PHILADELPHIA – The crowds still spill in to see him, catch a glimpse of someone rare, still doing what he’s been doing at the age he’s still doing it. Every once a while, passersby will cup their hands around their eyes like blinders and press against the picture window of Joe Hand’s Gym in South Philadelphia to see why the TV camera trucks are parked out front.
The media know all they have to do is stick a microphone out or point a lit camera in his direction and Bernard Hopkins will provide them with more than what they need.
Some members of the Philadelphia press horde that attend the future hall-of-famer’s open media workouts may not know the difference between a left hook and a clothes line – but they know Hopkins. They know they’ll get a great soundbite along with an additional dash of his homespun, old-school wisdom through his gritting gum shield.
He’s 48 and it’s still remarkable to see him hit a heavy bag and work a speed bag with the alacrity of someone half his age, how he moves his feet – so versed in what to do once the bell sounds they seem a separate entity detached from the rest of him.
Hopkins (53-6-2, 32 knockouts) is approaching his Oct. 26 IBF light heavyweight title defense against Karo Murat (25-1-1, 15 KOs) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., as he would anyone else.
Hopkins-Murat is the featured bout of a Showtime tripleheader that also includes fellow Philadelphian Gabriel Rosado against WBO middleweight tiitleholder Peter “Kid Chocolate” Quillin and rising heavyweight star Deontay “The Bronze Bomber” Wilder against Nicolai “Stone Man” Firtha in a 10-rounder.
What makes these moments special for Hopkins, perking up a dreary, gray Wednesday afternoon with a media workout, is that they’re marking time for the living legend.
“You know I saw this with [Floyd] Mayweather the other day. They’re older, but Floyd and Bernard are actually better fighters, they’re just older guys,” trainer Naazim Richardson said. “You actually see them do things better than they used to do things. It’s just that they’re older guys. You see the expectations sometimes of older guys, but it doesn’t apply to Bernard. He’s a phenom. We don’t bring up retirement at all. You realize it is closer to the end, but we don’t talk about retiring anymore.
“Listen, I told Bernard to retire after the Antonio Tarver fight [in 2006]. That was the last time I brought it up to him. I felt he did everything he had to do in beating Tarver; I felt he still had something left. But it was such a spectacular win, Bernard came back and beat Kelly Pavlik. Hey, if he could beat those young kids, especially those undefeated kids, you own the game. We don’t talk too much about when it’s over, we speak more about the current situation and what we have to do to win. Bernard has always been like that. Right now, we have our focus set on Karo Murat.”
Still, when Hopkins talks about the “young bucks” taking over, like Danny Garcia emerging as the new face of Philadelphia boxing, there is a certain tone in his voice that suggests preparing the landing pad for his retirement.
In the meantime, Hopkins and Richardson bide their time. They know there’s talk about future matchups with RING champion Adonis Stevenson and Sergey Kovalev, the hammers that have emerged in the light heavyweight division. It’s talk they choose to skirt until after Oct. 26.
“(Murat) better realize he’s not only fighting the champion, he’s fighting a legend,” Richardson said. “Whatever Murat has done before this, he better try a lot more this time. He’s a tough guy. He can take a punch. But we don’t whether or not he can punch. We’ll see when we fight Oct. 26.”
Hopkins admittedly doesn’t know much about Murat, aside from what Richardson gleaned when he saw him on Steve Cunningham cards in Germany.
“I can’t tell you anything about this guy, other than what I saw on YouTube,” Hopkins said. “I’ve fought so many guys with so many different styles in my 25-year career, I can adapt and make whatever adjustments I need to make. I know he got knocked out by Nathan Cleverly in the 11th round. I do have that fight on DVD. But I gotta be honest, I stopped watching it. Is he fundamentally sound? Yeah. He basically comes straight forward, hands up, tries to outwork you. He’s got that European style, doesn’t do anything fancy or anything I haven’t seen.
“I gotta make Murat look like the meanest, toughest light heavyweight in the world who’s trying to knock my head off. I gotta make him bigger than who he really is. And I know he’s coming to be better than he ever was in any of his other fights because he’s fighting Bernard Hopkins. I raise everyone’s level a notch or two because they all want to end my career.”
Hopkins said he’s had no issues staying motivated to fight Murat, an unknown to even the hardest of hardcore fight fans.
“OK, so I don’t know much about this guy. But I’m preparing for him like he’s somebody that everybody knows because that’s the way I have to think. I mean, fighters like this are tricky. You want people to come up to you on the street and say, ‘Aw, man, that guy you’re fighting is good!’ You know they’d be saying that if I was fighting Adonis Stevenson or Andre Ward. But I don’t hear that because hardly anybody in this country knows this guy.
“You have to get as up mentally for someone who’s not known as you do for the guys everybody knows. And I’ve always got my mind right for every fight, which is why I’ve stayed on top as long as I have. Yeah, if I want to, I probably could fight until 60 the way things are going now.”
In the meantime, savor every morsel of memory. Because, love him or hate him, there will never be another one like Bernard Hopkins again.
Photos by Elsa-Gettyimages (1,2); Tom Hogan-Hoganphotos