THIS is a story about patience, perseverance and playing the long game. It is appropriate, therefore, more now than ever. Specifically, it is a lesson in longevity taught by Bernard Hopkins and a lesson in timing – and essentially it never being right – taught by the unconventional rivalry Hopkins shared with Roy Jones Jnr.

It begins on May 22, 1993 and ends on April 3, 2010. In that time two men will win all there is to win in their profession, and elevate themselves above their peers, yet will not know, until agreeing to a rematch 17 years after their first encounter, which of them is the superior fighter. (And even then, with clear winners in both fights, they and the rest of us will remain none the wiser.)

May 22, 1993

In May 1993, Bernard Hopkins was 27 years of age and a five-year professional. He had limited amateur experience and had lost his pro debut to a light-heavyweight named Clinton Mitchell. So irked was Hopkins by that defeat, as well as the fact he had been matched against a light-heavyweight, he sat out the ring for 16 months following it. He sulked. He considered his options. Then eventually he vowed to put it behind him and come back stronger – against middleweights.

Hopkins was familiar with hardship. He had, after all, spent almost five years in Graterford prison, where he decided to use boxing as a getaway vehicle. Prison guards, in their infinite wisdom, expected to see Hopkins again, and told him as much upon his release in 1988, but he was adamant he would never return, and that boxing was crucial to staying away.

The same year Hopkins was set free from prison Roy Jones Jnr was robbed in the light-middleweight final at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. His opponent, Park Si-Hun, a South Korean, won a 2-3 split-decision, as bad as any ever awarded following a boxing match, and a tearful Jones was left to find consolation in the silver medal seemingly destined for the neck of his opponent.

His was hardship of a different kind, no question. Yet setbacks like the Olympic final, as well as being trained like an animal by his father, Roy Senior, once old enough to make a fist, ensured Jones wasn’t too unlike Hopkins by the time they met as pros in 1993. Their journeys were different, sure, their decisions different, and the attention paid to them different, but beyond that, deeper than that, the pair were made of a toughness sourced from roughly the same place. It was just displayed differently, that’s all. One wore hardship as a badge of honour; the other used fancy moves and fancier outfits to hide it like a dirty secret.

By the time they crossed paths in May 1993, their records – their ring records – were much alike. Hopkins was 22-1 (16), that debut loss still bothersome, while Jones was 22-0 (21), with 12 wins inside three rounds. Already, with Hopkins, 27, accustomed to bouncing back from defeat, and Jones, 24, yet to suffer defeat, their paths were being written: Hopkins would have a career defined by peaks and troughs; Jones would have a career clean and straightforward until one day setback hit him in a way Hopkins by then would have been better equipped to handle.

Back in ’93, though, before defeat made its way to his door, the consensus view was that Roy Jones Jnr was going to be the future not only of the middleweight division but of American boxing in the Nineties and beyond. His fight with Hopkins was his first world title fight, with the IBF middleweight belt up for grabs, but few expected it to be his last. No, this was just the start, his greatness inexorable.

Their roles, too, were clear. Jones, in white trunks and boots, was the clean-cut Floridian destined for stardom and Hopkins, in black trunks and boots, the hard-nosed Philadelphian who would huff and puff, make Jones work for his career-best win, but ultimately fall short the way most hard-nosed triers do. “His opponent Bernard Hopkins is a Philadelphia fighter who can fight,” said HBO’s Larry Merchant when teeing up the clash beforehand. “We may have a terrific fight. But if Roy Jones should win by a decision, if he doesn’t look like a combination of [Ray] Leonard and [Thomas] Hearns and [Marvin] Hagler, I’m not about to bury him.”

“Bernard Hopkins is by far the best boxer and puncher Roy Jones has fought,” said Gil Clancy on the same broadcast. “But, conversely, Roy is the most talented boxer Bernard Hopkins has ever fought. If Jones fights the way I think he’s going to fight he’s going to be well on his way to superstardom.”

In the first round of the fight Clancy continued to paint Hopkins as the plucky underdog, calling him “a very solid professional fighter who moves well side to side,” then adding, “but he’s in there with a very flashy, unorthodox guy in Roy Jones.”

All waited for Jones to do what Jones had been doing against men like Glenn Wolfe and Percy Harris – explode, dazzle, produce something otherworldly. Yet Hopkins, the old spoilsport, was in no mood to allow it.

With respect a mutual thing, both fell short with punches early, their minds on getting away before their shots had even landed, and of the 61 combined jabs thrown in the first round only two of them connected. Merchant called it “an anticlimax if ever I’ve seen one.”

It got better as it went along, of course, but that isn’t even the point. The point here is that Jones and Hopkins were at this stage little more than prospects fighting for their first world title. They were green. They were uncertain. Pressure could be felt on Jones’ shoulders, yes, but it was nowhere near as heavy as it would later become. (Remember, that night Jones and Hopkins played second fiddle to headliners Riddick Bowe and Jesse Ferguson and their WBA heavyweight title fight.)

