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Bernard Hopkins: Ring Genius Misunderstood (2003)

[This article was orignally published in 2003 by and Boxing Digest magazine.]

“When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign: that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.” -Jonathan Swift

Bernard Hopkins is a brilliant boxing champion. There is no question about that. Recently though, too much attention has been given to scrutinizing on the controversial side of Hopkins, like the failed relationships with trainers and advisors. Or his inability to secure lucrative contracts for major fights with marquee opponents. I will not waste any more ink on those problems – too much already has been. Instead we’ll utilize this space to celebrate one of the smartest, one of the most fascinating and intriguing, one of the most original champions to ever lace the gloves.

Bernard Hopkins first showed the world signs of greatness when he lost a competitive decision for the vacant IBF Middleweight title to Roy Jones in 1993. This was Hopkins’ first high-profile event. Many fine young fighters have been overwhelmed in similar circumstances. Not Bernard, though. Hopkins managed to make the far more advanced Jones appear tentative and almost too respectful. Remember, Jones had a decorated amateur career including valuable Olympic experience in Seoul, Korea. Hopkins came up from obscurity the hard way, he had no international amateur experience and turned pro after spending five years at Graterford prison. When Hopkins fought Jones on the undercard of the Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson Heavyweight title fight, it was a gigantic step up in class. He did remarkably well, even in defeat.

“The prizes in life are never to be had without trouble.” – Horace

Universal stardom would not shine on Hopkins until eight years later. Over that period of time, there were middleweight title defenses over tough customers like Segundo Mercardo, Keith Holmes, Robert Allen, Joe Lipsey and Antwun Echols. But those types of victories – regardless of how impressive they were – hardly make a ripple in the sports world. Not when there are stars like De La Hoya, Holyfield, Tyson, Lewis or Trinidad to compete for glory with.

It all changed on September 29, 2001 when Hopkins destroyed the undefeated Felix Trinidad by 12th-round TKO. It was a majestic triumph against all odds. As the powers-that-be in boxing were banking on a Trinidad win over the 36-year-old Hopkins. The plans were to set up a super fight matching Trinidad against Roy Jones in New York City.

But they all underestimated King Bernard. From the opening press conference to fight night, it was a genius display of physical and psychological domination, by one all-time great fighter over another.

I was there every step of the way and let me tell you, the greatest psych-jobber of them all – Muhammad Ali – could have learned a few tricks from Bernard Hopkins.

The fascinating mind games all began at the first press conference of their unification fight in New York City, when Hopkins threw down a Puerto Rican flag. This act was not so much designed to insult all of Puerto Rico, but to send an aggressive message to Trinidad. It was a strategic and daring ploy by the discontented IBF/WBC champion who believed all the attention and focus should have been centered on him, not the WBA champ Trinidad. “I didn’t apologize,” Hopkins said. “I think before I do anything. And I would do it again. I’m not backing down.”

The press tour would make its final stop a few days later at Roberto Clemente Stadium – in front of about 10,000 patriotic Puerto Ricans. And sure enough, Hopkins again would throw down their flag on to the ground. This time a riot ensued. Hopkins was chased by dozens of outraged Puerto Ricans out of the stadium. He somehow managed to escape over a wall by mere inches. Curiously, Trinidad showed barely any reaction at all to the latest affront. Hopkins had just disrespected Tito and his homeland…right in front of his face…without any repercussion. It was a maneuver of immeasurable bravado and confidence. And Hopkins got away with it. (Note: Hopkins later went to Puerto Rico and respectfully apologized to the citizens who accepted that Hopkins actions were for psychological warfare purposes and embraced him.]

The tone and mood had been set for this fight. And the man in control was Hopkins. He very much made it clear to Trinidad – in his inimitable style – Not only do I not fear you, I don’t even fear your whole island!

“So live that you can look any man in the eye and tell him to go to hell.” -anonymous

“I saw fear in Trinidad’s eyes when I took the flag out of his hand in New York,” Hopkins said later. “Maybe for the first time ever he’s not sure he can win. Trinidad hasn’t had to go to a Plan B in his entire career. When it’s time to get down in the trenches, he’ll go back to what he always does, which is to charge in and throw bombs. And that’s when he’ll play into my hands.”

