Bernard Hopkins lives inside people’s minds as much as he lives inside a boxing ring. Of all his survival skills in boxing, in prison and in life, that may be his greatest strength but also his tormenting weakness.
Everything is a battle for survival for Hopkins, who Saturday night will fight the good fight against RING light heavyweight champion Jean Pascal in hopes of becoming the oldest boxer in history to win a legitimate world championship. Yet win or not, one thing will not change.
Bernard Hopkins will continue to look at nearly everyone as some sort of hidden enemy he must defeat. Some sort of flawed or conspiratorial authority he must overcome. Some sort of doubter who must be convinced. Some sort of force he must break either physically or mentally – or both.
That has been his approach toward Pascal since last December and his approach toward the world since he first emerged after five years at Graterford Prison, the largest maximum security lockup in the state of Pennsylvania.
It is well documented and long written and re-written how Hopkins got there for strong-armed robbery at the age of 17 and also how he swore never to return despite all the difficulties and pitfalls of life as an ex-con.
He succeeded because he is blessed with tremendous ability to inflict legalized havoc on another human being but more because of his self-discipline and hard-won control over his emotions and inner demons. It is to his great credit that Hopkins proved wrong the warden who said to him as he exited the prison gates, “See you in six months.’’
Hopkins swore that familiar fate of so many ex-cons would not be his and it has not been. Instead he became a student of the dark art of fisticuffs so well schooled he holds a Ph.D. in mayhem.
That was never more evident than when he outfoxed and outfought Pascal, ending up with a draw that was lustily booed even though the fight was in Canada, where Pascal is a fistic hero.
Hopkins won that fight physically but more importantly mentally, breaking down Pascal at each confrontation along the way, constantly attacking his manhood and creating somewhere inside him a hint of doubt. What did Hopkins know about himself that he did not? How had he stayed so long atop the unforgiving world of prize fighting? What would he bring to the arena that Pascal had not experienced?
As it turned out, many things, including but not limited to complete mastery of the psychological warfare that is so much a part of boxing. By the end of the fight, if you had just walked aimlessly into the arena with no idea what was going on, you would have thought the 28-year-old Pascal was 46 and Hopkins the younger man.
Yet for all Hopkins’ admirable traits inside the ropes and out, he sometimes seems unable to help himself from crossing the unseen line between brilliance and unseemliness. The latest example were his gratuitous shots leveled at a long-time nemesis, former Philadelphia Eagles’ quarterback Donovan McNabb. Why he’s a nemesis only Hopkins understands. Frankly, maybe even he doesn’t.
Why Hopkins felt the need to assail McNabb, who now plays for the Washington Redskins, only he knows but it is clearly from something corroded deep within him, the one force he cannot fully control.
Hopkins has long been critical of McNabb because in Hopkins’ world being a black kid raised in a Chicago suburb by a two-parent family somehow makes McNabb less than fully black. He has long questioned McNabb’s toughness and this time added, “McNabb is the guy in the house where everybody else is in the field. He’s the one who got the extra coat. The extra servings. ‘Your boy.’’’
Those were thinly veiled references to slave days when most blacks were forced to work in the fields while a few favored ones worked in the house as domestics. Some long have called the difference a result of some being an “Uncle Tom’’ and Hopkins quickly veered in that direction when he said McNabb was shocked when the white men who run the Eagles traded him because “He thought he was one of them.’’
Hopkins seems to have decided long ago that any black American not born into the sad depths of poverty he overcame somehow is not black. Or at least not black enough to suit him. Yet if he found someone judging him in such a one-sided way, he’d holler all night and rightfully so.
He seems to have concluded that any black person who has the benefits Hopkins never knew growing up – a safe and stable environment and good educational system – has missed the Black Experience in America when in truth what they’ve missed is Hopkins’ experience. Frankly, Hopkins has fought, sweat and bled for years so his children will not share his experience, either.
