by Thomas Gerbasi
The first knockdown could have been brushed away as questionable. The second time Bernard Hopkins hit the deck against Jean Pascal in their light heavyweight title fight last December, the only question was whether the 45 year old future Hall of Famer had finally reached the end of the line.
Hopkins jumped up immediately that night, ready to re-enter the battle. There was no sign of distress on his face, as he knows better than most the value of holding your cards close to your vest. But in his 59th professional fight, did it go through his head, even for a second, that he had finally grown old?
“Listen,” Hopkins told BoxingScene, “it goes through my head every time my wife says she wants some fun tonight and I can’t deliver. So what the hell, I don’t need to be in the ring to see that.”
That’s vintage Hopkins, and not just because he turned 46 on January 15th of this year. It’s because in a sports world full of liars, you’re going to get the truth from the Philly veteran, even if it’s only the truth as seen through his eyes. So there are no clichés, no softening of the blow to make his comments palatable for the mainstream; it’s all real stuff, and as he rolls towards 50, he admits without hesitation that he’s reached the age where all the parts don’t always work like they used to.
“Trust me, when I’m in the gym - and I’m there with guys that are 25, 30, they’re vibrant and energized - I ain’t gonna lie, some days I’ve said ‘I don’t remember in my whole career getting hit with that shot.’ And some days you question, and some days you feel a lot better, but you learn to adapt if you’re not slipping like in the movie The Matrix, where you can actually see the punch and slip it by a quarter of an inch.”
After rising from his second knockdown of the fight against Pascal, Hopkins showed just what he meant when he talked about adapting. Gone were two important points on the scorecards, but he still had nine rounds left to fight, and fight he did, making the 28 year old Pascal look like he was on the wrong side of 40 as he roared through the remainder of the fight.
Two of the three judges in Quebec City that night gave Hopkins seven of the final nine rounds, while the third, Daniel Van Der Wiele, saw it 6-2-1 for the former middleweight king. And when the final bell tolled, practically everyone believed Hopkins had done the impossible once again.
Then the scorecards arrived with a majority draw verdict. Steve Morrow saw it 114-112 for Hopkins, while Van Der Wiele and Claude Paquette saw the bout even at 113-113 and 114-114. Needless to say, controversy immediately erupted, with Hopkins leading the charge.
“The officials saw something that 90 percent of the people disagreed with,” he said of the verdict. “People sit back and watch sports, and boxing is notorious for having outcomes that leave a bad taste in the fans’ mouth. And so when the world watches an event and you have three or four people who are supposedly watching the same event and they come up with something that no one else seen, that’s a problem. I’ve been a part of this sport and I love this sport and that’s why I’m still doing what I do, but I hate to see the game disrespected like that. It’s easy for somebody to say, ‘well, you know, that’s boxing.’ That’s not positive to me. I don’t look at that as some kind of joke. I got older and wiser, and why would I agree that boxing is boxing. It’s not right, change it.”
Surprisingly, he got what he asked for in January when the WBC ordered a rematch. That rematch takes place on May 21st in Montreal. Once again, it’s in Pascal’s home province of Quebec, and while that’s a smart business decision considering that the Bell Centre will likely be filled to the gills by enthusiastic Canadian fight fans, you wonder if Hopkins worries about getting the short end of the scoring stick once again. He doesn’t believe that will be the case the second time around, and with four neutral officials already assigned to the bout (UK referee Ian John-Lewis, and judges Guido Cavalleri (Italy), Rey Denesco (Philippines), and Anek Hontongkam (Thailand)), his comfort level has gone up, especially considering the reception he received after the first bout.
“I made a statement that I would never go to Canada unless it’s Niagara Falls, but I thought about it and said wait a minute, the love the fans gave me in Quebec City, they wouldn’t let me out of the place,” he said. “I was signing autographs, kissing babies, hugging babies, people grabbing me. People from Canada saying ‘Bernard, I’m 45, I’m Canadian, and you won that fight.’ This was genuine love in Canada and they know what they seen.”
But Hopkins isn’t some four round prelim kid, a 24 year old contender on the way up, or even a 30 year old champion bound to get another shot if he gets a bad decision. If he loses to Pascal, there may not be another tomorrow, so you would assume that he would try to get all the advantages in his favor, right?
