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Bernard Hopkins took a memorable drive with 18-year-old Shaun Negler in his $150,000 Bentley.
(Images courtesy Negler family)
You won't find Shaun Negler's name in the FightFax database, the official record-keeping service of professional boxing.
There are no tapes of any of his memorable wins or stories of epic triumphs left behind. That's because they don't exist. He was robbed of a career in the sport he loved.
But none other than Bernard Hopkins, one of the greatest fighters of this or any generation, will tell you that he hasn't met a tougher, or more courageous, fighter than Shaun Negler.
The improbable friendship between the long-time middleweight champion and the 18-year-old who worshipped him officially ended at 12:15 p.m. EDT on Oct. 23, 2008, when Negler could fight no more and succumbed to a 2½ year battle with cancer.
But Hopkins, who first met Negler in 2006 when he learned that the then-16-year-old had a deadly form of cancer, isn't ready to accept that his friend is gone.
"This kid's soul is still with us," said Hopkins, who served as a pall bearer at Negler's funeral in Philadelphia on Oct. 29. "His spirit lives inside of me and inside a lot of the people I met over these last couple of years."
Negler's mother, Renee, remembered sitting in a doctor's office. It seemed as if she were watching the world on a black-and-white television. Everything seemed so dark.
Several weeks earlier, in a Philadelphia gym in May 2006, her youngest son injured his left ankle as he was preparing for his first fight.
Shaun Negler greatly touched the life of Bernard Hopkins. "He was a winner his whole life and I think he’s still a winner,” Hopkins said.
(Images courtesy Negler family)
The injury didn't respond to treatment. An MRI was done and on May 30, Shaun and his parents were sitting in a doctor's office, waiting to hear why this ankle was taking so long to heal.
"I just remember it being such a dark room and now, looking back on it, it seems so surreal," said Renee Negler, a 41-year-old loan manager. "There were two doctors there and they came in and seemed to have very solemn looks on their faces. I was looking at Shaunie and he was looking at me. It was the doctors, my husband and Shaunie and I. They said, 'We need to take him to Children's Hospital right away. We found a large mass in his leg.' There was no crying and Shaunie was like, 'OK. No problem. Let's come up with a plan.' He wanted to figure a way to live right away."
He had Ewing's sarcoma, a rare form of cancer which seems mainly to attack teenaged males. Once the cancer begins to metastasize, the survival rate is around 10 percent.
It wasn't good, and everyone in the family, including Shaun, knew it. But no one would cry or moan about his fate, because Shaun would have none of it. He planned a lot of things, including becoming rich and famous. A horrible, grisly death at 18 was not part of the plan.
"This was a guy who was facing death every day but he didn't talk about dying or feel sorry for himself or ask you, 'Why is this happening to me?' " Hopkins said. "I was in camp getting ready to fight [Kelly] Pavlik and I was getting all these text messages from him, encouraging me and pushing me. And this was a guy who had so many problems, that whoever wins or loses a fight should be the last thing he is thinking about."
As death hovered on his doorstep, though, Negler, was, indeed, thinking about a fight. He was fighting to live, but he was also fighting to stay alive to see Hopkins box one last time. A little more than five months earlier, the Negler family attended Hopkins' split decision loss to Joe Calzaghe at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas on April 19, 2008.
It was an excruciatingly tight match and the Neglers, who by that point had all grown close with Hopkins, had felt he'd won. But after the fight, they were anxious to go out and see the town.
This was Las Vegas, after all, and they didn't get this opportunity often.
All of them, that is, but one were hoping to go.
"They announced the decision and we all knew Bernard had won that fight. There was no doubt," said Shaun's father, Mike Negler, a 42-year-old Philadelphia police officer. "As the fight was going on, Shaun was pointing out how Calzaghe was throwing a lot of punches, but how they weren't landing and he was showing us how good Bernard's defense really was. When they announced the score, Shaun was absolutely miserable. He was just as upset and as angry as you can imagine.
"He said, 'Oh no, they took it from him. They stole it from him.' And then he didn't want to do anything else. Here we are in Las Vegas. How many people would do anything to be in Vegas like we were and get to go out on a Saturday night and have a good time? And Shaun said, 'Take me to the room.' He wouldn't do anything else. He was so upset."
Hopkins signed to fight Pavlik, the unbeaten middleweight champion, in a bout Oct. 18 at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J. Shaun talked of being at the fight, but his condition had long since worsened to the point where that kind of travel, an hour or so from his home, was not possible.
"You have to understand, they gave this kid two, three weeks to live, and it's 12 weeks and he's still here saying, 'I want to see you beat Kelly Pavlik,' " Hopkins said. "This kid was just amazing. He had a will to live like I've never seen."
Before Hopkins left to begin his training camp, the family had a reunion of sorts. All the family and friends were invited over for what was a chance to essentially say goodbye to Shaun.
He was on borrowed time and was expected to live only for a matter of a few days, if not a couple of weeks. Hopkins, who knew of Shaun's love of cars, attended the outing and brought over his $150,000 Bentley.
But he didn't just park it. He grabbed Shaun, brought him to the car and put him in the front seat. Then he closed the door and turned on the engine.
Shaun Negler named his pit bull puppy "Champ," a name suggested by Bernard Hopkins.
