Bernard Hopkins, a man I both like and admire, generally, if selectively, tells the truth. But he has some cinematic set pieces, one of which involves a story of being taken aside at the time of his release from Graterford Prison and told by the warden, “I’ll see you back here in six months.”
It is typical of Hopkins to take the facts of a particularly hard early life—one that undoubtedly made him a uniquely tough and resourceful guy—and further rough them up to form a fable that makes his emergence into all-time greatness as a boxer a more melodramatic bit of factual bullshit and a Me Taking On And Beating the Establishment tearjerker.
Having in recent years been finally handed the mic after decades of being shut out, and placed in the role of grizzled but wise ambassador of boxing, Bernard doesn’t know how to put the fucking thing down.
There’s no questioning his intelligence, his experience, or his genuine insight. He’s a lousy editor, though. He tends to start out his pronouncements haltingly to draw people in, hit his stride persuasively after a few minutes, and proceed to give his audience a lengthy segment of pure gems. Adopting an oratorical tone, which he combines with stagy pregnant pauses, he then keeps going for as long as possible.
Maybe he’s hoping that film offers will come his way. Maybe they will. It’s more likely they won’t.
None of this is very important stacked up against what Bernard Hopkins has actually accomplished in the real world—largely, but by no means entirely, in a boxing ring.
He has taken a cryptic style, not one aesthetically appealing to mainstream fans, and wrenched every drop of effectiveness possible from it, eventually wearing away the objections of his detractors.
He has made his querulous voice heard, then respected, and finally sought.
He has wound up being the guy demanding and getting the A-side of the promotion, the larger payday of the two fighters’, and the plum HBO announcing gig. There’s no dumb luck here; Bernard earned all of this the hard way, almost exclusively on his own terms.
I’d intended to write about Hopkins’s boxing style, and how it has evolved over the decades. In recent years, he’s become the sport’s supreme minimalist, using a combination of combative semaphore and street-smart psychology to beat guys who, viewed only on paper, should have been able to handle him.
Ultimately I thought better about putting that into this essay. Leading up to, and in the few days since the fight, there’s been a deluge of detailed and astute analyses of Bernard Hopkins, the fighter, scattered across the internet. In the face of that plethora of knowledge and information, I don’t think I can add much to the conversation.
As awful as Hopkins looked two years ago against Sergey Kovalev (and he did look awful), he was a behemoth in comparison to the pathetic revenant facing Joe Smith Jr. this past weekend.
When Hopkins gingerly came out at the opening bell, taking tiny, bedroom-slippered old-man steps, I thought, “Okay, that’s that.”
A short time later, Frank Lotiziero, possibly boxing’s finest living analyst, sent me an email. Here is our exchange:
Lotierzo: “Hopkins really aged in 25 months. He had nothing—not a single thing but guile. He looked unsteady the second he took his robe off.”
Farrell: “Here’s my guess: like a lot of old fighters, he adopted an ‘I don’t work hard, I work smart’ bullshit philosophy. And John David Jackson probably let him get away with it. It looked to me as if Bernard almost literally hadn’t been in the ring, even to spar, since the Kovalev loss.”
Lotierzo: “That’s why I brought it up....I think that’s what went down. His arrogance led to this. Had he been sparring, there had to be young pros with 5-10 fights ramming his ass in the gym, if they had the opportunity or were allowed to.”
Farrell: “Kovalev would have been a worthy successor to Hopkins. And the Hopkins who lost to him might have beaten Joe Smith. You noticed how the judges were given the word to keep it close, just in case there was a way that Hopkins could pull things out in the later rounds.”
Lotierzo: “Kovalev definitely a worthy successor..... I gave Hopkins 2-rounds, the 3rd and the fourth...he lost the others. I too think the Hopkins of the Kovalev fight decisions Smith last night without any real close calls. He really went back, and now he knows there are 8-10 round pros he can’t beat. He’ll never fight again. If that’s the worst he ever got beat, he ended up okay.”
Pat Lawlor was a club fighter, an undistinguished journeyman with no power, no better or worse than any other marginal 10 round opponent. There’s no logical reason for him to hold such a special negative place in my heart. But he does.
Over a 10 month period between 1990 and 1991, Lawlor meandered into televised fights with two legends and beat them both. He decisioned a used-up Wilfred Benítez, and then managed to find himself in the ring with an overweight and discouraged Roberto Dúran, who decided that six rounds of boxing was enough for one night, and so quit halfway through the round.
I’m a flawed man, so maybe my antipathy toward Lawlor is a character defect. Be that as it may, there was something infuriating about Lawlor’s vulgar averageness—his stupid, ever-present workingman’s cap, his seeming lack of comprehension that he hadn’t beaten anybody, and the bland confidence of someone who was only a Lucky Just to Be Here award winner. He wasn’t someone who’d earned the right to beat Wilfred Benítez and Roberto Dúran.
