by David P. Greisman
Bernard Hopkins made a life of accomplishing what people believed he couldn’t and made a career out of achieving what others hadn’t.
He was an ex-con who defied the warden who said Hopkins would be back.
He was a pro fighter who lost his first boxing match and went on to have a Hall of Fame career.
He was a contender who lost his first world title fight, was held to a draw in his second, then won his third and didn’t lose again for a decade.
Six years into his reign, that world title landed him in a tournament that was designed to make Felix Trinidad the undisputed middleweight champion of the world. Instead, Hopkins dissected Trinidad in front of a crowd that wanted his head — turning the tables on a man who called himself “The Executioner” — and thwarted promoter Don King’s plan.
It was Hopkins who emerged the best at 160 pounds and then continued to be, adding victory after victory until he had made a total of 19 successful defenses (20 if you count a “no contest”) between 1995 and 2005. That was a record. So was so much of what came afterward.
After he lost, dropping two controversial decisions to Jermain Taylor and leaving the middleweight division behind, he also could’ve left the sport and waited five years to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Hopkins had promised his late mother that he wouldn’t fight past the age of 40, after all.
There was an after to come after all that.
There always was more to come. Every time he lost, every time he was written off, he’d show that his story wasn’t over.
At the age of 41, he went up two divisions from 160 to 175 and upset the true light heavyweight champion, Antonio Tarver, capturing a crown in a second weight class.
He regained it again five years later, defeating Jean Pascal at the age of 46. He was the oldest ever to win a lineal championship.
Even after he was dethroned for a second time, Hopkins was able to become one of the three best in his division, winning a world title at 48 and unifying it with another at 49, making him the oldest beltholder ever.
Hopkins made a career out of achieving what no one else ever had. And his career ended with others doing what no one else had ever done to him.
It didn’t end two years ago, when Sergey Kovalev, at the time one of the two best light heavyweights in the world, knocked Hopkins down in the first round and out-boxed him for the full 12, the only person to shut Hopkins out on the scorecards.
It ended this past Saturday night, when Joe Smith Jr., a determined fighter who will never be considered one of the best 175-pounders around, became the first and last person to knock Hopkins out.
It would’ve ended Saturday no matter what. Hopkins was 29 days shy of his 52nd birthday. He had not fought in two years but came back with a guarantee — this one in ink, a contractual obligation even more concrete than a promise to the woman who brought him into the world. Win or lose, this would be it for Hopkins.
He didn’t want a ceremonial farewell against a lesser opponent expected to lose. He picked Joe Smith Jr.
“He’s a puncher, coming to destroy me,” Hopkins told reporters two and a half weeks before the fight. “He’ll try to do what he has to do. I need that.”
Smith was good enough to be coming off a surprising win over a name opponent but basic enough that Hopkins, even an aged, diminished version of him, felt he could out-think and out-box on his way out the door.
Instead, he was knocked out of the ring.
Smith is a 27-year-old who was born 11 months and nine days after a 23-year-old Bernard Hopkins turned pro. He is as blue collar as fighters come, a construction worker who wields heavy equipment in the ring, clocking in until his opponent is knocked out.
In June, he’d gone directly to battle with Andrzej Fonfara, who’d himself done a hard 12 rounds with the current light heavyweight champ, Adonis Stevenson, and who was coming off a war with former titleholder Nathan Cleverly in which the two threw more than 2,500 punches. Smith dropped Fonfara with one right hand and finished him in one round.
Fonfara wasn’t great but wasn’t bad either. Hopkins felt he was better than Fonfara.
Hopkins was a lot of things. This was a referendum on what he still is.
Hopkins hasn’t fought the full three minutes of a round for more than a decade. That is what did him in against Jermain Taylor. He’d long since figured out how to win enough seconds in a round and enough rounds in a fight to keep the judges from favoring ineffective activity above effective frugality. It was not just about taking away from his opponent, but taking over.
But Smith, for his one dimension and one direction, showed wisdom and patience from the opening bell. In the opening seconds he moved forward behind a feinted jab, not wanting to extend the arm too far and leave himself vulnerable to a sharp right hand counter. He also didn’t throw with power until the mobile Hopkins wasn’t. Smith’s first right hand, wild and overhand, came only once Hopkins had backed to the ropes. Hopkins easily avoided that one. Smith learned and adjusted.
Hopkins landed a good uppercut in the clinch halfway through the first, then moved out of range. Smith seized the round in the final minute, landing a right hand to Hopkins’ temple in a clinch that caused a momentarily wobble in Hopkins’ legs. Smith followed with hooks, and when he couldn’t find Hopkins’ head, he went to the body.
Many fighters are intelligent. Hopkins is brilliant, both beautifully and evilly so. He can undo an opponent with mind games, with traps set in the ring, with great technique and positioning, but also with dirty tricks. He has skills and savvy he’d amassed over the course of time and which had helped him defy it.
He long ago mastered the foul timed and placed in a manner so as to be unseen by the referee. He also knew to use his head as a literal weapon. About a minute into the second, he threw a right hand to Smith’s body and then moved in with his head down, driving it into Smith’s face, opening up a cut over Smith’s left eye.
