BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Just before midnight on Sept. 29, 2001, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins was being booed by the partisan Felix Trinidad crowd at New York’s Madison Square Garden as he entered the ring for their middleweight unification bout.
Hopkins made his way to the ring wearing a red mask as well as matching trunks and shirt with a large, silver “X” on its back as the screams of Trinidad’s nickname, “Tito, Tito,” from the of 19,075 fans — believed to be the Garden’s largest for a non-heavyweight fight at the time — drowned out Ray Charles’ version of “America The Beautiful.”
By the fourth round, however, Hopkins’ dominance over Trinidad had reduced their collective cheers to murmurs and mumbling as it became increasingly apparent their Puerto Rican hero was about to become the 14th of the Philadelphia fighter’s record 20 title defenses.
“I wish you could have heard what he said to me in the Trinidad fight. He sat down in the corner, and he said, ‘What round is this?'” recalled current trainer Naazim Richardson, who, at the time, was an assistant to the late Bouie Fisher.
“I said, ‘It’s the 12th round.’ So he said, ‘It’s the last round?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Now, I’m gonna knock this motherf–ker out.’ I told him, ‘If that would have gotten on camera, you would have been a star.’ He could smell the blood in the water.”
Hopkins head-swiveling, right cross-uppercut sent Trinidad reeling to the ropes and down. Referee Steve Smoger reached the count of nine before Trinidad’s father and trainer, Felix Sr., entered the ring and held his son in his arms, signaling the end at the 1:22 mark.
Hopkins’ triumph added Trinidad’s WBA title to his IBF and WBC belts, unifying the 160-pound division for the first time since 1987 and tied Carlos Monzon with his record 14th defense.
“I said this would be the easiest fight of my career,” said Hopkins, then 36, “But some people thought I was off my rocker, getting old, with mental problems.”
Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 knockouts) is hearing similar criticism heading into Saturday night’s HBO-televised clash with IBF 175-pound titleholder Tavoris Cloud (24-0, 19 KOs) at Barclays Center, a match up which represents the now 48-year-old’s first fight in The Big Apple since his stoppage of Trinidad.
Cloud’s trainer, Abel Sanchez, claims that Hopkins will absorb a similar thrashing as an aging Sugar Ray Leonard did at The Garden in February of 1991, when he was dropped twice by a younger, WBC junior middleweight beltholder Terry Norris.
But Richardson dismisses sentiment such as Sanchez’s, saying, “I feel like Bernard is smelling the blood in the water again.”
“Some old sharks don’t smell the blood in the water, they just see the pack leaving, and they’re like, ‘where’s the pack going?'” said Richardson. “But I believe that you’ll see the Executioner again on Saturday night.”
In accordance with his “Executioner” nickname, Hopkins act often involved providing his “victims” with a ceremonial “last meal” at the final press conference.
During Wednesday’s final press conference at Barclays Center, Hopkins wore a black hoodie and a ski mask that covered all but his eyes, which were shrouded by dark shades.
“I would tease him in the gym and I say, ‘I don’t need Bernard Hopkins or B-Hop, I need the Executioner,'” said Richardson “I told him we’ve got to bring the Executioner back for this one. I’ve started to see that mindset again.”
By defeating Cloud, 31, Hopkins can eclipse his own record as the oldest man to win a significant crown, a feat the Philadelphia native accomplished at the age of 46 with a unanimous decision over Jean Pascal for THE RING’s and the WBC’s light heavyweight belts in May of 2011.
“I don’t like nothing taken from me. Yes, I had some close fights in my career that’s going to be debated through time,” said of Hopkins, who was later dethroned as THE RING/WBC light heavyweight beltholder by Chad Dawson in April of last year.
“Yes, fights that I should have won, didn’t get. But I’m not going to cry about that. But I can say March 9, you’re going to see a healthy Bernard Hopkins. Nothing is wrong, everything is tight. I had time to rest, I’m ready to go, and it’s going to be a masterful performance, masterful performance.”