I have similar feelings toward full-time Union 66 laborer and part-time boxer Joe Smith Jr.
Steve Bunce, the perceptive and entertainingly trenchant host of BoxNation, foresaw what might happen on the night of the Hopkins-Smith fight. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said, “but Joe Smith is too stupid to buy into any of Hopkins’ games. So he’s dangerous.”
Bunce was right. When your opponent isn’t smart enough to be affected by gamesmanship, he is free to be entirely the fighter he is. His assets, limited as they are, remain unmitigated assets. More importantly, the icon he’ll be facing is only another man with boxing gloves. If his physical assets have eroded over time, whatever few of them are left will be all he has to work with; the mental part of the equation won’t factor in. Meanwhile, his liabilities will remain precisely that: unambiguous weaknesses.
What Joe Smith saw standing across the ring from him was just an old guy—and a little one, at that.
Generally speaking, I don’t think boxing has a “right” or “wrong.” It’s fundamentally amoral; whatever happens happens. There’s too much cultural ambiguity to allow for the sport’s codification morally, ethically, or financially.
But maybe arguments for rightness and wrongness can be made historically and artistically. I’ll try to make one for who has the right to retire a legend. Understand that I’m only talking about historic and artistic rightness—the sense of what is satisfying about someone retiring someone else. Past that, whoever takes you out of boxing, no matter how they manage it, has the right to do it. Doing it equals having the right to do it.
There are Hall of Fame fighters who go through lengthy careers suffering few, if any, knockout losses. They become world champions, inspire fierce loyalty in their followers, and assume high status within (and sometimes beyond) the sport.
Their eras pass, they get old, their time at the top draws near, and then it’s over. Historically, the way this becomes irrefutable is that someone finally knocks them out.
There’s often an overwhelming heartbreak to this nearly inevitable changing of the guard. There’s also a corollary beauty and rightness to it. Even the sadness it elicits is somehow profound and gratifying to us. We—our stories—are in there somewhere.
James J. Corbett knocked out John L. Sullivan to complete the conversion from bare knuckle to Marquess of Queensbury gloved prizefighting. Jack Johnson definitively put away the indestructible James J. Jeffries, making real the worst nightmares of a large portion of American sporting fans. Rocky Marciano left an impoverished and weary Joe Louis finished, draping him across the bottom rope with a punch he had only learned to fire full force. Not only was Louis the fighter finished, so was Louis the symbol. A better technician than Marciano, Larry Holmes tried to find a way to knock out Muhammad Ali without having to kill him. He understood who he was wiping off the map.
Both Marciano and Holmes cried inconsolably after putting away their idols, hating to be the ones burdened with the tasks.
Still, all of these results would be understood by any boxing person to be condign. In each instance, the winner had earned his victory, was worthy of it, and capable of shouldering its weight.
There’s also some small appropriateness to Mike Tyson, a legendary but not great fighter, being pummeled into a splay-legged sitting position, resting exhausted against the ropes, asking the referee to lend him a hand getting up, and then giving up in ennui, an embarrassing final submission to the clubbing punches and draped weight of an affable lummox—a man too unprepared to even monetarily capitalize on his unexpected win.
If Kevin McBride hadn’t earned the right to retire Mike Tyson, Mike Tyson had long since earned the right to leave boxing at the hands of Kevin McBride.
Legendary fighters are mainstream celebrities, recognized and cared about everywhere they go. Some can draw crowds in the middle of nowhere. Muhammad Ali was said to have had the most recognizable face on earth.
It’s possible that no non-heavyweight hero’s last knockout loss can resound in a way large enough to affect the general culture. The way Sullivan, Louis, and Ali lost changed the way people felt about how they saw the world, and, depending on their standing in it, how they felt about themselves. But move down in boxing’s weight classes, and the names disappear. Even Benny Leonard and Marcel Cerdan, beacons of religious and nationalist identification, caused no more than a sigh and a raised eyebrow beyond their admittedly large bases of constituents when they went down.
Removed from the confines of boxing proper, Bernard Hopkins falls short of legendary status. Nevertheless, he’s an all-time great, very likely moving past even Archie Moore as the most efficacious post-middle aged fighter ever.
The two fighters whose finales historically remind me most of Hopkins’s are Sugar Ray Leonard and Tony Canzoneri. Although not nearly as old as Hopkins at the time of their final losses—the first by knockout in either of their careers—Canzoneri had had well over 100 more pro fights than Bernard, and Leonard had been more active during his prime.
