Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Joe Smith’s promoter meant well. Joe DeGuardia, the President and CEO of Star Boxing, introduced his boxer at Wednesday’s final pre-fight press conference by describing him as not only the most dangerous fighter that Bernard Hopkins could take on, but also by underlining his blue-collar bona fides. His craft now might be as a boxer, but he is a hardworking union member, DeGuardia said, before making the comment on which Hopkins would pounce.
“Joe Smith is the perfect example of the common man,” he said, and on Saturday night, “you’re going to see what happens when the common working man breaks his hump every day and defeats a legend.” Hopkins, who throughout his 28-year-career has never been short of words, zeroed in on one of DeGuardia’s.
“I want you to get your phone and look up ‘common’ in the dictionary,” he began. He pointed to Smith. “Common man,” he spat before pointing to himself. “Special man. Which one do you want? Which one do you want? I want the special. If you want to work your way back down to common man, there's a lot of people down there.”
He didn’t, he insisted, wish an ill future on his opponent in Saturday’s contest. “I don’t want to wish a Kelly Pavlik on him,” Hopkins asserted, referring to the once-promising middleweight and light-heavyweight, for whom defeat to Hopkins began a process of decline that culminated in a disappearance from the sport and reported problems with alcohol. “I'm not going to predict that I end his career. One day if he recovers mentally then he might have something to salvage and go forward. I'm a career-stopper to most of my opponents that talk like him. Yes, I'm honored to be respected as Joe mentioned, too. I listen to words. Nobody is really paying attention to Joe.”
Hopkins has been a world champion or title holder, on and off, for fully 21 years now, and his head games have been as much a factor in his success as his considerable boxing skill. Sometimes, those games have taken him close to the very edge: throwing a Puerto Rican flag to the ground in front of 10,000 baying fans in Roberto Clemente Stadium in 2001 almost cost him his life, but it also increased the immense pressure on Felix Trinidad, who ultimately buckled and succumbed to Hopkins’ ring mastery on a legendary night in New York City. For many years, Hopkins called himself “The Executioner” – a persona he will be unwrapping one more time for the final fight of his career on Saturday – and as well as wearing a mask to the ring, that persona frequently entailed his serving his foe a “final meal” (generally, rice and beans) at press conferences.
Most of the time, his prefight pressure worked; whether it will have any bearing on Smith remains to be seen. The 27-year-old from Long Island has been an afterthought in the promotion of this fight, which has focused on it being the conclusion of the 51-year-old Hopkins’ life as a professional boxer. Prefight taunts will only get a person so far, however, unless they can back it up in the ring; and for all of Hopkins’ phenomenal achievements in the squared circle -- and his almost supernatural ability to fend off Father Time -- he is just one month shy of his 52nd birthday, a patently absurd age to be a professional pugilist. It is entirely possible that his farewell bout will prove one step too far; that, as well as the relatively youthful Smith’s apparent advantage in one-punch knockout power, makes Saturday’s contest a more intriguing affair than a look at the two men’s respective résumés might suggest.
Hopkins, however, was in no doubt how it all would end.
“Joe won't be special come Saturday,” he said. “He will stay common.”
Weights from Inglewood:
Bernard Hopkins: 174 pounds | Joe Smith Jr.: 174 pounds
Joseph Diaz: 126 pounds | Horacio Garcia: 125.8 pounds
Oleksandr Usyk: 199.6 pounds | Thabiso Mchunu: 198.6 pounds