Photo credit: Jeremy Phillips
In the breathless still before his final defeat, when the surge of the crowd left his ears and the noise of his own pulse flooded in, Bernard Hopkins must have known, as all wise men at the end know, darkness was coming and the cruel affirmation of “Special-Common” had failed to fork lightening. The two-years inactive, close to 52 years old, gnarled veteran had refused to go gently into the night. Instead, he had to be punched from it, through it and knocked into, not tomorrow, but yesterday by boxing’s truest maxim; nobody gets out on their own terms. Not even you Bernard.
‘As a British fight fan, Hopkins began as a distant figure. His middleweight run occurring away from the gaze of the European audience. Falling in an era between the heraldry of Benn, Eubank and Watson, who fought before millions on terrestrial television in the main, and the often absurd fare satellite television delivered in the late nineties and early noughties.’
Few will look back and mourn the end of Bernard Hopkins as a prizefighter. Fewer still will, even in a decade or two, yearn even for the, by then, romanticised depiction of his ‘era’ as either the dominant, nay record-breaking, middleweight champion nor his decade as the morbid but accomplished curio in boxing’s travelling circus.
“Roll up, roll up. Ladies and Gentlemen, come and see the wonders of the human world; the bearded lady, the elephant man and the boxer who defied time…”. Someone, somewhere, with a large top hat and a handsome moustache might have said that had boxing really been a travelling circus. As opposed to the barely coherent and entirely too self-satisfied metaphor in the paragraph above.
As a British fight fan, Hopkins began as a distant figure. His middleweight run occurring away from the gaze of the European audience. Falling in an era between the heraldry of Benn, Eubank and Watson, who fought before millions on terrestrial television in the main, and the often absurd fare satellite television delivered in the late nineties and beyond.
For a long time he was merely a name in a magazine or, for the more rarefied, accessed on delayed VHS from the small ads in the same publication. Sure, many have caught up on some of those bouts now and chancers, keyboard warriors and twitter spivs will lay claim to seeing him and appreciating his refinement into a fighter of note long before his breakout victory over Felix Trinidad. Most of them are lying. Many weren’t even born in 1993, the year he lost to Roy Jones Junior.
‘It is in victories over Trinidad, DeLaHoya, Tarver and Pavlik, as much because they occurred between his 36th and 43rd birthdays as to the greatness of the quartet, though the opening pair certainly are, from which most of the highlight reel will be wrung and much of the kudos derived.’
He is undoubtedly an acquired taste but longevity should never be dismissed. Nor should a prime spent in a single division, particularly a classic one. Hopkins followed a lineage of significance and held it for a decade. The list of opponents was not illustrious. But quantity adds up too. Ask the Joes, Louis and Calzaghe. With apologies to the former for coupling him with the latter.
But it is in victories over Trinidad, DeLaHoya, Tarver and Pavlik, as much because they occurred between his 36th and 43rd birthdays as to the greatness of the quartet, though the opening pair certainly are, from which most of the highlight reel will be wrung and much of the kudos derived.
Throughout this Tolstoyesque narrative, the boxing, at its best; tactical, precise and scientific and at its worst predictable, slow and soporific has been entwined with Bernard’s countless soliloquies on his defiance of age, the establishment, his background or the bookmakers. The speeches have become as synonymous with the man as either of the Executioner or Alien personas he adopted.
Intonation! All have been employed to draw a crowd, to muster purpose and motivation long after the need for money or the extent of his potential were fulfilled.
In his last fight, in both senses of the word it is hoped, due to his preceding triumphs over age and assumed power of youth, the continued defiance of mother nature was expected. The script more carefully crafted than it had been for Kovalev when stubbornness placed him firmly in harm’s way for the first time since, probably, 2007. This time, against a more modestly equipped Joe Smith, victory was widely expected. Pride would be maintained, even the reluctant, the begrudging would hail the grandmaster and a guard of honour struck from keyboard, pen and omnipresent camera phone would cheer his departure.
As Bernard has surely stated himself, among the tens of thousands of words he’s uttered this past twenty years, some with unrivalled insight, many with a level of repetition usually reserved for sitcoms and radio jingles and occasionally with a distaste that subverted his larger message, boxing doesn’t care.
For when the young man came forth, born after the Executioner’s professional debut, the guile, the nine o’clock curfew, the mask and the warden’s call didn’t matter. Bernard, albeit briefly and unintended, became the establishment. And, simultaneously, 51.
And while he didn’t burn and rave even at 25, and certainly not at close of day, nobody could deny he always raged, raged against the dying of the light.*
*Apologies to Mr Dylan Thomas.