Long before you first see him, you hear Bernard Hopkins.
He’s being interviewed in a grungy Toronto boxing gym. There’s no one in the place but Hopkins, his flacks and a few geeked-out regulars.
As you walk in, it strikes you as odd that Hopkins is being broadcast on a PA system. After a bit, you realize there is no artificial amplification. Hopkins is just that loud.
“I NEED A CAMERA FOR THIS,” Hopkins bellows. A guy with a video camera hustles over to get the champ in close-up. Hopkins needs to go “on the record” about something, which is a phrase he uses a lot. He has many deeply felt opinions and wants to make sure they are being effectively shared.
“Fighters – I’m not naming names – will come up to me and ask, ‘Should I have the same accountant as my manager?’ …” – Hopkins rears back in horror – “… HAVE YOU EVER HEARD OF CONFLICT OF INTEREST? There’s ignorance and there’s ‘I don’t want to know even if you tell me.' Without butting into anyone’s business or invoking tortious interference …”
Hopkins has a wonderful church cadence. Long pauses. Sentences hitting a crescendo at the end. A sudden, startling increase in volume when he gets going. You are loath to interrupt, but you just can’t help yourself.
“I’m sorry? What was that?”
“Tortious interference,” Hopkins says, leaning over to make sure I’m getting this down. “I’ve been hanging around lawyers too long.”
The word “unique” gets tossed around too often in sports, but it applies in this case. Hopkins came late to the sport after learning it in prison. For a time in his mid-30s, he was arguably the best fighter alive. He continued at a high level well into his 40s. His final professional bout was a few days before his 52nd birthday.
The fight game ruins most long-time practitioners – physically, mentally, every which way. Hopkins is unique. He’s 53 now and, had you just met him, you’d think he was 20 years younger. He’s boxing’s Dorian Gray.
This isn’t just about looking good. If some enthusiastic people might be said to be battery-powered, Hopkins is a nuclear accelerator. Remaining still for any stretch of time pains him.
He’s sitting in a pleather rolling chair. He’s rolled it alongside me, reached over and begun kneading my forearm as I take a note. His other hand sneaks up to my shoulder. Both hands are roving about, taking note of my softness and measuring my girth. I’m trying very hard to remain still.
“I’m just feeling him out. Doing my fighter thing,” Hopkins announces to the room. “You damn sure look a little beefier than me. In a good way! I’m, like, DAMN this guy is going to be hard to knock out.”
Well, this is an unusual way to spend a Wednesday afternoon – being Pillsbury Doughboy’d by one of the 50 best ever.
Hopkins is now leaned all the way over, lying on top of me. The camera guy is zooming in. I am genuinely concerned that Hopkins is about to get into my lap. People are doubled over with laughter.
The merriment in the room has now reached such a hysteric pitch that someone feels freed to comment archly on Hopkins’s outfit – an electric-blue turtleneck, khakis and designer sneakers.
“It’s called the grown-man look,” Hopkins says sharply and everyone stops laughing.
This is a thing about world champions. You are encouraged to laugh with them. Never make the mistake of laughing at them. They don’t like that.
Hopkins is in Toronto as part of a media tour for a Dec. 15 fight he is promoting – Canelo Alvarez against Rocky Fielding. It’s part of a new partnership with the online sports-streaming service, DAZN.
The timing of the visit seems portentous given recent events in Canadian boxing. Montreal’s Adonis Stevenson remains in serious condition after a vicious late-round beating last weekend. That’s created a discussion around age and the ring. Now here’s the most successful geriatric fighter in history.
Has Hopkins seen the fight?
“Just clips of the knockout.”
He looked fine up until then. “All it takes is one punch,” Hopkins says, cocking an eyebrow.
Like many of the fight game’s purists, Hopkins was never a great fan of Stevenson’s. The criticism of the Canadian was that he avoided top fighters and didn’t compete frequently enough.
Hopkins is not about to pretend concern now. He says he hopes the best for Stevenson’s recovery and calls him “a gladiator,” but does so in the tone of a trauma surgeon. He’s been numbed by experience in this regard.
He tells a story about people trying to get him to come down to little gyms like this one to see the Next Big Thing, and how much he hates doing that. It reminds him of his age. He has the extropic view that though their weights stay the same, young fighters are bigger and faster than the previous generation.
“That is the danger to dinosaurs that is staying in the game. And a dinosaur these days is 35 years old,” Hopkins says. “Twenty-five years ago, 35 was a spring chicken. He was just setting down roots. Nowadays, 35, it’s a wrap.”
Stevenson is 41.
“You can’t be fooled by what I’ve done,” Hopkins says. “Don’t think you can do that.”
I ask him about fear and what role that has in all of this. At some point, shouldn’t a fighter be afraid to get into the ring?
“Let me tell you about fear,” Hopkins says, getting hold of me again. “Ninety-nine per cent of fighters come from a background where fear is on their doorstep. They grow up with fear. They had to fight before they became fighters … You can play football. You can play hockey. Nobody play boxing.”
Hopkins is emblematic of this – raised in dire poverty and jailed early for a string of felonies.
“I had to change from a sheep to a wolf,” Hopkins once said. So he did.
Have you ever known a proper fighter who came from a middle-class background?
Hopkins leans back and thinks for a good while on this one. He pops back forward.
“Who was successful?”
He leans back again for a while. Finally: “No.”
“I mean, I’m sure someone could come up with somebody that had their nails manicured, but like they say in corporate America, boxers historically come from ‘humble beginnings.' I call it starving beginnings.”
As befits someone who did the rags to riches, Hopkins maintains a romantic view of the sport’s future. He’d like it to return to its “Roman days, [John L.] Sullivan days.” He wants it to be “respected in a moral way and not a barbaric way.”
How does that happen?
Hopkins is in it now. He scooches forward and begins down a long, meandering speech that sounds practised. New regulations. New laws. A fighters’ union. A percentage of prizes given to a general fund to care for those who come out the other end broken. An arm’s-length, unbiased medical establishment. Testing for fighters over a certain age before they can be licensed.
He doesn’t want anything about the game itself to change. Everyone knows the risks. Hopkins is perfectly happy with them.
The morality Hopkins is talking about sounds nothing like the sermonizing of those who’d like to see the sport extinct. His is the soldier’s morality. Everyone gets their fair shot and the right to be patched up afterward.
Hopkins wishes more people understood this. He’s been going on about it for decades, often to his promotional detriment. At points, he was cast as the sport’s great whiner. So now he only tells it to people who seek him out.
“I’m not going to preach it, but when I’m asked, I’m going to tell you the truth. No, you should not have the same CPA as your manager.”
Hopkins is getting close again, as he does whenever he’s trying to make a point.
He leans into my ear and drops to a stage whisper: “It’s my job as a living legend to not take knowledge to the grave. The last time I heard, nobody’s communicating down there.”
There is a pregnant pause and Hopkins leaps from his chair, arms raised – “I’M ON FIRE!” The tiny audience begins to hoot and whistle. Hopkins heads for the door.
Someone shouts concernedly, “Are you going?”
Hopkins turns back, arms still raised and begins to jog on the spot.
“I’M NEVER LEAVING!” he yells. Even the camera guy puts down his rig so that he can applaud.