By Thomas Gerbasi
The magic finally ran out for Bernard Hopkins last Saturday night. Whatever hocus pocus the Philadelphia legend used to hypnotize, baffle and then beat younger opponents over the latter part of a storied career that ended at the age of 51 in Inglewood, California, just didn’t work on Joe Smith Jr.
The proud member of Local 66, expected to be competitive cannon fodder for “The Executioner” in his final trip to the ring, put on his proverbial hard hat, bit down on his mouthpiece and went to work for a 21 minute and 53 second shift that his fellow laborers would envy. Not just because of its brevity, but for what it accomplished.
When Smith clocked out, he did it with a series of punches that sent Hopkins flying from the ring, ending one career and truly starting another one. Nothing will ever be the same for Smith from here on out. He could lose a hundred fights and still go down in the history books as the only fighter to stop Hopkins. He could quit tomorrow and always have this moment to share with his buddies on the job site, and no one could ever take it away.
It was the beauty of boxing in a nutshell. The underdog rising up against all odds and defeating the superstar.
“Hopkins would have toyed with Smith ten years ago,” the critics say.
Maybe. Ten years ago, Hopkins was in the midst of a streak of brilliance in which he defeated Antonio Tarver, Winky Wright and Kelly Pavlik, losing only to Joe Calzaghe via split decision. Meanwhile, Long Island’s Smith was a promising amateur almost two years away from beating local rival Seanie Monaghan for a Golden Gloves title.
Bernard Hopkins wasn’t on the Smith radar back then. Who could have imagined that the Philadelphian would still be fighting for another ten years, continuing to add new chapters to a book Hollywood would have turned down for being unrealistic? In fact, if any fighter in the ring at The Forum last Saturday night was going to be the one calling it quits on their career early, it would have been Smith, who saw his jaw broken by Eddie Caminero in his seventh pro fight in August of 2010.
For many with a young family and a steady job, walking away was the right move. And if Smith did retire off his lone pro loss, never to look back, everyone around him wouldn’t have said another word. There is more to this game than glory, and glory doesn’t pay a mortgage or the electric bill.
“Everybody, even my team, they would understand if I didn’t want to continue, but we knew that I had something and we wanted to give it another shot,” Smith told me in June. “And we gave it that other shot.”
The only ones who ever talk about that time and the broken jaw are reporters. Smith and his team moved on quickly, winning a fight over Santos Martinez 11 months after the injury in the same Brooklyn venue where he fought Caminero, and then adding 14 more victories to his ledger.
In the New York area, Smith was well known, with places like the Aviator Sports Complex and Paramount Theatre his own personal backyard. His fans would pile in, cheer on their man to victory, and then it was back to work. Smith was a ticket seller and the big fight in the New York area was going to be against Monaghan, who had gone on to become a light heavyweight contender since their bout in the Golden Gloves. A world title shot? That’s nice, but it was also for other people – supposedly better connected or more talented. Guys like Smith were A-sides at home, B-sides against those considered to be elite.
Andrzej Fonfara was one of those elite fighters. Smith knocked him out in two and a half minutes.
But the boxing crowd is one that isn’t easily convinced. Pull off the big win once, good for you. Do it twice, maybe we’ll believe.
Bernard Hopkins was the second big win for the 27-year-old Smith. Forget that Hopkins was 51 years old. There was no sudden drop in Hopkins’ reflexes, skill set or ring IQ. He fought the way he had been fighting for years. Draw you in, pot shot you, hold, foul, break, repeat. Along the way, perform the magic only Harry Potter and company can muster, fooling opponents into fighting this fight for as long as it lasts.
Yet Smith wasn’t buying what Hopkins was selling. For seven-plus rounds, he was the one making Hopkins fight his fight. Key word “fight.” Bernard Hopkins, today or 20 years ago, wasn’t ripping off three or four-punch combinations at close range. That might have got the job done against Smith, made him tentative, made him worry about throwing because he didn’t like what was coming back at him.
That didn’t happen. Instead, Smith stood inches away from Hopkins, threw hard punches and took a future Hall of Famer out of his comfort zone. It was the kind of aggressive performance that even Sergey Kovalev didn’t deliver in shutting Hopkins out in November of 2014. Still, Smith only led on two of the three scorecards by tallies of 69-64 and 67-66, with Pat Russell remarkably having Hopkins ahead by a nod of 67-66.
Smith wasn’t fighting for a decision, though. He was fighting to win, and in the eighth round, he got it. Ironically, on a night when HBO analyst Max Kellerman talked of Joe Louis’ final loss to Rocky Marciano in 1951, it was Smith knocking Hopkins through the ropes in the eighth round, much like Marciano did to Louis more than 65 years ago.
In five years, Hopkins will join Louis in the Hall of Fame in Canastota, his legacy secured forever. Smith may or may not turn into Rocky Marciano, but last Saturday night in southern California, being Joe Smith Jr. was just fine.
And that was no magic trick.