The Longest Con: Bernard Hopkins’s Boxing Longevity

Bernard Hopkins getting ready for his final fight, against Joe Smith Jr.(Photo: Tom Hogan Photos/Golden Boy Promotions)

After 67 fights spread out over 28 years, the career of 51-year-old Philadelphia-born prizefighter Bernard Hopkins has apparently come to an end. On Saturday night, before an audience of 6,513 at the Forum in Los Angeles, Hopkins found his seemingly ageless body pummeled clean through the middle and top ropes of the ring by 27-year-old Joe Smith, Jr., a Laborers Union 66 construction worker from Long Island, New York.

The conclusive nature of Saturday night’s performance makes Hopkins’s next step a clear one. Hopkins had repeatedly vowed in the months leading up to it that this fight would be his last, and reiterated this promise again in the rambling, delusional post-fight television interview after his loss.

Even before he floated prone to the cold concrete of the Forum floor in the eighth round, Hopkins had simply lost it. His tuned, agile legs had turned into cramped, useless stilts before a generically named fighter who hadn’t been born when Hopkins made his boxing debut in 1988.

It is tough to imagine Hopkins staring down Saturday night’s ending and deciding to continue. And yet. Even more so than most athletes, one must always doubt when elite boxers express the intention to retire. With rare and notable exception, the Joe Louises, Roberto Durans, and Evander Holyfields of boxing listen for at least one fight too many to the inner voice telling them that the fire in the belly still smolders.

It is even tougher to imagine that the thing (self-certainty? fearlessness? fortune?) Bernard Hopkins has used to endure in a commercially corrupt, physically damaging sport for the tenure of five American presidents has vanished or been given up.

So what could make a world-class athlete decide to stop? Until Saturday, Hopkins’s tools had worked to his task: he had never been knocked out in his career. And yet a knockout, as Hopkins’s contemporary Manny Pacquiao well knows, makes everything change. The time capsule of the final Hopkins fight will contain one photo: Hopkins standing outside the ring in a chorus of trainers and medical personnel, looking plaintively up to referee Jack Reiss, off-camera, as he is counted out of the fight.

Hopkins possesses a special resume in his sport, one that doesn’t need much handicapping against the old greats to appreciate. Archie Moore, the greatest light heavyweight of all time, fought three times as many fights as Hopkins (219 to 67) but hung up his gloves five years earlier, at the age of 46. Middleweight great Carlos Manzon defended his undisputed title 14 times in seven years; Hopkins defended a disputed middleweight title 20 times in 10 years. Even in ignominy, Hopkins keeps good company: along with Hopkins, Alexis Arguello and Henry Armstrong also lost their first bouts as professionals before going on to hall-of-fame careers.

And so, exceptional skill plus longevity: Against the sports clichés about will or preternatural gift, it is worth calling out the particular physical feat that makes the comparisons to the all-time greats possible. In Hopkins’s case the gift is not that of so-called “natural” ability—athletic moves that appear effortless, speed that outwits the camera eye, dexterity that defies anatomical correctness. Instead, Hopkins’s physical ability is learned: it’s the tactical recall of endless preparation; the mental mastery of live movement; the muscle memory of blocking-and-countering rhythms. His body does not share the balletic grace nor the taurine brutality of other boxing legends. He is a human flow chart, executing an internally built sequence of tests to learn an opponent’s tactics, durability, and demeanor. His is boxing that doesn’t require a metaphor.

There is another common denominator to the great ones. The fortune of most boxers with long careers is their apparent numbness to traumatic violence. Hopkins may be specially anesthetized to the long-term effects of punching and getting punched in the way that Morten Anderson might have been gifted at accurately kicking an oblong ball from distance, or that Craig Biggio might have been unnaturally brave or tolerant of getting hit by inside fastballs. But of course these talents are not equivalent, and, even if they were, they do not lead to equally damaging outcomes. Hopkins’s evasive skills may diminish his exposure to punching, but he could not win if he were not hit.

Indeed, attributing Hopkins’s longevity to his status as physical freak allows a spectator to indulge in a perverse fantasy about boxing: that rare physical traits, or, even better, greater acumen of fighting strategy and style, might be enough to exempt certain men from the sport’s unavoidable brutality.

Among the exceptional cases, Hopkins would appear to join Floyd Mayweather, the dominant fighter of the current era, as poster boys for a defensive-first style that has come to be valorized for its success alone. Mayweather’s money and fame, just like Hopkins’s longevity, make it safe to think he’s found the loophole to the danger inherent to the most dangerous sport.

When we see Mayweather and Hopkins, we want to think that all fighters could be so safe—that they could merit it, even, if they just worked hard enough or had the right moxie and guts. It is no surprise that these are American fighters. Hopkins indeed might be the most peculiarly American fighter of his era: corny in his creativity, self-assured in his own exceptionality, businesslike to the nth degree, ethnocentrically skeptical.

Hopkins’s career longevity also inures fans to the ethical binds that have and always will taint a sport awash in moral dilemmas. Though indebted to a singular physical prowess, Hopkins’s run at age records has also been thanks to an excellent strategy in matchmaking. His close wins after age 40 were partly illusions to amplify his physical legend, made possible by the unique business structure of the sport. By promoting his own fights as a co-owner of Golden Boy Promotions—serving as his own de facto manager and trainer—and gaining leverage to call shots in his fights through his inevitable seniority, Hopkins has controlled scheduling and location decisions likely unavailable to boxers and certainly unavailable to all athletes in any other sport. These decisions, in turn, have made the physical style of his long run at the top possible.

And Hopkins’s success through business savvy has only reinforced the perception of his boxing style as purely and brilliantly tactical, while the incentive to choose opponents to highlight these facets of his boxing style has proved the case as fact.

It is fitting, then, that Hopkins chose to ride off into the sunset (and then the ring apron) at the end of 2016, one of the worst single years for boxing fans in at least a decade. This year, internecine promoter fights and commercial territorialization stymied all the biggest potential fights that the sport has counted on to promote casual fan interest and commercial activity. The fighter pay structure established by new promotional outfit Premier Boxing Champions, while welcome for fighters themselves, has inflated purse sizes beyond sustainable levels, leading to mass cancellations of free televised fight cards and a surge in pay-per-view events. The World Boxing Council, the sport’s second-oldest sanctioning body, has begun a new Clean Boxing Program that purports to rid their championship fights of performance-enhancing drugs, but appears merely to extort fighters of purse money under the guise of sportsmanship. O tempora! O mores!

And at the end of all this, we tip our hats to Bernard Hopkins. Hopkins’s idiosyncratic career has allowed us to pretend that the sport’s incentive structures and unpredictable match schedules are a perk rather than its great problem. Here is a master boxer who played the system, and so gets to pretend that, through sheer physical endurance and ability, he’s transcended three generations of fighters that he’s outlasted.

If it weren’t so cynical, it wouldn’t be boxing.

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Joel Calahan is the former editor of Chicago Review. He teaches poetry in Tempe, Arizona.