For now, Jones relied on his speed to get the upper hand and get the job done. He used up-jabs launched from his waist to sting Hopkins’ face before he even saw a fist move and he employed all his rule-breaking brilliance to stifle the more subtle, slow-burning qualities of Hopkins’ textbook approach. Hopkins’ success, meanwhile, both sporadic and brief, occurred whenever he backed Jones to the ropes, or whenever he grabbed hold of him, but was tempered once Jones got control of the centre of the ring and started targeting Hopkins’ body from the fifth round onwards.

In the 10th round Jim Lampley dared mention those Ray Leonard comparisons, at which point Larry Merchant said: “But I’ve seen Ray Leonard and Roy Jones is no Ray Leonard.”

“Not yet, that’s for sure.”

bernard hopkins vs Roy Jones

Then, two rounds later, Lampley, acting on Merchant’s earlier call for expectations to be lowered, said: “The irony is that while Jones may pick up his first world championship this performance is likely to diminish the lustre of his image somewhat.”

“It’s unfair to a fighter, I believe, to expect him to look like Mr America and Mr World every time out,” argued Merchant. “The opponent has something to say about it.”

Jones, who later claimed he entered the fight with a broken right hand, was happier about winning his first world title than he was about the performance itself. “I was very tight coming into the fight,” he conceded following the announcement of three 116-112 scorecards. “I had so much build-up on me. Being like I am, I kind of expected that, but I thank God I made it through that one and it won’t happen no more. That was my first title and that was that.”

April 3, 2010

That was that, yes, but it wasn’t all. Far from it. In the intervening years, in fact, Jones would defend that IBF title as a super-middleweight, win IBF, WBA and WBC titles as a light-heavyweight, and even win a WBA title as a heavyweight. He would go from 1989, the year he made his pro debut, to 2004 losing only one fight, by disqualification (against Montell Griffin), and would show signs of being human only when having moved to heavyweight to attempt something superhuman.

Alas, by 2010, Roy Jones was no longer ‘Superman’ Roy Jones. Rather than belts, he had only knockout defeats to his name: Antonio Tarver and Glen Johnson had administered bad ones in 2004 but it was his most recent one, a first-round stoppage loss to Danny Green, which really highlighted the severity of the decline.

The Hopkins trajectory, however, worked out differently. Slower, steadier, spottier, he rebounded from his loss to Jones in ’93 by winning the USBA title only to then see his second shot at the IBF middleweight crown, against Segundo Mercado in ’94, end in a draw. He had stalled again but would beat Mercado in the rematch and would for years never let go – of his title, of his position, of control. Twenty defences of the belt followed, as well as the WBA and WBC versions of the middleweight title, before Hopkins eventually lost them all against Jermain Taylor, the rising American star, in 2005, some 10 years after he had become champion.

Yet this was not the end for B-Hop. Not even close. Instead, he ventured to light-heavyweight to upset Antonio Tarver, the man who had knocked out Roy Jones, and Kelly Pavlik, the man who had taken over from Jermain Taylor at middleweight. As the rest started to fade, Hopkins was somehow getting better.

Indeed, when meeting again in 2010, the fortunes of Hopkins and Jones had changed to such a degree it was now hard to even recognise them as rivals. Both were locks for Canastota’s Hall of Fame but they made their cases separately, their legacies defined by fights against other people, and flourished at different times. Their rematch had long been discussed but, for one reason or another, never happened when it should have happened. Their agendas weren’t shared. Their weight classes never quite aligned. They had other fights, titles and excuses.

Then, in 2010, it did happen. It happened too late for Jones, now 41, and right on time for Hopkins, 45. It was a complete reversal of their first bout, in fact, when Jones was full of momentum and confidence, not yet the finished article but in the process of sketching it, and Hopkins, though older, was still very much finding his feet as a pro.

Now it was Hopkins in control. For having invested everything in fundamentals, defence and longevity, he had been enriched by a long professional career and was preparing to fight someone, a rival, damaged by theirs. The timing worked for Hopkins but was all wrong for Jones. And so it proved.

“This is not about a title, this is about bragging rights,” said ‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard, the man to whom Jones had been compared in ’93, when opening the television broadcast. “This is a rivalry. These guys don’t like each other. There is no love lost between these guys. Although they are much older, without question, it’s the spirit that counts.”

Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, all we got from Jones that night was a spirit, a ghost of his former self. The unorthodoxy of old, the tricks he once used to render basic all Hopkins could offer, was gone. His hands were both higher and slower. He fought more like the rest of them. He fought more like a man his age, feinting not to cajole but to buy time and allow him room to breathe.

It was a reunion, yes, but a reunion featuring the hard-living lead singer who had fallen on hard times accompanied by the judicious bass-playing songwriter who had wisely preserved something of himself during the band’s years of decadence. Getting back together more for money than a classic, their moves looked the same, but the results were different, the high notes no longer as easy to hit. The fight went 12 rounds but quickly descended into low blows, headbutts, rabbit punches and action after the bell, all vital in disguising the lack of traditional, consistent drama.

In the end Hopkins won the rematch as easily as Jones had won the first fight. He outlasted his rival because they were built differently, and because he lived well, and because he never veered from the fundamentals even when Roy Jones once showed him how fundamentals can come undone in the presence of a superior athlete. He had continued his path, thinking only of himself and not his rival, and had remained convinced that one day he would enjoy his moment in the sun.

Then he got it, 17 years later, with patience and timing finally paying off, in boxing as in life.