In honor of Bernard Hopkins' final fight, Saturday night on HBO World Championship Boxing (10 p.m. ET/PT), HBO Boxing Insiders offer their favorite memories and fights from B-Hop's remarkable career.
There are really too many Hopkins career highlights to pick one, but in honor of his last fight I'll pick the most recent. In the final round of his fight with Kovalev, after he had taken a pretty severe beating for 11-plus rounds, Hopkins took advantage of a slight pause in the action to grin and stick his tongue out at Kovalev. This had the effect of enraging Kovalev and therefore guaranteeing an EXTRA severe beating for the final two minutes of his fight. By that round, Hopkins was clearly going to lose. His prize was merely lasting the distance with such a beast. And instead of allowing himself a tiny bit of coasting time at the end of a long, hard beating, he purposely provoked Kovalev, and ate about 50 more shots than he had to as a result.
That's something beyond pride. That's a little bit of inspired insanity. The only quality that could keep a man fighting world-class opponents past the age of 50. I hope he makes it out in one piece.
While Bernard Hopkins’ earlier career was filled with great memories, my favorite was one was when he was 43, at an age in which most boxers were retired.
Hopkins stepped into the ring in Atlantic City against unbeaten Kelly Pavlik (34-0), who was just 26 at the time. Hopkins was coming off a split-decision loss to unbeaten Joe Calzaghe. Nobody expected Hopkins to pull this one off, and yet he did it in epic fashion, overwhelming the younger fighter with his great skill set and winning a clear-cut unanimous decision.
What I will never forget is Hopkins standing in the ring after the decision was announced, in near tears, and giving his “Bernard stare” down at press row, where most writers had written him off. It was truly a great moment for him and for me.
I interviewed Bernard Hopkins yesterday. I was getting antsy. There was a delay then the call came through. First thing Hopkins said is, “You're breathing hard, what’s the matter?” I was knocked a little off my pins, I explained: “I’m nervous. After all these years, I am interviewing you for the last time before a fight.” In almost a whisper, Bernard responded: "That's just how Smith is going to feel and be breathing when he gets in the ring on Saturday night." Hopkins credits much of his longevity to checking people out, reading them or, as he likes to put it, "to always being alert.”
Hopkins is as calm in the violence of the ring as Tiger Woods used to be on the links. Give him a few rounds, and he deciphers then denatures his opponent's fistic program. Ask Hopkins about the fights in which all his gifts came together and without a moment's hesitation he'll tell you, "Trinidad, [Oscar] De La Hoya, and Pavlik."
They are also my top-of-the-charts performances for “the Executioner” turned “Alien.” Against the powerful-punching Trinidad, he took away the Puerto Rican icon’s vaunted left hook and then stopped Tito with what might have been his best straight right ever.
In 2004, Hopkins defended his middleweight title against De La Hoya. No one is better at setting fistic traps than Hopkins. In the ninth frame of a back-and-forth contest, Hopkins entices De La Hoya into aggressive mode, they are at close quarters, De La Hoya fires a left uppercut but Hopkins has the angle, leans left and plants a surgical left hook to De La Hoya that puts the “Golden Boy” to bed for the first and only time in his career.
It’s pretty hard to pick a single favorite Bernard Hopkins moment, truth be told. It could be the time in London when we were besieged by a tsunami of ultra-enthusiastic British boxing fans. (OK, he wasn’t besieged; I just happened to become caught up in the tidal wave of humanity.) Or the first time I interviewed him over the phone, a conversation I kept on my recorder for some time because it made me chuckle that about 15 minutes after I asked “How are you?” I got to speak again. (I would soon discover this was not an isolated occurrence.) Or the time in Austin, Texas, when I sat down to interview him for 15 minutes and he spent an hour and a half (notice the theme here?) discussing his life story and how much of his approach to that life, before his boxing career and during it, was making other people acquiesce to his will; that was the conversation when I first appreciated how he has to win everything, even a conversation, and how he will look you in your eyes when talking to you and will never be the first to look away.
I’ve been ringside for Hopkins fights for about 12 years, years that have been some of his most historic if not always the most exciting. I was there when he stopped Oscar De La Hoya, when he scored his historic 20th middleweight title defense against Howard Eastman, and when he lost that title against Jermain Taylor in a fight I thought he won handily. I watched him do push-ups in the corner against Jean Pascal, and utterly befuddle and humiliate Tavoris Cloud and Beibut Shumenov.
