The time for grit was the Eighties, it was philosophy in the Nineties, skills dominated at the turn of the century and right now I have no idea what motivates Bernard Hopkins.
Hopkins is 49 and on Saturday night defends his legitimate light-heavyweight championship of the world against the current WBA champion Beibut Shumenov, who is 19 years younger. It will be the 33rd world title fight for Hopkins in a career that started when he left prison and was given 10 years of parole. “See you soon,” the guard at the last gate told him as he walked free from Graterford penitentiary, near the fighter’s old home in north Philadelphia.
“Free? I was not free,” Hopkins told me one day as we sat in his car back in the car park at Graterford. “I was out on the streets that had been ruined by drugs and there was an even bloodier war going on than there had been when I was sent to prison. Free? I was not free. They expected me back and they expected me back quick.”
Hopkins had been a street thug, a mugger and wanted for most of his childhood. The numerous tiny jolts inside Philadelphia’s Juvenile Hall were mere blots on his criminal horizon, learning posts for the kid to become a man. But that passage was cut short when, after 30 appearances in court in a two-year spell, he was sent to Graterford for 18 years at just 17, which meant that the boy really was running with the men.
“In there, I was in danger of being a sheep in a house packed with wolves,” Hopkins said. “I had to adapt and so I acted like I was crazy and then I started to fight. I became the wolf.”
Nearly 10 years ago when I visited Graterford, his old sparring partners – men who will never walk on the streets of Philadelphia again – all told me similar things about “young Bernard” and how hard he was. He sparred with tough men and perfected his style, a style based on survival. “It was all about survival and will always be about survival with me,” said Hopkins.
After five years, Hopkins was released and he took a job washing dishes in a Philadelphia hotel and continued to go to the boxing gym at night. However, the real struggle was not to get sucked out on to the streets and end up back in Graterford.
“The parole was a second sentence for me – there were no iron bars on my door but every day I was at risk,” said Hopkins, who jokes he has still never spat on the street.
In October 1988 he had his first professional fight, lost and then took more than a year out of the ring to work on becoming a winning fighter and not just a loser picking up short-end money for getting beat. In February 1990, he started again. This time he was about a stone lighter and with a different head on his shoulders; Hopkins was 25 and the ride was about to begin.
“I will never beat the clock, nobody beats the clock,” said Hopkins. “I have just found a way to maintain my health and I have a deal with Father Time that I did when I came out of the penitentiary: I knew that if I transformed my life I would never be inside again.”
In 1994 Hopkins won the middleweight world title and subsequently made 20 defences, including spectacular knockouts of Oscar de la Hoya and Felix Trinidad, two of the sport’s best fighters from the last quarter of a century; they are also two of the most troubled with De la Hoya, whose pay-per-view sales topped $612m, in and out of rehab for addiction and Trinidad recently filing for bankruptcy after bad investments took care of his $68m fortune.
Hopkins is a wealthy and happy man now having served his hard time and overcome his own vicious flaws from an early age. He was in Graterford when he found out that his brother had been shot dead. His mother had to tell him and that hurt.
Hopkins was stabbed with an ice pick that just missed his lung. His reputation as a street thug was under threat and that hurt. He also lived for a decade aware that each day could be his last as a free man and that was joyous.
“Now it is about legacy,” said Hopkins. I don’t think he has too much to worry about.