Even for those who seem to defy it, time has a rhythm. In a boxing gym, it’s unavoidable: the thwacking of gloves hitting mitts, the slow thump-thump of the heavy bag and the echoing bell that starts and stops all of it. And of course, the constant soundtrack from the speakers. Let the young bucks bop their head to the earthquake beats and pungent rhymes. That’s not Bernard Hopkins. He’s tying his shoes, getting ready for the day’s workout and singing.
“How sweet it is,” he croons, “to be loved—by—you!”
This afternoon, like all the others for the past three decades, features a silky smooth playlist of vintage Motown and old-school R&B, classic hooks evoking old memories.
“Everything old about me, brother,” the prizefighter said before beginning a workout.
The stubble on his chin is gray, sure, and time has given his expressive face incredible storytelling abilities. Hopkins is 49 years old, has three children and is somehow gearing up for his 65th professional fight. Despite his age, he holds the IBF light heavyweight championship and hopes to unify titles Saturday at D.C. Armory by beating WBA champ Beibut Shumenov, a Kazakhstani fighter who’s 19 years younger.
Hopkins is the first to tell you how remarkable this all is, but he’s hardly the only one. No fighter his age has ever held a world title. Most have no business setting foot in a boxing ring. And yet, Hopkins is still going strong in perhaps the most physically and mentally demanding sport.
“If a baseball player, football player, basketball player was performing at anywhere near the level that Bernard is, he would be in a lab being studied by scientists,” says Bruce Binkow, the chief operating officer for Golden Boy, Hopkins’s promoter.
For several years now, Hopkins (54-6-2 with two no contests) has had fun with the issue of his age. He’s not cuddly like George Foreman and doesn’t have that infomercial-ready smile. He’s raw and unfiltered, one of the sport’s most confident showmen who’s already outlived multiple ring nicknames. The latest: the Alien. “I’m amongst you all, but I’m not one of you all. . . . Aliens live forever,” he told Jim Rome during a recent live radio interview.
But when the red light turns off, Hopkins is refreshingly introspective. There are two big questions he faces. The answer to the easier of the two — How does he do it? — is impressive and sensible. “It’s not a magic trick,” he concedes. But it’s much more difficult to understand why he’s still doing it.
Hopkins has already checked off all the boxes. He doesn’t need the money or fame. He’s happily married and says he’s blessed with children, friends, religion, curiosity. He’s already a boxing icon, having defended his middleweight title a record 20 times from 1995 to 2005, so his legacy is secure. And even better, his brain still functions. Seems like he’s well ahead of the game.
But boxing is ultimately a sport of control, and that has always been Hopkins’s biggest foe. Oscar De La Hoya, Roy Jones Jr. and Felix Trinidad were mere stand-ins. Hopkins was always fighting something bigger. The answer to the why is complicated and raises yet another question: Why does anyone do anything?
Hopkins isn’t setting out to defy time. He’s just figured out how to control the rhythm.
During a recent workout, Hopkins went through the familiar motions: shadowboxing, pounding bags, jumping rope. The day’s session finished, his longtime trainer Naazim Richardson sat on the ring apron and tried to offer some perspective. “You’ve got guys — Tiger Woods done have two, three surgeries — and he’s playing golf,” he said. “These guys having surgeries on their knees and their back playing golf and things of that nature. . . . And this guy’s still boxing?”
How does he do it? Hopkins is right: It’s not a magic trick, more a byproduct of a regimented life and methodical fighting style. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do anything to compromise his health, he insists. To hear him explain it, Hopkins’s life is a master’s thesis in self-discipline, a treatise on control.
“I don’t drink occasionally. I don’t drink on the holidays. I don’t drink alcohol, period,” he said. “Not wine, not nothing.”
The boxer has preserved his body by controlling everything that goes into it. It’s a big part of why he looks and feels like someone half his age.
Foreman won the heavyweight title at 45 and was the oldest title-holder until Hopkins came along. Foreman says no fighter can survive past 40 without self-discipline.
“I know the secret,” Foreman says. “He doesn’t have any distractions. There’s a point where there’s so many distractions that you can’t stay in shape. But then all of a sudden, it’s like breaking the sound barrier and you can just do it as long as you want.”
Unlike Foreman, Hopkins never fit the warrior archetype. He’s a thoughtful boxer who has become only more meticulous with age. He hasn’t knocked out an opponent since De La Hoya in 2004, and every bout these days is virtually assured of going to the judges’ scorecards. When it comes to scoring points, he’s a craftsman, taking advantage of his opportunities and limiting those of his foe.
