ON September 29 2001, 14 days later than originally scheduled, the great Bernard Hopkins produced perhaps his greatest performance of all to convincingly outbox and then stop Felix Trinidad, then 40-0 and considered by many the finest fighter in the world. In beating Keith Holmes and William Joppy, Hopkins and Trinidad had respectively progressed to the final, at Madison Square Garden, of a four-fighter middleweight tournament promoted by Don King with the intention of declaring Trinidad the world’s premier fighter at 160lbs. When New York was devastated by the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the twin towers of Manhattan’s World Trade Center, that final was postponed indefinitely, and then rescheduled for the 29th. Trinidad, like New York and the rest of the world, was never the same again.

Bernard Hopkins: Trinidad was undefeated, and had a fanfare and star power much greater than myself. I was an “opponent” – not that I thought that way, but I had to understand what the promotion was going to be like, and became. Even though I was confident, and knew I could win the fight and later the respect, there was a different type of fight [before the fight]. I was the threat, and the wildcard. I knew something about “Tito” – he was one-dimensional, but no one was strong enough and had that endurance to make him do something else. That one-dimensional thinking had got exposed when he fought Oscar De La Hoya – I knew I could expose that. It was all about [being] undisputed – which hadn’t been done since the late, great Marvelous Marvin Hagler, who was my idol of middleweights in boxing. Me and Tito was the ultimate match – we had to have those fights [with Holmes and Joppy for it] to come to fruition. 

Hopkins was the only one of the four fighters not signed to King. Negotiations between fighter and promoter became so difficult that an agreement wasn’t reached until both had arrived for a press conference King hosted to promote his tournament. Some said that in Hopkins, King had met his match for the first time.  

BH: If you could get the video for some of the negotiations… [whistles]. To see how we went back and forth – Don King said, ‘You’re the only one I f**king…’. It was serious; it was cursing; it was getting up and shutting the door and ‘You’re never gonna fight in a big fight’. I said, ‘I have the belts, and the only way you’re gonna get these belts is if you kill me’. I was willing to fight for what I believed in. I didn’t really get the big pay days until my late 30s.  

Street smarts [made me his match]. We come from the same cloth. There’s a saying on the streets of America – game recognises game – and very few fighters who came up on the streets of a big city had to be involved in criminal acts and hustling. You’ve got two ex-cons looking at each other, trying to con each other. I’m saying why I need more money, and he’s saying why he can’t pay me more money. Don had never had to deal with anybody like that. When I talked to Don King he knew, even though he tried every time, dealing with Bernard Hopkins was not going to be easy because game recognises game. You want to talk street, we can talk street. You want to sell me black to get me to do something I know I’ll regret later, I’ll sell you black right back.  

After Trinidad dropped Joppy three times before stopping him in the fifth round at The Garden, where Hopkins also convincingly outpointed Holmes, the first of four press conferences to promote their September 15 date was held at New York’s Bryant Park. Hopkins grabbed a miniature Puerto Rican flag out of Trinidad’s hand and tossed it to the ground, causing a reaction so great it made the news. After further, more peaceful, press conferences in Philadelphia, his home city, and Miami, Hopkins dared to do the same again in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where Trinidad remains a national hero. This time he had to flee. His limousine was set on fire; suggestions even persist of a gun being shot. 

BH: Unless something drastic happens, you don’t make the mainstream news, but it did. We were down in New York City; HBO’s not even half a block down the street; we had a press conference set up, and there’s hundreds of people, and all the HBO honchos. We’re in New York – the microphones are hot. Don King, of course, had flags in both hands, and they started the press conference. I said, “I’m not going to play second to nobody, not even Trinidad”. You win the war before the war starts – I’m clear on that. They tried to call my bluff, and I called their bluff. All hell broke out. Everyone was upset. Before we reached San Juan they said I had to apologise.  

