evidently Hopkins’ favorite, and the author of much of Hopkins’ workout soundtrack. To spend a day with BHop is to listen to repeated playings of "Move on Up."

7:45 a.m.: Cromwell Field, University of Southern California

He does not need to run to lose weight. He will weigh in at 175 pounds or less on Friday, and in fact rarely rises far above that. He runs because he enjoys keeping himself in first-rate condition, because he does not understand why anybody would not want to take care of their bodies, because it is who he is, because it is the basis of why he has been able to succeed.

“I’m always training, always keeping myself in shape. I tell young guys: ‘If you keep your body physically ready to go, you can transition right into preparation for a fight. You don’t have to spend half of camp trying to make your body look like a boxer’s.’ But a lot of guys let themselves go and they try to box themselves into shape.”

He is running outside this morning, he says, “to get some air in the lungs,” and after he has completed a few low-pace laps around the USC running track, he is visibly energized. He affects – poorly – a Heisman pose, and as we leave, we pause at the USC Wall of Fame, including actual past Heisman winners such as O.J. Simpson and Marcus Allen, others like Ronnie Lott who were good enough to have won the trophy, and Olympic swimmer and original Flash Gordon, Buster Crabbe.

He is not, in this last fight week, much in the mood to reflect on all the fight weeks that have gone before; but on the ride back to the hotel, he drops the guard briefly.

Do you have any favorite moments in your career?

“Yep. Felix Trinidad is number one. Kelly Pavlik is number two. Three is Oscar [De La Hoya]. Then Canada: against Jean Pascal in Quebec City, coming back from two knockdowns to get a draw. That wasn’t the first time I had to do that exact same thing.”

Ecuador, right? Segundo Mercado.

“You remember that, huh? Yeah, December 1994. Quito, Ecuador.”

Wasn’t everything surrounding that fight kind of insane?

“You have no idea. I was [promoted by] Butch Lewis at the time, but he didn’t want to pay any kind of money for the fight, so it wound up being a Don King promotion. I didn’t get in until the Thursday of fight week. Michael Nunn was on that card and he’d been there a week, to adjust to the altitude. And man, everything you’ve heard about Quito – if you’ve heard anything about Quito – it was worse. I was glad to get out of there alive.”

Who’s the hardest puncher you’ve ever faced? Sergey Kovalev?

“Roy Jones.”

Really?

“Yeah. Because he’s so fast. It’s not like George Foreman, who’d land these big, clubbing punches. If George was going to hit me I’d just figure out where to lay down. But Roy, you couldn’t do that, because you had no idea where the punches were coming from or when they were coming.”

9 a.m.: Hopkins’ hotel suite

Hopkins’ suite is befitting a former world champion and future Hall of Famer. A living room area segues into a dining area with seating for six or more, and an adjoining kitchen. Another living area is dominated, under Hopkins’ watch, by a massage table. Beyond that is his bedroom. The windows along one wall look out onto the Staples Center.

We sit at the dining table. He looks up and smiles.

“So, the Final One!”

Are you allowing yourself time to reminisce at all? To think, "This is the last time you’re going to do X and Y?"

“No. Because right now I have a young bull who’s going to try to take my head off on Saturday. I don’t want to talk about the past, because I have to focus on the immediate future. I’ve been training for Joe Smith Jr., not for Felix Trinidad or Oscar De La Hoya or any of these people from earlier in my career. Afterward. We can reminisce afterward.”

Is your training camp much different these days? Have you had to make concessions to your age?

“Strategy is different. Work ethic is the same. If it wasn’t, I’d be in the wrong sport. In this sport, you can’t fake it.”

Food is ordered: For Hopkins, chicken, egg whites, bagel and lox (“Because I’m half Jewish,” he smiles). And beets. There is much talk about beets; Hopkins has provided the hotel restaurant with several that he has bought, with a request to boil them and deliver them with his meal. As he waits, he drinks beet juice and expounds at some length on the root vegetable’s health benefits.

When the food arrives, he eschews the avocado that has also been provided – “Too much fat this close to the fight” – and focuses on the lox while ignoring the accompanying bagel. And he reflects on the improbability of a man who has not exactly been afraid to court disapproval at times in his career now being something of a cuddly senior citizen, striking a blow and setting an example for the middle aged.

“Even if you didn’t like me, or didn’t like The Executioner, when they put that graphic up on HBO – age 27 vs. age 51 – everyone in the 50 and up club, and we’ll even take people who are 46, 47 and up because they’ll be 50 soon, is going to be cheering. Did you ever imagine that I’d be the poster person for guys my age? The last person to do anything like this was George Foreman. In his first career, nobody wanted to know him. People relate to me now more than they did when I was The Executioner. That was who I had to be then, and I did the things I had to do. We need buttons to push to motivate us, but as we mature, things change. After a while, I got kind of fed up with giving my opponents a plate of beans and rice at press conferences, and if it was boring me, then I couldn’t be real about it. So I’ve changed.”

1:45 p.m.: City of Angels Gym, Los Angeles

Hopkins had planned for his major workout of the day to be at a session for media, at which every fighter on Saturday’s HBO broadcast – and on an HBO Latino card the day before – would be appearing. But then he realizes the media day is not at the Wild Card Gym, where he has been training since arriving in Los Angeles, but at a location with which he is wholly unfamiliar. He demurs, declares he’s going to work out at the Wild Card anyway, but agrees to split the difference, to meet the media at one location then work out at the other. On the ride over, he expresses hope that his obligations won’t drain his energy; but they don’t, of course. Hopkins thrives on the attention and on the ability to expound at length. And, after answering questions posed by one video interviewer after another, and huddling with a few print reporters, he climbs into the gym’s boxing ring for some photographs.

