Bernard Hopkins was born into the Philadelphia projects on January 15, 1965. To say that Hopkins was in trouble in his youth would be a severe understatement, as by age 13 he was already a seasoned mugger and had been the victim of at least one stabbing. This early turn to crime caught up with the teen-aged Bernard Hopkins, and by the age of 17 he was in Graterford Prison, having been found guilty of nine felonies and sentenced to 18 years.
The violence of prison was what turned life around for Hopkins. First, seeing prison rapes and inmates being murdered over things as trivial as a pack of cigarettes had a profound effect on the youthful Bernard. Second, it was in prison that Bernard Hopkins discovered boxing. He stayed out of trouble in Graterford and earned his parole after a little over 4 years. On his way out, the warden jibed at Hopkins, saying something to the effect of “see you soon.” Hopkins swore that he would never return to prison. That was an oath he would keep, and through boxing he would earn fortune and enduring fame.
Taking the ring moniker “The Executioner,” Bernard Hopkins turned pro in October 1988 at a fight in Atlantic City. He lost on points. It was not an auspicious beginning, but Hopkins was not the type to be deterred by such a setback. From the very beginning, it was Hopkins iron-willed determination that set his career apart. Bernard didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, ate well at all times, and treated going to the gym as if it were a job. For the next 20 years or more, Bernard Hopkins lived like a warrior monk.
Hopkins won his next fight, and fighting mostly out in Philadelphia and Atlantic City he went on to earn a record of 22-1 over the course of the next 4 1/2 years, as well as becoming the USBA Champion (a regional U.S. belt). However, these bouts were mostly over a mixed assortment of tomato cans and journeymen, so Hopkins first big step up was when he challenged for his first world title. In May 1993, Hopkins met former Olympian and rising phenomenon Roy Jones, Jr. at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. Heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe was the headliner that night, but this was the fight that went down in the history books. Fighting for the vacant IBF title, Hopkins dropped a Unanimous Decision in a hard-fought contest that would go down as the most Jones’s most challenging fight for several years to come.
The Jones fight was another seminal experience for Hopkins. First, he swore he would never lose another fight and still be on his feet. His determination to become a master of his craft redoubled. Second, Hopkins earned a $700,000 purse in his biggest fight to date, but after taxes only took home $50,000. It was a lesson Hopkins would never forget, and his reputation as one of boxing’s best businessmen had its foundations in that bitter experience.
By now, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins had a well-defined boxing style. Standing 6’1″ tall and with a 75″ reach, he was a boxer-puncher who was developing a deep tool-kit of offensive and defensive skills. He was also crafty fighter with an arsenal of dirty tricks. Always in superb condition, being in the ring with Hopkins in his late 20s and early 30s was like being in the ring with a mincer. He attacked you every minute of every round from all angles, and if you tried to break up his momentum, you got a sneaky fouling for your trouble.
Still the USBA champion, Hopkins went back to work on earning another title shot in 1994. This came after Jones vacated the IBF 160 lbs. crown to pursue a career at 168 lbs. Hopkins was matched against 18-2 Ecuadorian Segundo Mercado in Mercado’s backyard. Fighting at an altitude of over 10,000 feet, Hopkins had trouble with the thin air and did not put on a good showing. Mercado knocked him down twice, once in the 5th and once in the 7th, but the Executioner rallied and pulled out a Draw. The rematch took place five months later in Landover, Maryland. This time Hopkins was in his best form, stopping Mercado in the 7th. It was the beginning of one of the longest title reigns in boxing history.
For the next year and a half, Hopkins racked up three defenses against journeymen, with all fights ending before the final bell. Then Bernard Hopkins moved up to start executing bigger prey. In the middle of 1997, he knocked out the IBF’s #1 contender John David Jackson, a 35-2 former 154 lbs. and 160 lbs. champion. Three months later he stopped a 32-0 Glen Johnson, who went on to be a light heavyweight champion. November saw Hopkins pound out a lopsided decision win over 27-5-3 Andrew Council, a rugged and much under-rated contender.
Hopkins opened 1998 by knocking out former welterweight and junior welterweight champion Simon Brown in 6 Rounds. Then Hopkins met a brief hiccup in the form of #1 contender Robert Allen. Allen responded to Hopkins surgical-yet-busy aggression by hanging on for dear life and fouling. Hopkins retaliated with sneaky fouls, which made the fight very ugly. Referee Mills Lane had his hands full breaking the two fighters up, and at one point went overboard and pushed Hopkins right out of the ring. Hopkins landed and badly injured his ankle, resulting in a No Contest. In a rematch six months later, Hopkins got his revenge and gave Allen a brutal beating, knocking him down in the 2nd and 6th before finally knocking him out.
December 1999 brought Hopkins next challenger in the form of hard-punching middleweight knockout artist Antwun Echols, the new #1 contender. The cagey Hopkins outboxed Echols, pitching a virtual shut out. He then beat Syd Vanderpool, and gave Echols a rematch in December 2000. This time Echols came to foul rather than fight, body slamming Hopkins to the canvas in the 6th and dislocating the champion’s shoulder. Hopkins chose to fight it out rather than take an easy win by Disqualification, and showed his true heart and mettle in stopping Echols in the 10th.
By 2001, Hopkins had held his IBF belt for 4 years and 12 title defenses, and was widely considered to be top dog in his division. However, the Philadelphian was not the only long-reigning middleweight champ. Washington, DC’s William Joppy and Keith Holmes were both two-time champs who, with brief interruptions, had reigned for the same stretch of time as Hopkins. For a long time, boxing fans had been clamoring for a unification between these three titlests, or at a minimum a cross-town rivals bout between Joppy and Holmes.
