Bernard Hopkins turns 52 next month.
Mike Tyson is 50. He’s been retired for eleven years.
It is 11 years since Hopkins made the final defense of his record setting middleweight title reign.
15 years since the then, ‘old man’, dismantled and destroyed Felix Trinidad‘s aura of invincibility.
In 2005 the late, great Budd Schulberg wrote (in the aftermath of Hopkins-Taylor II), ‘(Hopkins) will be 41 a few weeks hence, and that’s when the reflexes begin to betray the best of intentions.’
Schulberg’s 60 years of boxing coverage often imbued him with such sense of deja vu: fighters were often doomed to befall the fate of their predecessors.
He’d witnessed Archie Moore win the light heavyweight title at 45. Yet not even he could foresee that Hopkins would continue to add unique distinctions to an already Hall-of-Fame level career.
Not only did Hopkins eclipse Archie Moore’s feat. He did it twice.
Hopkins’ advanced years, his two year lay-off and his young hungry opponent, would suggest he was in deep again this Saturday when he takes on New York’s Joe Smith Jr. But he has been confusing and bamboozling the boxing fraternity for 28 years.
Taking up boxing late (turning pro at 23) with no amateur career, and learning his trade both whilst incarcerated and on the job, he defied convention from the beginning.
He rose to become middleweight champion within six years of turning professional. Going on to defend against luminaries Glen Johnson (his own ‘old man river’), John David Jackson (Hopkins’ trainer this weekend) and Robert Allen.
So insulted by being a +350 underdog versus fellow champion Felix Trinidad, Hopkins wagered £100,000 on himself. This battle with the consensus would to be a theme throughout his career.
He battered it and Trinidad. Proceeding to out-box, befuddle and break down ‘Tito’. Trinidad’s father stepped in to end the merciless beating.
It took another four years and another 6 middleweight defenses before Hopkins was unseated. But not before he had amassed 20 defenses. Breaking Carlos Monzon’s record of 14 in the process.
Hopkins always had this chip on his shoulder. One as a loud as the Liberty Bell.
‘I’ll just continue to kick the naysayer’s ass in and out of the ring, because that’s the task that I’ve always been up against. And that’s a motivation for me to keep pushing, to prove who I am.’
So stopping there was never an option. After all, many had prognosticated that the Taylor defeats evidenced Hopkins was in decline.
They needed to be set straight.
They were. Emphatically.
‘I have no fear. I have no doubt. I have bent time to my will, ‘ Hopkins once said.
He was convinced and convincing. But this mantra did carry him further than his reach on a few occasions. Outings versus Chad Dawson and Sergey Kovalev proved hurdles too high.
In his mid-forties, underdog again, Hopkins knocked off middleweight king Kelly Pavlik.
Then in perhaps his greatest feat he broke Archie Moore’s record that had stood for 50 years.
Just for kicks Hopkins dumbfounded us again and broke his own record, winning the world title at 48.
He had again exposed the boxing game’s continued blind-spot when assessing him. His defiant refusal to be a stationary target – both in and out of the ring – prevented such concrete assessment.
Just when we had established Hopkins as a consummate ‘Blue-Horizon‘ aggressor he became a technical master. Many that have seen B-Hop over the last 10 years wouldn’t believe he used to be a pressure fighter that threw bunches of punches every round.
As his years advanced and father time came knocking he adapted his style.
The emphasis became efficient use of energy: Hopkins prioritized clean one-punch responses scattered sparingly throughout the round. The need to be on the inside was once done with the intention to overwhelm an opponent. It was now used to slow the pace of the action and neutralize the opponent’s offense.
It bored and astounded in equal measure. The blood-thirsty turned off. The afficionados’ applauded. Hopkins shrugged. His style was adapted to win and to keep winning against opponents and father time.
Still we struggle to explain the roots of Hopkins success. Hopkins has even played on this obfuscation: ‘I’m an alien because I am of this world, but I’m not from this world’.
He’s always had a great chin, natural strength and a high ring IQ. But so have many, and they weren’t successful past 40. Let alone 50.
The whispers of his strict diet and monastic existence are legendary and offer as much enquiry as they do insight – perhaps, the way Hopkins intended.
Is his only vice, really, only cheesecake?
Does he really go to bed at 9pm EVERY NIGHT?
Does he really have ‘alien DNA’?
It’s absurd. I know.
But let me tell you a story about a man that broke the record for middleweight title defenses at the age of 37, became THE light-heavyweight champion at 46 and then continued to be a world class fighter into his 6th decade.
Its just as absurd, isn’t it?