His opponents connect with barely one of every four punches thrown, and on average Hopkins throws just 39 punches per round, fewer than any other current fighter, according to CompuBox numbers. It’s a frustrating style that messes up opponents’ rhythm and pace.
“He’s like a college basketball team that will use the whole shot clock before trying to score,” said Al Bernstein, the veteran analyst who has worked Hopkins’s last several fights for Showtime.
The low output not only pays dividends on fight night, but with it Hopkins says he’s been able to add years onto his career.
“You see guys move around, just so they could look like a boxer, just so they can bounce around and the audience looks at them like they’re boxing,” said Richardson, who has been working the boxer’s corner for the past 15 years. “But he doesn’t waste anything.”
Despite his age, Hopkins has suffered far less punishment than fighters much younger. The philosophy is simple and effective: “Take less and give more,” he says. In 2011, when he won the WBC and International Boxing Organization belts from Jean Pascal and became the oldest fighter to win a world title, Hopkins was hit only 70 times in a 12-round bout.
“Some people might think they’re invincible,” Hopkins said, “but I don’t.”
In a tacit recognition of the sport’s dangers, Hopkins doesn’t bring his wife and children to any of his fights. He says he knows the risks, which makes it all the more odd that he’d continue to put his body and mind in harm’s way.
Research into brain injuries is ongoing, but neurologist Margaret Goodman, the former ringside physician for the Nevada State Athletic Commission, points out that the brain can become more fragile as a fighter ages, making a 49-year old more vulnerable in the ring than a 29-year old.
“Everyone’s brain shrinks as we get older,” she said. “Theoretically, when the head is hit, there’s more risk to chronic injury or perhaps acute injury.”
She explains that even as the brain shrinks, the dura, the thick membrane that serves as a casing of sorts, does not. There are bridging veins that connect the brain’s casing layers, and that widening gap could potentially spell danger.
Goodman is a member of the Association of Ringside Physicians, which proposed last month that any fighter age 40 or older undergo a baseline brain test, followed by extensive exams each year. Currently, standards vary from state to state. Places such as Nevada, New Jersey and Maryland have more stringent requirements for older fighters. Washington does not.
Hopkins says he has regular doctor visits and one recently told him his bloodwork looked like that of a man half his age.
“It seems like he’s doing pretty good. He seems like an anomaly,” Goodman said.
His workout finished, Hopkins plopped himself in the passenger seat of a white Escalade, and a childhood friend climbed behind the wheel.
“So you want to go through the projects?” asked Malik Chambers, and soon the vehicle was cutting through North Philly and Hopkins was traveling through time.
“I went to this school,” the fighter said, motioning out the window. “William Dick Elementary School right here. When I left out of there, I didn’t even know my ABCs.”
Hopkins was the second of eight children, the son of a garbage collector. Growing up in 1970s Philly, he says, he never knew he had options. Neighbors celebrated friends coming home from jail, not those bringing home honest paychecks. It was too easy, he said, to get caught up in street life.
Looking out a car window, Hopkins heard a train rumble by. He remembers throwing rocks at the trains that thundered through his neighborhood. Other times he watched the older kids somehow manage to stop the trains entirely and open the cargo cars.
“You come out the next morning and whatever they took is in everybody’s house. . . . Everybody’s house look the same. Same couch, same everything,” Hopkins said.
It wasn’t long before he, too, was helping himself to whatever he could get. Hopkins estimates he was arrested more than 30 times, street crimes ranging from assault to robbery. He still has scars today from three separate stabbing incidents. Eventually, charges stuck and he was sentenced to 18 years at Graterford Prison.
Turns out life inside was more comfortable than the streets. He discovered the Koran, worked on his GED and was known across the lockup for his boxing skills. “I was cool with everybody,” he said, “the guards, the hustlers, the thugs, the lifers.” In time, he learned a discipline and self-control that no one learns on the streets.
With good behavior, he was out in less than five years, a 23-year old with nine years parole and a second chance. The day Hopkins was discharged, walking down the corridor wearing a prison-issued brown uniform one final time, he remembers a warden telling him, “You’ll be back in six months,” words that still echo today.
As the Escalade rolled past a well-known neighborhood landmark, Wine & Spirits Shoppe, Hopkins mentioned how his parents were frequent customers, saying “they made them rich.”
Both parents struggled with alcohol and died more than a decade ago. Hopkins’s connections with the old neighborhood are mostly memories. He lives on a sprawling 17,000-square foot estate in Delaware now, barely 35 miles away.
“The projects is over here to your right. See the projects right there. That’s where I grew up at,” he said.
Near Diamond and 25th streets, the Raymond Rosen Housing Projects are still standing, still serving a function. “A world within a world,” Hopkins said. His mom moved a bit north to Germantown before Hopkins began high school, but it’s all still a part of him, even if he’s no longer a part of it.
