'Enjoy me while I'm here'
Tick tock, tick tock -- Bernard Hopkins is always watching the clock.
Along with the rest of us, the undisputed middleweight champion of the world is well aware that he is 40 years old, an age that is a death sentence for most fighters, but one that has seen Hopkins be not only relevant in the boxing world, but on top of the game.
Want middleweight comparisons?
When Carlos Monzon turned 40, he had already been out of the ring for five years. Marvin Hagler was a retiree for seven years as he hit the big 4-0. Sugar Ray Robinson turned 40 in May of 1961, two months after losing a 15-round decision to Gene Fullmer for the NBA middleweight crown. Robinson fought an amazing 44 times after turning 40, losing 10 and drawing three times, before finally retiring at 44.
Conversely, Hopkins only plans on a handful of fights before walking off into the sunset, and he's willing to name names - Glen Johnson, Felix Trinidad, and Jermain Taylor. But first, he's got business to take care of with top contender Howard Eastman on Saturday night, and to his credit, he didn't look for an easy mark for his 20th title defense, even though he describes Eastman as "a B-fighter."
Yet regardless of who Hopkins fights, at 40, every trek into the ring can be a struggle. It's the law of nature, and past history proves it with rare exception. Yet "The Executioner" refuses to turn away when the topic of age comes up, even joking about it in a recent teleconference.
"I think that the first signs have come that I'm sliding a little bit," he said. "I usually get up at 4:30, no later than 5 o'clock to run; I'm getting up at 6:30 now. I'm like an hour and a half late now. But other than that, everything is feeling great and I'm mentally and physically ready for this fight."
Seriously, though, instead of dodging the serious question of when he's going to start acting his age, Hopkins instead wants to use his new status as promoter (as part of Golden Boy Promotions) to build up the fact that he's doing something that you're just not supposed to be doing in boxing - in effect saying, "step right up and watch the old guy -- you never know when he's going to fall." And what greater selling point can there be for a promotion than to push the possibility that a future Hall of Famer may get old and lose right before your eyes?
"I turned 40 years old Jan. 15," said Hopkins, "so the only question when I fight between now and when the end comes is, 'when is Bernard Hopkins gonna start looking like he's 40?' I want to promote that."
It's a brilliant strategy; one of many Hopkins has pulled out of his hat after a series of then-questionable moves had some wondering about his business sanity. But if that past is any indication, Hopkins just seems to know better than the rest of us about how this whole journey is going to end up. If you need reminders, don't worry -- Hopkins has saved us the trouble of research, and will recite, chapter and verse, where he's proved the experts wrong.
"He's not a good fighter," said Hopkins. "He turned out to be a great fighter."
"He won't ever get the big paydays -- he turned out to get the big paydays."
"The decisions he made in his career were wrong; he lost the lottery ticket as Don King said with the Trinidad tournament - I wound up getting manager of the year from the Boxing Writers Association."
"I think the best way to shut people up is to accomplish what they say you can't."
And the best way to shut Hopkins up is to beat him, a feat that no one has pulled off since Roy Jones Jr. turned the trick in 1993. That's almost 12 years of dominance that boxing hasn't seen in ages. Forget the quality level of some of his opponents - every great champion has fought his share of clunkers - the fact is, that whenever Hopkins stepped through the ropes since 1993, he won. His fights won't end up on a "Greatest Hits" tape or win Fight of the Year honors, but as a consummate pro, Hopkins has delivered, and you can't argue with success, whether you like the guy or not.
"I feel that it's gonna take a helluva disciplined champion to come along to get 20 straight title defenses in one weight class," said Hopkins. "In this day of boxing, fighters get a few dollars, and they don't want to lose that extra pound, don't want to stick it out like they used to, and it's gonna be difficult. I'm proud that I've set that high standard."
But despite his resemblance to a well-oiled machine in training and in the ring, Hopkins is human. After a career-high payday against Oscar De La Hoya last year, a subsequent partnership with the promotional company of the "Golden Boy," and the acceptance from the mainstream that comes along with such accomplishments, there's got to be a letdown to fight Howard Eastman.