But I actually think my abiding ringside memory will be of his loss to Sergey Kovalev. It was a contest in which he was clearly the second best throughout, and it wasn’t long before he knew as much; but he hung in there against a guy who had been battering much younger opponents into stoppage defeats, and showed tremendous quality and class in both lasting the distance and complimenting his victor afterward. I thought for sure at the time that it would be his last outing; as it turns out, there will be one more and I’ll be there for it, and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he has one more great performance for us to memorize and savor.
It says something about the length of Bernard Hopkins’s career that for me even to talk in terms of favorite memories is to render inaccessible a significant portion of it. Hopkins turned professional five years before I was born, lost to Roy Jones Jr. when I was barely two months old, and had beaten Felix Trinidad before I turned 9. It speaks, then, to the sheer absurdity of his career, to its bloody brilliance, that there’s still volume enough for me to have plenty to pick through that does feel significant personally. My first memories of Hopkins really involve the two Jermain Taylor fights, and I remember well staying up late to watch his often-bemusing encounter with Joe Calzaghe, close to the end of the Welshman’s own career. Calzaghe, of course, finished up beating a dilapidated Jones seven months later, though it would have taken a soothsayer of major repute to predict the Hopkins of that night might yet go on to fight for nearly a decade more.
It was of course Hopkins’s next fight, against a then-unbeaten Kelly Pavlik, which really delivered notice of the seriousness with which he was still to approach boxing. Pavlik, after his first win over Jermain Taylor, never turned out to be all that he seemed, but he was at the time one of the most hotly-touted fighters in the sport. Though Hopkins had been plying his trade above middleweight since 2006, he was still hardly the bigger man (it’s another testament to his greatness that, bereft of punch power, smaller and often slower than his opponents, he’s continued to exert such influence at light heavyweight for such a time). And if Hopkins had been competitive against Calzaghe, he’d equally never been better than OK that night. So his status as underdog was well-earned.
And as much as it was warranted, it was loathed in equal measure. Hopkins has fought always with several chips on both shoulders at all times, finding either in real or imagined antipathies reason to go on year after year. Pavlik’s elevated status was a slight to his own, and Hopkins deals furiously with slights. In turn, aged 43, he put on the last truly brutal beating of his career: having spent the first four rounds asserting his intellectual superiority, Hopkins spent the rest administering a relentless hurting to Pavlik’s body and soul. At the end he cowered over the press pack, glaring out, expanding his mythos. It was a remarkable show of talent and brazenness.
There were, of course, more great moments to come, and more bemusing ones as well. It’s another testament to Hopkins’s brilliance that he treated the last five years of his career as a curtain call—dressing up as ‘The Alien’, sung to the ring via kitschy edits of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’—and still beat Jean Pascal, Tavoris Cloud, Karo Murat and Beibut Shumenov. At 49 he took a fight with Sergey Kovalev. Boxing will surely never see his like again.
I first saw Bernard Hopkins fight 24 years ago on the BET network. He pummeled fragile Wayne Powell for a first-round TKO in Atlantic City and would go on to earn some cheap PR with his kitschy ring walk: Hopkins, “The Executioner,” would invariably march down the aisle wearing a black mask and accompanied by two burly men similarly garbed but wielding oversized axes as props.
Over the next few years, Hopkins would establish himself as a solid middleweight, one whose roughhouse style was underscored by a keen ring I.Q. But he could have doubled for any number of competent Philly middleweights in those days.
In his first title fight, Hopkins looked less than stellar against Roy Jones Jr., but Jones made everyone look second-rate in the early 1990s. Even after winning a sliver of the middleweight title in 1995 and scoring notable wins over Glenn Johnson and Joe Lipsey Jr.-- both aired on national television -- Hopkins barely received a Q-rating boost.
