PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - December 13, 2016 
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Story by John DiSanto
Photos by Darryl Cobb Jr. /


On Saturday night, Bernard Hopkins, 55-7-2, 32 KOs, will enter the ring for the final time – at least that’s the official sales pitch for the fight. At 51 years old, and just one month shy of his 52nd birthday, Hopkins takes on Joe Smith Jr., 22-1, 18 KOs, a Long Islander 25 years younger than the North Philly legend, in an HBO-televised scheduled 12-rounder at the famous Inglewood Forum. 

The bout is being pitched as a farewell fight for the former undisputed middleweight and multiple light heavyweight champion, but the future Hall of Famer not only considers the bout a way to leave with a victory and give further evidence that he can still hang with the young guns of his weight class. In addition to all of this, Hopkins also sees his fight with Smith as a chance to prove to himself and to the entire boxing world that the conventional rules of the sport do not apply to Bernard Hopkins. 

“I know that everybody has been reminded of age somewhere down the line in their life – good or bad,” Hopkins said. “And I like to recognize that it exists, but the rules don’t apply to everyone. That’s key. If one headline today will be written somewhere (it should be) RULES DON’T APPLY TO EVERYONE.”

Such a mission is great incentive for Hopkins. He sees it as his real challenge for the fight. 

“That can go a long way in the debate and discussion, and it can get nasty,” Hopkins continued. “That rule that I’ve been defying, I don’t look at it as Russian roulette, or rolling the dice. I look at it as I am one of those exceptions to the rule.” 

The fact that Hopkins has stretched his career this far has been amazing. He’s not just a physical specimen and a true wonder, when it comes to discipline and mental strength. He hasn’t just extended his career longer than any other significant boxer in history, he has kept his level of competition high, if not always tip-top-tier.

However, Hopkins is indeed playing Russian roulette, whether he admits it or not. He has been pressing his luck for quite a while now, but it’s impossible to argue with his decision to continue. He has fought and beaten many younger fighters, that according to those conventional rules, he had no business being in the ring with.

Even when Hopkins took on Sergey Kovalev two years ago, he did better than many had against the then-top light heavyweight in the world. It was a tough fight for Bernard – he was dropped in the first and didn’t win a round on any of the official judges’ scorecards - but that night he was not a fighter unable to compete with the best.  

Numerous fighters considered by many to be even greater than Hopkins, stayed too long, fought beyond their prime, and ultimately left the sport soundly beaten by a young lion. Included in this canonized list of ring giants are Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and many more. 

Ugly final losses have not hurt the legacies of these great fighters one bit. People understand that at the end of the line, even the greatest fighters were not the same as they once were. The same goes for Hopkins.

Should Smith score a shocker on Saturday night, it won’t hurt Hopkins’ reputation at all. However, he is flirting with fate and taking the risk of not going out the way he wishes. He believes in himself like no other and even thinks that the rules do not apply to him.

It is a point that is difficult to argue, but one that is still not true. The rules do apply, even to Hopkins, but he may be smart enough to get out without suffering the same fate as many other all-time greats.

“Without the emotions in it,” Hopkins said. “I feel it’s the right time based not because of lack of speed, or lack of this or that. It’s that I’m doing it based on the level of (my) age and for almost three decades. That’s one of the reasons that I’m really keen on not only winning the fight (against Smith) but making it the final one, because after that it becomes reaching. When you fight off of just reaching, there’s nothing else behind that to be able to motivate me to be on point the way I’ve been.” 

At the end, Louis had to fight Marciano, and Ali had to fight Holmes. Unlike these icons, Joe Smith is not necessarily a world-beater, despite his shocking first round KO upset of Andrej Fonfara in his most recent bout. However, Louis was only nine years older than Marciano and Ali a mere seven years older than Holmes. Hopkins will spot Smith 25 years, an advantage many wouldn’t be willing to concede. Further, the thought of such an age gap couldn’t even have been conceived of prior to this modern era.

To his credit, Hopkins has turned big age gaps into advantages in the past. He’s used his experience to outsmart young foes many, many times. Smith looks susceptible to Hopkins’ wily ways, but still Bernard takes the risk that youth will overcome all of his ring smarts.

“You always need to be on point,” Hopkins said of fighting Smith. “If you’re in law enforcement and you’ve got 28 years in, and that last year you’re tired and relaxed, you’re going to get killed. Because you forgot one thing, one important rule – protect yourself at all times.” 

Still, many can’t understand why Hopkins continues to tempt fate.

“They might look at it as I’ve done just about everything,” Hopkins said. “But I’m smart enough to know that I didn’t do just about everything, or I wouldn’t be doing it.” 

We all marvel at Bernard’s ability to cheat the clock, but those of us who’ve seen other greats go out in a bad way, worry that Hopkins is taking an unnecessary gamble.

“People’s opinion is well-taken,” Hopkins said. “But that’s why we don’t have a lot of people like me. They put themselves in a bubble where they don’t challenge themselves. This is a challenge to me.” 

Great fighters love challenges. They like the money, the fame and the adulation too. But it is the challenge and the risks that really motivate the great ones. Hopkins is no exception. 

“I think my greatest legacy is that it was always based on what they said I couldn’t do,” Hopkins said. “Everything that I have done is my legacy. Everything that I’ve accomplished is my legacy. There is not one particular fight, including 2001 (Felix Trinidad), including 2006 (Antonio Tarver), including the 20 defenses, including Kelly Pavlik, including even December 17th (Smith). There are so many ingredients in the recipe of Bernard Hopkins.” 

The Bernard Hopkins recipe is one that we’ve never tasted before or ever will again, and on Saturday we’re all invited to his last supper. 




John DiSanto - Philadelphia - December 13, 2016