Champs gym stands like a tombstone amid one of the saddest slums in North Philadelphia. Derelict row houses stretch for blocks along West Huntingdon Street, an area of hopeless poverty and malignant neglect. Outside the gym, street people lounge, lost and passive. Inside, Bernard Hopkins struts around a boxing ring, lean and muscular and full of the righteous ire he has displayed since winning the IBF middleweight title in 1995. "I'm a survivor," says the 35-year-old Hopkins, sounding as if he has clawed his way out of the smoking ruins of Dresden. "Sure, I'm well-off now and have a nice house in the suburbs. But I still prefer to train in my old neighborhood. It's not the gym that makes the man tough. It's the man that makes the gym tough."
Hopkins has toughed out nearly five years of prison, legal dustups with two promoters and a system that, he claims, shackles him like Kunta Kinte. "No matter where I fight, I fight hard," he says. "If I promise to win, I follow through. I execute." With his bullet-hard eyes and fisticuff abs, the self-styled Executioner looks as if he was hammered on the anvil of the gods to be an emblem of war. "He's an excitable guy with a reputation for being a lunatic," says HBO boxing czar Lou DiBella. "Get to know him, though, and you find he's reasoned, decent, very together."
Part of the Executioner's rep derives from his ring entrances (he often bursts through the ropes hooded in black and accompanied by a couple of bare-chested, ax-wielding handlers) and part from his rambling rants. "I get pissed, but I wouldn't call it angry," he says, crunching syllables like Clint Eastwood working up a vengeful froth. "To me, angry is out of control. I haven't been that way for a while. My mood is more controlled aggression."
Beneath Hopkins's smoldering menace lies an innocence that borders on Lewis Carroll enchantment. He talks tenderly of his pet poodle, his snow-white pit bull, his snake (Fred), his wife (Jeanette) and his infant daughter (Latrice). The kid's photo is sewn into Hopkins's satin trunks. "Sitting on my stool between rounds, I'm rejuvenated to see her face looking up at me," he says. "Her picture reminds me I'm fighting for my family's security."
The 36-2-1 Hopkins makes his next security deposit this Saturday in Indianapolis. A victory over the lightly regarded Syd Vanderpool would be Hopkins's 11th successful title defense—three shy of Carlos Monz�n's middleweight record. Hopkins's share of the purse looks to be about $450,000, chump change compared with what lots of other titleholders command. Still, it's $350,000 more than he earned for his previous bout, a lopsided decision over No. 1 contender Antwun Echols in Miami.
Underpaid and largely overlooked, the self-managed, self-promoted Hopkins refuses to take pleasure in his fame and accomplishments. He's forever railing against promoters, managers, sanctioning bodies. "Prizefighters get mistreated, exploited, out-and-out robbed every day," says Hopkins, who would like to launch a boxers' union. "Either you crusade for reform or you become part of the problem. As a champion, I feel an obligation to take a stand."
A year ago he testified in New York City before a boxing task force that was convened by the National Association of Attorneys General. "Fighters have as much chance against promoters as a welterweight has against Mike Tyson," Hopkins said. "How many stories have you heard about fighters who went broke? Now, how many stories have you heard about boxing promoters who went broke? Promoters hold all the power, all the leverage and most of the money. They're not going to give that up to any fighter, not unless they absolutely have to."
According to Hopkins, a half-dozen promoters advised him not to appear at the hearing. "They said, 'Bernard, you've been blessed, be part of the program,' but I don't want to be part of a program," the fighter says. "The business of boxing makes me want to puke. If you brought that business home with you every night, you wouldn't be married too long." Evidently he doesn't bring it home: He's been married seven years.
Born in a section of North Philly he calls "the pit-bull belly of the ghetto," Hopkins has been fighting ever since he can remember. "Back then I hit lots of people upside the head," he recalls. "I had a lot of negative energy." So much that juvenile detention became his second home. He says that after a conviction for strong-arm robbery in 1983, a judge told him, "I'm tired of seeing your face, Mr. Hopkins." The judge banished 17-year-old Bernard to a penitentiary, where he reflected on his negativity for 56 months.
"I got a good, hard whack for what I did," Hopkins says. He credits the boxing coach at the prison in Graterford, Pa., for turning him from a street bully into a polished combination puncher. "Many nights I cried, [jail] was so rough. But the experience straightened me out. If I could find the guy who called the cops on me, I'd shake his hand."