photo credit: Tom Casino/SHOWTIME
Philadelphia has a reputation as a tough blue-collar city strewn with unrealized hope. It is a city of neighborhoods where the sophisticatedly antiquated Center City smoothly collides with the inner city blight of North Philly via its storied Broad Street.
North Philly, also referred to endearingly as “North Filthy” by locals, is home to the Raymond Rosen Housing Projects where a young Bernard Hopkins began to see life’s challenges at an early age. Engaging in crime to survive, Hopkins was eventually arrested and matriculated into the Pennsylvania penal system where, surprising, he would discover his true calling- boxing.
Fighting his socio-economic standing morphed into fighting physically, and boxing began to seem like his way to reverse the hope unrealized by so many in his community. After serving close to 5 years Hopkins was released, began training full time and by age 21 had his first professional fight. It was a majority decision loss under the lackluster lights of the Atlantic City boardwalk and one easily could have counted out the losing debutant.
14 months later, Hopkins returned to action at the famous Blue Horizon on Broad Street, blocks from his Raymond Rosen stomping grounds and emerged victorious with a unanimous decision. In the shadow of William Penn who stands above the city atop City Hall minutes from the win, Hopkins started a march toward greatness and longevity that at 49 years old has never been seen before, and more than likely, will never be seen again in any major American sport.
Hopkins understands this fact and he made it abundantly clear in our exclusive interview with Champion: “You put me in the four major sports in America; I’m going to name them: NHL, NFL, NBA and baseball. If Bernard Hopkins today, the same guy, the same records and just flip it, use your imagination and I was in any one of those sports around and I’m doing it legally I’m doing it right not in the drug culture that I lived in, I’m doing it right and I was Bernard Hopkins the same guy with the same stats and put me in one of the four major American sports because they look at boxing as a ‘red light’ sport in corporate America, oh I know about that; how huge would we be talking about my brand right now, be honest?”
Hopkins racked up another 21 wins over 3 years; 13 of those wins coming via knockout (8 of which were back-to-back KO/TKO’s), and every other win coming by unanimous decision. During this run, Hopkins also won the vacant USBA Middleweight title and defended it in Denver victoriously. Not bad for an ex-con from the projects who started his career a meager 0-1.
It was this tear through the middleweight division that attracted Roy Jones, Jr. who at the time was on an equally impressive 21-0 run in which all but one were knockouts. The two met for the vacant IBF Middleweight title and Jones bested Hopkins via unanimous decision. But for Hopkins, who learns by experience, the loss would be something he would work to avenge no matter how long, with time never being a factor as he envisioned his career.
Hopkins went on another tear retaining his USBA Middleweight title and gaining the again vacated IBF Middleweight title and WBC Middleweight title. This positioned him in line for a battle with (at the time) the fighting pride of Puerto, Felix “Tito” Trinidad. The stakes were high as the winner would be the undisputed Middleweight champion of the world. Originally scheduled for September 15th 2001 at Madison Square Garden, the horrific events of 9-11 postponed the fight until September 29th. As the proud Puerto Rican community filed into the hallowed grounds of MSG to see their 40-0 champion walk away with another belt, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins shocked the world by dominating the fight and scoring a knock down in the 12th round, which led to a controversial TKO aided by Trinidad’s father who entered the ring to the disapproval of the referee and the chagrin of the massive Puerto Rican populace in attendance.
Still Hopkins applauded the work of his opponent, apologized for his disrespect of the Puerto Rican flag from earlier press conferences, and exhibited why he, above all, is the example of a true champion’s class. Hopkins would rack up wins over Oscar De La Hoya, Winky Wright, Antonio Tarver, Kelly Pavlik and eventually avenge his loss to Roy Jones, Jr. When he beat Jean Paschal in 2011, winning The Ring, WBC and IBO Light Heavyweight titles and the WBC Diamond belt, he edged out George Foreman as the oldest champion in boxing history.
“I learned how even at this stage in my life how to check myself. I’m in competition with me; how many people pushed the envelope so deep over their (careers) that he or she are in competition with themselves?” said Hopkins. “What do you have to prove: that I can out due my last performance. Bernard that was some entertaining- you’re not known for being- I understand. Maybe because if I would have fought the way I’ve been fighting lately I wouldn’t be here on the phone and definitely would be stuttering right now and somebody else would be writing out my checks and I don’t think that would be a good ending. So here we are, here’s the legacy, here’s the story, here is the attempt to make things happen the way I see it as in 2001 being motivated to show the world that with Bernard Hopkins you must start a different book. What is the title going to be on that, you can’t just throw me in the regular history books and say, hey he’s one of the historics and that’s it. No, no. I want to be a strong conversation at the table 15, 20, 30 years from now and my kid’s kids will be talking about or at least be approached about your great grandfather.”
Tonight Hopkins faces Beibut Shumenov, continuing his march down an already historic career. He wants to repeat 2001 and unify the Light Heavyweight titles and if history has proven anything its that Hopkins is always in the best position to do so, regardless of potentially mitigating circumstances like age. Hopkins’ legacy transcends athletic prowess as a minority owner in Golden Boy Promotions, where he sits at the precipice of the vanguard of boxing business. Inspiring other athletes to become promoters and handle their business personally, Hopkins’ life in sports reflects the new model that has been made more permanent as he continues to dominate on the biggest stages.
“When you have knowledge you are a threat to those who want you to be ignorant,” said Hopkins in closing. “Whether its anything with boxing or knowledge of self and knowledge of what you’re involved in that generates money you have to be multi-tasking. Force yourself to know these things so you can be able to correct a situation. How can you correct something when your ignorant to a particular thing and that’s what I tell young fighters, I tell young people they ask me: “You haven’t had a manager since 1995” I said well yes you’re right, I’m self managed, I’m Bernard Hopkins Boxing, LLC. I explain to them what conflict of interest means. That means if your father’s the manager and your brother’s the promoter you think he’s going to go against each other to help you. These are the things that are why we are called the Red Light District because the things going on since ancient times in the boxing business don’t always go on in the other four major sports in America. I mean everybody else has regulations and not that it saves the world, but at least there’s checks and balances so you have to be educated. The one thing I do have compared to the guy who has (secular) education, he doesn’t have (street) smarts and so if I have half of his education and I have 100% smarts and he in the smart business then I would challenge any corporate American smart degree guy and whoop his ass when it comes to being smart.”
A defining statement from a man who defies time and continues to shape his legacy both inside AND outside of the ring.