I still got my health, my intelligence, my toughness, my knowledge of the ring
FIVE minutes into an amusingly detailed and seemingly unending answer to the very first question of this interview, Bernard Hopkins shifts effortlessly down a new detour. “You see, me and Father Time have a meaningful relationship,” Hopkins says as he expands his opening retort to a routine query about him becoming a world champion again, at 48, when he outclassed Tavoris Cloud in New York last month.
“People don’t understand that me and Father Time meet every year. We talk. Father Time has never been my enemy. We’re friends. He tells me: ‘Bernard, I’ll give you more time because you invested so much time in respecting me and treating yourself right.’ Father Time is talking about my lifestyle here. I invested the time and the discipline and now I’m getting the rewards. When people want to dictate to me they always say Father Time is gonna get me. They’re right. Father Time will hit every single one of us who is breathing. But me and Father Time have a special relationship. Hell, I think even he is impressed by what I’ve done so long.“
“So look, I don’t mind being 48. I want to make history at 49. I might want to make history at 50. I told my mother I won’t fight past 40. That was 13 years ago. But I keep on going because I’m so different. Can I still dominate at 50? If I want to, yeah. Of course. I’m under the same rule as you but I just don’t break the rules. You want to drink champagne? Okay. You work damn hard every day. You’re married, you’ve got kids, you’ve got bills to pay every day. Drink all you want. But I haven’t had a drink since I was at Graterford [Prison] in 1983 – when I was a teenager. I still don’t drink if I’m in New York or Los Angeles, at the fights or the after-parties. Can you imagine the discipline that takes? But I’m not normal.”
There’s no stopping Hopkins in mid-flow. Yet he’s far more than just a braggart and, while continuing his marathon reply, he has the wit to acknowledge his endearing verbosity. “We’re still on your first question, I know,” he says with a throaty chuckle. “I will give you a chance to ask your second question. But let me back it up here and tell you how I felt before I went into the ring against Cloud. I told people: ‘I will show you.’ They said: ‘But you showed us before, Bernard.’ Here’s the difference. I don’t know of another 48 year-old guy in the world who could do this. To me, it seems as if the average 48-year-old guy is taking six pills a day to stay alive. He’s got high blood pressure, diabetes, he has this, he has that. I’m the wrong guy to ask what a normal a 48 year-old feels like. I just don’t know.”
Hopkins pauses and then, realising I’m stunned that he has finished talking, he chuckles in his office in Philadelphia. “That was my presentation to say hi to everybody in London. How did that sound – for starters?”
I’m almost as impressed as the moment on the Monday after he became world champion when, on Twitter, he tweeted a picture of himself doing sit-ups beneath a poster of Gypsy Joe Harris – the Philadelphia fighter whose last bout had been against Emile Griffith in 1968. The image of Hopkins working his stomach muscles on a freezing morning in Philly, just 36 hours after he had broken his own record as the oldest world champion in boxing history, proved how different he is to any other fighter in contemporary boxing.
“Of course,” Hopkins exclaims. “I was there on the Monday morning. I don’t go to the gym to box or even hit the heavy bag. I go to shadow box, jump rope and do light stuff to help my muscles tone down and keep something of that intense workout from seven weeks in camp. You work to a peak for the fight – but after it’s over why would you shut your body down and don’t do nothing the next morning or the morning after that? That’s crazy. “I’m juicing the same vegetables today that I was juicing yesterday and the day before yesterday. Now, yes, I snuck a piece of cheesecake in there – I know you seen that. But it makes sense if you think about it. You train from the day you get the fight. But then, after fight-night is over, do you just start eating everything? 99 per cent of fighters do that. But that’s why their careers are short and why the yo-yo diet, and moving from weight class to weight class, happens. Not with me. I stayed at middleweight 10 years. I hope this doesn’t come across in a bragging way. But the undisputed truth is that I am different.”
I was also struck by the way that, after his convincing win over Cloud was confirmed, Hopkins looked so stoical in the ring. Was this just another example of his legendary discipline in controlling his emotions? Everyone else around him seemed to be going crazy in the midst of another tumultuous moment of a career that began a quarter-of-a- century ago – in 1988.
“Right after the fight,” Hopkins says, “I was already at work. Even when they were announcing my name I was working on what happens next. I was not shouting but talking quietly to Richard Schaefer [of Golden Boy Promotions]. People asked me what I was saying because it didn’t seem like I was excited. I had my poker face on because I was already planning ahead. I just have that mentality and that’s why I’ve been doing it so long. It’s an awareness I’ve developed because I’ve been in this business 25 years. Yes, you have to smell the roses when life is sweet, like after Cloud. But I signed up for this job of being my own man and making all the decisions. If I make the wrong ones I can’t point at anyone else but me. I embrace that responsibility.”
