From Prison To the Prize Ring, Bernard Hopkins Keeps Up The Good Fight

On Saturday night, the 48-year-old will face an unbeaten champion 20 years his junior as he tries to beat his own record as the oldest boxing champion in history.

Before she passed away in 2003, Bernard Hopkins made a promise to his mother Shirley that he would not fight beyond the age of 40. He broke that promise, going on to accomplish more since January 15, 2005 than most boxers do in their entire careers. That white lie to his mom has been the only hint of scandal surrounding the future hall of famer who, at 48, will attempt to break his own record as the oldest boxing champion in history this Saturday night when he challenges unbeaten International Boxing Federation light heavyweight champion Tavoris Cloud, a man nearly 20 years his junior, at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

His story of a career that began in darkness and has moved its way up into the light has been overlooked as we’ve fixated instead on falls from grace: Manti Te’o and his fictional girlfriend, Oscar Pistorius and the shooting death of his real girlfriend and a host of other bad actors, cheaters and criminals whose stories have made sports these days less of an escape from reality than a grim look at it.

“My personal feeling is that Bernard Hopkins has never been an industry boy,” said Hopkins, about why he’s been relatively overlooked. “They’d rather talk about Lance Armstrong, who fooled all of them, got millions of dollars, and doped up for the last ten years and admitted it.”

Perhaps that’s because instead of a golden boy plummeting from a lofty perch, Hopkins’ rose from a dark place. A no-holds-barred bad guy in the streets of Philadelphia as a teenager, he gets arrested at 17, and sentenced on multiple charges including armed robbery to up to 18 years in the Graterford State Penitentiary.

He boxes while in prison, does 56 months, and is released in 1988: 23 years old with nine years parole ahead of him and a cloudy future. He debuts as a pro against Clinton Mitchell in 1988, and loses.

Yet he persevered, staying on the straight and narrow, working on his craft and finally winning the world middleweight title in 1995 that he would hold for a little over a decade, successfully defending it a record 20 times.

“There are a lot of things I did outside of boxing, and I really get tired of talking about it, but I stayed out of trouble for 20-something years and walked off nine years parole without even getting a parking ticket, and I became somebody productive,” Hopkins said. And, he’s always quick to point out, he did it his way, something that didn’t always work out for the best. He battled with managers, trainers, and promoters—paying out $610,000 when he lost a libel case against then-advisor Lou DiBella—and seeming to do battle against the boxing industry itself whenever he felt injustices were being done, whether in reality or just in his head.

Still, his longevity amazed fight fans and his honest and filter-free approach to interviews endeared him to the media. Most importantly, he respected the part of the game that required him to live a Spartan lifestyle to be ready to perform on fight night, sometimes against athletes half his age.

Since turning 40, which is somewhere past old age for a prizefighter, Hopkins has compiled a 7-4-1 with 1 no contest record. Three of those losses (two against Jermain Taylor and one against Joe Calzaghe) came from highly controversial judges’ verdicts, his draw with Canada’s Jean Pascal (later avenged) was another disputed decision, and the wins were against a Who’s Who of the sport, including Roy Jones Jr., Winky Wright, Antonio Tarver, and Kelly Pavlik.

“When you get to a certain age in society, they want to dictate to you when you should pack it in and that you should mentally grab a cane, a box of Depends, Geritol, listen to the oldies, and not eat spicy food after 9 o’clock. Mentally they want you to think that you’re old even though you know that you’ve done things not to be the age that your birth certificate says. I’m not in denial; I’m just saying that I don’t feel like I’m 48. So if I’m doing things that are the opposite of my age, then respect what’s there.”

What isn’t there anymore is one-punch knockout power, flashy moves, or dazzling speed and reflexes. Instead, the post-40 Hopkins has relied on a style as old school as himself, using veteran tricks (most legal, some not) that younger fighters just aren’t learning anymore. In other words, he outsmarted his opponents in the ring, while outside of it he broke all the stereotypes associated with professional athletes.

“The majority of fighters and athletes live double lives,” he said. “I don’t drink, I don’t party, I don’t stay out late at night, I don’t have three, four, five girlfriends. That’s wear and tear, that’s a candle burning on both ends. What got me here was not my talent, per se. My lifestyle gave me longevity, genetics gave me longevity.

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“I understand what I’m doing is unique, especially if you’re clean,” Hopkins continues. “And I mention that every time because I want people to understand: you’ve all been duped by Lance Armstrong for all these years. Nike gave him a multi-million dollar contract. You think Nike didn’t hear about Bernard Hopkins, you think Adidas didn’t hear? What better person is there to brag and promote your product? And he’s clean. So I’m bringing it up more than anybody, and if you’ve got something to worry about, you wouldn’t bring it up.”

In fact, when Pascal brought up the possibility that Hopkins could not have reached this level of the game in his forties without a little extra help before their May 2011 rematch, the street kid from Philly came out of Hopkins, as he told the media, “Don’t be surprised if I kill him.”

Later, we discussed the accusations and his reaction to them, and he didn’t temper his feelings towards his opponent in the slightest.

“I’ve worked so hard in and out of the ring, and I took so much shit that I don’t mind, because without struggle, who would Bernard be?” he said at the time. “Without struggle, I think I wouldn’t be here. So when a guy says something about my legacy and my history of what I’ve come from, I can walk in my home and catch a guy in my bedroom with my wife, and that won’t be the worst thing that happened to me. The things that were said were deeper than having a guy in my bedroom, in my house, with my wife, butt naked. I can forgive that before I can forgive what he said, based on the history that got me here. So when a guy says something to me to discredit me and have people thinking ‘oh, this thing that he’s done all these years is now under question,’ yes, the ambulance will be right by any fight that happens in the world, there will be one there, and don’t be surprised if he’s in it.”

Politically correct? Not in the slightest, but that may even be part of Hopkins’ charm, especially in a sport that, when all is said and done, is still a fight. Maybe that’s why the mainstream sports world wants to focus on cycling, football, baseball, and any other sport where a fall from grace is a shocker worthy of endless media coverage. But in the fight game these days, even being the exception to the rule isn’t enough to stand out on Main Street.

That won’t stop Bernard Hopkins. Ask him when he plans on relaxing, and he deadpans “When I’m dead. I don’t rest in my business interests, I don’t rest being a husband, I don’t rest being a father, and I don’t rest doing none of these things because when you rest, you get comfortable.”