Tucked into North 3rd Street into the quiet Spring Garden, Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, Joe Hand Boxing Gym sits almost undetected. That’s the way Bernard Hopkins likes it, as he slips through the facility’s back entrance unnoticed and into the locker room, seemingly all in one stealth-like stride, on this late Tuesday afternoon in mid-October.
Immediately, Hopkins goes to work, changing into his athletic gear in preparation for the day’s workout. Today he’s doing pad work — no sparring — with longtime trainer Nazim Richardson. But before the light-heavyweight champion can get his hands wrapped, he is greeted by a reporter who gives him a photograph.
The photo shows Hopkins and the scribe 10 years ago outside Philly’s LOVE Park on “Philadelphia Loves Bernard Hopkins Day,” a hero’s send off to training for his bout against Oscar De La Hoya, whom he knocked out with a punishing kidney shot in the ninth round back in September 2004.
Hopkins grins and holds the photograph beside his face. “Not much has changed, right?” the grizzled boxer says, insinuating he looks closer to the 39 he was in the photo than the 49 he is today.
“Well, maybe for you,” the reporter jokes, removing his hat to reveal a lot less hair than he had 10 years ago. “Stress.”
“Yeah, well…that will raise the follicles right off,” Hopkins says, rubbing his own bald head.
Just like that, the small talk is over. It’s business as usual for Hopkins, who has his hands wrapped before stepping into the squared circle for an hour of pad work.
At 49 years old, Hopkins is the oldest boxer to win and defend a world title. Where most fighters would be slowing down or playing it safe during the twilight of their careers, B-Hop keeps taking risks and walking towards the fires.
On November 8, live on HBO, Hopkins (55-6-2-2 with 32 knockouts) will take on hard-hitting, undefeated WBO light-heavyweight champion Sergey Kovalev (25-0-1 with 23 knockouts) at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.
Just like he did against Felix “Tito” Trinidad in 2001, Kelly Pavlik in 2008, Jean Pascal in 2011 and Tavoris Cloud last year, Hopkins will not only be looking to defeat yet another considerably younger opponent, but also perhaps alter the course of his career. None of the aforementioned boxers were ever the same after Hopkins beat them. At 49 to Kovalev’s 31, Hopkins views November 8 as his biggest “defining moment” opportunity, surpassing everything he’s done prior.
“Most people really believe that he has that most dangerous knockout punch and I believe I can navigate that and turn that against him,” Hopkins tells BET.com. “I believe that it has a chance to be the best performance in my 26-year career. And that’s really a bold statement, but that’s how important I want to shine on November 8 on HBO.”
In the same boxing space in which a Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao have ducked and dodged each other for years, Hopkins is in the competition of constantly outdoing himself.
“I’m one of the last dying breeds in boxing that will take on challenges, where most will find something softer, especially in their age and their career,” he says. “I chose and choose to do the opposite.”
He’s quick to point out September 29, 2001, just weeks after the 9-11 tragedy, when as an underdog, he scored a technical knockout of a younger Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden. And in 2005, when he lost back-to-back middleweight decisions to Jermain Taylor, yet moved up to the light-heavyweight division in 2006 and scored a huge unanimous decision over Antonio Tarver.
“They thought I was collecting a payday to leave out. I was making history that night in Atlantic City,” he gloats.
He tells the story of Adonis Stevenson being the “man who beat the man who beat the man” in the light-heavyweight division, but because his team “dragged their feet” in fight negotiations, Hopkins ditched plans to challenge him and secured the bout with Kovalev instead.
“I made it happen because nobody tells Bernard Hopkins what to do,” he says. “See, that’s the key. The key is most fighters have to be told how they spend their money, how to save their money, how to wipe their a**, when to go to sleep, when to wake up. Most. I’m not like that.”
Just two months shy of his 50th birthday, Hopkins remains as much a self-starter as he was 25 years ago. On the same day as his “light training session,” Hopkins ran 4.5 miles around Temple University’s campus.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so hard to explain why some of his fights in his late 40s have been more exciting than bouts in his early 30s. Is he really up against Father Time or is he Father Time himself? Involved in 65 bouts spanning a 26-year career, Hopkins has seen it all.
“I don’t consider myself really human,” he says without blinking. “That’s why I changed from ‘The Executioner’ to ‘The Alien.’ Nobody out there that can say they’ve done what I’ve done.”
He’ll try to keep doing it on November 8.
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(Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images)