As he reaches the ring apron, he turns around and faces the massed ranks of cameras and microphones.

“Hey, listen!” he begins. “Even though I’m not working out here because of the timing and because I’ve got some other arrangements, Monica [Sears, Golden Boy Promotions’ Vice President of Operations] begged – no, she didn’t beg, she pleaded with me to take my shirt off.”

He gets into the ring, removes his top and strikes the familiar “X” pose of his Executioner days. Then he invites all the other young boxers in the building to join him for a group shot.

“Where all the young fighters at? Get in here. I’m passing the torch.”

And they all clamber into the ring and line up with him, the man who turned professional long before many of them were born, Bernard Hopkins and his young army of Golden Boy boxers. Then, suddenly, he is out of the ring and walking with purpose, the team moving as one with him, and we are through the door and gone.

You seem to enjoy being in a position to mentor and advise younger fighters. Have you thought about being a trainer?

“Would I be a good trainer? No. Because I’d expect them to be at a certain standard. I’d burn them out. Like Michael Jordan. Can you imagine him as a coach? No. Because he’d be waking guys up at 2:30 a.m. and telling them it was time to go practice free throws. And they’d be saying, ‘What? Can’t we do it at 7?’ And he’d end up arguing with them. He doesn’t need that. He earns $50 million a year from selling sneakers.”

How was the media session?

“It was OK. A lot of the same questions. Why does everyone keep asking me, ‘Why are you fighting this guy? Your legacy is secure. You don’t need this. So why fight this guy?’ Why are you going to ask me that two days before I fight him?”

Well, because for your final fight, you could have gotten away with fighting me, frankly. People are conditioned to farewell fights being easy wins; you could have knocked someone out after a couple of rounds and everyone would have applauded. So nobody can wrap their heads around why a 51-year-old guy is taking a final fight against a young puncher instead of taking the easy way out.

“Really? That’s why? It’s like I’m already in everyone’s heads, then.”

Plus, these days we’re used to even young champions not necessarily taking the toughest possible fights.

“And dropping their belts.”

Exactly. But you’ve never ducked anyone.

“No, I haven’t. Nor did Oscar. Oscar didn’t have to fight me. He gave me my best payday. $10 million. I remember one reporter at the time asked me if I was upset that he was getting $30 million and I was ‘only’ getting $10 million. I said, ‘When did $10 million become “only”?’ You’re talking about a guy from the projects who went to jail for stealing a few hundred dollars, and you’re calling $10 million ‘only?’”

Tony, Hopkins’ Bulgarian chiropractor and probably the only man on the team older than the fighter, looks over his shoulder in the front passenger seat.

“I’d fight you for $100,000.”

“No, you’d need more than that,” Hopkins instantly retorts. “Your dental work afterward would cost at least $60K. You ever drunk your steak through a straw? You’d lose so much weight because your jaw would be wired shut for eight months. You’d be the spokesperson for Ensure.”

5:24 p.m: Wild Card Boxing Club, Hollywood

Freddie Roach is walking down the stairs of his famous establishment as we pull up. He opens up the private gym he recently built, downstairs from the main area that is so often home to a seething mass of humanity: boxers in training, those who would like to be, and assorted hangers-on. The room downstairs is an oasis, a private place where the elite can train away from prying eyes.

“You know why I bought this place, don’t you?” asks Roach at one point, gesturing to the new area.

“You wanted somewhere more private for Manny [Pacquiao, Roach’s star fighter], right?”

“No. It came with four parking spaces.  I really needed the extra parking.”

Roach is merely providing the location; he is not training Hopkins, and after opening the door and letting us in, he disappears back upstairs. The task of being the final trainer in Hopkins’ career falls to John David Jackson, most recently seen in the corner of Sergey Kovalev and a man who once faced, and lost to, Hopkins in the ring.

Curtis Mayfield fills the room as Hopkins stretches, then shadowboxes, hits the heavybag and works the mitts in the ring with Jackson. His physique is lean and strong, exceptional for a man at any age; indeed, he looks physically as good as he ever has. As he rattles off combinations, his hand speed looks to have not dropped at all, for all the mileage his arms and fists have accrued.

The sun is setting as we leave; “You have any questions about the workout you just saw?” Hopkins asks, partly being accessible but also testing his guests, wanting to be sure they have been paying attention.

There follows some discussion of the precise nature of the combinations on which he was working, the specific punches that he and Jackson have identified as being key against Smith. It feels somehow inappropriate to share those secrets, for all his openness; suffice it to say that the age difference and Smith’s punching power notwithstanding, Hopkins does not appear overly concerned about the possibility of ending his career with a defeat. Not because he would ever make the mistake of taking an opponent lightly, but because he has studied Smith, watched him over and over, analyzed the way he throws punches and the way he reacts when punches are thrown back until he arguably knows his opponent better than Smith knows himself.

“When you go into something, and you’re sincere about it, it’s about how you want that thing to be remembered. That’s what Saturday is for me. It’s the last chapter in the book. When you read a book, what makes you think when you’ve finished whether you liked it or not? The last chapter. If the last chapter isn’t any good, it doesn’t really matter what was in Chapter One or Chapter Two. That’s what this is for me. It’s the last chapter in my book, and it’s the most important one.”

It’s been quite a book to this point, though.

“Yes it has.”

And a long one.

“Yeah. Real long.”