Leonard played Russian roulette once too often, this time against the shark-like opportunist Héctor Camacho, whom he viewed as too small, too light-punching, and way too cautious to be a threat. Ray was humiliated for his poor judgment, left helpless and in need of rescue.
Camacho, whose Russian roulette playing took place in real life but never in the ring, fought until he was 48. Two years later he was blind-sided while sitting in a car on a street of Carolina just past the outskirts of San Juan. At the time of his death he hadn’t yet officially retired, never having come close to a knockout loss in his 88 pro fights.
Temperamentally, stylistically and in terms of natural gifts Hopkins’s opposite, Camacho shared with him an uncanny ability to get through fights—even dangerous ones—unscathed, by using craft, toughness, the ability to take a good punch (combined with a talent for not having to take many of them), and a predisposition and aptitude for fouling.
Héctor Camacho was a fighter who deserved to knock Ray Leonard out. He was a preternaturally talented man who had squandered his gifts, but who had stayed in the business, navigating its waters to stay alive and afloat. He was exactly the right guy to show Leonard that he no longer belonged.
Canzoneri fought 171 times (not including 4 newspaper decisions), turning pro at 15. He was never stopped in 16 years of taking on whoever crossed his path, from beginners to fellow all-timers. A strong case can be made for his inclusion in any serious top 10 pound for pound list.
Tony’s boxing was mysterious. He fought with his hands down, gliding across the ring, aggressive, but nearly impossible to catch with anything solid. He was smart and fearless, and he brought a kind of joy to his performances.
Boxing is paradoxical in the sense that being inactive becomes the kiss of death for old fighters; having too many fights does the same.
Tony Canzoneri was a little guy who’d had a lot of fights, and he ran headfirst into a brick wall in his final one. Al “Bummy” Davis fell a bit short of being a good technician, but he was a monstrous puncher during an era where being a monstrous puncher meant that you actually punched really, really hard.
By the midpoint of the 3rd round ending of their fight, Canzoneri had been down twice. Bummy Davis, already reviled as a dirty fighter of extreme measure, fell into further disfavor by putting an end to Tony’s career.
Still, Bummy Davis deserved to be the one who finally knocked Canzoneri out. He had already fought seven times that year (and would wind up fighting an eighth in knocking out the estimable Tippy Larkin) without a defeat. He was 19 years old, fighting as a pro for the 36th time.
Leonard and Canzoneri had been far bigger mainstream stars than Hopkins, but both had peaked before their last fights. There’s a kind of equivalency between the slightly diminished popularity of the two older fighters and the late upswing in Hopkins’s.
Although all three knockout losses made big waves within the boxing community, they didn’t ripple outward too much further.
Héctor Camacho had earned the right to end Ray Leonard’s career, and Al “Bummy” Davis had earned the right to end Tony Canzoneri’s. They didn’t walk into those fights on the strength of a single previous knockout. They were first-rate, full-time, bona fide professionals.
Strangely enough, both were shot to death.
Artistically, historically, and maybe even karmically Joe Smith Jr. hadn’t earned the right to be the one to end Bernard Hopkins’s career by knocking him out. He wasn’t worthy of dumping him through the ropes and down onto his head.
I realize Smith was promoted by HBO, Golden Boy, and Hopkins himself as being “a dangerous choice.” But he wouldn’t have been chosen as Hopkins’s final opponent if he’d actually been one. He only became dangerous after the suddenly elderly man in the other corner had become harmless.
The thing is, no matter how much of an original thinker you are, no matter how much you stand outside the system, if enough people start listening to you, you’re going to wind up being co-opted by the very system you stood apart from and railed against.
Once that happens, you start playing little tricks of accommodation. You work out a way to live with having become “that guy who shoots straight from the hip, with no bullshit.” That’s where Bernard Hopkins is at the moment. That’s his gig. It’s hard to know how long he’ll keep it as new viewers come along, people who don’t know that he was once a famous fighter.
There is some bullshit in every old fighter. From Sam Langford to Archie Moore to Joe Brown to Muhammad Ali to George Foreman to Roberto Duran to Hector Camacho to Bernard Hopkins; it doesn’t matter. The dangerous opponent for them isn’t necessarily the best fighter. It’s the one who doesn’t buy the bullshit.
Charles Farrell has spent most of his professional life moving between music and boxing (with a few detours along the way). He has managed five world champion boxers and has 30 CDs listed under his name. His essay “Why I Fixed Fights” will be included in the boxing anthology The Bittersweet Science: Fifteen Writers in the Gym, in the Corner, and at Ringside, edited by Carlo Rotella and Michael Ezra, and published by the University of Chicago Press. He is featured in the 2016 film Dirty Games, directed by Benjamin Best.