“My whole life I’ve been achieving the impossible.”

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Bernard Hopkins grew up in Philadelphia’s housing projects, one of eight kids in a dirt-poor family. By the time he was a teenager he’d got into street crime, ranging from petty theft to violent muggings. At 14 he was running completely wild and lawless and had been stabbed three times. By 1982 he’d been up in court 30 times over two years and, aged 17, he was sent to Graterford Penitentiary, Pennsylvania, for 18 years.

In this violent adult prison, he saw fellow inmates being raped and murdered. “I saw a guy killed for a lousy pack of cigarettes,” he says. He tried to build a reputation as a tough guy but was stabbed with an ice pick that just missed his lung. A visit from his mother might have provided some comfort…but she’d come to tell him that his brother had been shot dead.

He got out of prison early and was given 10 years of parole. “See you soon,” the guard at the gate said as he left. “They expected me back and they expected me back quick,” Hopkins says. Out on the streets, Philadelphia had been destroyed by drugs and violence. Looking back on it, Hopkins says, “There was an even bloodier war going on than there had been when I was sent to prison.” 

He’d discovered boxing inside – the one legal thing he was good at. So he took a job washing dishes in a hotel and trained at the local gym at night. His firs professional fight was set for October 1988. Perhaps this was his way out of the seemingly inevitable cycle of violence and punishment, a wasted life.

But he lost the fight, badly. With both body and ego bruised, he didn’t go back into the ring for over a year. He didn’t want to be the guy put in the ring to lose, to make the potential champions look good. Anyone less resilient and driven would’ve gone back to a life of street crime. And back to prison soon after that.

Not Hopkins. He started training again and, in 1990, aged 25 and a stone lighter, he had his second fight. Perhaps he was finally about to make some progress. But although he won that fight, he spent the next five years as “the third man in the house”, behind James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. These two were legends and Roy Jones Jr in particular was clearly an all-time-great in the making. In 1993 Hopkins got a shot against Roy Jones Jr but was beaten on points. Another opportunity had slipped away.

Finally, in 1995, aged 30, Hopkins won the middleweight world title, stopping Ecuador’s Segundo Mercado. He went on to defend it 20 times, including knockouts of Oscar de la Hoya and Felix Trinidad, two of the sport’s best fighters of the last 25 years. He was 35 when he beat Trinidad and 38 for the De La Hoya fight. His mum begged him to stop boxing when he turned 40. But it had been a long, hard road to get to the top and he intended to stay there.

In 2011, aged 46, he beat Jean Pascal – a tough Canadian 18 years younger than him – to become the oldest boxer ever to win a world title. Then in 2013, aged 48, he beat Tavoris Cloud…and his own record. On Saturday night, aged 49, he used experience, guile and the power punching that’s never left him to take apart Beibut Shumenov and become the oldest boxer ever to unify the world titles. It was an awesome performance and the cherry on top of an amazing career.

While his peers James Toney and Roy Jones Jr tarnish their reputations for much-needed cash way down on the undercard of promotions in small halls (Toney) and in mixed martial arts fights (Jones), Hopkins has stayed at the very top of the hardest game. He’s taken on and beaten everyone, ducked no-one and now he’s the last man standing. Others had more talent, but Hopkins wanted it more than them and had the discipline to go with it. Unlike other big boxing names like the idiotic Floyd Mayweather Jr, Hopkins keeps his head down and works his arse off. Outside of the ring he lives a quiet family life in the small town of Hockessin, Delaware, with his wife Jeanette and their three children. “I’m not that talented,” he says. “Roy Jones was 10 times more talented than me. Most of the fighters in my era, including James Toney, those guys was more talented than me all around the board, and I’m not being nonchalant about my talent. But something that I understood from day one: You keep your body clean, your mind clean, you don’t get caught up in the bullshit that goes with success, you will be alright.”

Boxing writers and fans often ask Hopkins how he’s stayed at the top of his game for so long and when he’ll retire. It’d be easy to believe that there’s a portrait of him ageing hideously up in his attic like Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. But I think his success and longevity is simply a matter of hard work, extraordinary focus and a burning desire never to go back to the life he knew growing up – the path that seemed mapped out for him: hustling out on the streets, crime, Graterford Penitentiary or a violent, early death.“I will never beat the clock, nobody beats the clock,” he says. “I have just found a way to maintain my health and I have a deal with Father Time that I did when I came out of the penitentiary: I knew that if I transformed my life I would never be inside again.” 

Hopkins turns 50 in July and is looking forward to his next world title defence. After that he’s talking about a final fight, with the unbeaten Floyd Mayweather Jr, on his 51st birthday. His life is a rags to riches story with so many remarkable twists and turns, so much incredible self-belief in the face of relentless defeat and tragedy, so much to inspire and amaze us. He’s a kind of anti-Lance Armstrong and all of this will be a Hollywood movie one day. But for now the story goes on and this blog stands as a record of one man’s refusal to let circumstances, misfortune, tough breaks and other peoples’ opinions ever break his indomitable spirit. He hasn’t always had it his own way in or out of the ring but his utter refusal to back down in the face of setbacks has defined him. “I got knocked down,” he once said. “Anybody could be knocked down, anybody can be knocked out. But it’s not what happened…it’s what happens next.”

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About antmelder
Creative Partner at DDB Sydney; passionate vegetarian; lover of books, boxing and Bruce Springsteen.

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