Bernard Hopkins has earned right to exit the sport on his own terms
Bernard Hopkins, 47, lost the light heavyweight title to Chad Dawson on Saturday
There's simply not much left for Hopkins, a surefire Hall of Famer, to accomplish
Hopkins isn't fighting because he needs money; he's doing it because he enjoys it
Time waits for no man. It's a lesson Bernard Hopkins learned early in life, decades before Saturday's uncontroversial loss to Chad Dawson that's since prompted calls for the 47-year-old to retire.
But retire he shouldn't. And won't.
That Hopkins is still an exceptionally durable world class athlete, that he's never been beaten up, that he's never been cut in a fight, that he stays in fighting shape 365 days a year and keeps a 30-inch waist, all of it is almost beside the point. Anyone who knows anything about his background -- the extraordinary constellation of circumstances that's made him one of the unique figures in the recorded history of sport -- can understand why Hopkins doesn't need protection from himself and has earned the right to walk away on his own terms.
Growing up a self-described "wolf among sheep" in a hellish North Philadelphia neighborhood known as the Badlands, Hopkins was arrested more than 30 times before he turned 17, when he was finally sent to Graterford State Prison on an 18-year sentence for armed robbery. As Prisoner No. Y4146, he became a jailhouse boxing champion, driven by the opportunity to turn his life around. "See you when you come back," was the last thing Hopkins heard as the bars clanked shut behind him 56 months later, the first of countless naysayers whose doubt he's repurposed for motivation.
Chances are you know what happens next. Within seven years, Hopkins fought his way to the middleweight championship. Without an Olympic pedigree or the backing of a top-shelf promoter, he became a star the only way he could: by not losing. He was Philadelphia: unglamorous, angry, magnanimous, defiant. He made a division-record 20 title defenses between 1995 and 2005 -- more than Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon or Sugar Ray Robinson -- then moved up two weight divisions and twice won light heavyweight titles after his 40th birthday.
Hopkins, even at 47, still fights at a remarkably high level, regardless of wins and losses. Fact is, he can still be competitive against whomever is in front of him. That equals more fights, which means more justified paydays, which means more chances for him to compete at what he loves to do. Maybe he's not thrilled about the fact he'll have a few more losses on his record when he finally does decide to call it a career. But Hopkins is a fighter, and they care less about their records than anyone (with the exception of Floyd Mayweather).
The reality is Hopkins lost a competitive decision Saturday in a world title fight to a prime 29-year-old who couldn't have been a worse stylistic matchup for him. Dawson complemented significant advantages in size and reach with precision punching to outbox the champion and win on points. Yet it didn't come without a cost. "Look at me: it was 12 hard rounds," Dawson said early Sunday morning at the post-fight press conference, gesturing to the twin gashes flanking his face (one from an accidental head butt). "I look like I took a beating. I don't see him retiring after this. I think he can beat any of these young guys."
What many don't understand, because it's so astronomically rare, is Hopkins isn't fighting because he needs to; he's doing it because he wants to. Most boxers fight into their forties to pay the bills, but Hopkins promises he "won't end up punch drunk or broke," as he cheekily proclaimed after beating Jean Pascal for the light heavyweight title last year, becoming the oldest fighter in history to claim a major world championship. Too many fighters are allergic to saving money, but Hopkins is a famous miser. (He's shown writers his Costco card.) For someone who didn't earn a million-dollar purse until his 2001 fight with Felix Trinidad, when he was 36, it's seems almost unfair to run him out of the sport when he can still make a million dollars for a night's work, as he reportedly did for Saturday's fight with Dawson.
Surely watching Hopkins fight is an acquired taste. A defensive mastermind, he's elevated the age-old maxim of hit and don't get hit to an art form. He's endlessly setting traps, feinting and clutching, drawing on what's known in boxing as the "dark arts," the occasional rule-bending intended to unsettle and intimidate an opponent. ("He knows all the tricks in the game," Dawson said Sunday. "He doesn't waste any energy.") It's been called boring, but so have Antonioni movies; the genius in the craftmanship is undeniable. And the peculiar style, while alienating some fans, has enabled him to avoid the serious punishment that's wrought permanent damage on fighters literally half his age. Today, Hopkins speaks clearly and remains still the whip-smart autodidact he was two decades ago.
A figure so uncompromising was never going to exit the sport the way everyone thought. Now Hopkins is the old dog whom young guys know they might be able to beat over a 12-round fight, but it isn't worth the trouble because there's still a chance that he'll have a good night and derail their careers. (Ask Kelly Pavlik.) Nonetheless, Hopkins has made it hard for the up-and-comers to go around him because he's made himself an economically viable option as a name to put on their resume. One can imagine Nathan Cleverly -- the ascendant 25-year-old light heavyweight contender from Wales -- looking to Hopkins as an opportunity for a name-making win in the fall.
The song Hopkins chose for Saturday's ring entrance was "Bad Man," one of R. Kelly's deeper cuts, which blared over the arena's public-address system as he emerged from the tunnel to what felt like a hometown crowd. The lyrics, inaudible amid the cheers of 7,705 fans, could have been a personal address from Hopkins himself:
Now I believe the day will come
When my heart will decide to change
But until then
See everything will remain the same
The day will come indeed. And when it does, Hopkins' legacy will show that he took on all comers. In his prime, he beat them all. And in the twilight of his career, he continued to only take fights against guys who were near the top of the sport, and none of those opponents were able to say they had an easy night against him.
Until then, time can wait.