(Images courtesy Negler family)
The two were sitting there, the 43-year-old finely tuned athlete and the 18-year-old whose body was ravaged by cancer, blind in one eye, with a leg amputated because of his disease.
"What the hell you doing?" Hopkins said in mock indignation. "Drive!"
And so Negler began to drive.
"I thought he'd take it down to the bottom of the driveway, turn around and come back," Mike Negler said.
Hopkins, though, knew that wouldn't fulfill the kid's dream. He wanted to take the car onto the road. So, again, Hopkins urged him to drive. Shaun hit the accelerator, believing the car to be in drive.
It was in reverse, however, and landed up on a curb, damaging Hopkins' rims. To this day, the rims are not fixed on the otherwise pristine car, Hopkins' memory of his now-departed friend.
Soon after, Hopkins left for camp and Negler's condition worsened by the hour. But he wanted to see the fight so badly and he talked about it incessantly with his family.
"Shaun was a diehard fan of all the Philadelphia teams," Mike Negler said. "He just was in love with all of them, but Bernard, he fell 1,000 percent for Bernard. He loved boxing and then here's this great fighter from Philadelphia with this incredible story."
Hopkins trained in Miami knowing each day he might get the call he would dread receiving.
On Oct. 18, the day of the bout he was literally staving off death to see, Negler was in excruciating pain – "bone pain," as his mother calls it.
A few months earlier, on the first day he got his prosthesis, he had the therapists put it on and he began walking without any physical therapy. He didn't want it adjusted and demanded that he be driven to his mother's place of work in Delaware.
Normally, it takes weeks of grueling rehabilitative work for someone who had an amputation to be able to walk. On the first day, Negler, whose left leg was amputated at the knee, was driven to his mother's office, walked down the aisle and ambled up to her desk.
“There was something in his body and his spirit made him hang around so he could see me that one last time.”
– Bernard Hopkins
on Shaun Negler.
"It took my breath away when I saw him," she said. "He had this big grin on his face and I couldn't breathe."
But now, hours before his friend and idol was to climb into the ring for the fight he so desperately wanted to watch, Negler's pain was so bad, he took the prosthesis off. He was given more drugs to ease the pain.
When the pay-per-view broadcast on HBO began at 9 p.m., he was helped out of bed and literally crawled downstairs on his hands and knees to sit in front of the television.
But he was only able to stay awake for short periods of time.
"At that point, it was like 10, maybe 15 minutes at most," Renee Negler said.
He demanded they wake him up when Hopkins came to the ring. Hopkins' bout began near midnight Eastern time. As Hopkins made his ring walk, the family roused Shaun, who instantly became as alert as he had been at any time in days.
"There was something in his body and his spirit made him hang around so he could see me that one last time," Hopkins said. "As a human being, can you imagine how that makes me feel?"
There were about 20 or 30 people in the house watching the fight. As Hopkins was being introduced, Renee Negler turned toward her son, who had a wan smile across his face and had formed an "X" with his arms, a tribute to Hopkins, whose nickname is "The Executioner."
Hopkins went on to win in a rout in the performance of his life. For one night, he was better than he had ever been. And Shaun Negler, who had been able only to stay awake for 10 minutes at a time, was suddenly alive and vibrant as the fight went on.
He was shouting at the television as Hopkins pounded Pavlik with powerful punches, cheering his hero on to victory.
Unbeknownst to anyone, Renee Negler had turned on a video camera on her son and captured his reaction during the fight.
He was gleeful throughout as Hopkins performed brilliantly. When the fight ended, Negler needed to go back to sleep.
He turned to his pit bull puppy, whom Hopkins had suggested he named "Champ," and kissed it on the head. He crawled back upstairs and was helped into bed. A few minutes later, he lapsed into unconsciousness and never opened his eyes again.
He died a few days later, in his home. Hopkins, who served a stint in the Pennsylvania penal system on a strong-armed robbery conviction, was torn apart.
"There was a bond between the two of them despite all the differences between them and they loved each other," said Renee Negler, Shaun's mother, on her son and boxer Bernard Hopkins.
(Images courtesy Negler family)
But because of his time in prison, he learned to control his emotions. He never cried publicly because of what he learned while he was in prison.
Hopkins was, however, stung by the loss of someone he considered more than just a friend. He not only served as a pall bearer, he spent hours with the Negler family that day and put the gloves he wore the night he defeated Pavlik into the casket with Shaun.
"It's breathtaking the kindness that is in this man's heart, because it would have been easy for him to meet Shaun, say the right things and move on," Renee Negler said. "But what he did, he did because he cared. And he did because Shaunie and he had some kind of a connection. There was a bond between the two of them despite all the differences between them and they loved each other."
Hopkins said that for as much as he may have given to Shaun and the Neglers, he received much more in return.
"This was a kid who had every reason to feel sorry for himself, who had every reason to give up, and he never once would give in and he never once looked at the dark side of anything," Hopkins said. "He looked at death and said, 'I want to live. And I'm going to make the most of what I have.' And that's what we have to do while we're here on this Earth. Take what you have and do the best you can with it. Look at what this kid was dealt and look what he did with it.
"Cancer did not beat him. He beat cancer, because cancer needed his body to live. He's probably smiling somewhere saying, 'You know, Bernard, I did it. I beat cancer.' This kid wasn't a loser. He was a winner his whole life and I think he's still a winner."