Plus, as the cover athlete of the video game Fight Night Round Two, Hopkins is dealing with a jinx that has taken down Jones, NFL stars Michael Vick, Daunte Culpepper, among others, and NHL star Dany Heatley. He can't possibly win forever - can he?
"I approach fights like it's my last fight and I have to make a statement," said Hopkins. "Once you've got to the point that you've got 10-plus years in, and you just happen to be one of the successful ones out of thousands of fighters in your era, we've seen everything, we've heard everything, and it's just maintaining now - maintaining my body, maintaining my mental state, knowing that I'm still hungry and focused. That is the key, and the talent speaks for itself; the longevity speaks for itself."
You can't argue with that, but as they say, "that's why they fight 'em," and that's why Eastman is seen as a live underdog come Saturday night. "The Battersea Bomber" has even been as bold to say that he will knock Hopkins out in five rounds.
"I want to see how he reacts when I'm around after five rounds, or he'll be out within five," said Hopkins. "So for a guy to make a statement like that, to me it's nervous energy and it's hype talk. We need that, but you've got to back it up. I'm not gonna run, and I'm gonna be right there. If he knocks me out in five rounds like he thinks, then he's gonna make history. He'd be the baddest man on the planet."
Right now Hopkins holds that crown, even though he does nothing outside the ropes that would justify that moniker - in addition to being a husband and father, he doesn't smoke, drink, or do drugs. You could say that outside of his interviews, press conferences, and fights, he's downright boring. But then again, it's also what has allowed him to be at the top level of the sport at an age when he should be looking for another way to make a living for the next 25 years.
"I know what it takes to be disciplined," said Hopkins. "I know what it takes to not have; I know what it takes to wait; I know how it sounds to have somebody say no to you or that you can't do this or you can't do that, or that something is impossible. I overcame a lot of that and to me it became easier as my life went on as a professional fighter because I could always go back to (point) A. If I survived that world, then I know I can survive this world. I believe that's what kept me mentally and physically prepared for anything in and out of the ring - the business and the physical part of my sport."
He is 40 years old, though, and eventually, he'll get old -- at least that's what we keep telling ourselves - and if you look closely enough, you'll see that Robert Allen hit Hopkins with shots in their bout last year that he never would have taken a few years back. Even William Joppy and De La Hoya were very much in their bouts against Hopkins in the early rounds, before the roof caved in.
So call it intimidation, guile, or plain ol' trickery, but when Hopkins fights, he puts opponents in enough of a trance where they won't jump on him, hence allowing the champion to establish his own rhythm and pace. It's like the kid who brings the ball to the playground - he gets to make the rules, and when the game is over, he takes the ball and goes home. Hopkins sets his pace, gets his rhythm, and he doesn't fight until he wants to fight. And when he doesn't want to fight anymore, he breaks you down and gets rid of you - it's not pretty, but it's brutally effective.
But what happens if Eastman, or anyone, jumps on Hopkins at the opening bell, cracks him with a flush power shot, and establishes their own rhythm? What happens to Hopkins then, and if he happens to lose due to this strategy, is it old age or just a great game plan? If and when it happens, don't expect Hopkins to blame it on his advancing age.
"If you think about it, then you become it," said Hopkins. "You get the regular aches and pains, and you think 'maybe I'm getting old.' You don't get old in one second or one minute - everyone is getting old."
Everyone except Hopkins, it seems, and maybe, just maybe, he won't get old enough in a fistic sense to lose to a Howard Eastman, Glen Johnson, Jermain Taylor, or Felix Trinidad. Maybe the hours spent under the tutelage of Bouie Fisher in sweatbox gyms in Miami and Philadelphia will preserve him for yet another year, where his will to win will be enough to turn back the challenges of those who are younger, more relentless, or who punch harder.
Maybe old age and treachery does overtake youth and skill.
In any event, be assured that Bernard Hopkins, the promoter, wants you to tune in on Saturday, because, like the lottery ad goes, "you never know."
"When I leave here, you don't know when the next Bernard Hopkins, is gonna re-occur here, if ever," said Hopkins. "A lot of people take things for granted until it's gone."
"Enjoy me while I'm here."
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