Quarrelsome in and out of the ring, Hopkins was still having trouble separating himself from his middleweight peers of the mid-90s, a trio of talented-but-erratic titleholders in William Joppy, Keith Holmes and Lonnie Bradley. Promotional squabbles left him inactive and, although Hopkins had appeared on HBO a few times, he still found himself performing off-trail occasionally. His 1996 title defense against a full-time firefighter, William “Bo” James, for example, took place on the USA network and earned Hopkins a purse of roughly $50,000. Indeed, things were so lousy for Hopkins in the mid-90s that he took a job parking cars. Hopkins was good, certainly better than his co-titlists, but would circumstances allow him to prove it?
In 1999, Hopkins turned in a masterful performance against Antwun Echols, a legitimate hard-case with power in both hands and a craving for violence between the ropes. (For facing Echols, one of the most dangerous contenders of his era, Hopkins received $109,000 after a purse bid in which only one promoter bothered attending.) Echols, who had knocked tough Brian Barbosa clear out of the ring in 1998, showed just how hungry he was by attacking Hopkins pell-mell from the opening bell. This whirlwind assault might have rattled a less composed fighter, but Hopkins merely used it to his advantage, turning the hectic pace against Echols by sliding, shifting and countering whenever Echols charged. After 12 skillful rounds, Hopkins earned a unanimous decision and the wide-eyed interest of HBO going forward.
Not long after dissecting Echols, Hopkins was part of a middleweight unification tournament promoted by Don King. His spectacular KO over Felix Trinidad in late 2001 made Hopkins the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. But it was against Echols that Hopkins showed the versatility, poise and resourcefulness that would carry him to true greatness.
In an enlightening 2014 New York Times profile, Carlo Rotella accurately summed up the experience of interviewing Bernard Hopkins: "Asking Hopkins a question is like trying to hit him. He won’t let you, but the experience of being frustrated by him can be instructive….He scoots his chair up to yours and bumps your knee with his own, as if striving for position. Leaning in so close that you can feel his hot breath on your face, he pokes and prods a shoulder, a forearm, jabs stiffened fingers into your torso just a little too hard, nominally to illustrate a point he’s making about digestion or human frailty or whatever."
Hopkins has frequently been accused of playing mind games to mess with the psyches of his opponents. But I have a feeling he wouldn't consider them games. He wants to win at everything – every fight, every interview, every interaction.
My favorite in-ring Hopkins moment bears this out. At the start of the 7th round of his fight with Jean Pascal in 2011, Hopkins saw his much younger opponent taking a little extra time in the corner and deemed that he was gassed. Rather than exploit this flaw by conventional boxing means, Hopkins went straight for the psychic KO. The 46-year-old fighter dropped to the ground and started doing push-ups. Pascal angrily stood up and resumed fighting, but the damage was already done. That night B-Hop became the oldest man in boxing history to capture a world title.
It’s not easy for me to single out a favorite Bernard Hopkins moment. I’ve probably interviewed him more times than I’ve interviewed any other fighter (so it follows that I’ve undoubtedly spent more time interviewing him than any other fighter), I’ve probably written more words about him than any other boxer, I’ve been ringside for 10 of his fights, and he’s the only professional boxer who ever rode shotgun in mom’s old minivan. My mind is cluttered with contenders for a most memorable moment: his immaculate performance against Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden, the first time I witnessed an angry B-Hop rant (after the second Robert Allen fight in D.C.), the mid-fight pushups en route to becoming the oldest champion ever against Jean Pascal.
But the one that stands out above the rest was a moment that captured Bernard in all of his glorious, grating defiance. He was an “ancient” 43 years old, foolishly risking his health against undefeated middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik, a beast of a puncher who was entering nursery school when Hopkins was entering prison, and while nobody was completely writing B-Hop off, the great majority were predicting victory for Pavlik — with a high likelihood of him becoming the first to knock the old man out. But then the bell rang and Hopkins did what Hopkins does. He befuddled Pavlik, he outmaneuvered Pavlik, he tortured Pavlik, and he broke the poor kid’s spirit. It was the Trinidad fight all over again. It wasn’t even close. And when it was over, Hopkins made his way to the side of the ring where the press was seated. He looked upon those who had predicted his demise and he stared them down, utterly expressionless, for what felt like an eternity. Without opening his mouth, he was telling us all, “You should have known better.” For a guy who always had so much to say, it’s oddly fitting that he created such a lasting, powerful memory without uttering a single word.