Bernard Hopkins: Boxing’s Top (Under)Dog

By David Matthew on October 13, 2011
Bernard Hopkins: Boxing’s Top (Under)Dog
Nobody could’ve expected Hopkins to rise to such a glorious peak in the sport of boxing.

Bernard Hopkins’ final chapter in boxing has been the longest chapter that any fighter has ever authored…

“I need the naysayers. If I don’t have ‘em—I won’t fight to the best of my abilities. I know it sounds crazy but I need to have people against me. It’s not that I want it, but as long as I’m this business—the hurt business—I gotta have it.”—Bernard Hopkins

It’s hard to imagine a modern fighter who has overcome more adversity, both in and out of the ring, than Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins. Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) wasn’t even supposed to be alive in 2011—let alone the reigning WBC Light Heavyweight Champion of the world and the oldest fighter to ever win a title (at 46 years of age). Born and raised in North Philadelphia’s Raymond Rosen’s projects, Hopkins turned to crime at an early age, having been charged with nine felonies before he even reached the age of 18, and was sentenced to 18 years in Graterford Prison. After serving nearly five years, Hopkins was released. The warden at Grateford told Hopkins that he’d “see [Hopkins] again when you wind up back here.” As the first of many doubters to come, Hopkins looked the warden in his face and replied, “I ain’t ever coming back here.” While locked up, Hopkins used boxing to escape the harsh reality of prison life, but nobody could’ve expected Hopkins to rise to such a glorious peak in the sport of boxing the way he has—except of course Bernard Hopkins.

The same year Hopkins was released from prison (1988) he turned professional. Hopkins was defeated in his pro debut and his future in boxing looked like a pipe dream. But Hopkins roared back with ferocity, winning 21 straight fights between 1990 and1992—more than half of them by first round KO. Hopkins earned his first world title in 1995 and was one of the sport’s most dominating forces year after year. In fact, except for a loss to the great Roy Jones Jr. in 1993, Hopkins didn’t lose again until 2005, and in that time span successfully defended his middleweight title a record 20 times.

Despite all of this, Hopkins has always been the underdog in big fights—which is befitting since Hopkins has always been the underdog throughout his entire life. In 2001 Hopkins was the betting underdog against the fast-rising Felix Trinidad. While many experts opined that Trinidad was simply too good, too strong for Hopkins, Bernard placed a $100,000 bet on himself to win the bout. Hopkins dominated Trinidad from start to finish—stopping Tito in the final round to become the first undisputed world middleweight champion since Marvin Hagler in 1987.

In 2004, Hopkins faced off against the beloved and highly favored Oscar De La Hoya. Again, playing the underdog role, Hopkins shocked those at ringside by being the first fighter to ever knockout De La Hoya with a picture perfect left hook to the body that crumbled Oscar in the ninth round, ending the fight. Two years later in 2006, Hopkins moved up in weight (to 175 pounds) to challenge Antonio Tarver for his light heavyweight title. Many experts were advising the 41-year-old Hopkins to not take the fight. Grossly underestimated once again, Hopkins entered the bout as a 3-1 betting underdog. Yet again Hopkins proved the doubters wrong in dynamic fashion by thoroughly outclassing Tarver en route to a unanimous decision victory. Believing in his ability once again, Hopkins won a $250,000 bet against Tarver, who proclaimed that he would knock Hopkins out in under six rounds.

As if that wasn’t enough, Hopkins was still challenging the top fighters in the sport at the age of 43 when he challenged then undefeated Kelly Pavlik at a 170-pound catch-weight. At the time, Pavlik was at the top of the sport, fresh off destroying Jermain Taylor—the man who defeated Hopkins twice in controversial fashion. As the fight approached, pundits were predicting Pavlik would be the first man to ever knockout Hopkins. Hopkins was again the overwhelming underdog, and again Hopkins dominated the heavily favored Pavlik for every second of the fight in what was one of the most demonstrative boxing clinics of the modern era. 

“Hopkins is staring down the media. He is looking at every reporter at ringside, one face after another. He is making his point to the boxing writers, establishing his eminence once again.”—Jim Lampley (after Bernard Hopkins defeated Kelly Pavlik in 2008)

If you closely analyze Hopkins’ record and watch his fights, it becomes shockingly apparent that he hasn’t really lost a fight since 1993. His two “losses” against Jermain Taylor to this day remain a topic of hot debate; they were so close that they could’ve gone either way. In his only other defeat since 1993 against the undefeated Joe Calzaghe, Hopkins knocked Calzaghe down in the first round and seemed to have done enough to earn a victory, but the judges rendered a split decision in Calzaghe’s favor. In what was an aesthetically repulsive clash of styles, it is fair to say that nobody won that particular fight. However, many experts insist that Hopkins did enough to earn a victory. Either way, Hopkins could easily have won those three fights, and in that context his career should be looked upon with even more awe as one of the greatest fighters to ever live.

