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Philly buster

by Dave Hannigan
Scotland on Sunday - April 12, 2008

Four rounds into their 2002 light-heavyweight bout in Indianapolis, Antonio Tarver unleashed a thundering left that sent Eric Harding to the canvas. He struggled back to his feet with seriously wobbly legs but somehow endured. In the fifth, he was back on the floor again, battling just to get upright when referee Bill Paige leaned in and mercifully inquired whether he was OK to fight on.

"I'm from Philadelphia," barked Harding. And that was all Paige would have needed to know.

The contest continued and although he was put down for good soon after, the point of the story is to illustrate the hardscrabble world from which Bernard Hopkins comes. He is a Philadelphia fighter and that stands for something in professional boxing. It means never going down easy, always giving value for money, and often opting to be carried rather than walking from the ring. Beyond the blabbermouth that has veered into reverse racism in recent months, these are the hallmarks of Hopkins' approach throughout his lengthy, and illustrious career, the same characteristics that make Philly boxers beloved of promoters the world over.

It's a place with a unique heritage and so many varied claims to fame. Home of The Ring magazine, this is where Angelo Dundee began his own apprenticeship by following his older brother Chris around the clubs and gyms way back in the late 1930s. It is the city where 135,000 people shoehorned into Sesquicentennial Stadium to watch Gene Tunney defeat Jack Dempsey back in 1926, the largest crowd ever to witness a title fight. Hopkins is just one of 29 genuine world champions who were either born or bred in a town which once rightly considered itself a true capital of the sport.

While learning his trade Marvin Hagler came down from Boston to fight Philadelphia middleweights four times in 18 months and suffered the first two losses of his career there. Where else could he have gone to develop the ring craft necessary to reach the top than a city then so rife with talent its finest boxers used to batter each other in relentless sparring matches that history has termed the "famous Philly gym wars"?

"Everyone knows that when you fight a Philadelphia fighter, whether it's at the Blue Horizon or the Spectrum or wherever, you're going to see a fight," said Hopkins once, name-checking two of the more iconic local venues. "They're going to give their sweat, blood and tears to put on a good performance. That's Philly, man. It's something in the air."

While the rest of the boxing world awaits his meeting with Joe Calzaghe in the Planet Hollywood Ring in Las Vegas next Saturday night, Hopkins' home town has other things on its mind for now. Last week word went around that Joe Frazier's famous gym on North Broad Street had shut its doors for the last time. The landmark premises supposedly closed for renovations but amid talk of hefty amounts of unpaid property taxes, trainers and boxers were apparently advised to find new accommodation for their dreams.

Temporary or permanent, the departure of a facility run by the former heavyweight champion and his son Marvis would be construed by many as yet more evidence of boxing's declining stature both in the city and in America. Especially since further along Broad Street, the Legendary Blue Horizon (to use the full marketing title) was put up for sale late last year. An intimate 1,500-seat arena where Hopkins had his first pro win and five other outings early in his development, it was once described by Sports Illustrated magazine as the last true boxing venue in the country and a repository for the soul of the sport.

"People have asked if there will still be boxing at the Blue Horizon if we are forced to sell," said part-owner Vernoca Michael. "I really don't know. I do know it would be an absolute shame if somebody came in and ended something with which the building has been so closely identified with for more than 40 years."

The problem is Hopkins has fought in Philadelphia just once in the past 15 years and that 2003 bout was a sop by Don King to keep his client happy. Cruiserweight Steve Cunningham, the city's only other current world champion, was on the bill at The Spectrum that night too, the first and last time he's ever climbed through the ropes in his hometown. Nobody blames the fighters for taking their business elsewhere once they have outgrown their historic surroundings. The sport has moved on.

"The Philadelphia boxing scene was ultimately hurt by the advent of casino boxing in nearby Atlantic City, New Jersey," says John DiSanto, editor of "When boxing boomed there in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was very exciting. The casinos drew bigger names and bigger fights but they choked out the action in Philadelphia. So all of our big fights now happen either in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. It's frustrating and a little sad."

Philadelphia boasts the highest incarceration rate in the nation, the worst poverty statistics of any major city and a growing reputation for gun crime. Social problems on that scale have traditionally proved fertile breeding ground for boxers, but whether the infrastructure is still there to take kids off the streets and into the gyms is another thing. Over the past decade, the Police Athletic League, a community programme where generations of amateurs learned to throw their first left hooks, hasn't been allowed to run boxing for children because of insurance issues: the sort of short-term bureaucratic outlook that it might take an athlete-turned-politician to change.

"I might have been able to get out of the hard part of the city but I am committed to helping others do the same as the oath of the street is a fool's move," said Hopkins, who served five years for armed robbery. "I want to help young adults see there is another way to go. "

A couple of weeks back, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign for the forthcoming Pennsylvania primary swung through Philadelphia and she couldn't resist deploying a fistic analogy. She compared her willingness to fight to the end against Barack Obama to Rocky Balboa running up the art museum steps and repeatedly getting up off the canvas in bouts. Boxing's larger difficulty is that while everybody knows the story of Philly's famous fictional fighter, not enough have heard Hopkins' compelling song of redemption.


Dave Hannigan writes for the newspaper Scotland on Sunday. This article was originally printed in that newspaper in April 2008.


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