Lunch with a Middleweight King
By Alex Pierpaoli
I am a fan of long reigning, undisputed middleweight champions. In these days of Jeff Gannon, Armstrong Williams and media sources that spin news more than disseminate it; I need to clarify where I stand. The first fighter I remember rooting for was Marvelous Marvin Hagler before his fight with Thomas Hearns. I had watched Ray Mancini a couple times before that and I even remember hearing of both of Ali-Spinks fights. But before Hagler I didn’t really know or care much about boxing. Hagler and his 8 minute war with Hearns changed all of that. And it opened my eyes to middleweights; the perfect balance between the bone cracking power of heavies and the lightning speed of the lightweights.
As Bernard Hopkins’ career progressed and he piled up successful title defenses he took on the guise of the Marvelous One of this generation. In Hopkins we see a crafty, roughhewn man who toiled in relative obscurity for years, honing his skills and learning his craft away from the sparkle and glitz reserved for some of boxing’s superstars. The ex-convict turned pro-fighter, the Executioner imagery; Hopkins cultivated some of the same primal archetypes that the bald skull and the punches he’d throw at himself before the bell, did for the Marvelous One. They also share the Philadelphia connection.
For Hagler, some of his toughest fights and two of his three losses took place in Philadelphia. Bernard Hopkins is the first born and bred Philadelphia middleweight king; it seems natural to imagine the two in the ring against each other. And it is because we can envision them squaring up, feinting at each other, slipping and winging bombs; because we can see it so vividly we know Hopkins now occupies that legendary place in boxing that is reserved for only the greatest of champions. So when this writer had the opportunity to sit in on a luncheon that Hopkins was to attend at The Mohegan Sun, there was no way it could be missed.
Meeting Bernard Hopkins and listening to him speak is a privilege for anyone with a passion for the Sweet Science. He is very lean, and appears taller than expected. His eyes are clear and alert; there is no dullness in his gaze that can sometimes be seen in fighters whose careers were not as successful, filled more with punches absorbed rather than punches landed. There is no scar tissue in Hopkins’ brow and his gait is precise and sure-footed, far more like a dancer than a brute.
The occasion that brings this luncheon to Todd English’ Tuscany is a press conference to announce an upcoming bout that features Hopkins’ cousin, Willie Gibbs. The undercard features promoter Rich Cappiello’s newly signed prospect Elvin Ayala who is also present. It is Ayala’s presence and the way Hopkins begins speaking to the young man across the table immediately giving him tips about lifestyle and training that first gets Bernard Hopkins talking.
After the formalities of the press conference it is Hopkins’ turn to speak again and once turned on there is no turning off Bernard Hopkins. He is never at a loss for words. And the words are never uninteresting or uninspiring. He cut his teeth at Graterford State Penitentiary; spending five years, his adolescence, 17 to 23, behind bars. It isn’t long before he references his time there and what it taught him.
“So, I say again, I’m not that lucky. There’s a reason why things happen in the life of Bernard Hopkins. And I go back to this simple word…It’s a simple word…certain educated people don’t have the common sense of realizing that. Patience. How’d you get it, Bernard? I got it when I was 17 years old. You think I didn’t think about escaping? Some people hang themselves, some people went crazy. Patience…You gotta understand, it takes patience to be a young person in a situation where you can’t walk out when you want…”
There is a man at the table, a friend of the promoter who is also an ex-con, a man who Capiello reports as having spent 34 years under lock and key. Hopkins turns in the man’s direction, yielding a sort of instant street cred to this unnamed man.
“I should shut up and let him talk,” says Hopkins. The room fills with laughter but Hopkins is serious.
“’Cuz the bottom line is, we have a relationship. I don’t know him, he don’t know me…Listen if I was saying anything that wasn’t accurate he would have cut me off a long time ago,” Hopkins smiles. Gesturing towards the rear wall of the dining room and the numerous bottles standing on the shelves, Hopkins gets everyone laughing some more about the prospect of this hardened ex-con using whatever he had to as a weapon.
“Because he’s got all these weapons here…these French bottles of wine…He knows survival tactics,” Hopkins says respectfully. And perhaps it is this that makes him fundamentally different than his nemesis, Roy Jones Jr.
Roy knows it too, I think. Jones has always admired the ferocious, the bloody thirsty, even though Roy’s boxing skills were not born out of that same source material. Why does Jones love the pit bulls and fighting roosters? Not because of their careful business savvy or their mastery of making an opponent miss, he admires their willingness to blood themselves in their need to do harm to the opposition. Hopkins was forged in the crucible of prison where violence and brutality are instruments through which one gains respect or keeps himself alive, that world where men tie bed sheets round their necks to choke off the pain of passing time.
When Hopkins talks of life of the sword and by the sword there is no mistaking he knows his subject. He isn’t ashamed to speak of his past transgressions or the time he served; there is no embarrassment or showing off in mentioning his incarceration.
“I don’t say it to brag or bullshit,” Hopkins says. And no one doubts him.
The mystic and the lunatic dwell in the same waters of the mind. The lunatic is adrift in those tides, a startled soul in a churning boil of water, struggling not to sink. The mystic exists in that same foamy chop and roll of water. The difference is that the mystic can swim.
Some see Hopkins as crazy, a paranoid who has made choices against his own best interest out of hubris. Others see Hopkins as a sort of guru, a man who has improved with age in a sport that makes young men get old too quickly. His training ethics are emulated and his words are repeated like mantras by so many of today’s fighters. Nate Campbell and Tarvis Simms, to name two, both credited Hopkins with opening their eyes to how to improve their training methods after recent wins.