Bernard Hopkins deserves great praise for the latter. He has become a boxing legend, an admirable father and husband and a consummate professional in a sport that has too few of them these days.
He is still a world-class fighter despite his advanced years because if he’s ever been out of shape since losing his first professional fight in 1988, no one can recall when. He’s still winning because he’s a master craftsman of the most-difficult sporting pursuit in the world and because there is a fire inside him that few can match.
Fire is an odd thing, though. When contained, it can warm you, cook your food and drive you far beyond where others feel you can go. But uncontained, it can consume you, burning down all you’ve built and hurting yourself and others.
In Hopkins’ case, it seems to do both. Most times it is much of the reason guys like Pascal or Kelly Pavlik or Felix Trinidad cannot safely get into the ring with him. He has inside him an inner fire for greatness that consumes them.
But sometimes, especially it seems when McNabb’s name comes up, it takes Hopkins to a place that is revealing of another side of him, a dark and prejudicial side that lumps all African-Americans into one of two places – in the fields or in the house. It’s sad that Hopkins lives with that but perhaps considering how difficult his formative years in the meanest streets of Philadelphia were it is at least understandable.
What it’s not is warranted or excusable any more. Bernard Hopkins has made millions of dollars in boxing. He’s reached heights few could imagine and is approaching another on Saturday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal, where he could become the oldest man in history to win a world championship.
He didn’t reach that point by banking his inner fires and he won’t stay there if he does. But the world is not a boxing ring and everything is not as simple as black and white. Hopkins himself made that clear when, during the same attack on McNabb, he said almost as an aside to the Philadelphia Daily News, “Nice guy. I’d trust him around my kids.’’
That’s saying something about Donovan McNabb that it would have been wise for Hopkins to have said louder while hitting the mute button on his addled theory why the former Eagles’ quarterback wasn’t as successful on the field as Hopkins would have liked.
Yet you can’t seem to have the 46-year-old, always fit and prepared fighter inside the ring without having the sometimes unfathomable one outside it. One begets – and feeds off – the other
"I have been able to reach this milestone because of things I have overcome [in my life] and I am motivated by the legacy I will leave,’’ Hopkins said in the days leading up to the Pascal rematch. “I am already going in a champion. At the Montreal press conference, Pascal was trying to be cute and he gave me his belts. I never gave them back, so I have them in my possession. I just have to make it official next Saturday because I don't think anyone should have a belt unless they win in the ring.
“At the end of the day, respect is not given. Respect is earned. I'm not going to respect anybody because he signed up and got a license to be a fighter. I'm not going to respect anybody because the only recognizable name he has on his record is Chad Dawson and that happened because of a head butt and they went to the scorecards and he happened to be winning after it looked like he was going to be knocked out.
“So, when you say about respect, compared to what I've done in the game and what he's done in the game, he should be paying homage to me. I’m the elder on the block. He's a young guy that's on the block and he's disrespecting the block and I'm telling him to pick the trash up and he's telling me, ‘Old man, get in the house and mind your business.’ So, I have to come out, take my slippers off, put my teeth in and spank him. That is the respect of the young and the old.
“You've got to remember this, and anybody that's past 40 will understand this or older, the old is always threatened by the young. I don't give a damn if it's boxing. I don't care if it's in your business. We all are victim of that as long as we live to see old or certain age. Sometimes the young win and sometimes the old win, but in my case, May 21st, you will see the old win.
“The way I took care of my body after leaving the penitentiary twenty-something years ago, it is discipline. Never taking anyone lightly. Never having an excuse for not being in shape, not being 20, 30 pounds over my weight and I'm fighting light heavyweight and I'm weighing 205 pounds and I have to train to get the weight off and then train for the fight. That's not me.
“I'm letting everybody know there's no secret out there on me. It's just discipline and sometimes it's hard for others and sometimes, it's not. For me, it's not.’’
Except, it seems, when it comes to Donovan McNabb.
Ron Borges is a columnist with the Boston Herald