Matthews: No Matter the Outcome, Bernard Hopkins Goes Out a Winner

When Bernard Hopkins steps into the ring to fight Joe Smith Jr. Saturday night for what he says will be his final professional fight, he will be facing a boxer who hadn’t yet been born when Hopkins made his pro debut on Oct. 11, 1988. Assuming a normal pregnancy, Smith — born on Sept. 20, 1989 — wasn’t even gestating.  When the bell rings, Hopkins will be 29 days shy of his 52nd birthday. That is four years older than George Blanda was when he played his last NFL game, three years older than George Foreman was in his last professional fight and more than 28 years after his pro debut, a career than included a 12-year span of title fights without a defeat.

But as remarkable as Hopkins’ professional accomplishments are, they pale alongside his personal accomplishment.

Convicted of armed robbery at 17 and sentenced to 18 years in prison, Hopkins served five years, came out, and never went back. The official bio attributes his transformation to the shock of seeing an inmate stabbed to death in his cell and a conversion to Islam. Others like to say it was boxing that saved Hopkins from a life of petty crime and recidivism.

But Hopkins has a much simpler explanation: “Every day,” he says, “I hear the warden.”

He is referring to the day he left Graterford Prison, just outside his native Philadelphia, as a directionless 23-year-old. The parting words of that warden, whose name has been lost to history but whose message lives on Hopkins’ memory, were a sniggering, “You’ll be back again.”

“I’m never coming back here,” Hopkins replied. And if there is one thing that the ensuing three decades have shown us, it is that when Bernard Hopkins says something, he means it. And when people tell him he can’t do something, he makes it an obsession to prove that yes, he can.  He has made a memorable boxing career, and an exemplary life, out of proving people wrong. Sometimes, it seems, just for the contrariness of it.

But whatever his motivation, the intense determination and single-mindedness of Bernard Hopkins cannot be denied, nor should the extraordinary nature of his post-prison life be ignored. In an era in which we seem to be assaulted daily by stories of athletes and celebrities who abuse there privilege after achieving wealth and fame, it is refreshing to see a man who started out so wrong and ended up so right.

This is not to say that Bernard Hopkins is perfect; his boxing style can be a sedative and his conversations maddeningly one-sided and pedantic. At a recent Q&A with Hopkins and a small gathering of boxing writers in Manhattan, there was plenty of A but precious little Q; Hopkins tends to monopolize all conversations the way he smothers most resistance in the ring. Some of his public comments have displayed questionable taste and judgment; he insulted one of his opponents, Joe Calzaghe, for the sin of being white, and questioned the blackness, and by extension, the toughness, of Eagles quarterback  Donovan McNabb.

But crimes against good taste are not to be compared with crimes against society, and since leaving Graterford, Hopkins says, “I haven’t had so much as a parking ticket.”

And it would have been oh-so-easy for Hopkins to fall back into the street life that landed him behind bars in the first place, especially after he lost his first pro fight, to someone named Clinton Mitchell, who was also making his pro debut.

Hopkins didn’t fight for two more years after that loss, but when he stepped back into the ring, he was a different fighter. He won his next 22 fights before running into a cat named Roy Jones Jr, to whom he lost a decision in a fight for the world middleweight title.

That fight took place on May 22, 1993, and Hopkins didn’t lose again until July 16, 2005, a span of 28 fights, 24 of them defenses of various versions of a world middleweight title. In the interim, he gave us two memorable performances, knocking out the fearsome Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden just 18 days after the 9/11 attacks — the fight was originally scheduled for Sept. 15 but postponed after the tragedy — and it became, along with Mike Piazza’s game-winning home run against the Braves at Shea Stadium, one of the first major sporting events in the shattered city, and a ninth-round KO of Oscar DeLaHoya three years later. Hopkins and DeLaHoya are now partners in Golden Boy Promotions, which is promoting the fight against Smith.

Which brings us to Saturday night, and a fight that easily could have been a victory lap for Hopkins against a carefully-selected opponent (read: tomato can) guaranteed to make the old man look good in his last rodeo.

But Hopkins didn’t go that route. Smith may not be Trinidad or DeLaHoya or Sergey Kovalev, the fearsome Russian who beat Hopkins convincingly in what was thought to be Hopkins’ last fight two years ago when he was a mere 49 years, 11 months, but he is big and strong, can hit hard (18 KOs in 22 wins with only one loss), holds a title (the WBC International Light-heavyweight title, which he won with an unexpected first-round KO of 29-year-old Pole Andrzej Fonfara in June), and as we mentioned, young.

“I haven’t changed my stripes,” Hopkins said, perhaps unmindful of how much he actually has. “I didn’t want a pass in my last fight. I’ve never wanted a pass. I picked Joe Smith because I know he won’t let me rest on my accolades.”

When Hopkins started boxing, Mike Tyson was the heavyweight champion of the world. In the ensuing 28 years, the careers of Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Roy Jones Jr. Oscar DeLa Hoya, Floyd Mayweather and both Klitschkos have come and gone. Still, Bernard Hopkins fights on.

How? How is it possible for a man who has overcome what Hopkins had to overcome to achieve what he has, to continue to maintain the discipline and hunger necessary to compete at the top levels of our most difficult and dangerous of sports, one that is notoriously, and sometimes tragically unforgiving of age?

“Easy,” he said. “It’s all in my mindset. I just always act like my refrigerator is empty.”

And he pulls out a prison ID card with the number Y4145.

It is a reminder of who Bernard Hopkins once was, and why he has spent the past three decades fighting never to be that man again.

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