Patience has always served Bernard Hopkins well. He waited nearly five years for his release from prison, where his good behavior earned him an early parole in 1988. After he lost his first professional fight, he waited 16 months to make sure he was ready for his next one. But Hopkins was patient to a fault last Saturday night against Jermain Taylor, and it cost him the undisputed middleweight title, which he had successfully defended a division-record 20 consecutive times.
Hopkins waited too long to take control of the fight, and by the time he staged a furious rally in the final rounds, it was too late, at least in the opinion of two of the three judges. Taylor, a bronze medalist in the 2000 Olympics, won a split decision that seemed to anger many of the spectators at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas more than it did Hopkins, who was in surprisingly good spirits after the bout. "I'm not going to say I was robbed, but has anybody seen my wallet?" he said. "When I fought Roy Jones in '93, I knew I lost. Tonight I won, but they just gave it to the other guy."
While Hopkins bided his time early, Taylor was clearly the aggressor, and though Hopkins slipped most of his opponent's big punches, Taylor piled up points. The last six rounds seemed like a different fight, with Hopkins dominating more decisively than Taylor had earlier. But one of the judges, Duane Ford, inexplicably gave the 12th round to Taylor, which swung the decision. Ford and Paul Smith scored the fight 115-113 for Taylor, while Jerry Roth scored it 116-112 in favor of Hopkins. "We knew he was going to wait and wait and try to come on at the end," Taylor said. "But I felt like I did enough early on to win the fight."
Now that he's the champ, Taylor, a soft-spoken native of Little Rock who overcame a severe stutter as a child, isn't under the illusion that he has nothing left to learn. If he had resisted the urge to go head-hunting in the early rounds, trying to end the fight with one punch, he might have had more energy left to repel Hopkins's late rush. "This fight taught me so much," he said. "I did a lot of things wrong. I didn't go to the body as much as I should have, and I chased him around instead of cutting off the ring. Those are things I'll do better next time."
Since Taylor is contractually obligated to give Hopkins a rematch, next time will probably be in early October. Hopkins declared himself ready to go sooner. "I don't need to heal," he said. "I don't need stitches. Great champions do what? They come back."
The need for a rematch upsets Hopkins's exit strategy. He had planned on beating Taylor, then ending his brilliant 17-year career--a career that seemed unlikely when he was sent to prison for armed robbery--against Antonio Tarver or possibly Jones. "My only priority right now is making sure things are different against Jermain next time," he said.
Things will be different, but not necessarily in the way that Hopkins envisions. Taylor will be older, smarter, even more confident, while Hopkins will be, well, just older. Patience isn't a virtue when you're running out of time.