PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Growing up in the North Philadelphia projects, Bernard Hopkins smoked marijuana and was arrested for assault and robbery more times than he can remember. He was so feared that — long before he forged a reputation inside the ring as The Executioner — he was better known on the streets as Heads.
“Everybody who hit me broke their hand,” Hopkins said. “You don’t have gloves on in the street, buddy. You hit this rock and the fight’s over. Most people hit this rock and guess what they did with the other hand? They dug into their pocket and gave me the money.”
Hopkins was sentenced to Graterford Penitentiary as a teen, and feared he would never be set free. He could have been forgotten; a meaningless life set to rot behind bars.
Instead, look at the man on the poster.
Hopkins is stone-faced, hands on his hips, looking ready for another fight. But instead, it’s time to party: “Join us for a celebration!”
The splashy headline is for a boxing card held in his in honor, though he’s not fighting. Hopkins turns 50 on Thursday, a time to fete his two lives; his misspent youth and the man who has defied Father Time and reigned in multiple weight classes as one of the great fighters of a generation.
He’s celebrating that he got there.
“I’m celebrating that I’m supposed to be dead. By my teacher’s account, by my own family,” he said. “All the reform schools in Philadelphia, I burnt out. Then I was dealt prison at 17. Stabbed twice in two separate situations, nine years of parole, five years of penitentiary.
“Then I became Bernard Hopkins.”
Now, leading up to 50, he’s the most popular patron at Cafe la Maude, a French-Lebanese restaurant around the corner from where he trains, near his condo. He’s stopped in for a spot of green tea with honey and waves and offers a Happy New Year to every person who popped by his corner table.
“I should put it on Facebook!” one woman exclaims after posing with the former champ outside the restaurant.
This is how Hopkins enjoys life now, as sort of a Philadelphia everyman who hasn’t hid from his roots. He still walks the Philly streets near his home, though his dalliances with the rougher parts of town these days are for philanthropic reasons, like his annual Thanksgiving turkey donation.
“I never wanted to be in a situation where I couldn’t just come out and walk 5 minutes from my apartment and sit here and talk,” Hopkins said.
Forget all the bouts and belts won and lost inside the ring. Hopkins will retire with a perfect press conference record, never failing to leave reporters with a full notebook.
Sure, Hopkins could lace ’em up and go toe-to-toe with Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver and Roy Jones Jr. But in Philadelphia, it was his ability to go quote-for-quote with Allen Iverson, Terrell Owens and John Chaney that entrenched him in the city and had him labeled as the fifth franchise.
“The media has always been a fixture in my success,” he said.
He’s also survived because of genetics, talent and an unwavering discipline that has him eschew sweets, late nights and alcohol. Hopkins’ hardheadedness in the streets has served him well — in a more legal and dignified manner — for close to 20 years working as his own manager. The money often earmarked for promoters and management goes into Hopkins’ pocket.
Hopkins’ methodical style, his stubborn refusal to give his brain to the glove, often drew criticism at a time when 20 straight middleweight title defenses over a 10-year span should have tossed his name in with the greats.
“I know sometimes I was considered boring,” he said. “Not the last five fights, but the last seven, eight years of my career because I conserved myself. I preserved myself, I put interest in myself, I invested in myself.”
Hopkins, the oldest fighter to win and defend a major title, absorbed a pounding in his last fight in November against Russian champ Sergey Kovalev. Kovalev roughed up Hopkins from the opening bell, winning a unanimous decision and taking two versions of the light heavyweight belt from Hopkins.
Hopkins (55-7-2 with 32 knockouts) knows the end of his career is near. For the majority of his career, Hopkins always knew what fighter he wanted next, where he wanted to fight and negotiated his purse share. He wants to fight in his 50s but quality opponents have thinned and he might have to drop a weight class. There’s nothing left to prove, though there hasn’t been for years and Hopkins has still wiped out careers of fighters decades younger than him.
“If I fight just to fight, to me, that’s silly,” he said. “But if I fight a fight that is meaningful to me, historically meaningful and a threat, just the same or higher than Kovalev, now you’ve got my juices flowing. I will not be a circus act.”
It’s not clear how that bout might come together.
Hopkins has other interests, including real estate and a minority stake in De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. He’s inspired by stars like basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson and rapper Jay-Z — wealthy thanks to multiple forms of business. Hopkins has lived the kind of life that sounds wilder than fiction and needs just the right mogul to spread the word.
“My goal is some crazy dream of happening, that somehow, somewhere I’m going to be able to get someone who knows someone to be able to say, ‘Listen, you can talk to Oprah,'” he said.
The only O he’ll approach this week is the Big 5-0. Celebrating a life where heads no longer roll, just the good times.
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