Bernard Hopkins has been amazing us for so many years that we take it for granted now, which is a shame.
The 45-year-old wonder will supplant George Foreman as the oldest man in the history of boxing to win a major title if he beats RING light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal on Saturday in Quebec City on Showtime.
Let’s stop for a second and think about some of the facts going into that fight:
• Many fighters are finished before they reach 30 because of the wear and tear they endure in a typical career. Few remain on the elite level into their mid-30s. Hopkins is 45 and still competing at the highest level.
• Hopkins became a professional fighter in 1988, when Pascal was 5 years old.
• Hopkins has been a titleholder or legitimate title contender for close to 20 years, a period much longer than the entire careers of all but a few fighters.
• Hopkins is 6-3 since he turned 40 but could easily be 9-0 against almost exclusively top-tier opponents. Two losses to Jermain Taylor –- a split decision and close unanimous decision in 2005 — were both hotly disputed. The same goes for his split-decision setback against undefeated future Hall of Famer Joe Calzaghe in 2008.
• And, perhaps most remarkably, he’s actually given a decent chance of beating a young, athletic champion in spite of his age.
We could go on. The bottom line is that that the man is a marvel.
“It’s a mind set,” said historian Bert Sugar. “Here’s a guy who once told me he promised his mother he’d retire at 40. When she died, all bets were off. He has that mind set; he’s going to keep doing it. He’s been arguing with promoters and matchmakers and alphabet-soup groups all his life. Now he’s arguing with age.
“Now he rates with the Jack Nicklauses, the Johnny Longens, the Gordie Howes, the Nolan Ryans and obviously the George Foremans as people who just keep going. Something propels them past the mandatory retirement that their sport imposes on them.”
What is it in Hopkins’ case?
The standard answer, one that he has provided over and over again, is the way he lives. It obviously goes beyond that, though. He might be the perfect storm of longevity, in which many forces come together to produce an ageless wonder.
Again, we must start with is Spartan habits, which obviously lend itself to a long career. No drugs, no drinking, no chasing women, no late nights, a lot of hard work.
“I invested this time in my body to be able to get these years out of me,” Hopkins said. “You all wrote about it. It was well publicized the way I train, the way I eat, the way I live outside of boxing, how I keep my weight down. … So I'm just getting what they call the rewards and the benefits of what I invested in, like a smart investment person.
“I'm only getting back the interest of what I put in, as you wrote, ‘Five, ten, fifteen years ago,’ so that's why I'm here.”
Or, as he told The Times of London before he fought Joe Calzaghe, ““I've sacrificed having fun to have what I have.”
And, of course, observers recognize and admire Hopkins’ discipline.
“[Hopkins’ longevity] says a lot about his commitment to himself and the sport,” said well-known strength and conditioning coach Darryl Hudson, who doesn’t work with Hopkins. “He’s without doubt one of the most-disciplined guys ever in the sport. And that’s not easy to be.”
Hudson believes there could be more Bernard Hopkinses if fighters where more disciplined and knowledgeable enough to train properly.
Hopkins is in the gym year round, meaning he’s already in good shape when he arrives for training camps. That allows him to focus during the weeks leading up to the fight on boxing and not on making weight, which is the bane of so many fighters.
“Athletes in other sports are able to do what they do because they stay fit year round more than boxers,” Hudson said. “Bernard is one of the few fighters who do that. He’s in the gym year round, running year round, doing something to keep his body in condition. He never falls off.
“When you get older, things decline. Staying fit slows the aging process. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Consider additional aspects of Hopkins’ life and career that probably play a role in his longevity.
• He spent about five years in prison for robbery –- from the age of 17 to 23 -– during an age period in which most fighters are taking a pounding, much as George Foreman undoubtedly benefited from his 10-year hiatus from boxing later in life. He was spared that early wear and tear.
• He has avoided typical punishment because he is such a superb boxer. His opponents will tell you that it is extremely difficult to hit him cleanly, another reason he remains relatively fresh into his 40s. He has never taken anything even resembling a beating.
• He has relied less on speed and athleticism than skills and intelligence in the ring. Thus, when he began to decline physically, he was able to maintain a high level of proficiency. Rival Roy Jones Jr. would be an example of the opposite, an athletic fighter who became vulnerable the second he started to slow down.
• He came along at time when an increasing number of athletes in general are competing into their 40s because of advances in science and knowledge of fitness.
• And, finally, plain old luck probably has played a role. He hasn’t had the kind of debilitating injuries that can shave years off a fighter’s career. “You can get an injury when you’re 25 that can affect you when you’re 35. He’s managed to avoid those things,” Hudson said.
Sugar pointed out one more thing: Hopkins lost his first professional fight, as some other all-time great fighters did –- Henry Armstrong, Benny Leonard, Billy Conn, among others.
The early setback might’ve been symbolic of his life, getting knocked to the proverbial canvas but refusing to stay there. The single thing that might be most responsible for the fact that Hopkins is still around is determination.
It goes back to the mind set to which Sugar referred.
“The idea,” Sugar said, “is to get up one more time than you’ve been down.”