Why Bernard Hopkins, at almost 50, remains so driven in the ring

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
Bernard Hopkins, right, lands a punch against Beibut Shumenov during his last fight in April. (AP Photo)

Bernard Hopkins

Bernard Hopkins, right, lands a punch against Beibut Shumenov during his last fight in April. (AP Photo)

LAS VEGAS – Dinner has arrived in the massive ballroom at the MGM Grand, and reporters in town to cover the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara fight scurry for position in line.

Seated at the far west of the ballroom is light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins, though he's largely unnoticed because of the arrival of the food despite wearing a perfectly fitting white sports coat and matching slacks.

Hopkins slides into a chair at a radio broadcast position, his back to the room. Quickly, though, Hopkins gets up and takes a chair where he's able to survey the room.

"I don't like sitting with my back to the crowd," he says.

Hopkins learned long ago in his native Philadelphia not to show weakness to his opponents. And now, months before his 50th birthday and with a position as one of the greatest boxers who ever lived long since secure, he's still battling against opponents both real and imagined.

Bernard Hopkins aspires to be the undisputed light heavyweight champion at 50. (AP Photo)
Bernard Hopkins aspires to be the undisputed light heavyweight champion at 50. (AP Photo)

"Bernard Hopkins," he said, speaking slowly while choosing his words carefully, "is still that thorn in certain people's asses. I don't know who they are, but every now and then, they expose themselves and I do know who they are.

"It's the same spirit that will always be in me to understand that no matter how good you are, there are competitors out there who will try to discredit you. This is true whether it's in the ring or in the office. They want to try to harm your name, attack your credibility and damage your reputation."

His voice raises as he speaks and quickly, though he doesn't seem to notice, he's attracting attention. Those who are eating their dinners turn to look at him to see what has suddenly caused him to get so animated.

Hopkins leans forward in his chair and taps a reporter on the knee.

Their eyes connect, but Hopkins never blinks, never averts his gaze.

"Those people, those who would discredit my work and my accomplishments and what I stand for as a man, they don't understand one simple little fact," he said. "They are my biggest motivators to not lay down and die."

Hopkins holds the IBF and WBA light heavyweight titles and is gunning for a shot at either WBC champion Adonis Stevenson or WBO champion Sergey Kovalev. He wants to be the undisputed light heavyweight champion at 50.

He held the middleweight title for more than a decade, a good portion of it as undisputed champion and made 20 successful defenses of his belts. In 2011, he surpassed George Foreman to become the oldest man ever to win a major world title fight. He then broke his own mark in 2012, '13 and '14.

A day earlier, Hopkins went on a lengthy rant about a potential Kovalev fight, totally focused on his future in boxing.

On this day, though, he was a different, more introspective man. Those who have been around him a long time know never to ask him if the end of his career is near, because Hopkins delights in proving others wrong.

But he's one of the most misunderstood athletes in the world. He came from nothing – he grew up in one of the roughest sections of Philadelphia and was sentenced to a long term in the Graterford State Penitentiary in 1988 for strong-arm robbery and other felonies – but hasn't had a sniff of trouble with the law since.

He's renowned for his physical conditioning and Spartan lifestyle. Some laugh at him because he's so proud of having a Costco card, which allows him to get the bargains he loves so dearly.

Hopkins was blessed with the ability to talk, and boxing writers who have covered him for any length of time know he could go off on one of any of a thousand tangents at any time.

He's fully aware of what he has accomplished, but said he had no pangs of longing on June 8 when three of his one-time opponents, Oscar De La Hoya, Felix Trinidad and Joe Calzaghe, were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya share a moment at the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara weigh-in. (Getty Images)
Hopkins and Oscar De La Hoya share a moment at the Canelo Alvarez-Erislandy Lara weigh-in. (Getty Images)

Perhaps the two most significant wins of his career were his 2001 stoppage of Trinidad in the finale of Don King's middleweight championship tournament, and his 2004 knockout of De La Hoya in the richest fight of his life. He lost a narrow and hotly disputed decision to Calzaghe in a 2008 light heavyweight title fight.

Not for a moment, he insists, did he allow himself to think that he should be up there along with those three on their induction day.

"The votes of someone else are what get you officially into the Hall of Fame," Hopkins said. "But it's what you did in that ring, over your career, which truly identifies you as a Hall of Famer. I don't need anyone's vote to know. Is there anyone anywhere who would say I have not done enough to be in the Hall of Fame? Anyone? I have my career and I'm going to do it. I want to make my own history. I'm not worried about that. It will happen when I'm ready for it to happen."

He is, at least a little, worried about the perception of him in the public.

Hopkins tosses out small clues to the identity of his inner self all the time, but it's an extraordinarily large and complex puzzle that is hard to put together.

"To anybody who is paying attention and who wants to dig into my head and understand the person, [he or she] needs to understand what the motivation is to be a productive citizen when I wasn't always that way," he said. "Where did the drive come from to think this way and to be this disciplined? How do I stay on the tracks? And if you agree with me 50 percent of the time, or 60 percent, or 70 or 80 percent, because I never expect anyone to agree 100 percent with me, because if they say they do, they're lying, because they want to be my friend or they want something from me.