Fight week came months later. At the final press conference three days before the fight, Hopkins would prove he wasn’t just playing around with those flags last time, as some sort of misunderstood publicity stunt. Those calculated insults were meant as serious business. This was the art of mental warfare at its best. And Hopkins is undoubtedly a grand master at it.

The Executioner would humiliate Trinidad again, this time as he announced to the media that he had brought Trinidad’s “last meal.” Boldly, Hopkins strolled over to Trinidad’s seat on the dais and without any regard of any possible consequences, dropped him some bags of rice and beans. It was another confrontational act that drew angry shouts from the Puerto Ricans in the audience. But there was no reaction from Trinidad. Again Trinidad just sat there blankly, not knowing what to do. Whenever Hopkins challenged his manhood, Trinidad never could come up with any sort of counter.

Hopkins went on to inform the media of exactly what would happen in the fight. Only a few believed him. “I’m too much man for Trinidad,” Hopkins declared. “And we’re going to expose that when I take him into deep waters he’s never been in before. Trinidad’s biggest asset is his heart, his will and determination. He won’t quit. The referee’s going to have to save him. Papa Trinidad’s going to have to save him. I would prefer a KO, but his heart is going to lead him to the point that he is going to take so much pain and so much abuse that it’s going to look so easy and one-sided that people are going to be shocked.”

I remember sitting next to his advisor Lou DiBella when Hopkins was telling us all his blueprint for victory. The assured and authoritative tone of Hopkins’ voice was completely convincing. Being in the boxing world for a decade, you can decipher confidence in a fighter’s voice but this was a new unparalleled level I don’t think I’ve ever heard before. I told DiBella, “I think he’s actually gonna win.” And DiBella smiled at my late realization and said something like, “Ahhh, he’s definitely gonna win.”

Finally, at the weigh-in, Hopkins would seize another opportunity to exhibit his almost eerie control over the great, unbeaten Trinidad. The atmosphere was intense as the two warriors stared into each other’s eyes for photographers. Suddenly, Hopkins again took command of the moment. Abruptly, he stepped forward to within inches of Tito and did that throat-slit gesture with his right hand. With stone cold seriousness, he also feigned lifting his head with two hands and throwing it to the crowd. And then Hopkins peered deeply into Tito’s eyes, nodding his head confidently in a smiling, mocking affirmation. Yet again, Trinidad just stood there, frozen in inaction. Frozen in his own tentativeness. Moments later, when the two had been separated, Trinidad could be seen, “…trembling in anger,” as one witness described it.

As we all know now, of course, the control Hopkins had over Trinidad outside the ring would transfer into the ring. Their Madison Square Garden super fight was one of the greatest boxing performances I’ve ever seen. Hopkins’ victory that night was so monumentally perfect that it should instantly qualify him to all-time great status. Sometimes just a single win can do that, such as Salvador Sanchez against Wilfredo Gomez or Aaron Pryor vs. Alexis Arguello.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.” – Shakespeare

Since conquering Trinidad, Hopkins has scored a pair of dominant wins over two outclassed mandatory challengers Carl Daniels and Morrade Hakkar. But there’s also been troubles, in the form of lawsuits with his former trainer and advisor. Curiously, the majority of the mainstream media has turned against Hopkins, so symbolically evident when Larry Merchant chastised Hopkins on HBO by asking him if he was “embarrassed” by the survival antics of the overmatched Frenchman Hakkar. Hopkins handled the opening question ambush like it was a punch that he knew was coming. The champion countered perfectly by warning Merchant not to be ignorant of the reality of the situation…that he had to fight Hakkar, otherwise forfeit the WBC belt, and his undisputed champion status.

Hopkins later noted that the media allowed Roy Jones to fight ten “ducks” – like a policeman, garbage man and school teacher before subjecting him to much criticism – yet he fights one mismatch opponent and gets ridiculed for it. Consider this: When Oscar De La Hoya easily beat French mandatory Patrick Charpentier a few years ago…did anyone at HBO ask Oscar if he was “embarrassed” about winning such a mismatch? Did anyone ever ask Roy Jones if he was “embarrassed” at how ineffective Glenn Kelly or John Ruiz were?

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.” – Anais Nin

Abdul Aziz knows Bernard Hopkins for about a year. He met him through a friend, another Philly fighter named Calvin Davis. Now Aziz is a trusted member of Team Hopkins, in charge of security and other details.