However, Holmes and Joppy were Don King fighters. With his typical lack of imagination, King could not see the potential of the middleweights until another fighter in his stable, the power-punching Felix Trinidad, entered the mix. Trinidad, having won a controversial decision over Oscar de la Hoya and demolished Fernando Vargas, was riding high. King planned a 3-fight middleweight unification series with Hopkins and his three fighters, with the clear intention that Trinidad would win and preside as the Undisputed, Undefeated World Middleweight Champion.
The first fight in this series was Bernard Hopkins vs. Keith Holmes. Holmes found himself shut down by Hopkins visceral assault, and was reduced to clinching for safety. Hopkins responded with sneaky fouls, although he was caught in the 5th and lost a point for it. The end result was Hopkins pitching a near shut-out fight and winning a lopsided Unanimous Decision.
Felix Trinidad knocked out William Joppy, setting the stage for a September 2001 showdown. The fight was briefly postponed in the wake of the September 11th attacks, and was the first major event of any kind to take place in Madison Square Garden following that infamous date. Creating a controversy that continues to this day, Hopkins’ trainer found that Trinidad’s father was wrapping his hands in plaster-packed cloth, creating an illegal concrete-hard cast. Unbowed by the possibility that Trinidad and King would balk and the biggest fight of Hopkins’s career would be blown, he demanded the hand wraps be redone and with legal materials.
Trinidad, the 2 to 1 favorite, was taken to school that night. Following the course laid out by de la Hoya, Hopkins stuck and moved, preventing Trinidad from setting his feet and unloading his the left hook. “Tito” was made to look foolish, had no answers for the clever assault of the bigger Hopkins, and was “executed” in the 12th Round. Bernard Hopkins, 40-2-1, had stopped the man of the hour and become an Undisputed World Champion and overnight sports star.
Bernard Hopkins, now called “B-Hop,” kept fighting and cashed in on his newfound fame. Every fight was a mandatory challenge from either the WBC, WBA or IBF. In December 2003, former WBA champion William Joppy was whipped in a shut-out points loss. June 2004 brought on a rubber match with Robert Allen, who had somehow become the IBF’s #1 contender again. Hopkins humiliated him in another overwhelming decision victory. Then came a knockout victory over Oscar de la Hoya. Interestingly, Hopkins would soon become a junior partner in de la Hoya’s promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions. B-Hop closed out this period by making his 20th successful title defense over more than 9 years by outpointing WBC #1 challenger and British contender Howard Eastman in February 2005.
By the time of the Eastman fight, B-Hop was 40 years old. His last full outing in the classic “Executioner” style of fighting had proven to be the Keith Holmes fight. Getting older, Hopkins adapted his style to suit the reality of his aging body, and in particular his increasing inability to fight every minute of every round. By the Eastman fight, he had become an master of point defense and pin-point puncher.
July 2005 brought a new challenger in the form of 23-0 former Olympian Jermain Taylor. Taylor, then at the peak of his prowess, narrowly defeated Hopkins by sheer virtue of out-working him. In particular, Taylor won most of the first half-dozen rounds, with Hopkins not coming on until the second half of the fight. Losing a Split Decision, Hopkins came back for a rematch in December. Hopkins did much better in the second encounter, and while Taylor was once again busier most of his punches were blocked or missed. Hopkins actually out-landed his youthful adversary by a substantial margin, and many thought he won the fight. However, the judges gave it to the man who was touted as “the future of the middleweights,” and B-Hop lost a Unanimous Decision.
No longer middleweight champion, Bernard Hopkins turned his eyes towards the light heavyweights and Antonio Tarver, who had recently knocked out Hopkins’ old rival Roy Jones to become Undisputed World Light Heavyweight Champion. Tarver was a 3 to 1 favorite over the 41 year old Hopkins, yet in 2006 it was the crafty Hopkins who took Tarver to school, pitching another shut-out Hopkins classic and scoring a huge points win. B-Hop was now a two-division champion.
A year later, Hopkins fought Winky Wright, the awkward defensive tactician and counter-puncher who nobody wanted to fight. In this match-up of boxing’s grand masters, B-Hop once again won the day in a clear points victory.
Taking only mega-fights, Hopkins set a dance date with 44-0 super middleweight king Joe Calzaghe in 2008. Hopkins knocked Calzaghe down in the 1st, but the Welshman soon asserted himself and exploited the same weakness that had won Taylor his two bouts with B-Hop: Hopkins age and inability to fight every minute of every round. Using his quick fists and high workrate, Calzaghe punched out a Split Decision win. Hopkins bitterly contested the win and demanded a rematch, but Joe Calzaghe retired shortly afterwards as one of boxing’s very few undefeated greats.
Having been defeated by Calzaghe, Hopkins was starting to look old and vulnerable. 34-0 puncher Kelly “The Ghost” Pavlik, who had beaten Jermain Taylor twice (once by TKO) to become middleweight champion, decided to feast on the remains and make a big payday in the bargain, and chose B-Hop as his next dance partner. The pair met in the ring in October 2008, and Hopkins showed the world that at 43 he was far from done. The clever ageless wonder took Pavlik to school, busted him up and produced another Hopkins classic, winning a lopsided points victory. It was a measure of revenge on
Bernard Hopkins is still active today, with a record of 49-5-1 with 32 KOs. His long reign as middleweight champion makes him a sure entry into the Hall of Fame as soon as he stays out of boxing long enough to become eligible. He is one of a small group of fighters with 20 or more legitimate title defenses in a single reign, a list that includes luminaries like Joe Louis, Larry Holmes, and Hopkins own rival Joe Calzaghe. His consistency, quality of opposition and longevity places him not just among the greatest middleweights of all-time, but among the greatest boxers in history.
Sources: live fight footage; bernardhopkins.net; hbo.com; boxrec.com; International Boxing Digest; The Ring; personal experience.