PHILLY BOXING HISTORY - December 17, 2016 
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Story by John DiSanto
Photos by Forbes & USA Today


Leading up to his fight with Joe Smith Jr., Bernard Hopkins made it clear that he believed that the rules of boxing, the rules of aging, and the rules of life in general, did not apply to him. The plan for his career swan song was to defeat Smith, a ranked fighter 25 years his junior, and at age 51 years and 11 months prove to everyone on the planet that Bernard Hopkins was so special that he would avoid the traditional fate of many past ring legends who had challenged those very same rules and failed.   

Most believed that Hopkins would succeed in his quest, hang up his gloves after beating Smith, and earn bragging rights that had eluded the likes of Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Archie Moore, and scores of other legends who had stuck around long after their prime.    

However on December 17, 2016 at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, California, before a TV audience watching on HBO, father time, the unforgiving rules of boxing, and a young lion named Joe Smith, ended Hopkins’ mission to rise above all of the other legends of the sport.

In round number eight, Smith caught the grand old master with a series of punches that knocked him through the ropes and onto the floor below the ring. Hopkins never tried to reenter the bout, and was counted out – a count of 20 – by referee Jack Reiss.

Suddenly, Hopkins was not above those all-timers who had also fought on too long. Instead, he was firmly nestled among them. Bernard had rolled the dice one last time, after countless previous tries that usually went his way, and proved not that he defied all the rules, but like everyone else before him, was subject to them.

Although it ended with a far different result that Hopkins wanted, or believed would finish his remarkable career, it was the place that he was destined to reach, as long as he kept rolling the dice. 

Boxing has a way of reminding all those who participate in the sport (as well as to those of us who only watch) that no fighter is unbeatable and that not even the kings of the game are above the rules and many risks of the sport.  

Hopkins knew the dangers involved and accepted them when he decided to take one more fight after his losing effort against then-champion Sergey Kovalev. He insisted on going out with a win, picking up another big paycheck, and capping his career with proof that he was like no other fighter that had ever come before. But it was an unnecessary gamble.

Hopkins is like no other fighter we’ve seen before. He didn’t need to beat Smith to prove that. There is no question that he is a special fighter and one of the most accomplished and best to ever lace on the gloves. However, in his rhetoric leading up to this fight, and even during the past two years while he gleaned the rankings for a potential farewell-fight victim, Bernard tried to separate himself from previous icons of boxing. Hopkins placed greater weight on his most remarkable trait, career longevity, than on the individual characteristics and accomplishments of his forebears.

Hopkins’ logic was that if he could perform so well at his age, then he was better than the previous fighters who could not. Although it is true that no boxer has ever been as effective as Hopkins has as the birthdays pile up, there are also many other measurements of greatness.

Hopkins may be the best 51 year old fighter to have ever lived, but he never hit as hard as Marvelous Marvin Hagler, nor did he ever move like Sugar Ray Robinson. He was a smart, tough, disciplined fighter who did many things well and constructed an incredible, brilliant, lucrative, and memorable career. But he was not better than the others.

Hopkins is one of the greats, a place he should be proud to hold. He was good enough to compete in any era and against any legend. Some of those legends he would have beaten and some would have beaten him.

Greatness is a brotherhood that should be respected and honored. The greats are not like the regular people, the observers. They are a breed apart.

Hopkins wanted to show he was above the others, but on Saturday night, he learned that he wasn’t. Had he retired years ago, he could have lived off claims that he was the best, and would have had an excellent argument. However, the rules - the rules of boxing, the rules of aging, and the rules of life - always remind you of the truth.

Bernard Hopkins challenged the rules and he learned that, although he is still one of the greats, he is not quite as great as he thought he was, and is not bigger than boxing or better than his predecessors.

Some believe that his career-ending fight with Smith was sad, embarrassing, and tragic, but I disagree. Saturday night was glorious.

Yes, Smith knocked out Hopkins and deserves the credit for his accomplishment. However on Saturday night, Hopkins also fell to boxing itself.

Many feel that the star performers of boxing keep this troubled sport alive. However, it is the reverse that is true. Boxing is the master, and the fighters, no matter how great, are susceptible to the sport’s enormous demands and heartless cruelty.

The good news is that although Hopkins lost, his legacy is still secure. A final defeat means very little compared to all that he’s accomplished. We always knew that he was among the best whoever lived. Apparently it was only Bernard himself that needed to prove something more.

The Bernard Hopkins era has finally come to a close. He did it all in nearly thirty years in the ring, and will be remembered as one of the greatest. He should enter the IBHOF the moment he becomes eligible (after the five year retirement requirement). The level of his greatness will be forever debated, as will his exact place among the other legends. And in my opinion, you can’t do better than that.

In the end, Hopkins did not prove to be better than the others, he went out just like them. He fought one too many, and added to that long and inevitable narrative of boxing history. He became part of an elite group - not better or smarter than any of them - He is one of them, an equal. And there is no greater honor than that. 




John DiSanto - Inglewood, CA (via HBO) - December 17, 2016