For writers, Hopkins is someone who keeps you scribbling. He is easy to quote, his adeptness at conversation as pronounced as the effectiveness of the chopping uppercuts he lands when in close with an opponent. It’s only natural to ask Hopkins for his opinion of upcoming fights, especially when he has an interest in the outcome and a potential date with the victor.
“Tito late,” says Hopkins, when asked to tab the winner of the upcoming Felix Trinidad versus Winky Wright showdown. “Winky’s gonna put up a good scrap though…I think that Winky will give him problems…being a southpaw, but I think Winky will be too brave for his own good. Winky will stay there and try to trade with him and it’ll be exciting but Trinidad will get him. At the end Trinidad will get him; overpower him. I think with Winky, being too brave is gonna get him.”
If Hopkins is right, Trinidad’s victory over Wright would clear a path for the rematch that for awhile at least, looked as if it might never happen. I ask if Hopkins thinks Trinidad wants to fight him again.
“I think Tito and his father want to fight me but I think Don knows that he can’t beat me…But at the end of the day Trinidad and his father, they call the shots. At this stage of their career they’ve got Don over a barrel.”
Hopkins spoke briefly during lunch about his deal with His Royal Hairness and how it was necessary in order to enter the Middleweight Tournament that culminated in September of 2001 when Hopkins became the first undisputed middleweight champ since Marvin Hagler by beating Trinidad.
Don King had commissioned an artist to craft a trophy for the victor of his Middleweight Tournament. The trophy was shaped in the likeness of the greatest middleweight, and arguably greatest fighter of all time, Sugar Ray Robinson.
Hopkins describes the piece. “Ray Robinson like this,” he poses, his guard up a-la-Ray Robinson. “Looks just like him; the eyes are just,“ Hopkins traces his own eye with two fingertips to denote the statue’s detail. “Oh, it’s crazy! Oh this is a collector’s piece.”
I ask Hopkins if there is truth to the stories about the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy being engraved with Trinidad’s name even before the fight occurred. Hopkins describes that yes, there was no trophy for him on the night he beat Trinidad and he suggests he may know where the one with Trinidad’s name on it resides.
“I go into Don King’s house in Fort Lauderdale…I’m in his office about two summers ago, or last summer…there’s a statue in Don’s house. Yo, you’re getting this on tape ain’t you? Yo, man, I said [to myself] this is the Ray Robinson trophy over there! I’m sure that that’s the Tito trophy…I didn’t look at it. [But]I mean…you can’t give the trophy to Tito because he didn’t win.”
Perhaps Don kept it as a trophy to remind him there are few sure-things in boxing.
“You didn’t get the award?” Promoter Rich Cappiello asks, having just joined the conversation.
“I got it,” says Hopkins. “I got it a week later…We had a press conference, when they got it fixed and ready, at Gallagher’s steak house with 8 media people. But there was 2 and three hundred the night of the climax.”
“Let me tell you something, the night of the Super Bowl the players are not looking for the rings right now, they know that they’ll get the rings. You don’t hear no players saying where’s my check? They’re running around with that Lombardi trophy and if that’s what they only got right then and there that was better than their ring and their check that moment. Because that moment you can never erase. They robbed me of the moment. They robbed me of my moment. So, how do you take that negative energy and let it work for you instead of against you? I haven’t forgot it, I use it to put forward. And that’s what’s got me here and that’s what’s gonna get me through this next year.”
This year is likely all we have left to enjoy watching this middleweight legend ply his trade in the squared circle. It was a promise to his mother to retire at forty and he’s stretched it a bit to forty-one which he turns in January 2006. After that he’ll need to find new dragons to slay and with his knowledge and interest in so many aspects of the sport it is doubtful he’ll stray very far from the ring.
Already this past January, Hopkins, Senator Jon McCain, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and several others requested a Presidential pardon be issued for former World Heavyweight Champion Jack Johnson. Johnson was convicted under the Mann Act for transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes; charges that were pressed in order to bring down the first black Heavyweight Champion. I ask Hopkins about the effort behind the request for the pardon and what it means to him.
“It’s a redemption of the injustice at the time. No matter if you’ve been dead fifty years, twenty or thirty years, I think when it comes to your name, that’s important. That lives longer than you. Your name and your credibility…I think no matter what religion or color or anything…when things is done wrong to you it could be fifty years or a hundred years and someone stands up, politically or non-politically, and fights for that cause…You know in the hood they got a saying, that’s gangsta. You know the slang? That’s gangsta. And that’s good…That means it’s bold. That means that somebody stuck his neck out for it and then they pounded the drums for it.”
Jack Johnson, like Hopkins, was never interested in pleasing folks or appealing to the sensibilities of the status quo. Hopkins admires that self-confidence and depth of character in Johnson.
“He didn’t care…As I am today I can’t say I would be like that back then. We’re talking nineteen fifteen…I mean it was straight up red-necks…He was flamboyant. He’d rub it in their face. Big hat! Jack Johnson was that type of character. From what I read and understand…Jack Johnson wasn’t no geek…He wasn’t shy. And you could say that he shared his ding-a-ling.”
Everyone within earshot breaks into laughter and by now I feel I am taking up too much of his time. I read the body language of his entourage and sense that perhaps the champ should get a move on. He has spoken for an hour at least, through much of lunch, through a videotaped interview and now with me. I imagine he has talked enough, if that is even possible for this man with so much to say and still so much greatness left in him to prove.
I thank the Middleweight Champion for his time and for signing a couple photos. We shake hands and of course, Hopkins gets the last word. And of course it’s quotable, like any writer would hope.
“I wanna see that on Doghouse,” says Hopkins. He turns to a member of his entourage, smiles and nods in my direction. “And he’s gonna have ding-a-ling on the website.”
Send comments or questions to Alex Pierpaoli at: KOFantasyBoxing@gmail.com