“WE USED to remember this sharp old guy and he used to stop on the street coming down the corner and say to us, ‘Stay out of trouble,’” remembered Bernard Hopkins.
The future middleweight and light-heavyweight great only half-listened, but the other half listened to the kids he was mixed up with.
The “sharp old guy” who had implored young Bernard to choose the safe path in life was veteran boxing referee Rudy Battle and despite his advice, and even though Bernard’s mother, Shirley, had moved to Germantown from North Philly, correctly predicting that gang violence in the city was about to get out of hand in the Seventies, Hopkins made regrettable choices and wound up in prison.
By 13 he was robbing people and he’d been stabbed on three occasions.
At 17 he was sentenced to 18 years for nine different crimes but prison was no shield. He saw another inmate getting killed because of a row over a packet of cigarettes.
Hopkins became the prison boxing champion for three of five years he served but that wouldn’t help his job applications although it had begun to mould his character for the better even if the warden didn’t think so.
“See you again,” he said to Hopkins as Bernard made his exit in 1988. “I ain’t ever coming back,” Hopkins snapped back.
When Bernard got out, he made better choices and three decades later he was enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, where he was inducted last month.
As a sign of appreciation, he invited the aforementioned Battle to attend the gala weekend with him, where Hopkins would consistently praise his mentor for his intuition and support.
Hopkins had lost several guiding lights through his career including long-time trainer Bouie Fisher and the man who was with him after his relationship with Fisher broke down, Naazim Richardson. Maybe that is why, in part, he wanted a motivating figure he felt he owed a debt of gratitude to share the celebrations with.
And Battle had made a significant difference.
“This man right here, would see me on the street corner in our neighbourhood in Philadelphia and he would drive through in his nice car with his hair looking nice – and he still has it at 91 – I wasn’t Bernard Hopkins, I wasn’t even [prisoner number] 14145 yet,” explained the boxing icon, as he gave his acceptance speech in Canastota. “I was 16 years old with a very small amateur record because they had a boxing gym at a guy’s house named Mr Jazz Jarrett who had a club called Together Brothers, to keep brothers from killing each other. A lot of people are not here on the stage with me, Bouie Fisher, brother Naazim, but I know where they’re at, they’re here in spirit…”
But even when Hopkins was in prison, Battle did not give up on the teenager and he wouldn’t allow Bernard to give up on himself. The referee drove three hours to visit Hopkins inside, he put $20 on his books to spend – which would go a long way back then – and then helped Hopkins get his first job at a hotel while Bernard was reintegrating with society and living at a halfway house.
“I wasn’t Bernard Hopkins the champion with the big amateur career, gold medal or any other medal and this man took time to drive to Dallas, Pennsylvania to encourage me – because I was in his neighbourhood at that time as a troubled youth,” Hopkins reflected.
Despite Battle’s best efforts, Hopkins lost the hotel job because he hadn’t come clean about his past.
Where there was a box on the job application to strike through if he had previously been in trouble, Hopkins skipped it and was let go as soon as his employers found out.
But boxing was different. It had an open-door policy and Hopkins had a desire to make it stick. It wasn’t going to be easy, though, and he lost his 1988 professional debut in Atlantic City to Brooklyn’s Clinton Mitchell.
That in itself caused another period of reflection and he again skated close to the fringes of the law although the words of Battle still rang in his ears.
“Rudy said if you come home and do what you say what you’re going to do I will do what I need to do to connect you with the right people,” Hopkins remembered. “In ‘88 I lost to Clint Mitchell, in 89’ I was inactive, ‘90 it was before I rebooted and met Butch Lewis through Rudy Battle.”
There were eight straight wins in 1990 and Hopkins would win 22 before running into another special fighter, named Roy Jones Jnr.
But that setback didn’t hurt Hopkins in the long run and a year later he fought for an IBF title and drew in Ecuador, having twice climbed off the deck against Segundo Mercado. The rematch, however, came in Landover, Maryland in 1995 – Rudy Battle was the referee – and Hopkins stopped Mercado in round seven to start his run atop the middleweight division.
The glamour nights would follow, not least on a spellbinding night in The Garden against Felix Trinidad, and then he’d upset a slew of bigger men and Father Time himself, for a period, until aged 50, he could no longer stave off the challenges of the violent young men coming through with the same ambition Hopkins had carried with him quarter of a century earlier.
But it was a stunning career and a study in discipline.
“Marvin Hagler is and was my hero,” Hopkins said. “I took a lot of things from him in the penitentiary. I used to cut out [clippings], make collages. As a matter of fact, I’ve still got two of my books. I got to speak at his memorial in Boston, I was asked by his mother who was 80-something years young and they said, ‘You were the closest to Marvin Hagler, not in terms of titles defences but also because of the work ethic, being ready all the time and never getting ready.’ I never went to camp to get ready; I went for peace of mind. Marvin Hagler was a great inspiration to me. I used to sit in the cell and say, ‘One day, I’m going to be just like him’ and I’d stay ready; I wouldn’t get ready.”
