Bernard Hopkins


World middleweight & light-heavyweight champion

Some athletes are so obviously gifted that they appear to burst into prominence at a relatively young age, fully formed and predestined to excel.

The saga of boxing legend Bernard Hopkins, who came up the hard way, overcoming all manner of obstacles inside and outside the ring, is not one of those tales of quick and seemingly easy success.

Philly native Hopkins, now 57, joins the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame in no small part because of his incredible longevity, a 28-year professional career in which he won both middleweight and light heavyweight world championships. His obsessive dedication to remaining at or near the top of his brutal profession was so intense that Hopkins remained a world-rated fighter until he was nearly 52.

"Bernard Hopkins is as close to a perfectionist with nutrition as anyone I've ever dealt with," said renowned physical conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone, who helped "B-Hop" (then 41) bulk up the right way from the middleweight limit of 160 pounds into a fantastically fit 175-pound light heavyweight for his unanimous decision over Antonio Tarver in June 2006 – another one of Hopkins' many "upset" victories that in retrospect doesn't seem so surprising. If ancient Greek fabulist Aesop had thought to conjure a fable about a boxer, no doubt someone like Hopkins would be represented as the human tortoise that kept outlasting and frustrating the hell out of every frisky hare sent against him.

Earlier this year, Hopkins was welcomed into boxing's most exclusive and prestigious club when he was finally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. Typical of someone whose road to glory might have been sidetracked before it began, Hopkins went in as a member of the Class of 2020 but COVID-19 postponed that year's induction festivities (and 2021's as well). But tonight's shining moment in his hometown, and a spot in a Hall of Fame that has been previously graced by some of the boxing and non-boxing heroes of Hopkins' childhood and adolescence, has him as gleeful as he's ever been. It's not just another prestigious award. It is a form of acceptance Hopkins has craved since his misspent, hardscrabble youth in North Philly incorrectly stamped him as an incorrigible whose future likely included prison and/or an early death. Only one of those gloomy outcomes came true, and only temporarily.

"It's huge," Hopkins said of his welcome-to-the-club notification by the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame. "Mr. (James) Villareal, my sixth-grade teacher, knew all about Philly sports history. He used to talk to me about some of the stars on our teams back then. Obviously, Canastota is the big Hall of Fame for boxing, but the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame covers all the sports in our town! It doesn't get any more iconic than that.

"I was also introduced to what a lot of those guys did by my uncle, Artie McCloud. I was a big fan of Tug McGraw, Julius Erving, Ron Jaworski, Bobby Clarke and the Broad Street Bullies. And Joe Frazier, of course."

Few if any of Hopkins' fellow Philly Hall of Famers can match his relentless trek from disgrace and disappointment to a Hall of Fame place not even fellow age-defying boxers Archie Moore and George Foreman can share. Hopkins was incarcerated at 17 for an armed robbery and spent nearly five years behind bars. He lost his first pro bout and might never have been heard from again. After climbing as a contender, he lost his first world title shot and then had to settle for a draw in his second. But when Hopkins finally ascended to the top of the mountain, a seventh-round stoppage of Segundo Mercado for the IBF middleweight crown on April 29, 1995, he remained there for a division-record twenty defenses (since matched by Gennadiy Golovkin). One of those was Hopkins' title unification conquest of the favored Felix Trinidad in September 2001 at historic Madison Square Garden.

What allowed Hopkins to outpoint the natural laws of diminishing returns for so long? His personal vow never to backslide, as a fighter or a man worthy of proper society's notice, as well as memories of being told so often that he never would amount to anything. In a story for the Philadelphia Daily News before then-43-year-old upset (naturally) 25-year-old Kelly Pavlik, I wrote that B-Hop "doesn't get mad, he gets even. Even the slightest provocation can get Hopkins stoked, and nothing lights that particular fire like the notion he is being dismissed, disrespected or disenfranchised."

by Bernard Fernandez

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