“He’s a special individual. There’s a side of him that people don’t see,” Aziz said. “He helps his friends. He didn’t know me but took me under his wing and helped me out. I don’t think he knows the kind of inspiration he is to people. Every person he comes in contact with, he gives them inspiration, to want to be better themselves. Me, I was once 300 lbs. less than six months ago. Now I’m 213.”

“Every time he meets someone – a fan, a journalist, anybody, anyone he comes in contact with – I can see they are touched by him. He just sends off energy. Always a positive energy in the air.”

The great champions of the sport always possess a special spirit and presence. And they always have that extraordinary physique. If you look at Hopkins’ body, you will see one of the finest gladiatorial masterpieces ever to enter a ring. His discipline and dedication abilities are legendary. Hopkins today – even approaching 40 – is still a prime superhuman fighting machine.

“Bernard Hopkins is absolutely the most dedicated of all, of every athlete I’ve worked with,” said Joey Hernandez, an American College & Sports Medicine certified trainer for 13 years. “You give him an explanation and he understands it. And he doesn’t forget it. He eats no junk food, no fried foods. Never. Only sushi, pasta, vegetables, fruits, oatmeal, baked fish and baked chicken, shots of wheat grass, and protein supplements which he mixes himself. Healthy foods. He drinks nothing but water and cranberry juice which is good for the kidneys. He never has a weight problem. He walks around at 165. He’s always focused on his body. The guy is solid steel, looks like a greyhound. He always eats clean foods, no junk foods.”

“No other pro athlete is close to him when it comes to dedication. I’ve worked with Dorsey Levens (NFL), Dale Davis (NBA), Damon Stoudamire (NBA). The only one who pays 2/3 of the attention that Bernard pays to his physical being, is Shannon Sharpe.”

When it comes to training, there may be no fighter more driven. I asked longtime corner man Brother Naazim Richardson to describe Hopkins’ work ethic. “It’s unmatched. Him and Buster Drayton are the only two athletes like that. It’s not about hours (in the gym). It’s the intensity that he has in training. He ran Sunday – the day after the (Hakkar) fight. He runs three miles every day. I think he might run too much. ”

“Everything comes to those who can wait.” -Rabelais

The natural progression of boxing promises us that Bernard Hopkins vs. Oscar De La Hoya will happen, that they are on a collision course. It is the super fight that has been set up perfectly. Hopkins is the undisputed Middleweight champion, holds the all-time record for title defenses and is unbeaten for a decade. He is the man who finished the career of Trinidad. He is the man who Oscar was speaking of on the Lewis-Rahman II PPV telecast when he said to his face, “I’m not the man until I beat you.”

De La Hoya is a great champion as well, full of heroic charisma and transcending appeal. He is the man with the golden touch. Everything he does – sing, fight, promote or pitch products – results in a jackpot of profits. He is admittedly in the final stages of his career and interested in – he has told us – only “big fights” from here on out. But with a Hopkins showdown looming, Oscar instead picked Ramon “Yory Boy” Campas and Shane Mosley (0-2-1 in his last three fights) as his next two opponents.

But the most intriguing challenge for Oscar is certainly Hopkins. Oscar can earn $25-30 million to fight Hopkins but the fact he’s accepted about half that to fight Campas speaks volumes about just how respected Hopkins’ talents are. De La Hoya vs. Campas pales in comparison to De La Hoya vs. Hopkins.

Hopkins has made it more than clear that he wants this fight now, soon or whenever. You just know the chance to fight De La Hoya would evoke and inspire the best we have ever seen from Hopkins. We saw what the threat of Trinidad brought out of Hopkins. The Golden Boy would have his hands full, that’s for sure. That’s part of the problem for Hopkins. If he was just about perfection against Trinidad, it’s downright scary to think of what he might do to Oscar, both physically and psychologically.

Oscar told Hopkins earlier this year in Miami – straight to his face – that he would like to challenge him for those middleweight titles. “Me and Oscar talked briefly in March,” revealed Hopkins. “I told him we could do it two ways. We could do it at (Oscar’s) weight for his belts, or we could do it for my belts at 157. He corrected me. And said, No, we’ll do it for your belts at 158.”

One has to wonder though. Is this just another case of boxing lip service? I mean, who could forget that Riddick Bowe said he would fight Lennox Lewis. And Roy Jones did say he was going to fight Michalczewski and Jirov. Mike Tyson did say he would “eat” Lewis’ children.

