It was scorching hot in Philadelphia, the sort of day when your clothes stick to you the instant you step outside of your air-conditioned cocoon. But the Rocky statute at the base of the Philadelphia Art Museum steps is mercifully nestled in a shady nook, where venders peddle refreshments, including a flavored drink called “Rocky Ice.”
There was, as always, a line of tourists waiting to have their picture taken next to the bronze likeness of a young Sylvester Stallone, hands raised in victory, just like in the 1976 movie that launched a franchise. But on this muggy June afternoon, the fans and media members gathered around a small stage erected just a few feet away from the statue, were not there to mimic a movie boxer. They were there to celebrate one of their own, light heavyweight champion Bernard Hopkins.
The 46-year-old Hopkins has been on an extended victory lap since beating Jean Pascal in Montreal to become the oldest boxer ever to win a world championship. And when he finally touched down in his hometown, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter was on hand to welcome him.
Nutter, who mentioned that he became a boxing fan when his father used to take him to the Blue Horizon, presented Hopkins with a citation and miniature liberty bell. But rather than focusing on his numerous boxing achievements, Nutter took the opportunity to stress Hopkins’ inspirational rise from incarcerated teenager to world champion and model citizen.
“Bernard put his life on the wrong path,” said Nutter. “But he proved that it’s never too late to turn your life around. Bernard underwent a spiritual transformation and became a hero and an inspiration to others.”
Hopkins also spoke about his journey from the Big House to the big time and what it took to get there – and, more importantly, stay there for so many years.
“From the Blue Horizon to where I’m standing now, here at Art Museum, this is where I started, and where I used to run. If I didn’t believe in dreams and hopes, there would be no dreams and hopes,” said Hopkins. “Those [art museum] steps I ran for many, many years. It didn’t matter whether I was 46 or 26; I ran them. It shows age is just a number.
“A question I always get is: How do I keep doing it at my age? Well, I’m not here because I’m that good. I’m here because I invested in a message. … I invested in myself for longevity and to have a mindset and the discipline to walk away when someone would say, ‘Come on, champ, just one drink.’
“Any time you get off your mark, you’ll get in trouble. … I tasted success, but I invested in my health. I lit the candle at one end, not both ends. I wanted to give myself a fighting chance to succeed in this sport and stay in the game. I made a choice not to get caught up in the highlife.
“We’re doing this by the Rocky statue, and in all the six or seven movies, it’s about a Philadelphia fighter. The movie didn’t involve a fighter that came from a gold medal, a fighter who didn’t have the right speech. I can relate to that. I had Jacks and made them [into] Aces.”
Love him or hate him, nobody can deny what Hopkins has accomplished, both in the ring and in his life.
As the ceremony wound down, you realized that if Stallone had tried to sell a script based on Hopkins’ life, rather than that of a fictional character, Hollywood would never have bought it. Hopkins’ story far outdistances what anybody could imagine. Anybody that is, except a living legend known as “The Executioner."
Photo / Maxwell Brown-City of Philadelphia