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?
ďListen,Ē Hopkins told BoxingScene, ďit goes through my head every time my wife says she wants some fun tonight and I canít deliver. So what the hell, I donít need to be in the ring to see that.Ē
Thatís vintage Hopkins, and not just because he turned 46 on January 15th of this year. Itís because in a sports world full of liars, youíre going to get the truth from the Philly veteran, even if itís only the truth as seen through his eyes. So there are no clichťs, no softening of the blow to make his comments palatable for the mainstream; itís all real stuff, and as he rolls towards 50, he admits without hesitation that heís reached the age where all the parts donít always work like they used to.
ďTrust me, when Iím in the gym - and Iím there with guys that are 25, 30, theyíre vibrant and energized - I ainít gonna lie, some days Iíve said ĎI donít remember in my whole career getting hit with that shot.í And some days you question, and some days you feel a lot better, but you learn to adapt if youíre not slipping like in the movie The Matrix, where you can actually see the punch and slip it by a quarter of an inch.Ē
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.
ďThe officials saw something that 90 percent of the people disagreed with,Ē he said of the verdict. ďPeople sit back and watch sports, and boxing is notorious for having outcomes that leave a bad taste in the fansí 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, thatís a problem. Iíve been a part of this sport and I love this sport and thatís why Iím still doing what I do, but I hate to see the game disrespected like that. Itís easy for somebody to say, Ďwell, you know, thatís boxing.í Thatís not positive to me. I donít look at that as some kind of joke. I got older and wiser, and why would I agree that boxing is boxing. Itís not right, change it.Ē
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, itís in Pascalís home province of Quebec, and while thatís 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 doesnít 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.
ďI made a statement that I would never go to Canada unless itís Niagara Falls, but I thought about it and said wait a minute, the love the fans gave me in Quebec City, they wouldnít let me out of the place,Ē he said. ďI was signing autographs, kissing babies, hugging babies, people grabbing me. People from Canada saying ĎBernard, Iím 45, Iím Canadian, and you won that fight.í This was genuine love in Canada and they know what they seen.Ē
But Hopkins isnít 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?
ďThatís the chance we take, like most things in life, but thatís the thing that separates the person from the norm,Ē he said. ďAnd the norm would be, letís go to Atlantic City, letís go to the STAPLES Center. But what defines me and defines what Iíve always went up against is that Iím willing to walk through that fire, soaked in gasoline, and not get burned. That can be perceived as suicidal, but what havenít I done in my career thatís been considered suicidal? My past has been suicidal when it comes to the doís and donítís. And Iím 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.Ē
I hate to say it, and he will probably hate me saying it as well, but could it be that ďThe ExecutionerĒ has mellowed? Nah. And for all the good vibes that he received from Canadian fans and the worldwide media after the first bout, it doesnít 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 heís going to wear his Bobby Clarke jersey into the ring next week. Heís even threatening to remove his front teeth to truly pay tribute to number 16. And as far as Pascal is concerned, heís doing everything he can to get into his opponentís head. Thatís nothing new for Hopkins, and itís become as much a part of his pre-fight ritual as training camp.
As for training camp, thatís business as usual, in fact, itís inaccurate to call it training camp since Hopkins stays in shape all year round. But as he points out, even the best of intentions donít slow down Father Time.
ďI believe every year, an athlete loses a percentage of what he used to be,Ē he explains. ďJust like every year you live, you deteriorate, whether you like it or not or whether youíre healthy or not.Ē
For a boxer, that means the reflexes start to dull and the speed isnít what it used to be. Thatís 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.
ďReflexes and eye coordination are very important in the sport if youíre not a heavyweight,Ē he admits. ďSo 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 Iím gonna have to adjust at 6 oíclock in the afternoon when Iím back in the gym again. But thatís part of the process of being around longer than expected. And Iím glad that Iíve 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 wasnít capable of doing 10-15 years ago compared to now.Ē
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.
ďThereís nothing unique Iím doing other than whatís supposed to be done by anybody that has discipline,Ē he said. ďIf everybody had it, I wouldnít know if it was right or wrong, so I need somebody to fail to understand what success means. So what Iíve done is what a good investor will do. He wonít give his money to Bernie Madoff, but he will give his body the best things.Ē
ďYes, youíre seeing talent, yes, youíre seeing genetics and a little bit of good fortune, and thatís good,Ē Hopkins continues. ďBut what youíre 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 Iíve 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.Ē
As far as heís 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 ďAre you willing to take the test,Ē insinuating that the future Hall of Famerís longevity isnít all natural, it cut the Philadelphia native deep to the point where the rematch has become deeply personal.
ďEven the great Noah, the old man that they said was crazy, he understood way before now that even if people see you, theyíre gonna think youíre doing something strange and different and they think that youíve got this magical food or drink,Ē said Hopkins. ďAnd then you hear ignorant people say things with no merit, with no evidence, with no facts, because theyíre in denial, and thatís Jean Pascal. Iíve been in front of everybody all these years and Iíve never been accused of doing anything improper. Now Iíve had some shenanigans in press conferences, but thatís Bernard Hopkins, what else is new? But when a young guy is in denial of what Iíve done in my career and what Iíve established, heís already lost the fight mentally.Ē
Now itís up to Hopkins to make him lose it physically.
More to come from Bernard Hopkins next week on BoxingScene.com.
Tags: Bernard Hopkins , Jean Pascal , Pascal-Hopkins , Pascal vs Hopkins