“That’s the chance we take, like most things in life, but that’s the thing that separates the person from the norm,” he said. “And the norm would be, let’s go to Atlantic City, let’s go to the STAPLES Center. But what defines me and defines what I’ve always went up against is that I’m willing to walk through that fire, soaked in gasoline, and not get burned. That can be perceived as suicidal, but what haven’t I done in my career that’s been considered suicidal? My past has been suicidal when it comes to the do’s and don’t’s. And I’m not proud of it, but it is what it was. It slowed some big paydays down for me, it slowed down some great opportunities for me, but guess what, I took it on.”
I hate to say it, and he will probably hate me saying it as well, but could it be that “The Executioner” has mellowed? Nah. And for all the good vibes that he received from Canadian fans and the worldwide media after the first bout, it doesn’t mean that Hopkins has forgotten about gamesmanship. Even though the Flyers and Canadiens have both been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he promises that he’s going to wear his Bobby Clarke jersey into the ring next week. He’s even threatening to remove his front teeth to truly pay tribute to number 16. And as far as Pascal is concerned, he’s doing everything he can to get into his opponent’s head. That’s nothing new for Hopkins, and it’s become as much a part of his pre-fight ritual as training camp.
As for training camp, that’s business as usual, in fact, it’s inaccurate to call it training camp since Hopkins stays in shape all year round. But as he points out, even the best of intentions don’t slow down Father Time.
“I believe every year, an athlete loses a percentage of what he used to be,” he explains. “Just like every year you live, you deteriorate, whether you like it or not or whether you’re healthy or not.”
For a boxer, that means the reflexes start to dull and the speed isn’t what it used to be. That’s usually where the story gets ugly. But Hopkins has remained on top of his game long past his supposed sell-by date because of the little things he has picked up as a student of the sport. When his peers were partying, he was training. When they were running the streets, he was watching film and talking to trainers and fighters about the finer points of the game.
“Reflexes and eye coordination are very important in the sport if you’re not a heavyweight,” he admits. “So you learn to lose your arms a little bit, you learn to use your shoulders a little bit, not that I want to get those banged up, and you learn how to subsidize and camouflage and you learn to do things that the true veteran in this sport will learn how to do. Yes, there are things that I had to adjust, and there are things I’m gonna have to adjust at 6 o’clock in the afternoon when I’m back in the gym again. But that’s part of the process of being around longer than expected. And I’m glad that I’ve noticed, and can be serious and funny about it, and being aware of it, I get a chance to offset certain things and adjust certain things that I wasn’t capable of doing 10-15 years ago compared to now.”
But one of the keys, then and now, is that he never gets out of shape. There is no eight week training camp followed by 16 weeks of getting fat for Hopkins. Life is his training camp as long as he picks up a paycheck as a professional prizefighter.
“There’s nothing unique I’m doing other than what’s supposed to be done by anybody that has discipline,” he said. “If everybody had it, I wouldn’t know if it was right or wrong, so I need somebody to fail to understand what success means. So what I’ve done is what a good investor will do. He won’t give his money to Bernie Madoff, but he will give his body the best things.”
“Yes, you’re seeing talent, yes, you’re seeing genetics and a little bit of good fortune, and that’s good,” Hopkins continues. “But what you’re really seeing are the benefits of planting my crops, taking care of my life, my body, and my mind, and reading to exercise my brain.
I know I’ve invested in eating the best foods, staying away from drinking and smoking and partying and this and that. All of this has something to do with life, health, finances, sleep, rest.”
As far as he’s concerned, it all comes down to common sense. If you take care of your body, your body will take care of you. And with Hopkins, everyone saw the discipline he had, the way he took care of his money, and the way he approached life like a well-trained soldier, not as just an athlete. So when Pascal asked Hopkins at a pre-fight press conference “Are you willing to take the test,” insinuating that the future Hall of Famer’s longevity isn’t all natural, it cut the Philadelphia native deep to the point where the rematch has become deeply personal.
“Even the great Noah, the old man that they said was crazy, he understood way before now that even if people see you, they’re gonna think you’re doing something strange and different and they think that you’ve got this magical food or drink,” said Hopkins. “And then you hear ignorant people say things with no merit, with no evidence, with no facts, because they’re in denial, and that’s Jean Pascal. I’ve been in front of everybody all these years and I’ve never been accused of doing anything improper. Now I’ve had some shenanigans in press conferences, but that’s Bernard Hopkins, what else is new? But when a young guy is in denial of what I’ve done in my career and what I’ve established, he’s already lost the fight mentally.”
Now it’s up to Hopkins to make him lose it physically.
More to come from Bernard Hopkins next week on BoxingScene.com.