Saturday, April 19, 2014 (All day)

BERNARD HOPKINS : Boxing's oldest world champ still rumbling

Halfway through an hour-long conversation with Bernard Hopkins and boxing's great philosopher is preaching his own branch of metaphysics: life, the universe and everything. Or, in short, how did he get here?

And I find myself thinking the same - how did he get here? - but on a far more basic level. Moments earlier we were discussing what he had for breakfast - hash browns and pancakes, sparkling water and cranberry juice. But that's only part of his secret.

Bernard Hopkins

"Billions of people on this earth, so why me?" says the 49-year-old American, the oldest world champion in the history of boxing.

"Why me, who got stabbed three times on the streets of Philadelphia? Why me, who beat up everybody and took everything they had? Why me, who was incarcerated for five years? Why me, who lost my first pro fight? WHY ME?!

"There are so many black youths dying every day like flies on the streets of America. I was just like them. But now I understand. Every now and again, history brings along a person who stands out. I believe in the unseen and that some are chosen and some are not. If I sound crazy, then tell me why I've been around this long. Luck? Luck doesn't strike that many times in anybody's life."

When Hopkins starts steaming like this, he sounds unnervingly like Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction, winding himself up for an execution. But he has earned the right to thunder from his pulpit.

Hopkins won his first world title in 1995, at the age of 30, before defending his middleweight crown 20 times. On Saturday, he defends his IBF light-heavyweight crown against WBA champion Beibut Shumenov in Washington DC. Should Hopkins beat Shumenov, who is 19 years his junior, he will become the oldest boxer to unify a weight division.

But to truly appreciate Hopkins's achievements and what his achievements can teach those less blessed than him, you have to know something of where he came from.

Hopkins, one of eight children, grew up on one of Philadelphia's grittiest housing projects. By his early teens he had graduated from petty theft to muggings and was stabbed three times before the age of 14, very nearly becoming just another one of those flies, splattered on the sidewalk.

In 1982, aged only 17 but with a rap sheet as long as his boxing record now reads, Hopkins was sentenced to 18 years in prison. In Pennsylvania State Correctional Institution, Hopkins didn't witness much correcting.

He did, however, witness fellow inmates being raped and murdered.

"I saw a guy killed for a lousy pack of cigarettes," says Hopkins. "Something in me snapped."

Hopkins insists his experiences in prison have informed rather than defined him. Stored in a well in the backyard of his brain - the Well of Eternity? - Hopkins can draw on those experiences whenever his mind and spirit need rejuvenating.

"I'm not motivated by where I've been," says Hopkins. "I'm not stuck back in that box. But if I've got to go back and grab some inspiration and some strength, I can reminisce - briefly - before moving forward again."

Hopkins discovered boxing in prison, around the time of his 21st birthday, before being released in 1988. He lost his first pro fight later that same year, against a light-heavyweight called Clinton Mitchell, and spent 16 months contemplating his next move before resuming his career as a middleweight.

"Some people are afraid to fail," says Hopkins. "But I'm not afraid to fail. I know that if I put in a sincere effort - march, fight, scream, like my ancestors did when they were paving the way for me - I'll get through it."

Hopkins spent the first half of the 1990s as "the third man in the house", behind James Toney and Roy Jones Jr. The lavishly gifted Jones beat Hopkins in a world title encounter in 1993, before Hopkins won the IBF middleweight crown almost two years later, courtesy of a stoppage of Ecuador's Segundo Mercado.

In those early years, Hopkins was known as a knockout artist. But as the world title defences mounted up he garnered a reputation as a master tactician.

"In life, some people are playing chequers and some people are playing chess," says Hopkins.



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