By Thomas Gerbasi
Back when he was a spry young man of 48, I interviewed Bernard Hopkins for Newsweek’s TheDailyBeast.com and wondered why his remarkable feats weren’t more celebrated by the mainstream media.
His response – and you know he had one – went like this:
“My personal feeling is that Bernard Hopkins has never been an industry boy. 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. Then you’ve got a Bernard Hopkins. You can take my stool, you can take my urine, you can watch me consume food, you can do anything you want to do; my story don’t mean nothing to them because I’m not the right person that they want to promote and push forward.”
He’s right, and that’s unfortunate, because we won’t see the likes of “The Executioner” or “The Alien” or whatever he’s being called these days, ever again.
Forget the part that says someone with Hopkins’ genetics and ability to laugh at Father Time only comes along once a generation, if that. In this day and age, and at 45, I hate to be “that guy” who talks about how things have gotten worse in the world as I’ve grown older, no one will a) want to fight as long as Hopkins has, and b) will want to work as hard as he has.
Think about it – when you bring up the topic of fighters with a Spartan work ethic, what names pop into your head immediately? If you’ve been paying attention over the years, it should be Hopkins and Floyd Mayweather. But Mayweather won’t fight until he’s 49, and who can blame him? Hopkins has though, and as he approaches his 64th professional fight against Beibut Shumenov this Saturday in Washington, D.C., he says he’s doing it for the history books, but I think he’s doing it because no one has been able to make him stop.
He’s never been knocked out, never took a punishing beating in the ring, and he’s been successful at an age where most fighters are into their second decade of retirement. He said last year that the reason was simple.
“The majority of fighters and athletes live double lives. 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.”
Back in 2004, before the second fight that took him to a new level of public acceptance against Oscar De La Hoya (the first was his 2001 win over Felix Trinidad), I had the opportunity to spend the day in the gym he worked out of in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania. Calling it a no frills gym would be exaggerating matters, but it was the type of atmosphere he thrived in.
Hopkins’ then-trainer, the late Bouie Fisher, told me of the place, “This is the type of gym where guys really learn how to fight, and they learn the craft real well.”
For Hopkins though, it was more than that because it was a place that reminded him of where he came from and gave him no indication of where he was at in terms of finances, public acclaim, or the boxing world. Here, he was just another hungry fighter in search of better days.
“There are a lot of benefits,” he said. “No silk pajamas or drawers, no marble in the bathroom.”
And despite it being late summer, there was no air conditioning either.
“If there was we would tear it out of the windows,” Hopkins smiled, pleased to bring an outsider into his world to show them how he did what he did and why you couldn’t.
Hopkins was 39 at the time, and while most expected him to beat De La Hoya (and he did), if you said that a decade later he would still be plying his trade, not as a beat-up pug scraping for a final big payday, but as one of the sport’s biggest stars and a world champion, you would have been looked at as if you were crazy. Hopkins believed though, and it may be because he never changed at 49 what he did at 39 and at 29.
Sure, the story is great – ex-con stays on the straight and narrow, fights his way up the ranks, battles the system, and becomes one of the greatest fighters of all-time. And unlike many stories in this game, it’s all true, no embellishment necessary. Yet the real story of Bernard Hopkins isn’t as sexy. It won’t make headlines because how he really got here isn’t the type of stuff people want to hear about. Being in the gym days after a 12-round fight doesn’t get a lot of web page hits. Spending hours, days, and weeks in the gym instead of Tweeting and posting selfies on Instagram doesn’t do the trick either.
The world loves flash, the world loves instant gratification, and Bernard Hopkins gives none of that. He is the living embodiment of slow and steady wins the race, and it’s precisely why he hasn’t received the attention the flashy Mayweather gets or that the King of Instant Gratification – a prime Mike Tyson – got. If it bothers him, it should, but like they say of all great artists, they’re not truly appreciated until they’re gone.
And in a world that celebrates the flash in the pan, it reminds me of a story he told me in that Upper Darby PAL gym back in 2004.
“There’s four cows at the end and I’m on the mountain,” said Hopkins. “I could do two things: I could storm down there because I’m excited and this is the chance to go down there and get ‘em, or I can go ahead and walk down there. In the end, I’m gonna have the last word. And I’m gonna have it. Why run down there when you can walk down there and F’ all of them? But if you run down there, you know what happens when they see you running down the hill? They’ll scatter. So you tiptoe down there.”
Ten years later, Bernard Hopkins is still getting the last word.