It served him well and added to his legacy and his persona. He not only never turned a challenge down, but he was always able to go above and beyond. He was never outworked. In fact, who can forget him capturing Jean Pascal’s soul, doing push ups in between rounds on his way to becoming the oldest to win a sanctioning body title, at the age of 46.
The dedication lives with him today. He’s 57-years-old and 3lbs over his final fighting weight.
But he wasn’t just Archie Moore incarnate, he had three characters throughout his career, getting more adulation, popularity, fame and money as he strode through the identities.
“I was The Executioner, reinvented myself and called myself The Alien and at 40 went all the way to 50 and then B-Hop,” he said. “Where did B-Hop come from? It wasn’t an accident. It was a mistake. When I did the deal with EA Sports on the front cover of that PlayStation game, on the shorts because Hopkins went all the way around here, they put B-Hop. I went through three generations, three decades, 30 years – the millennials called me B-Hop for short and now the guys with the suits at Wall Street call me B-Hop, they don’t call me the Executioner.”
With that, he crossed his arms in front of his face and with a keen eye for business and a gesture that has gained traction in pop culture over the last two decades, sighed, “Damn I should have patented that years ago.”
But there aren’t many regrets, nor should there be.
Hopkins finally called it a day after 67 pro fights. He’d won 55, lost eight and drawn twice. He wasn’t supposed to be fighting in this generation. He was a 1950s old school throwback trapped in a world of lasers, big screens, pyrotechnics and, fortunately for him, pay-per-view bonanzas.
And he’s done it all his way. Even if he’s been wrong but thought he was right, he believed in himself and his intentions, becoming one of the most unique figures in boxing history.
“I never submitted to what was destined that they had written for me in the future,” he said. “I wanted to be different.”
Hopkins, who says he deals with some people but tolerates others, be it in business, boxing or life, is renowned for his psychology and that set him apart.
“A lot of times the fight is won before the physical [actions] take place,” Bernard explained. “The biggest weapon in boxing is getting to your opponent mentally. The work is the work, but it starts here first… I can’t talk enough about it.”
He pointed at his temple as he discussed it and said he would look through his opponents at staredowns and that those who had exchanged tense moments with him before battle had seen something that others hadn’t; something different.
“I out-fought and I’d out-think my opponent,” he continued. “I learnt boxing mentally a long time ago and you can get yourself in shape, say a lot of things at press conferences to keep your confidence up, but I deal with you mentally.”
He’s hoping to educate his kids about his warrior mentality, his discipline and wants them to know the value of everything that comes at them in life. As Hopkins accepted his Hall of Fame ring, on the birthday of his son Bernard Hopkins III, he said he’d paid good money for private school so his son didn’t have to follow the same hard road but while he wanted to be able to give his son everything, he would not be giving him the ring, he was just going to let him have it for the day.
“We are here to give our kids everything, I’m not going to do that,” he said. “This is a lesson. I’m going to let you hold it because it’s your born day, but I’m also going to not let you keep it. Why? Because things are earned and not given and I don’t care how much damn money I got, how much fame I’ve got, I will not destroy them and pay for it later.”
It’s his passion for the sport and business of boxing that still draws fighters from around the world to call him for advice and his smart outlook that makes his views some of the most respected in the sport.
All he says he wanted to do was stay out of the penitentiary. He wanted money but he didn’t seek fame. He wanted to leave a legacy, he wanted to stand for something and show that beginnings don’t have to define endings.
“Never give up, and watch what you say,” he asserted. “What you say out of your mouth tells the world who you are. I knew my destiny. My record shows that destiny. My determination showed it and my biggest achievement was walking off nine years of parole in the City of Philadelphia… and I lost my first professional fight at the Resorts Casino in Atlantic City against Clint Mitchell, took off a year and a half, finding my way, had some close calls… Boy this documentary is going to be beautiful.”
Then, of being inducted into the International Hall of Fame, he said: “Once you reach this house, you might lose everything but you won’t lose history. History can’t be spent, you can’t lose it, you’ve just got to find it and you find it here.”
Turning to Battle, he smiled again, “Rudy, we’re in the Hall of Fame.”
It was heart-warming to see Battle being included by Hopkins and he clearly appreciated the acknowledgement.
“It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to share this historic and memorable day in your life,” Battle told his old friend.
“It wouldn’t be complete unless you were here,” Hopkins insisted, with his trademark grin, a mix of menace, charm and mischief. “I thank you for the $20 you left on the books. I’ll still pay you back for that later!”