He studied the trash on the side of the roads, the empty buildings, the kids who remind him of himself four decades earlier.
“Can you imagine me moving back to the projects, Malik?”
“You’d be suicidal,” his friend said, offering a reserved chuckle. “Nah, can’t do it.”
Boxing has brought money, accolades and headlines, but for Hopkins, it’s still about what it was when he returned to freedom at 23 and a warden unwittingly issued a challenge.
Hopkins has his prison number memorized — Y4145 — and stores an old jail mug shot in his iPhone. “I look older in this picture than now, don’t I?” he said. These are the kinds of things that can’t be erased.
Bernstein, the veteran Showtime analyst, says there’s been only one fighter to enjoy this kind of success at such a late age. Archie Moore was one of the all-time greats and didn’t retire until he was 46 — and not until after an embarrassing loss to Cassius Clay in 1962.
“Nobody at 49, though, has fought at this level,” Bernstein said. “Never been done.”
Hopkins moved to Delaware more than 15 years ago, enticed by the lighter tax burden but also aware that it was a safer place to raise a family. His real estate holdings — in addition to a variety of Philadelphia investment properties, he has homes in Florida and California — earn enough for him to live comfortably, he said. “Boxing, to me, is gravy. It’s extra gravy. It’s my kids’ kids’ money,” he said.
He’s also rich in opinions and rarely settles for 10 words when 1,000 might do. It doesn’t usually take much to make the permanent chip on Hopkins’s shoulder rise to the surface.
He has read “The Art of War” and considers himself an expert when it comes to control and persuasion. He said he even tries to hypnotize opponents before fights. Hopkins has never needed boxing gloves to engage in battle, and the inherent power struggle and tilted dynamics in boxing set him off.
“Man, it’s bigger than this [expletive]. I’m just getting their god in my pocket, in my bank account, so I can live respectful. . . . At least I know this,” he told anyone within earshot. “The problem is, you at a handicap when you don’t know. It’s called ignorance. When you don’t know, it’s a handicap. See, they ain’t got to shackle you up and put you in slavery. All they do is: lack of education, lack of understanding. They mentally incarcerate you and don’t offer parole.”
That was him once. But never again, he says. The powers that be — the warden, the projects, the promoters, the media — will never tell him how to live his life.
The key to coming out on fight night, to training between bouts, to staying enthused about such a ruthless sport, he says, is to focus on what he doesn’t have. If he does that, thinks like the young boy in the projects, the fire will never dim.
“Always have to think like a guy with no food in his refrigerator,” he says.
While that helps explain why he’s still lacing up the gloves, it offers no hint at what it will take for him to someday leave the sport for good.
Many fighters face the same struggle, and few leave on their own terms. Foreman last fought at age 48 but decided in 2004 to make yet another comeback at 55. His wife pleaded with him to just walk away, but he insisted he could still box.
“She said, ‘George, isn’t that the way you want to leave, thinking that you can still do it?’ ” Foreman recalls. “I turned my back and never even skipped rope again. But most guys leave and can’t walk straight, can’t remember their kids’ names. . . . Boxing is a trap. It’s easy to get in, but oh boy, is it hard to get out. You need help.”
Hopkins has had numerous chances before. He walked out of prison with dreams of being a professional fighter but lost in his very first outing. He didn’t fight again for 18 months. That’s a long time to stand at the crossroads and try to choose a direction. Over the past dozen years, most boxing analysts have urged him to retire at one point or another. Even Hopkins himself has thought he was finished. After beating Antonio Tarver in 2006, he said, “I’m done. There’s nothing else to do.” He was back in the ring a year later.
Asked why he stays in the game, he talks for nearly 10 minutes, uninterrupted. It’s all about doing things on his terms; there’s a constant hunger and a sense of purpose, all with roots entrenched in his personal history. No one controls Bernard Hopkins.
“I will know when it’s time to walk away,” he insists.
“I can’t let people dictate to me, whether I can, whether I can’t,” he wants you to know.
“I started late, and I’m ending later,” he says.
Hopkins hopes to dispose of Shumenov this weekend and then face 36-year-old Adonis Stevenson, the WBC light heavyweight title-holder. Hopkins then plans to defend his title at age 50.
Undoubtedly, the talk of retirement will intensify, which might make it tougher for Hopkins to truly walk away. “I really get off on what I’m told I can’t do more than when I’m told what I can do,” he said one recent afternoon. It would amount to another battle and another chance to assert his independence to the world.
Boxing at 49? 50? The age doesn’t matter. It’s hard to picture a day when Hopkins isn’t fighting something or other.