Bernard Hopkins, Conqueror of Mind, Body and Spirit

By Krishen Rangi


Bernard Hopkins, Conqueror of Mind, Body and Spirit

"The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

In equal measure due to his 43 years and the calibre of tonight's adversary, Bernard Hopkins will enter the ring Saturday night a 5/2 underdog to Joe Calzaghe. Down to their dreaded, dodged southpaw stances, it will be Hopkins's continuation on an unusual and risky path of his own choosing. Bernard Hopkins is not just another old man--far from it. Like few others in the history of the game, Hopkins has proven himself a master of the human conditioning, paticularly the art of warfare.

The current chapter of Bernard Hopkins' story of public life really begins after the Jermain Taylor fights in 2005. The first was ridiculously close, with Hopkins, the long reigning champion, arguably having done enough to retain his title, but losing a narrow decision. The rematch five months later played out with a near identical result. It was nothing new in boxing; out with the old, in with the new. A worn man sent packing with no recourse.

Until that point, despite a record 20 title defenses, Hopkins had in the mainstream largely flown below the radar. Networks saw an old man, though undeniably successful, with no special effects. And his made-in-the-can story was nothing new or worthwhile in boxing, certainly nothing that warranted marketing. After he destroyed Felix Trinidad in 2001, Hopkins described the mood at the HBO afterparty as that of a funeral, those in positions of power devastated the script had been been shredded so inexorably. Even those in boxing, who otherwise revered him, wondered quietly of a legacy built on beating up smaller men.

Perhaps the most remarkable feat Hopkins has achieved has been his willingness to stay the course, the one he established and maintained for himself since being released from prison in his early twenties in Pennsylvania. As Jim Lampley said, it seems he is even more proud of having overcome his past so fully than his historic achievements in the ring. The dignity offered often appears a transparent and central theme in maintaining the resolve to overcome the seemingly paralyzing obstacles of his profession, offering not only the purpose and defintion that are unmistakable, but buttressing him with a strentgh to resist the temptations that invariably come attached with achievement.

Indeed, the one-man operation is most amazing for its discipline, its refusal to capitulate or acquiesce even when it would seem expedient. Whereas weaker others would have been quick to go back to what they knew, resort to instinct and where it took them, Hopkins has recognized that channelling his loneliness and rage into the ring, a place he can apply as formulas his life-lessons, where his understanding of the physical, mental, and spirtual, and their untold capacities when properly combined, could get him where he wanted to go, and to a far lesser degree gain the approval, however grudging, of the society around him. The recognition of patience as a true warrior's greatest strength has been Hopkins's essence, the defining common thread that has linked his life and his life's work. With a philosopher's self-awareness, Hopkins, like history's other great men faced with incarceration, demonstrated thought and analysis to evaluate and deconstruct his situation, compartmentalizing his impulse and instinct to conclude that, synthesized properly, his experience could be used as a foundation for something great. He couldhave succumbed to the prevalent nihilism of jailhouse culture, but instead he began plotting against all likelihood how his day would someday come.

When he lost his first fight on the outside as a light heavyweight Hopkins still refused to quit. Instead of directing his anger at society, Hopkins starved himself down to the middleweight over the course of 16 months, determining 160 was where his future lay. After rebuilding himself, he finally fought for one of the division's titles against a real prizefighter, Roy Jones, only at age 28 to get toppled again. Still it was nothing compared to the hell he had come from, the poverty, the street violence, the prison. Again Hopkins rebuilt himself, bracketed as nothing but another irrelevant also-ran by those with the money, but ok with it since their view meant nothing to begin with.

Wins in boxing's backwaters put him back on the fringe, but his straight and narrow story of reform seemed corny compared to the flash and flamaboyance of brands like Jones. Hopkins called himself the Executioner because he executed his punches, not because he particularly devastated opponents. He would tell stories of an ascetic life, saying he didn't make as much, but he didn't need to because knew how to save. When Jones verbally abused Hopkins on HBO, everyone laughed, the devoid-of-all-logic politics of high school popularity playing out for all the world to see. People don't listen to the one who lacks in the department of materialism. Hopkins had himself grown up idolizing neighborhood superstars who gains were achieved by street successes. 