"But no matter how much you agree, where does the conviction I have to stand behind what I believe come from? One thing most people who know me can agree on is that I overthink, in a good way, everything I do. I didn't do that when I was a criminal-minded person. I didn't have the conscience at that particular point in my life to think how I would feel if somebody did that to me, or someone I loved."

Hopkins chuckles when he thinks of himself as a young man.

"When I had something in my mind, I was the guy you most definitely did not want to run into," he says.

He changed his life, he says, while he was in prison, but it didn't happen when the cell door closed behind him. It took him more than two years of "wilding out" once he was inside to start to ponder the circumstances that led him to Graterford.

Hopkins quickly gained in stature while he was in prison, and referred to himself as "one of the big dogs."

"I had a following, and people would do something to you because I said so," Hopkins said. "I had that type of influence and I was serious about who I believed I am, who I was."

Things changed dramatically for him when he saw prisoners awakening before the sun had risen to go off to work to make jeans, both for other prisoners and for sale at retail, for $22 a month in salary.

He looked around and realized that these tough, hard-nosed men, who were the kings of the street, had never held a job. They had no interest in jobs. And they had no chance at escaping their plight.

Hopkins had gotten his GED while he was in prison, but at first, he didn't use his mind, only his muscle.

He had 30 felonies, he said, and had given up much of his life because of his crimes. As he read, as he listened, as he thought, he slowly came to a realization about his life. He was pointed in the wrong direction, not understanding that by continually returning to prison, he would be part of a free work force that was making someone fabulously wealthy. He's not educated, but Hopkins eventually began to wonder who was profiting from the jeans that the prisoners were making. He knew someone was, and he knew for sure it wasn't the prisoners.

He didn't know it at the time, but those thoughts marked the beginning of his life's turnaround.

Someone on the outside, he eventually concluded, was making a fortune off the labor of men like him, who were being paid next-to-nothing. Whose fault is that, he asked himself, and why did so many men his age and in his circumstances find themselves making someone else rich off their labor?

"Because of my ignorance and because of the traps that my ignorance was attracted to, I put myself in there to be somebody's retirement plan," Hopkins said. "I started to listen to speakers, and I started reading. I didn't read in the streets; I didn't have the patience to even think about opening a book. I didn't go to school when I was in the streets. Life was about what was happening on the streets then.

Hopkins refers to himself as 'The Alien' because he has been fighting so long, he is not from this world. (Getty Images)
Hopkins refers to himself as 'The Alien' because he has been fighting so long, he is not from this world. (Getty Images)

"But then I realized that in this prison, they got all this free stuff [for the inmates] that you're paying for, and he's paying for, the taxpayers, and that was it: The tools to free ourselves were there all along. I asked myself, 'Why is the law clinic always empty? Why does no one go near the library, and why is the basketball gym, the boxing gym and the outside area with the weights always filled?' I had to educate myself, and I asked questions and I was nosy. I had a thirst for knowledge because I knew knowledge would better me and save me."

For the first time in his life, he picked up a book willingly and read it cover to cover. He doesn't remember the name, but it was a book about slavery.

It influenced the rest of his life.

He looked at life through a different prism. He wouldn't return to that prison, or any prison again, because he all of a sudden had knowledge. He had a fertile mind and it blossomed once he had access to education.

He gained a reputation early in his boxing career as difficult to work with. He wouldn't go along to get along. He'd learned the business and was damn sure going to do everything he could to exploit it rather than allowing it to exploit him.

So Hopkins always saw himself in a fight for justice and equality against an unknown, unseen enemy.

"I learned a lot from the era in which I was born," said Hopkins, who was born Jan. 15, 1965. "I've come to understand that things ain't equal, and that things will never be equal and they'll never be changed. But how do you function when you know things are going to be this way? That's the secret."

When Hopkins was paroled from Graterford, the warden said to him, "We'll see you again in six months when you're back."

Hopkins vowed never to return, to change his life, to take advantage not only of his physical gifts but his intellect. He wanted to use what he had to better his situation and, in essence, become the person who was benefiting by someone else making jeans for $22 a month.

He's trying to explain it, why all the fights and the battles and the rants and everything else make sense.

He grabs a reporter by the wrist and grins wanly.

"You got to hear this, and I want you to think about what I'm going to tell you very carefully," he said. "I educated myself and I learned what this life and this society is all about and that enabled me to stay out and to be a good and productive citizen and one who's paid over $15 million in taxes."

He sees the shock in the eyes of his interrogator and he laughs heartily.

"Imagine that," he says. "Can you believe that? I've paid $15 million plus in taxes in my career. That's a lot of money. Who would have thought that was possible? Who would believe that [inmate number] Y4145, uneducated at the time, an eighth-grade dropout who was written off, stabbed twice on the streets, would pay the government that kind of money? No one. No one. I went to jail for taking $50 and got 5 to 15.

"Think of that: I'm paying the government. I'm paying the government $15 million-plus. Do they really know who I am? Do they really understand who they've got here amongst them? From totally having no chance, to being put away, to now, where I'm sitting in front of you telling you, not happily but truthfully, that I've paid this government over $15 million in my lifetime. That is a story. That's the story."

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