Hopkins turns 47, worries about sport’s future

Bernard Hopkins is upset. He’s in North Philadelphia, one of the toughest areas in the country, and he’s upset and disappointed.

It’s not what he sees that upsets him so much. It’s what he doesn’t see that gnaws at him, that makes him worry about the future of the sport that afforded him the opportunity to have a real life.

The world light heavyweight champion, Hopkins turned 47 on Sunday and has all the trappings of success: the large home, the fancy car, the outrageous bling, the investment properties.

Bernard Hopkins in his hometown of Philadelphia after defeating Enrique Ornelas in 2009.

Nobody, though, gave Hopkins a thing. Boxing provided an opportunity and Hopkins used his guile, discipline and athletic ability to become one of the most successful fighters in history and a millionaire many times over.

Though he jokes that it sometimes seems he might fight forever, Hopkins knows the end of his hall of fame career is much nearer than the beginning. He made his professional debut Oct. 11, 1988, when Floyd Mayweather Jr. was 11 and Manny Pacquiao was 9.

Nearly a quarter century later, he’s still going, planning to fight, he says, as long as he can still perform at a high level.

But when he runs through the rough streets of North Philadelphia to prepare for his fights, Hopkins is concerned by what he doesn’t see: There are few young, African American males willing to follow his example.

This is a man who was convicted of strong arm robbery and spent about five years in Graterford Prison in Pennsylvania.

When he was paroled, a prison guard smugly, and famously, said, “See you in six months.” Hopkins vowed never to return and turned his life around, becoming an example no one thought possible.

[Related: Iole: Ali at 70 remains a giant among men]

If there is anyone the troubled young men from the ghettos of North Philadelphia should seek to emulate, it is Hopkins. But few, he says, are willing to put in the work. He fears that the African American boxing star will soon become scarce.

Many of the greatest fighters ever – Sugar Ray Robinson, Henry Armstrong, Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and, yes, Hopkins – were black. But in the current Yahoo! Sports Top 10, only three men are African American. Hopkins fears that the great black American fighter is vanishing.

“We’re losing them in the inner city,” he said. “Our last really great Olympic team was, what, 1984? In places like Philly and Camden and Jersey, we’re not seeing them take up boxing. It’s not easy and most of them won’t make it. But it used to be, you’d go to the gyms and they were overflowing with [African American men] working out, trying to make it.

“But now, that’s not the case. I think they’d rather try to be the next Jay-Z rather than the next great champion. We are losing boxing in the black community and that’s something to be seriously concerned about.”

Hopkins is a role model not only because of the way he turned his back on crime and life on the streets, but for the way he’s represented himself as a man and an athlete. Like Ali, Hopkins stood by his principles, even when it seemed the world was against him.

Much of his early career was spent raging against the inequities in a system he felt took advantage of the less educated and less informed.

[Related: Iole: Fans lost in Hopkins-Dawson debacle]

Even more, however, he is a role model because of the way he’s worked to make himself the best he can be. He’s notorious for his discipline. He treats his body as a shrine and watches what he puts into it at all times. Even as he approaches his late 40s, he’s usually in better condition than his opponent.

In May, during a bout in which he defeated Jean Pascal to become, at 46, the oldest boxer ever to win a major world title, Hopkins dropped to the mat and did push-ups between rounds as a way to make his point.

Few young men of any race are willing to dedicate themselves to greatness the way Bernard Hopkins has done.

And it’s why, whenever it is that Hopkins decides he’s had enough and retires, boxing will be diminished for it.

He got every last bit out of what he had. Whatever his best was, you saw in the ring on fight night. He never wavered in his belief that by working harder, by being more disciplined, by never succumbing to temptation, he would reach the top.

Boxing would be a much healthier sport if everyone adopted the same attitude.

And the world would be a much better place if everyone did their jobs with the diligence, the passion and the dedication of Bernard Humphrey Hopkins Jr.

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Kevin Iole covers boxing and mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Kevin a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Jan 16, 2012