HBO WCB - May 21, 2011

Jean Pascal vs. Bernard Hopkins II

Dawson vs. Diaconu

Hopkins Training Camp

May 5, 2011

You can't help but notice the faces on the walls. Bob Montgomery. Harold Johnson. Gypsy Joe Harris. Bennie Briscoe. Georgie Benton. A dozen others. Everywhere you turn in the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia, you're greeted by almost-life-sized black-and-white wall hangings depicting the greatest boxers to emerge from this once-bustling fight town.

Twenty-three years and nearly 60 fights after he turned pro with a four-round defeat to Clinton Mitchell, Bernard Hopkins is threatening to go down as the greatest of them all. And, yes, "threatening" is the right word. Hopkins has a gentle side, but the boxing world rarely gets to see it. This is a man who sets opponents up for defeat as much with his verbal intimidation as with his jabs and feints. You can't out-talk him. You don't dare interrupt him. He will lock you in with his stare. He will get into your head.

Hopkins is a fiercely independent man, hardened by the experience a quarter-century ago of being incarcerated and told what to do and when to do it. Now he doesn't let anybody tell him what to do. A member of his camp offers him a sweatshirt to put on. Hopkins is almost offended by the suggestion. "I'm 46 years old. I know when I'm cold and when I'm not. If I need something, I'll get it," he insists.

"I am on something. And I've been on it for a long time. It's called proving people wrong. And let me tell you, that is the worst narcotic you can have in your system."

As of this gym session there are exactly four weeks to go until fight night, when Hopkins will challenge 28-year-old Jean Pascal in a rematch to their 12-round draw last December. Had Hopkins gotten the victory on that night, he would have become the oldest boxer ever to win a major title. Needless to say, that record is up for grabs once again-and this isn't just some easy-come-easy-go alphabet title "The Executioner" is fighting for. Pascal holds The Ring championship, the closest thing there is in modern boxing to an undisputed title. Hopkins held The Ring belt at middleweight, enjoying the longest reign and most successful defenses in 160-pound history. He also held the very same light heavyweight belt that he's trying to take from Pascal.

The last time he captured that title, Hopkins was 41. His dominant victory over Antonio Tarver was lauded as a magnificent achievement that shook up the hour glass. Five years later, Hopkins is trying to make an even grander mockery of the aging process. He lives for these moments when he can stare out into press row and, without moving his lips, say "I told you so."

"How many athletes in their careers had four, five, six, seven different times they made history?" Hopkins asks. "I can name every time I made history. Not every fight is history. But this one will be. That motivates me."

Also motivating him: Pascal accusing Hopkins of being on performance-enhancing drugs while yelling "Take the test!" over and over at a recent press conference. Hopkins takes the unsubstantiated allegation as something of a compliment.

"To say that a person must have cheated, he's making an excuse for himself why he didn't do what he was supposed to do in our first fight," Hopkins analyzes. "That's a guy that's in denial of what happened to him, if he's talking about the possibility of what he thinks that I'm on.

"I am on something. And I've been on it for a long time. It's called proving people wrong. And let me tell you, that is the worst narcotic you can have in your system."

Hopkins thought he'd kicked the habit after the Tarver win back in '06, when he temporarily made good on a promise he'd made to his mother to retire. But he couldn't stay retired. He came back and defeated Winky Wright. He lost a close decision and his light heavyweight championship to Joe Calzaghe. The fight fraternity counted him out again-and he responded by shocking the undefeated Kelly Pavlik. He won a marking-time fight against Enrique Ornelas, then evened a 17-year-old score with Roy Jones.

But challenging the prime, athletic Pascal in Canada last December at age 45 was expected by many to be the ego-driven undertaking that finally got Hopkins knocked out. Instead, it took the judges giving the local fighter the benefit of every doubt to keep the belt out of Hopkins' possession.

So now the 46-year-old B-Hop is training with his usual brand of maniacal determination and impossible youthfulness to "make the wrong right."

When he arrives at the gym at 2:00 on this overcast Saturday afternoon, he immediately launches into a 15-minute sermon. Members of his inner circle gather around. Head trainer Naazim Richardson won't be here until May 9, as his obligations training Shane Mosley take precedence for now. In the meantime, Hopkins talks strategy with Brother Naazim on the phone.

And now he's talking philosophy.

His beard spattered with flecks of gray, Hopkins goes into a diatribe about how when you're young, you automatically rebel somewhat against whatever advice you're given. He rants about how young fighters like Andre Berto, who suffered his first defeat just a week earlier, are anointed as great before they've accomplished anything. He declares that you have to be leery of people who use the word "I" too much. He recalls how he defied those who told him he couldn't juggle managing his own business affairs and succeeding as a fighter.

He obsesses about how followers allow their minds to be controlled by their leaders. It's an ironic jag, delivered as some of the members of Hopkins' entourage appear to be hanging on his every word.

Hopkins pulls up a chair, and Danny Davis-the head trainer in Richardson's absence-begins wrapping his hands. It's a process that will take about 20 minutes. And Hopkins will spend every second of it continuing to give his jaw a workout.

He comments on how so few fighters train on a Saturday like he does-and you can't help but notice that the gym is indeed empty save for Hopkins and his camp. He dives into stories from nearly 20 years ago about how former manager Butch Lewis tried to screw him out of money, filling the gym with laughter when he busts out his Lewis impression: "Heeeeey, come on, man!"

Finally, the hand wrapping is done, the gloves are on, and the double-end bag is darting from side to side. Jay-Z's "The City Is Mine" blares over the gym's sound system, Glenn Frey's familiar refrain of "You belong to the city" resonating. Hopkins is a product of the city, and he once belonged to the state. Now he belongs to no one.

Hopkins moves over to the heavy bag. His right hand pops off as hard and crisp as ever. How can this guy be 46?, you wonder. Davis offers a few instructions, but mostly lets Hopkins follow his own script. Sharif Parker keeps a count of every punch B-Hop throws. Between rounds, Howard Moses mops Hopkins' sweat off the floor with a towel. Camp coordinator Malik Abu Raqayyiah, massage therapist Tzoni Kolev, and another assistant, Allan "A.J." Davis, don't have specific jobs to do at this time, but they all keep a watchful eye. Another young man holds a video camera-Hopkins has recorded every single workout he's had for more than a decade, in part so he can study himself, in part so he can release a documentary film someday.

Hopkins takes off the gloves, and Davis cuts off the wraps. The fighter concludes his workout by jumping rope. He has a litheness about him; he’s almost dancing. The droplets of sweat continue to splash on the gym floor, falling in a rhythm as the balls of the fighter’s feet bounce up and down.

The bell sounds. Hopkins can drop the rope and be finished. But he keeps going a few moments longer. Nobody dares tell Hopkins when his workout is done.

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