So much of Bernard Hopkins' story has been written—at least in terms of his varied and growing exploits inside a boxing ring—that you’d be hard-pressed to learn anything new at this point.
One day a plaque will hang at the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y., detailing the many accomplishments of the now-49-year-old former "executioner" and current "alien," and the list is formidable.
Three times (and possibly counting), he's the oldest man to win a world championship and the oldest to unify titles. He's the first man since Marvelous Marvin Hagler to unify the middleweight division and the only one to hold all four 160-pound world titles at once. He had a record 20 defenses of the middleweight title, breaking the mark of legendary Argentinean champion Carlos Monzon.
The list—not yet complete—is, almost literally, endless. And it’s something that Hopkins, one of the most candid and reflective people you’ll ever meet in the sport of boxing, attributes to a lot of factors, but mostly to his ability to remain disciplined.
“It’s a testimony to a lot of things. And the one thing I can say to you is that I’m not only honored, like it was given to me, because it wasn’t, I had to earn it. But I’m proud that I’ve stayed the course and continued to keep discipline in my personal life, in my athletic life, in my business life,” Hopkins told Bleacher Report.
“When things are good you can easily get off track. When things are bad you can easily stay off track. These are the juggling things in life that I’ve learned how to manage really well. To be able to physically preserve myself. And skills do play a lot, but I’m no fool. I’m not going to tell you that skills are all that got me here, because that’s a lie.”
Skills are certainly a part of the equation. But skills alone don’t always, or even often, equate to success.
The annals of boxing history are littered with fighters who possessed tremendous skills, but for whatever reason—personal demons, professional failures or just plain bad luck—never reached their full potential.
Many of those fighters were graced with more size or speed or power than Hopkins, but as they’ve fallen into the dustbin of history, he continues chugging along, breaking records and achieving things that a man of his age—at least, insofar as we’ve come to expect—has no business achieving.
But, through it all, he remains committed to a central premise. His story, his ability to overcome, isn’t just about him, and it isn’t just about boxing. It’s something much bigger than that. It’s a testament to life itself, what makes us human and what motivates us to reach for bigger and better things, both personally and professionally.
“This is a testimony to humanity. This isn’t just a testimony to an athlete. This is a testimony to anybody. When you get there that’s one thing. Are you satisfied getting just one degree? Are you satisfied just getting one accomplishment? In a life that’s so long for some of us,” Hopkins asked.
“Unless you push yourself, how are you going to know the true potentials of what we can do? Everybody can’t think this way. Everybody doesn’t have what you have in you, and everybody don’t have what I have in me.
"But whatever you have that I don’t have, do it to the best of your ability. If you set out to do something don’t half-ass do it. Do it beyond the best of your ability, and if you fall short, beyond the best of your ability, it’s always better than that.”
Hopkins turned pro in 1988 after serving nearly five years of his youth in prison for multiple felonies, and he lost his debut, a four-round decision to Clinton Mitchell at Resorts Casino in Atlantic City, N.J.
Boxing became a release for the then-23-year-old Hopkins. It became an escape. It became both a method of and a reason for turning away from a life, which up to that point had been dominated by violence, crime and a hopeless future.
Sitting here today, 26 years after stepping through the ropes for the first time and leaving in defeat, Hopkins remains cognizant of the role prison played in his life, how it continues to motivate him—why he continues to be willing to do all the work necessary to fight, even just nine months shy of turning a half-century old—and why he continues to be grateful for the tough, but necessary, life lessons it taught him.
The most important lesson of which was to not squander the finite chances that life gives you.
“I remember getting up every morning, and I couldn’t go anywhere but out in the yard for 45 minutes. Like you let a dog out if you have one. Play and run and then come back in,” Hopkins said about his time in Graterford Prison just about 30 miles northwest of his hometown of Philadelphia.
“That was the life before boxing. And now look again. Why I continue to have the fire in my belly. The determination. When you get knocked down you get up. When you have an opportunity, you overcome things. Enjoy it while you’re there, because it’s not often you get a chance to do it over again. Not everybody gets a second chance, let alone a third. I’ve had about four of them.”
Hopkins remains just as focused—perhaps even more so—today as he was in his 20s or 30s.
Earlier in his career, largely even during his historic run of middleweight dominance, Hopkins remained an enigma to most boxing fans. Very few people had the opportunity, or desire, to delve deeper and get any sort of handle on what made the man—not the fighter—tick.
The Bernard Hopkins story turns out to be one of the most interesting, inspiring, and yes, at times, almost unbelievable, tales you’ll come across anywhere, at any time. And it's not just in the realm of sports.
And it’s a story that, if the powers that be had their way, never would’ve been told.
When Hopkins signed up to participate in Don King’s Middleweight World Championship Series back in 2001, the then-IBF middleweight champion had one job to do and one job only—turn Felix Trinidad from a superstar into a legend.
At least that was the plan.