Given this history, it was no surprise when Hopkins challenged Jean Pascal for his WBC light heavyweight title and entered the bout once again as the underdog , earning a draw in their first fight before ultimately winning a clear decision over Pascal in their rematch that saw Hopkins crowned once again— this time as the oldest fighter to ever win a title at the age of 46. 

While many argue that Hopkins has accomplished more than any fighter could ever imagine, he is still not satisfied and his insatiable gladiator’s hunger still drives him. This time Hopkins has accepted a remarkable challenge as he has elected to face “Bad” Chad Dawson this Saturday, October 15th, at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. While Hopkins has certainly fought elite competition throughout his career, Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs) may very well be the purest boxer Hopkins has faced in a long time. Prior to the first loss of Dawson’s career at the hands of Jean Pascal, Dawson was regarded by many to be a pound-for-pound candidate, and some even cited him as the purest boxer in the sport. At 6’1”, Dawson presents a myriad of physical challenges to Hopkins. Dawson is a rangy southpaw possessing a stiff, snapping jab, masters distance very well, and throws a whipping hybridized straight left hand/hook that has kept virtually every opponent at bay. Further, Dawson is likely the best athlete that Hopkins has faced since Jermain Taylor. Unlike somewhat crude sluggers like Pascal and Pavlik, Dawson possesses a calm discipline in the ring and prefers to outbox his opponent tactically. Hopkins excels at rattling opponents and capitalizing on their mistakes as they wildly swing at him in anger, but Dawson has never been rattled and is a tremendously focused fighter. Nonetheless, Hopkins is boxing’s psychological genius and has vowed to seduce Dawson into an uncomfortable brawl: “Chad Dawson will look lost in this fight and it will happen early when I get in his chest and make it a brawl—and make him not so laid back as I get him out of character.”

What is so remarkable about Hopkins at 46 is that he has achieved his present stature by beating the very best in whatever weight- class he has pursued—and has done it in a way that is bewildering. He appeared to be the younger, faster fighter against Kelly Pavlik, even though he was nearly 15 years Pavlik’s senior. Against Jean Pascal, Hopkins was the fresher fighter with more energy reserves as Pascal waned down the stretch. It’s not just that Hopkins has become champion at 46. It’s that he has performed at the highest level of the sport while doing so. Never before have we seen a fighter of Hopkins’ age be so well conditioned, vascular, and physically dynamic. He has been able to maintain his fitness through decades of discipline that even the most committed warriors would struggle to adhere to. Hopkins traces the origins of his discipline to his days spent in the penitentiary: “In prison I didn’t eat a lot of things that weren’t good for me; I learned how to fast; I learned how to be disciplined. Boxing became part of my daily routine of discipline. I said to myself: If I discipline myself to be the same way in there (prison) as out here— no matter what the circumstances—it’s on.”  Indeed, “it’s on,” and has been on for Hopkins for the last two decades. 

Of course father time has to catch up with every human being eventually, right? Perhaps his storybook run will come to a close at the hands of the young and supremely talented Chad Dawson. Or perhaps it is finally time to bet on Bernard Hopkins as the odds-on favorite. After all, it’s been over 10 years since Hopkins was supposed to be too old to compete at the highest level—and since then he has proved every doubter wrong, time and time again. Hopkins possesses an unwavering belief in himself that is awe-inspiring to behold, and while some lambast Hopkins as being a selfish egomaniac, it’s hard to imagine a fighter accomplishing what Hopkins has accomplished without having that unshakeable confidence. 

In response to the question everybody wants Hopkins to answer—that is, how does he continue to perform at the highest level as he inches closer to the half-century mark in terms of his age—he replied with eye-opening conviction: “I am biologically different than anyone who walks this planet Earth.” Bernard’s final chapter in boxing has been the longest chapter that any fighter has ever authored. Saturday night he will attempt to extend that chapter by continuing to reach heights previously undiscovered. Perhaps it’s finally time that boxing insiders and experts will do something that they haven’t been able to bring themselves to do for over a decade: Bet on Bernard.

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Bernard Hopkins vs Felix Trinidad [Full Fight]

Bernard Hopkins vs Antonio Tarver - 1/4

Bernard Hopkins vs Antonio Tarver - 2/4

Bernard Hopkins vs Antonio Tarver - 3/4

Bernard Hopkins vs Antonio Tarver - 4/4

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 1/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 2/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 3/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 4/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 5/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 6/7

Joe Calzaghe vs Bernard Hopkins 7/7

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  1. "Old Yank" Schneider 09:50am, 10/15/2011

    Re-nard Hopkins has disrespected the promise to his dearly departed mother one to many times.  He has cherry-picked his way to living legend status (or has made very clever matches—take your pick).  He has re-tread the tires of his career more times than a fruit truck in the Great Depression.  He is way overdue for a flat.

  2. Joe 03:06am, 10/14/2011

    The Executioner has certainly remained disciplined and savy insofar as making the right fights and working the game to the fullest.  From his early days to America Presents, Don King, Golden Boy, Lou DiBella (consulting) etc he’s managed to stick around and it sounds like he hasn’t blown all his money either.  He certainly has done it “his way” - but I hope he gets a whuppin this weekend.

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