The waiting was rewarded when Don King came calling in late 2000, believing Hopkins an easily- circumvented roadblock in Trinidad's multi-division consolidation effort. But even after destroying Trinidad the valleys continued, as a man in his late thirties refusing to allow King or anyone else  control him. Again Hopkins risked his body of work to maintain his career self-determination, losing popularity by refusing offers, striking out against hos own advisors and biding his time for opportunities like the one he eventually got against Oscar De la Hoya. He won, turning the tables on the generation's most popluar fighter, making him come forward and press the action, taking him out of his game before knocing him out, earning so much respect De la Hoya asked him to partner in his fledgling promotional company.

After waiting it out some more, the money and fame came. At an age when most of his peers had been cruelly booted-- prey to evolution-- his mind, body, spirit connection theory continued grand to carry the narrative. Once the popular master of the universe, Jones too decked by Father Time now begged Hopkins for a ring audience. Still, few thought stepping up was possible. The gym wars with bigger men-- beating up heavyweights-- were known, but to fight for the 175 lb. title, moving up two weight classes, seemed a stretch. But in the brighter lights of the mainstream it seemed his beliefs and theories, conceived and cemented like drops in a tub, built on a foundation of desire, were impervious; could not be breached. Hopkins and Tarver was indeed a mismatch, but not the way it had been thought. It wasn't his first victory over Tarver, having won the war of words, infuriating and irritating Tarver to the point of mistakes on which he capitalized. Emotionally he cut straight to the chase, preying on Tarver's greatest weakness, a past invovling addiction, without mercy. With cynics-turned-believers watching, he demonstrated again his mettle his greatest asset, a self-belief so unshakeable that it brought opponents to his turf, to fight on his conditions. It appeared once they got hit, the demons he had filled their heads with before the fight kicked in. And then the spirit went, and it was over.

The backdground suggested something similar against Winky Wright, one of the era's most unflappable stars. Wright's professionalism seemed far detached from emotion, making all of Hopkins's talk hollow. Closer to his prime, and far busier with a granite chin, Wright seemed the wrong guy for Hopkins to engage. Until the weigh-in Hopkins came off as petulant, ranting endlessly to Wright, who was apathetic and would only laugh back with indifference. And had Wright left there in such a balanced state, Hopkins knew the pshycological war would have been lost. So he pushed him in the face, incurring a $250,000 fine, but as Wright later admitted, his anger had the best of him and he fought more aggressively because of it. To punctuate things, Hopkins delivered a damaging head butt in the third round that caused further anguish of Wright's vital fighting faculties. A man who by the calendar was of middle-age continued to educate his subordinates on the more complex matters of Marquis of Queensbury.

At the Hatton/Mayweather weigh-in Hopkins gave Calzaghe his emotional serum, telling him he would "never lose to a white boy", and that he only had a clean record because he had fought in Europe. Calzaghe had professed admiration prior, saying he wanted to test himself against the best, no doubt knowing Hopkins tactics, including his well known extra curricular activites when the referee is not looking. Asked what would happen if he lost, Hopkins expressed amazement such a question would even come his way, saying it was not in his being, something unconscionable. Hopkins has said he will take away Calzaghe's high punch volume, his chief asset, as he has done to so many of his past opponents. The ring, it still seems, after all these years is still his testing ground, his condensed version of the game of life. The emotional mania he projects seems too real, and his investment in its faith cannot help but rub off on his ring enemies. Hopkins comes from a real place and a real era. His art seems strikingly congruent with lines summed up by another self-made superstar, Jay-Z. "We hustle out of a sense of hopelessness, sort of a desperation we feel we have nothing to lose. so we offer you, well we offer our lives...what are you bringing to the table?" It remains to be seen what Calzaghe will bring to the table, to what degree the effects of Hopkins' past waged war have affected him. According to history, and judging from the leadup, however, only the physical remains to be conquered.