We agreed in a [later] meeting nobody was going to bring up the flag throwing [at the later press conferences]. “We might have some problems in San Juan but we’ll try to have security.” Everything was going very smooth. Then we get to San Juan, at the Roberto [Clemente] Coliseum – one block away is the ghetto, the worst part of Puerto Rico. All of a sudden the rules changed. Tito was home. He’s comfortable. We got off the airplane – the soldiers are there with their guns and they don’t look happy at me. I’m not home anymore, so I’m being cordial. We get to the Roberto Coliseum – you’re talking about a stadium for a pep rally. There had to be over 6,000 there. All of their dignitaries were there; the whole country had heard what happened. They were telling me if I came there I was a dead man and wouldn’t leave – I still went. When Tito got up there – and remember he didn’t do this in Philly or Miami, ‘cause we’d had a peace treaty conversation – and said something like, ‘I’m going to win this fight for my people, my country, when you threw the flag…’, a book or magazine just missed my head. People started coming forward – coming after me throwing bottles and stuff and calling me ‘Diablo’.  

It was war. I ran. The soldiers pointed, “Go that way”, and that was it. There was a room, and we, seven or eight of us, locked that door – we was holding the door like a horror movie. If they got through the door we were done. I thought it was some fireworks, but it might have been a gun shot. I know one thing – they was trying to kill us. Eventually, it rained so hard, for damn near half hour, that it had to be a blessing from God. They loaded us up in a car; we rode back and there were neighbourhood people on both sides of the car giving us the finger, throwing stuff, all the way to the airport. They put us on the plane first, no check-in or emptying pockets – [the flight] wasn’t private. 

I knew that the pressure would be too much for a man to train in his hometown where he’s beloved, and reminded every day: “You have to get him for us.” That’s a lot of pressure for anybody. Fighting for a country – I wouldn’t want that on me.  

The fight was just four days away when, in an attack orchestrated by Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, 19 men hijacked four US commercial airplanes bound for the west coast. Two were flown into the north and south towers at the World Trade Centre in Lower Manhattan, one crashed into the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and the fourth crashed in a field near Shanksville, Pennysylvania. A total of 2,977 people were killed.

BH: My biggest victory – my biggest redemption – is attached to 9/11. I was running Central Park in the morning – when the second plane went in I was just taking off my wet clothes at the St. Regis Hotel in Lower Manhattan. I’d left the TV on – I came back and it was still on. Breaking news. I’m not paying attention. We’re in New York City; helicopters fly low; it was an accident. When the second plane sliced through: “My God, we’re being attacked. This is a terrorist attack.” Five minutes later, sirens go off in the building. They want everybody out. We knew other buildings might get attacked. There might be bombs. Absolutely [I was scared]. We were training two blocks away from the twin towers. We were going to be there from 4pm-6.30pm. The gym got demolished; the whole area was done. You couldn’t make phone calls out, and you couldn’t make phone calls in. Nobody was around – it was a ghost town. 

The next day I started saying: “This fight ain’t going to happen.” I was not scared, “We’re next”. I was more scared that what I’m hearing is going to affect one of my biggest moments. How do I express that without looking selfish? I was scared for a lot of reasons. For the first time in my life I can make a substantial amount of money; say I’m undisputed. But I couldn’t express that, because we were being attacked.  

Don King was negotiating so that the fight could still happen, for the solidarity of the people. “Let’s show that we’re not going to shut down.” We set up camp in Philadelphia because nothing’s open in New York. “Let’s get out of New York – it’s been two days. I’ve got to train.” I didn’t do anything that camp didn’t allow. I don’t know if the fight’s going to be cancelled – we can’t get nothing out of Don King. They grounded all the planes – Tito couldn’t leave. Tito was out at every fire station, campaigning to show his support, which anybody would have agreed was the right thing to do.  

Three days after leaving New York it was announced that the fight was going to happen – I felt so good about that. 