The Puerto Rican icon had cleaned out the welterweight division, smashing quality foes left and right. He jumped to junior middleweight, put the brakes on the promising careers of David Reid and Fernando Vargas and then bludgeoned William Joppy to capture the WBA Middleweight Championship.
That set up a showdown with Hopkins, who had defeated Keith Holmes to unify the IBF and WBC belts, scheduled for September 15, 2001.
The bout would be delayed by the September 11 terrorist attacks, but it took place on September 29, with Hopkins dominating virtually every round and beating Trinidad by Round 12 knockout. It was a virtuoso performance. It was the type of one-sided dominance of a younger fighter that would become the calling card of Hopkins late-career run.
The result shocked many in the boxing community, not the least of which being the promoters of the fight, who were so sure of a Trinidad victory that they didn’t even have a trophy ready for Hopkins.
“That was the script [losing to Trinidad]. Even the statue that I have in my home in Delaware now that has my name on it, even the statue was premeditated. Signed, sealed and delivered with his [Trinidad’s] name on it. I seen it. I couldn’t get it until a week later. How profound is that?” Hopkins asked.
“Can you imagine? How do you print up shirts, congratulations you're the champion. I know they do it ahead of time, but they got the second shirt that might be the other team. They didn’t even have a second trophy for me in 2001, the Sugar Ray Robinson Trophy, just in case. It was a testimony to the disrespect of Bernard Hopkins' ability to show that I belong.”
Nobody questions whether or not Hopkins belongs today. The IBF/WBA light heavyweight champion has accomplished more since his 40th birthday than most fighters accomplish in their entire careers.
Think about that for a second. It’s incredible but true.
But it wasn’t always this way. However many more accomplishments he adds to his legacy before he finally decides to call it a career or however many more belts he wins or fighters he defeats, it all pales in comparison to his ultimate accomplishment—just getting here.
He is a boy from the projects of Philadelphia, frequently in trouble with the law during his youth, refusing to become a number, or another nameless face that fit comfortably with the millions of others who were swallowed up by their life circumstances, never getting out and never having the chance to put the name to that face.
“That’s what I had to grow up with. Six siblings, the second oldest, in the projects, just a mother. Father was there when he was there. I had to be a man early,” Hopkins said.
And that’s why, even though boxing is a rough and tumble world, for sure, it doesn’t compare to what he had to overcome just to win the right to exchange fists for a living.
“What I’m doing now, I’m not saying everything is easy. I have to put the work in. But compared to life, I’d rather take curses from everybody in the world than deal with that situation again. That was the toughest part of my growth and development.”
His growth and development has been something that has accelerated, at least in the public eye, over the past decade or so of his professional career.
Hopkins, in his own words, acknowledges that he doesn’t view the world the same way now as he did when he was a young buck, unifying the middleweight division at the tender age of 36.
More of his story has come out in recent years, because of how he’s changed as a person and as a man. And he feels that process is nothing more than the normal course of life.
“I look at things a lot different. Blame it on my age. Blame it on wisdom. I’ve been down that road in my 20s. I thought like the 20-year-old, like the 30-year-old,” Hopkins said.
“We all grow. We all understand that it ain’t written for us to know things at 18 that we’d know at 35 or 40, for most of us. You don’t normally see somebody eight or nine years old graduating out of college or taking college courses. The process is there for a reason. You grow. You make bad mistakes. You make good mistakes. You understand life. As long as you stay, as long as the numbers go, you should learn.”
That’s why boxing, however much it will always define the life of this particular man, is but a fleeting glimpse, a peripheral look into the soul of a person who has spent nearly a half-century developing, cultivating and refining the greatest project an individual can ever work on.
Hopkins has changed dramatically over the years, but certain things about him have always remained consistent. They’ve remained the same. And even more than from what’s changed, all people, he hopes, can draw lessons from what hasn’t.
“Here’s a guy, like others, who got a taste of the good life, a taste of accomplishments. All the good things you work hard for. He achieved, but didn’t let that mold him to be less disciplined, less focused, sit on his heels and just say I don’t have to do the things that got me here,” Hopkins said.
And it’s been more than a taste. The good life continues for the 49-year-old, but like everything else, it will eventually come to a close.
Unless of course, he’s really onto something with all this alien stuff.
And, be honest, would it really surprise you at this point?
It certainly wouldn’t surprise him.
“The reason that I believe I’m the alien, I am the one that people will be talking about I’m sure, well after I get in my spaceship and leave. I believe that when they see the legacy, and they appreciate it more when you’re gone then when you’re here. That’s in most cases. It’s nothing personal towards me. People will sit back and say wow. Simple. One word. Wow,” Hopkins ended.
That might just be the most appropriate word for all of it.
From his troubled beginnings, to overcoming the odds and becoming a world champion, and finally to becoming one of the sport's all-time greats, continuing to break records long after most people would've been satisfied.
Kevin McRae is a featured boxing columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained from a one-on-one interview.