Yet, like all great fighters, Hopkins carries an inner grudge against the world. He still sounds bruised by the fact that, when his punches made Cloud bleed, he was accused of using his elbow or his head to open the gash. “They said I hit him with the elbow,” Hopkins complains. “Even the referee said it was a head butt. Then they all looked at the replay and saw the truth. It was a shovel left hook off the jab that busted Cloud open. They been calling me dirty all my career. They’re so paranoid. So as soon as they see blood we had the old cliché about me. Everyone joined in. Not alone did Cloud lie and say it was an elbow, the referee said it was a head butt. But the truth came out. I busted him open with my boxing skills.
“I am the renegade of this sport. I am the renegade in a positive way because I’m different. And when a person is different other more ordinary people see you as a problem or a solution. You are strange because you speak out. I have a track record in speaking like this for years and years. So I am a problem to some and an inspiration to others. But the powers that be in boxing would like to see me lose or, at least, be denigrated. Then they can tell other athletes that, ‘This is what happened to the trouble-maker and the loudmouth. This is what happens to you if you try to be different.’ That’s why they call me dirty. But the truth came out pure and clean against Cloud.”
Hopkins thinks carefully when asked how this latest victory compares to previous standout wins against Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal. “All those wins were significant to me at that particular time. But what was missing from those four fights you mentioned? I wasn’t 48 then. Anyone who cares to know how and why I’ve been doing this so long, and continue doing it, why my reflexes are so fast, why my footwork is superb, and speedy, needs to study my whole philosophy of life. These days of fitness, of physical strength, are supposed to be gone from a 48-year-old man – let alone a boxer.
“It’s why I had 13,000 of my people hollering for me against Cloud. And 1.2 million watched it on HBO. Sure, that’s not pay-per-view. But they are paying attention to me. They were not tuning into watch Cloud. They were tuning into watch the 40-and-up club. The 40-and-up club tuned in as did the younger club. They wanted to see which side would be victorious. The 40-and-up club won.”
Hopkins is also remarkable because, as he stresses, “I’ve been blessed never to have been cut before.” His defensive wiles, and awkward slipperiness, make him devilishly difficult to hit. But I also wonder, seriously, if Hopkins’ incredible health and dietary regime helps him avoid bleeding? “Maybe,” he muses. “But you wanna know the real reason I never get cut? I duck! Often! And I deflect punches off my shoulders and arms. I’m not giving up any secret here. I encourage young fighters to do it. But everyone has their own style so they can’t all do it. If you don’t do it then boxing is not gonna last long for you. 90 per cent of my success is physical and staying in shape – the other 10 per cent is mental.”
Hopkins will be in magnificent shape for his next contest. The only question remaining, with retirement currently not an option for him, centres on the identity of his opponent. He is meant to defend his IBF title against his mandatory challenger, Karo Murat, a German of Armenian extraction who was born in Iraq. Murat might be a citizen of the world but he traded in obscurity until he was stopped by Nathan Cleverly in 2010.
“I have a mandatory and it was agreed on before the Cloud fight,” Hopkins admits. “Letters went out and I never ducked anyone. The fact I made 20 defences of my middleweight title has been documented. So I don’t have a track record of throwing things away. But, look, I am a businessman and at this stage of my career I have to find the best situation for me and my family. It’s only right and here is my question to you: ‘At this stage of my career do they want me to fight someone they know little about?’ Or do they want me to fight somebody they’ve heard about? Don’t they want to get their money’s worth from a good fight? I feel I’ve paid a price in this business and should be able to now pick my path without being dictated to by any sanctioning body.”
Will the IBF, who can be tougher than other bodies in enforcing mandatory defences, give him the latitude to sidestep Murat? “I’m not begging them,” Hopkins says coolly. “But if they think I’m just fighting to make history and not to secure the future of my kids and their kids then they must think I’m a damn fool. At 48 there’s no room to be star-struck or conned. I’m a thinker. The last time I didn’t think I did five of 18 years in a penitentiary. So now I always think and think and think again.”
Hopkins, clearly, is thinking long and hard about a much more attractive fight against another intelligent man in Cleverly. “Yeah, yeah,” he says, smacking his lips with relish at my suggestion that Cleverly, a fine fighter, sometimes boxes less smartly than his maths degree might lead you to expect. He ends up trading punches unnecessarily. But the contrast between the youth and promise of Cleverly and the sneaky guile of the old yard dog, Hopkins, would be irresistible.
“That fight will be huge at the 02 Centre in London. It would do well in the US but even better over there. I have a strong fan base in Europe. I’m not beating up on my country but you guys appreciate the talent of old school and new school. Old entertainers and fighters do well in Europe. Cleverly brings a lot to the table himself. He can fight and he has the looks. He knows how to promote. I been watching him. Even in LA [when Cleverly stopped Shawn Hawk last November] he did a fine job. He’s knocking on the door of superstardom. He’s a threat to me and any other 175-pounder in the ring – [Jean] Pascal, Cloud, [Chad] Dawson.