Hopkins vs. De La Hoya is the best and most compelling super fight boxing can offer right now. And if you think about it, it may be the last true super fight for several years. The sport needs this fight to happen. Lewis-Tyson II, Jones-Holyfield, Barrera-Morales III are very good attractions. But Hopkins-De La Hoya is the ultimate super fight.

It has the colorful characters to become the most lucrative non-heavyweight fight in boxing history. Undoubtedly, it would surely be an event of unscripted drama with Hopkins involved. You know The Executioner would surely pull out all his psychological devices for this one. You just know Hopkins would give us many things to talk about and write about, plenty of angles to sell this fight. One can envision Hopkins possibly treating De La Hoya with the same scorn and disdain that Roberto Duran did to Sugar Ray Leonard (and his wife Juanita) before their infamous 1980 “Brawl In Montreal.” De La Hoya will likely assume the role of the “good guy” in the white hat who must halt the villain. Or will Hopkins be the blue collar hero underdog to Oscar’s Apollo Creedness? This could get interesting.

De La Hoya is rarely publicly asked about fighting Hopkins. But ace journalist Gregory Leon recently did ask Oscar, “What about Hopkins? How do you feel about that fight?” Oscar’s reply did not convey much eagerness. “He is the 160 lb. champion and that would mean six weight divisions for me,” De La Hoya said. “That challenge would mean a lot. It’ll be wonderful if that fight could happen. But right now we have to take it one step at a time.”

Regardless of whether the fight is one, two or fifty steps away, I decided to get the drumbeat rolling now by asking a few experts…Who would win a Super Fight of the Century between Oscar De La Hoya and Bernard Hopkins?

Aaron “Superman” Davis, former WBA Welterweight champion: “I’m going with Bernard. Too big, too strong. But it’s a fight you can’t really say because of what happened with Trinidad. See, Trinidad was just tailor-made for Hopkins. Trinidad can only fight one way…that’s coming to you. And Bernard is not a great puncher. He’s not a power puncher. Trinidad made Bernard Hopkins look like a killer. You look at all of Bernard Hopkins fights coming up, he’s not a puncher. But he looked like a puncher because Trinidad was just made for him. De La Hoya will fight him differently. But I pick Hopkins. Because I think De La Hoya is still a welterweight.”

Jose Torres, former World Light Heavyweight champ: “I think it would be a tough fight. Because you have two very smart fighters. They are both punchers, but they are smart. De La Hoya knows that he is smart. So he’s not going to, what they say, fight for the sake of fighting. It’s not the way to beat Hopkins. So it will be a very good fight. Because Bernard’s a very smart individual. It’s too close to call [smiles].”

Nate Campell, top super featherweight contender: “Bernard Hopkins, without a doubt. Bernard is too strong, too big, to f—–‘ mean for De La Hoya. Let me tell you something. (Oscar’s) gonna be put in a real fight where a fighter does not care about him or what the critics think about him. The critics don’t like my man (Hopkins) anyway. Hopkins is gonna do what he does best…fight. He’s gonna be a Philadelphia fighter…or die. He’s gonna beat him up. He’s definitely gonna beat him up. The problem people don’t understand when you talk about Bernard Hopkins is Bernard Hopkins is a fighter first. Everything else is second. He’s become a businessman now and he knows what this means to him…to spank Oscar De La Hoya royally.”

Bouie Fisher; former longtime trainer of Hopkins: “I don’t mind commenting on this. I don’t care to comment anything at all with Bernard Hopkins at the present time because of my ongoing problems with him. (Note: The two parties are involved in a lawsuit.) The Bernard Hopkins I used to know…the fighter, the person…will lick De La Hoya. If he’s in the right frame of mind. He himself would have to get back on track, go back to what he used to do. The fight will probably never happen anyway. (Oscar) doesn’t really need this fight. (I interject – But Oscar could win all those Middleweight championship belts and make a huge payday.) Yeah, the belts…and your physical appearance after the fight [chuckles].”

Angelo Dundee, Hall of Fame trainer: “The only thing is gonna be Hopkins age. I think Hopkins will beat De La Hoya. He has so much talent. Hopkins is a remarkable man. His training, his body reminds me of George Foreman. George used to condition himself in the George Foreman style. Hopkins would beat De La Hoya if they ever fought. Good fight, technical fight. De La Hoya has a lot more than people realize…tall, lanky, good left hand, good left hook. He might be taller than Hopkins.

