I know someone who witnessed Bernard Hopkins’s first professional fight. He’d heard whispers that the steely-eyed Philadelphian was on parole after serving five years at Graterford Prison, and that his uncle was Artie McCloud, a once-promising light heavyweight with serious street cred. He’d seen Hopkins at the weigh-in that afternoon. “He had that angry look,” he recalled.
The card was held on October 11, 1988 at the Resorts International in Atlantic City, a newly acquired property of Merv Griffin. Griffin and Donald Trump split the Resorts holdings the previous summer to end a feud that the silk-pajamas class found compelling. Trump, Griffin figured, was only interested in the biggest and the best; and the International was neither. To Trump, Atlantic City was a dress rehearsal for larger ambitions.
Hopkins’s debut was also a dress rehearsal, though far more dangerous. He fought a four-rounder against an amateur stand-out from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn; Clinton Mitchell was 26, and had won the 1986 New York Daily News Golden Gloves 178-pound championship. Hopkins was a nobody—a nobody expected to lose to Clinton Mitchell.
He did. Hopkins went at it hard in the first round, but after that it was clear he was outclassed. There was a lot of holding and mauling. It was an ugly fight. Hopkins would’ve been handed $350 in cash afterward. Unless his handlers were sympathetic types, it would’ve been divvied up like Trump and Griffin did Atlantic City.
Since then, his ambition to force his way into boxing’s pantheon, to become great, has been irreversibly realized. After spending years at the top of the middleweight rankings in the 1990s, he won the middleweight throne in 2001. Ten years later, he did the same as a light heavyweight after defeating a fighter young enough to be his son. Hopkins has overcome five legitimate champions and countless contenders over what will certainly be a hall-of-fame career. “I fought the toughest and the baddest,” he said, and that makes him a living rebuke to fair-weather fighters, including his successors now on the middleweight and light-heavyweight thrones. He is a modern American folk hero with a rap-sheet-to-riches story that is at once sobering and a source of inspiration. If I’m in a room and he walks in, I stand up.
I recently watched him in a training montage and was reminded of how long it’s been since 1988. At 51, his roadwork has been reduced to a trot. He can no longer skip rope more than four or five consecutive times without getting tangled up. His form remains perfect, but the verve is reduced to poses and feints, sneak shots and spin moves. His beard has turned white.
Hopkins fought for the 69th and final time this weekend. He fought a construction worker from Long Island who moonlights as a power puncher. Joe Smith Jr. is no cherry. And the decision to fight him was serendipitous, because Smith may as well be Clinton Mitchell—at 27, he’s only a year older than Mitchell was when Mitchell defeated Hopkins. He won the Daily News Golden Gloves 178-pound championship exactly twenty-two years after Mitchell won it.
Hopkins is an old man now—an old man expected to lose to youth and power. And he did. He got himself cornered by Smith in the eighth round. He parried a jab and then instinctively dipped under a right hand that didn’t follow. It didn’t follow because Smith wasn’t cooperating, and hadn’t been all night; he handled Hopkins like he was on a job site handling a pneumatic hammer, and with about as much emotional investment.
I saw the problem burgeoning at the pre-fight press conference. Hopkins was in a fever of disdain, dismissing Smith as “common” and belittling him and, presumably, his working-class roots and values. “I’m always fighting, for a lot of reasons, here in America—one is this,” he said, turning to Smith and rubbing the mahogany flesh of his own hand. I watched Smith’s Adam’s apple the whole time. It didn’t move. Every now and then he smiled a kind of half-smile you’d find on working-class Irish Catholics when an out-of-towner talks too much. “We ain’t gonna get into the politics,” Hopkins said as if he hadn’t done just that. “Common,” he said behind a glare. “Common.”
During the stare-down at the end of the press conference, it was hard not to see proxies for Black Lives Matter and Trump supporters. Hopkins, whose Manson lamps were perfected during five years in stir, stared at Smith. Smith stared back. I was still watching Smith’s Adam’s apple when he suddenly turned to the press photographers and smiled. “I wasn’t gonna play his game and stare all night,” he said when a reporter asked him if he was intimidated by the still steely-eyed Hopkins. “I’m here to fight, not win a staring contest.”
Smith refused to cooperate with Hopkins’ ploys much like Smith’s demographic refused to cooperate with a party driven by identity politics. When asked if Hopkins’s racially charged slur bothered him, Smith seemed confused, not to mention color blind. “I am a common man,” he shrugged. “I’m proud of it.”
Hopkins wasn’t looking for that kind of response either, which suggests that he hasn’t been around blue-collar guys enough to know how stubborn they can be. His life trajectory jumped from one socio-economic extreme to another. Whereas the urban underclass is on edge and ready to fight, and the silk-pajamas class is always looking for an edge and ready to sue, the working class finds its edge in family and faith. It’s not easily offended, and fights only when necessary. The working-class man can be ignored—his whole demographic has been for years by the Democratic Party—and he can be slandered as a racist if his skin is pink and he votes for a man whose skin is orange, but he is not often rattled, is never intimidated, and can’t be counted on to fall in with something he doesn’t believe in.
Smith knocked out Hopkins for the same reason that Trump knocked out Hillary—he refused to follow any script except his own. “I plan to do what I plan to do,” Smith said. Emphasis on “I.”
It was a three-two, simple, and (dare we say) common sequence of power punches that spoiled Hopkins’s retirement party. The jab Hopkins parried was followed not by a right hand but by a left hook. Smith stepped in with it and grazed Hopkins, who immediately ducked his head against the right he figured was coming next. Only this time, Smith threw his right in a downward trajectory. It crashed into Hopkins’ head and the great fighter slipped into darkness.
“He’s out,” said Roy Jones Jr. But Smith wasn’t finished yet. He followed up with a left uppercut that landed on the temple, and whatever survival instincts Hopkins still commanded burst like confetti. The last punch that hit his limp form was a left uppercut sending him through the ropes. He fell about five feet to the floor, landing hard on the width of his shoulders, and laid there with his mouth agape and his legs propped up against the ring apron for a few harrowing moments.
Hands of every color thrusted toward him, rousing him out of his stupor. He rose unsteadily to his feet while the referee loomed over the ropes, bellowing a count. In order to continue with the contest, Hopkins had to climb back into the ring unassisted—–though several were assisting him by then—and before the referee’s count reached 20.
Hopkins stayed outside the ring. The ring belonged to the common man. At the post-fight press conference, the common man approached Hopkins—Mr. Hopkins—and quietly asked him to autograph a pair of gloves.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images