“You’re right that he gets involved in fights, sometimes too much so for his sake. He gets brave because of his immaturity. But one thing he does well is throw a lot of punches. That’s what people pay attention to in boxing these days. I disagree – half the punches miss but they get points because they look active. But I need to be right at my best to beat him. He’s not a typical straight-up European fighter. He ain’t stiff like a board. When I saw him fight, I said, ‘Is this guy from New York City?’ Freddie Roach also loved him. He’s versatile and just not a European stereotype.”
Will the fight happen – especially with Frank Warren, Cleverly’s promoter, so keen to make the match? “It all depends on the mandatory. Richard [Schaefer] is working on it. I know this mandatory guy has been sitting there for many months but I’m trying to get the best scenario for me. Not an emotional decision but an all-round decision. And I wouldn’t mind taking that Cleverly challenge. It would interest me.”
An even more intriguing fight, against Andre Ward, will almost certainly never happen. “I have too much respect for Andre,” Hopkins insists before making a strange comparison as he and Ward are such canny boxers. “Consider Marvin Hagler fighting another Marvin Hagler...what would happen? Will they have anything left for their family and kids? That’s how a fight between me and Andre would end up. It would be like the world is going to end when two superpowers go to war. Andre Ward and me go way back. Naazim Richardson [Hopkins’ trainer] introduced us. Naazim said you got to meet this young guy. He always asks what you do, what you eat, how you train. We spoke on the phone just as he became pro [in 2004]. We never thought I’d still be here now. It would be like the Klitschko brothers fighting each other even though we’re not blood. I’m his respectful friend.
“Now that I’ve beaten Cloud there is always speculation. But let TV call my bluff and see what I say. I’m saying let’s stop the foreplay. Let them make the offer. That kills the conversation. But a man should trust his instincts and make the judgment on the basis of his knowledge and insight. I don’t think our friendship is worth losing. Andre may think different. But I doubt it.”
Hopkins is a treat to interview – and he could teach a boorish young fighter like Adrien Broner how to handle himself outside the ring. Does he also sometimes wish that Broner would add substance to his tawdry stunts? “Substance is not marketable,” Hopkins says. “What sells in this country is not the Bernard Hopkins who did five years in Graterford, came out, changed his life, got married, had a wonderful family, keeps his body clean, don’t smoke, don’t drink. That’s boring. What sells in this country is ignorance. You see the reality shows? So you’ve asked me a great and legitimate question. But guys like Broner don’t act with thought or respect because (a) they’re not me and (b) they have no understanding and (c) let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. They’re young. Who knows how they might change from being 25? They should get wiser.
“I respect Floyd Mayweather. I like Floyd. We were competitors one time because I went with my guy, Shane Mosley. I’m loyal. But you can’t force someone to be different. And what sells in this country is not a good inspirational story like mine – what sells in America is ignorance. And I choose not to be like that (a) I’m too old and (b) I’m too intelligent to fall in that controlling trap.”
Hopkins has created one of the greatest stories in modern boxing. He laughs when I ask him if Smokey Wilson, once a fellow convict at Graterford, is still alive. “Yes. And he’s still doing time [serving life for murder]. They’re gonna watch the Cloud fight in prison this week. Even the guards and wardens have special snacks when they watch the fight. My sister, Charmaine Hopkins, works at Graterford. She’s a lieutenant. She’s been there 10 years. Ain’t that ironic? She won’t leave either. I tell her to be careful. But she’s strong. She’s got a better left hook than me. Me and Smokey are in touch. He’s been keeping himself alive since [he was imprisoned in] 1978. He was my mentor at Graterford and now I’m helping him keep hope every day.
“This has gotta turn out to be an inspirational movie one day. Not a boxing movie. But an inspirational movie in which boxing plays a significant part. I’ve heard a lot of things [from Hollywood] but talk is talk and I’ve got a business team that’s real smart and protective. They weed things out. So it’s all talk and no substance yet. And that ain’t me. I got here, world champ at 48, not by bragging but planning.”
As we wind to the end I read out loud to Hopkins a recent Boxing News column written by John Scully. The former fighter turned trainer, paying homage to Hopkins, suggested that, “scientists are saying the first person to live to 150 years old is likely to be living today amongst us...could this 150-year-old marvel of the future be Bernard Hopkins?”
The legendary old master of the ring cackles at the prospect. “If I am blessed to do that, let’s hope I have a whole bunch of Viagra pills,” he quips. “Listen. I don’t have a crystal ball. I don’t know what the future holds. I just want to fight big fights – with an ‘s’ on the end. If those fights take me into 2014 or even 2015 so be it. I don’t have the luxury of saying ‘I’ve got another three or four or eight years. Time is not on my side to predict the future. It’s just big fight by big fight from now on – whether that’s at the O2 in London or the biggest boxing arena in America.
“I’ve got a lot of things working against me. But I still got my health, my intelligence, my toughness, my knowledge of the ring. Those things are keeping me alive as a fighter. But it’s all about what you do next. Boxing has a quick way of not celebrating anyone’s victory too long. I like it that way. It motivates me to keep on making new history. And that can only be good – for me and for Father Time.”
It motivates me to keep on making new history