(Do you think Hopkins psychological warfare could affect Oscar like Duran did to Leonard in Montreal?) I don’t think he could affect De La Hoya. Oscar’s a very smart kid, he’s been around a long time. I give Hopkins the edge, he’s a remarkable fighter. If he closed his mouth I think he’d be more of a remarkable fighter [smiles]. I don’t know him, I just go by what I read. One thing Scoop, that I tell all my fighters is the media are your friends. You have to keep ’em that way. They can help a fighter in many ways.”

That is true, you don’t see much written about Hopkins in the major media. But I wonder if much of the media really realizes how great Hopkins truly is. Or do they purposefully ignore him? East coast boxing fans seem to appreciate him though. At Byrd-Holyfield in Atlantic City last December, when Hopkins’ name was announced, boxing fans stood on their feet and gave him an ovation. In Miami in March, at the HBO Latino show De La Hoya promoted, Hopkins got the loudest salute of the night. And Oscar and Trinidad were both present. But somehow, Hopkins’ positive story, his amazing life and career have been under-celebrated. This is the guy some film producer should make a movie about.

Here are just a few of the anecdotes Hopkins has told me through the years. Each one could translate well into movie scenes. Problem is no one could accurately portray Hopkins, he’s one of a kind:

“I admire anyone that comes from adversity. Anyone that comes from the inner city and rises from the situation…James Toney, Tyson, Foreman, Bowe, Iran Barkley. I could go on and on. Anyone that overcomes adversity. I’ll read it and know it’s true. Because it’s so easy to lay down. Lay down and say, I’m gonna rob a bank. That’s an easy cop-out. But to say, I’m not gonna be like that…it takes a lot to do that when you have nothing in the refrigerator.”

“Before the fight I think about all the hard training. What I did to prepare for the fight. I look at him. I look for fear. See if he’s looking the other way, or if he’s looking down. Are his lips moving or is his ear twitching? One thing that helped me in my life is that I’d seen intimidation growing up. You cannot intimidate Bernard Hopkins.”

“I got stabbed on the subway going to the movies with a female friend in 1979. Suffered a collapsed lung, a scar above the heart. I was in the hospital for six months.”

“I won the Pennsylvania Junior Olympics when I was nine (’75). I won a trophy which had to be two-feet tall. When I won that, I was the baby of the gym. We had guys like Robert Hines. I got my butt kicked 95% of the time in the gym by guys bigger and older than me. But I was too advanced for my level. I beat a good, good amateur named Bunchie Williams. But I think drugs got him. I still see him all the time. He says, You didn’t really beat me that night, you had the politics with you! But I knocked him down three times! There was no politics then…we were nine-years-old! We joke, good connection there. He says Roy Jones is afraid of me.”

On a personal level, as a man to deal with, I’ve always liked Hopkins and many other reporters have told me they too find him to be a good and decent fellow. And after spending time with him and listening to him, you always come away feeling a little different, a little bit better. Like you’ve been touched by his greatness. He is truly a naturally inspirational person. And a caring, generous champion. When former WBA Super Middleweight champ Steve Little from Reading, PA suddenly passed away a few years ago, leaving a wife and several children, Hopkins donated $100,000 to the family. And not many people realize that Hopkins is a devoted husband and father to a young daughter and he lives a clean lifestyle. He really is the personification of the quintessential boxing champion. He’s a real-life “rags to riches” story. A man who – through boxing – transformed himself from troubled kid into a successful and wealthy master champion.

I can’t help but say this – and I know there will be some dissent from my colleagues – but I believe Bernard Hopkins is one of the great credits to our sport. Yes, his outspoken nature has created some problems and he’s made plenty of mistakes in his life and career. But my overall lasting impression of Bernard Hopkins is that he’s a fine sportsman and one of the premier boxing champions of the last century. He name is synonymous among the company of such greats as Hagler, Leonard, Duran, Robinson, LaMotta, Monzon, Hearns, Ketchel, Greb…Hopkins.

He may not get to fight De La Hoya and he may never win any media popularity contests. But Bernard Hopkins has certainly achieved greatness and distinction in the sporting world and he did it his own way.

“Talk not of genius baffled. Genius is master of man. Genius does what it must, and Talent does what it can.” -Owen Meredith

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