Elements of drama continued to unfold until the opening bell at Madison Square Garden. In the pre-fight changing rooms, Hopkins’ assistant trainer Naazim Richardson objected to Trinidad’s hand wraps, claiming they were illegal. Though Trinidad complained, the New York Commission member present agreed that they didn’t meet the necessary standards, and his hands were rewrapped.  

BH: Naazim realised that that hand wrap looked like a cast – Tito wanted to hurt me. I’m not mad at him. Pressure. How bad he wanted to hurt me is how I wanted him to be – that type of emotion kills you. Brother Naazim noticed an ice bucket was next to Tito’s leg, and not his trainer, and diluted more with water than with ice, so he wanted to see and feel the wraps. I’d warmed up in the dressing room and was ready to fight. Naazim’s 10 people in one. He said: “We’ve got a problem. There ain’t going to be a fight.” He said the bucket gave them away. They went crazy. “He’s scared; he can’t get out of the fight now.” They made him cut it off. The fight was delayed.  

A uniquely emotional atmosphere existed in the arena where, just three miles from Ground Zero, among those still mourning were firefighters, police officers and survivors. Unlike when Trinidad beat Joppy, The Star Spangled Banner wasn’t booed. Trinidad entered the ring wearing a New York Police Department hat; when Hopkins removed his warm-up jacket, he revealed a GoldenPalace.com ad on his upper back. They had paid him $100,000 for that, and he bet the fee on himself to win at 3.5/1.

BH: Ninety-nine per cent of those people wanted Tito to win. I felt that. I was more concerned that if I didn’t win I was done – they were never going to bring me back. I was too dangerous to give a second chance to. This was a choice between live or die, and I had to suffer the consequences if it didn’t turn out my way. In the first big sports event since 9/11. It had to be shown that the people of New York – that the nation that was watching – wouldn’t be shook.

Bernard Hopkins

Hopkins then proceeded to impose himself on Trinidad, building an early lead and systematically breaking him down. At the age of 36 and therefore eight years Trinidad’s senior, he convincingly won the sixth round before hurting him at the end of the 11th and stopping him in the 12th to record a career-defining win, claim the Sugar Ray Robinson Trophy and universal recognition as the world’s best middle.

BH: I reviewed the Oscar De La Hoya fight [against Trinidad] a dozen-plus times. Tito was a rhythm fighter – rocked to the right, to the left, to the right – but when he settled down to the left, the left hook comes. He didn’t throw it on the move. Once I’d seen this pattern, and understood I could off-stand that rock, I threw enough jabs to keep him from setting his rhythm. I was confident I’d beat him, and make it look easy. Why do you think I kept that right hand glued to my eardrum? I couldn’t take that chance. That’s the way [my trainer] “Bouie” Fisher had me training in the gym. I could only use my left hand when I was sparring, and every time [my right hand] dropped the tennis ball – and I done it, many times – I had to spar an extra round. After 15, 20 rounds of sparring, you ain’t gonna drop the ball. My right hand, from my knuckles to my wrist, was so swollen after that fight. It was like someone took a baseball bat and was just hitting on my hand. I really noticed it hours later, in my hotel room. 

I knew, in that sixth round, that it was a matter of time – it was up to me to end this fight. I knew I was faster; I knew I was slicker, a better counter-puncher. He was getting beat mentally, and it was a matter of time. The uppercut [at the end of the 11th], the bell saved him from getting knocked out. He was still hurt, and bewildered. I rocked on the ropes, let him come in, and the uppercut caught him and the bell rung. Tito was hurt as he rested – and he didn’t really rest. He was a dead man. The fight should have been stopped. 

The counter-right [the punch that ended the fight] was something that I was hitting him with periodically, every now and again. That counter right happened automatically because of training. It was like my hand had a mind of its own. “Catch it, fire back, don’t even think about it.”

If you watch it back, I didn’t even look at him. The punch wasn’t a hard punch – it was a quick punch he didn’t know was coming. It’s the punches you don’t see that hurt you. It was automatic, and that was the end of the fight.