It’s unfortunate that any fighter would feel the need to go outside of the rules in order to give himself a better chance to win. But boxing isn’t just a sport. It is punishment, and it is punishment where the consequences are, well, consequential. Fighters can be hurt physically and severely, and a loss in a boxer’s career is much more detrimental than a single defeat over the course of a season in team sports. They will justify certain means so long as they bring a certain end.
Hopkins targeted the wound with jabs and a good right hand. Then he held. Then he moved. Then he dodged and threw another right hand counter. Hopkins picked his spots and spurts while limiting Smith’s. Smith wasn’t in a bind. He wasn’t in a rush. He wasn’t being outdone. He wasn’t being undone.
That’s the false sense of security that Hopkins’ opponents tend to fall into, all while he analyzes and then unloads. In the final minute of the fourth, Smith again followed Hopkins to the ropes, then stood there as Hopkins came off the ropes with a left hook, then feinted with another left hook before landing a right hand. He soon dug to the body as well, and he landed a short right hand as the round came to an end.
Hopkins was trying to take advantage of his being on the ropes meaning that Smith would be in range and open. Smith sent out a pair of left hooks in the opening minute of the fifth but left a pawing jab out. Hopkins bobbed up and threw a good right hand, then laced another one in as Smith tried to retaliate. Hopkins moved away. Smith tracked him to a corner and dug a few hooks to the body, trying to take the legs and air away from a fighter who already had less of each from the years adding up. Later in the round, Smith followed two body shots with a left hook and right hand to the head.
Smith wasn’t going away. Hopkins had to work harder, but he couldn’t do much more anymore. He had enough to stand in with a fighter young enough to be his son. He just didn’t have enough to stand out.
He wasn’t getting embarrassed. He wasn’t getting hurt. He had moments, including a left uppercut toward the beginning of the sixth and a flush short right hand toward the end.
It was impressive given his age. Fights aren’t scored on a curve, though. Hopkins wasn’t winning. He wasn’t winning in a fight that he would’ve won long ago. He wasn’t winning in a fight that he would’ve won not that long ago.
Three years ago, as Hopkins prepared to face Karo Murat, he changed his nickname to “The Alien,” donning a costume mask for additional emphasis.
“I’m in this world but I’m not of this world,” he said at the time. “There is no aging process for me.”
For this fight, he went back to being “The Executioner,” once again wearing a hood, flanked by two muscular, outfitted men carrying toy axes.
Hopkins wasn’t executing like he used to. “The Executioner” just couldn’t cut it anymore. And then “The Alien” was brought down to earth.
About 29 seconds into the eighth, Smith backed Hopkins into a neutral corner, threw a left hook and then followed with a right. Hopkins ducked but got caught with the second shot. He leaned down on the second rope from the bottom. The rope above it was not very tight. As Hopkins leaned back, it also went in that direction, creating a gap that Hopkins began to fall through as Smith landed a pair of left hooks. A right hand and another left sent Hopkins’ upper body the rest of the way out.
Hopkins fell to the floor, the back of his head slamming into the ground. The referee began counting — not to 10 but to 20, the amount of time the rules allow for a boxer to get back in the ring. Someone at ringside put his hand out as the referee reached 10. Hopkins extended his right glove and was up by 13. The fight could’ve been over at that moment.
This bout was conducted under the unified rules of the Association of Boxing Commissions. When a fighter is knocked through the ropes, “the boxer is to be unassisted by spectators or his/her seconds,” the rules read. “If assisted by anyone, the boxer may lose points or be disqualified, with such a decision being within the sole discretion of the referee.”
That ended up not mattering. Hopkins never went back into the ring. He said his ankle was hurt, though there was no visual evidence of where he would’ve injured it. “I feel it tingling when I walk. I can go back in there, but I don’t know if I can stand,” he said while ringside.
He was in disbelief while being interviewed by HBO’s Max Kellerman in the dressing room shortly afterward.
“I know for a fact that if I wouldn’t have gotten pushed out of the ring, the second half of the fight, when I’m known for coming back — not that I was down multiple rounds — but I believe that he was starting to fade out, that I was starting to come on strong and making him miss, and that was taking a toll on him.”
It didn’t matter to him that this was his last fight and that his legacy was already secure. Hopkins wanted a fight that mattered, and he wanted to win it. He had pride before the fall, and after it as well.
This is the last loss in his career, but this will not be the last word on it. Bernard Hopkins is no longer “The Alien.” He is no longer “The Executioner.” He is a man who tried what men shouldn’t and did what other men couldn’t.
He defied expectations. He defied odds. He defied time. And all of that defined him.
Bernard Hopkins is no longer the best of this time. He will always be one of the best of all time.
“Fighting Words” appears every Monday on BoxingScene.com. Pick up a copy of David’s book, “Fighting Words: The Heart and Heartbreak of Boxing,” at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsamazon or internationally at http://bit.ly/fightingwordsworldwide. Send questions/comments via email at [email protected]