Bernard Hopkins hobbled into the gym before a sparring session using a cane to aid his small steps. He scrapped his usual stylish Prada glasses for a cheap pair old fogeys might wear and a fake gray beard that sprouted several inches past his chin.
Hopkins chuckled as he wagged his cane toward amused onlookers. Long a contender in the jumbled alphabet concoctions of boxing organizations, Hopkins seemed more fit in disguise to apply for an AARP membership. Hopkins is in on the joke and has the sober realization that not even he can KO Father Time.
At 51, Hopkins may have enough Executioner left in him to make it seem like old times again inside the ring.
Hopkins has forged his life by hook — like the left one he threw to knock out Oscar De La Hoya — or by crook, the time served at Graterford Prison that steeled his resolve for a boxing career. Just about a month before he turns 52, Hopkins will fight on both his word and contractual obligation for the final time in a 28-year career when he faces 27-year-old Joe Smith Jr. in a light heavyweight bout Saturday in Los Angeles.
No one savvy enough around boxing will count out Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) for a final victory. Even as the years ticked from his late 30s to his late 40s, the days of thinking of Hopkins as a washed-up fighter sure to see his career end in a thunderous embarrassment have long ended.
“Nobody’s laughing at me anymore,” Hopkins said. “That laughing made me motivated. How do I know it’s time? I can’t find no one to laugh no more.”
Hopkins once promised his mother he’d retire at 40. He vowed to quit at 41 after he defeated Antonio Tarver in one of his greatest fights in 2006. The Associated Press wrote of the fight that Hopkins had a “storybook finish” and noted Tarver starred in the “final installment of the ‘Rocky’ series.”
Yet much like the fictional Rocky Balboa, Hopkins had many more rounds left in his story.
At 48, Hopkins scored a 12-round unanimous decision over Tavoris Cloud to become the oldest boxer to win a major title.
“I’m glad I reneged on that 10 years because I’ve added to my legacy even further,” Hopkins said. “And nobody is complaining.”
Hopkins packs a punch on the short list of great geezers that include Nolan Ryan throwing a no-hitter at 43 or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar still sinking hook shots at 43. Chris Chelios hung up the hockey stick at 48.
But fighting at 50? George Foreman, another geriatric great, had already traded gloves for grills by the time he hit the Big 5-0.
Once Hopkins shed the old man getup, he hit the ring and physically looked like he was in prime, save for the salt-and-pepper beard. Hopkins dismisses the wisecracks about his age. He is about as serious and dedicated as any athlete in his training. He’s carved a straightedge lifestyle that bans drinking alcohol, keeps a healthy diet and a curfew of about 9 p.m. The two-weight world champion is known to splurge on a slice of cheesecake after a victory.
His fitness, his daily physical commitment, has allowed him to thrive long after fighters of his era have retired.
“If he can, and his body allows him to, why not? It’s not like anybody is hurting him,” De La Hoya said. “It just proves to everyone that age doesn’t matter as long as you do the right thing.”
Hopkins is a minority owner in De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions and he will continue to broadcast fights in retirement. Hopkins said he planned to become involved in a yet-to-be-announced boxing series that could help revitalize the East Coast boxing scene.
Whatever he does, the mouthy Hopkins will let the world know.
“I’ve done just about everything,” Hopkins said. “People’s points are well taken on how they think. But that’s why we don’t have a lot of people that’s me.”
Hopkins wore an alien mask to the ring in his last few fights and his loquaciousness always stood out even among the cartoonish personalities in boxing. He enraged a country when he stomped on a Puerto Rican flag in San Juan. He said that Manny Pacquiao should fight more black fighters. Hopkins’ biggest foe was his most bizarre one; a one-sided verbal lashing of former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
While never stylistically pleasing, few middleweights ever performed better than Hopkins during a 10-year reign as champ. He called himself “the reincarnation of Ray Robinson and Marvin Hagler” when he defeated Felix Trinidad on Sept. 29, 2001 in the defining fight of his Hall of Fame career.
Hopkins lost his first fight in Atlantic City in 1988 and didn’t lose again until 1993. He made 20 successful middleweight title defenses and boasts multiple runs as light heavyweight champion.
Hopkins saw quality opponents dry up the last few years and hasn’t fought since a 12-round decision loss to Sergey Kovalev on Nov. 8, 2014.
But Hopkins never stopped pushing for that final bout. He wanted to hear the bell sound for the last time on his own terms.
“Rules don’t apply to everyone,” Hopkins said. “That can go a long way. I don’t look at it as others do as Russian Roulette. Rolling the dice. I look at it as, I’m one of those exceptions to the rules.”
He’ll be the exception again when he steps inside the ropes at the Forum. The ex-con from the Philly streets who learned to box in prison has become nothing short of a model citizen forever stamped as one of the sport’s great fighters.
“I came, I proved and I showed that my legacy is always based on what they say I couldn’t do,” Hopkins said.