While Cloud will have been out of action for more than a year since winning by disputed split-decision over southpaw Gabriel Campillo in February 2012, Hopkins will have been out of the ring for 11 months since facing Dawson.
During that time, Hopkins said he has demonstrated an ability to perform at an optimum level.
“I’m not that far from 50, and I see myself as going these rounds and I’m fighting prospects in the gym, sparring, getting me ready for March 9,” said Hopkins.
“And they’re looking at me like, ‘Yo, man, I want to see your birth certificate. That, to me, I’m smiling and laughing and joking. Because the thing is, man, is that when you know that you can do it and you ain’t in denial of it, and I’m a person that’s honest with myself first.”
Watching Hopkins closely, Richardson does not see a fighter who can no longer do the job in the ring.
“I’m watching Bernard in his camp, the first sign that I know he’s serious and ready is when he started holding the pads again with me. Because when he holds the pads with me, I’ll rough him up and I’ll push him around. We had gotten away from that, and he was just working with my little guys, the guys with speed,” said Richardson.
“But when he was holding the pads with me, and wearing a body protector, we were banging in there, and I saw that this guy was serious. So everything I was looking for and needed to see in the gym, I saw. I saw everything I needed to see, so we know that he has it.”
Richardson said he would call out Hopkins if he saw a man he felt was slipping in his craft, just as he tried to with a fighter he once trained, but whom he would not identify.
“Unfortunately, I was in the gym, and, I won’t call out the guy’s name, but I was working with an older fighter, and as I saw some things, and it looked like he was getting old, I watched the people around him tell him, ‘You’re still that great thing that you always were. So they were still feeding him that, and then, when he got to the fight, he looked old,” said Richardson.
“I mean, like we were seeing it in the gym, and we tried to tell him, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do this,’ But that’s how it happens if you don’t have people around you who will tell you the truth. People say that a fighter gets old overnight. I never understood the statement that you get old overnight. How does a fighter get old overnight? Your back starts to hurt, and then it gets a little worse, and then a little worse. So it’s a process.”
Golden Boy CEO Richard Schaefer, who promotes Hopkins, attributes the fighter’s abilities to his general attitude toward a healthy body.
“A few years ago, we were in The Mandalay Bay, and I like to smoke cigars. So I said, ‘Let’s go and have a drink.’ But he doesn’t drink. So he had, like, a coke or a diet coke. So I’m lighting up my cigar, and he’s like, ‘Ah, I can’t be around the smoke.’ So he left,” said Schaefer.
“That’s just how extreme he is. He can’t be around smoke. Forget about eating shrimp that have been cooked with alcohol. Forget that. He’s really extreme and very, very disciplined. I think that we see that discipline outside of the ring. That’s why he is a young 48.”
On Saturday night, Richardson believes Hopkins’ experience will conquer Cloud’s youth and athleticism.
“The next step is to see if we can get him to execute it in the fight. He’s got the gun, and we know that he’s got bullets in the gun, but do you still freeze in the moment? That’s a test to see if he can be a police officer any longer. We know that he’s got the guns, and I’ve seen the weaponry, so he’s got the bullets. Now we’ll go into the fight and see if he can still pull the trigger on it. Everything that I saw in the gym shows me that he can, but until he does, we don’t know,” said Richardson.
“It wouldn’t surprise me when you see Tavoris Cloud back up, try do some boxing, and [abandon] that seek and destroy s–t, which shouldn’t happen, because he’s the younger man. I think you see him do that, and then, try to play it off like, ‘I was trying to throw a different wrinkle into the game.’ But it will be more like, ‘You felt that hot s–t in there, and you came on up out the kitchen.’ So I’m telling you, there are going to be rounds that he loses emphatically. I believe that you will see not only a guy who can still pull the trigger, but also a guy that looks to finish too.”
Photo by Rich Kane, Hogan Photos, Golden Boy Promotions
Lem Satterfield can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org