Not very often does an athlete blossom as fully and as suddenly as Bernard Hopkins did last Saturday night. A fighter of such suspect credentials that he was initially overlooked in the planning of a middleweight tide unification tournament (even though he was one of the division's longtime champions), Hopkins figured to be little more than a promotional partner in Felix (Tito) Trinidad's march toward glory and Roy Jones Jr. Hopkins was the motormouth fall guy, a cheerful old-timer on his way out, a fighter prized only for holding the IBF belt.
That title, cheapened by the level of opposition Hopkins had entertained in the six years he had been champion, was all that he could offer boxing. He had long ago exhausted his only chance at the big money when he lost a 1993 decision to Jones, then the IBF middleweight champion and still regarded as boxing's lone true monarch, no matter what weight he fights at. Thereafter Hopkins, an ex-con who has turned out to be one of the straightest arrows in the sport, was stuck in a succession of low-luster bouts against guys like Andrew Council and Syd Vanderpool. His narrow appeal was based less on those fights than on the WWF-style costumery he used to promote his persona as the Executioner: a leather hood that was not so much scary as ridiculous.
Only this past spring, when Trinidad began his rampage through the middleweight division after years of having eaten up welterweights, did Hopkins become useful again. He would be a high-level opponent, somebody who could round out a four-man tournament and make Trinidad's advance upon an undisputed title (and Jones, now a light heavyweight) seem logical. Promoter Don King was not inclined to use Hopkins at first—his idea was to have only a single bout, Trinidad against WBA titleholder William Joppy—but he came to realize that Hopkins had certain bona fides and that a four-man tournament offered a more sustained buildup to a Jones fight. That is to say, King would have the chance to bluster from two more daises than he'd originally envisioned.
Who knew Hopkins could take this opportunity and not only flatten the arc of Trinidad's career but also supply his own with the kind of majesty few athletes ever enjoy? Before a largely hostile crowd of 19,075 at Madison Square Garden, Hopkins thoroughly worked over Trinidad, nullifying his left hook, beating him to every punch and then, for an emphasis that had fans and foes alike roaring in appreciation, dropping him in the 12th round with a near perfect right hand. So short and sweet was the punch that when Trinidad's father, Felix Sr., who's also his trainer, rushed into the ring, he appeared to be doing so to examine the result more closely rather than to save his boy from even greater punishment.
Hopkins's performance was the kind of underdog effort, a crawling out from the shadows, that seemed especially appropriate in New York City last week. That this fight—the first major championship sports event in the city since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11—ended in such an unexpected fashion seemed mighty lucky. Hey, you never know! Maybe all you really need is a little heart. Hopkins turned out to be the perfect guy to demonstrate that. "When they say I can't, I do," he said afterward. "I am the American Dream."
Hopkins, who spent nearly five years in the state correctional facility in Graterford, Pa., after an adolescence of strong-arm robberies, knows something about heart. Forget his prison-life resolve to learn boxing, to learn to read, to erase the shame of his mother's traveling to Graterford from Philadelphia twice every week. Imagine him sprung from prison at age 22 with only his GED and a nine- year parole. "Nine years is a long time," a guard warned him on his last day, "for a young black kid going back to the ghetto."
Hopkins was careful not to get so much as a parking ticket. Before his imprisonment he hadn't thought twice about yanking a gold chain off somebody's neck (a minor specialty of his), but he was determined to exercise discipline and righteousness. It is startling how completely he turned his life around, becoming a suburban family man-husband since 1993 to Jeanette and father to two-year-old Latrice—and a breadwinner who banks his purses. "I never made no million dollars," Hopkins likes to say, "but those 300,000s, they can add up."
Nonetheless, who thought that he belonged in the ring with Trinidad, who had systematically deposed America's boxing royalty, defeating three Olympic gold medal winners between February 1999 and March 2000? Once a hero only in his native Puerto Rico, Trinidad, with his heavy hands, had become the U.S.'s marquee fighter. If he could handle a superstar like Oscar De La Hoya, he shouldn't have much problem with Hopkins.
The setup was simple. Trinidad would be matched with Joppy, and the two other titleholders, Hopkins and WBC king Keith Holmes, would meet in the other eliminator. The two winners would face off, and the winner of that bout, presumably, would move up to meet Jones in an all-the-money-in-the-world fight. Essentially, however, it was supposed to be a complicated coronation of Trinidad, who would become the first undisputed middleweight champion since Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.
Hopkins kept barking that this wouldn't necessarily be so, but he wasn't persuasive-even after he dominated Holmes to win a 12-round decision in April. Before his bout with Trinidad, when an online casino offered Hopkins $100,000 to wear its dotcom name on his trunks (and stenciled in greasepaint on his back), he bet the entire amount on himself, getting 5-to-2 odds. Few others followed his example. Yet last Saturday night his performance was so natural and so confident that you had to shake your head. What did Hopkins know that nobody else, least of all Trinidad, knew?