On January 15, 1965, Bernard Humphrey Hopkins Jr was born. By age 13, the Philadelphia native had turned to crime. At 17, he was sentenced to 18 years in prison. At 23, he was released. The warden reportedly expected him to return shortly. Hopkins says he told the warden, "I ain't ever coming back here."
He became a roofer, but while in prison, he had discovered a true passion for boxing, which he had dabbled in as a youngster, and it led him to the gym life in Philly, one of the world's all-time great fight cities. On October 11, 1988, Hopkins fought his professional debut in Atlantic City against another debuting pugilist, 26-year-old Clinton Mitchell. Mitchell won a four-round decision.
It all could have ended there, but it did not. While Mitchell (a former solid amateur out of Brownsville, Brooklyn) wound up having no professional career and indeed would not fight again until 1995, Hopkins shrugged off the loss and kept at it. 16 months later, he was back in the ring. He got his first win, beating Greg Paige at the Blue Horizon.
Since then, he has not gone longer than 14 months without a fight. He fought for his first world title in 1993, losing to Roy Jones Jr in a fight that became more famous as the years went on, and the world learned just how good both fighters really were. He won his first world title in 1995, beating Segundo Mercado for the vacant IBF middleweight belt. He'd defend that title alone until 2001, when he unified with the WBC belt by beating Keith Holmes. Five months later, he added the WBA title with a win over Felix Trinidad. In 2004, he became the truly undisputed champion of the division when he knocked out Oscar De La Hoya, adding the WBO belt to his collection.
In 2005, at age 40, he lost back-to-back debatable decisions to Jermain Taylor. That could have been the start of the downfall of B-Hop. Instead, it just marked the line between first career and second career in boxing. He moved up to light heavyweight, dominated Antonio Tarver, and since then has gone 7-2-1, losing only to Joe Calzaghe and Chad Dawson.
He's not often exciting. He's not a pay-per-view draw. But 26 years after leaving prison, he's kept the promise to never return, and become an all-time great of the boxing game in the process. The dedication to staying out of trouble, to taking a risk on his belief in himself, has led Bernard Hopkins to more money, more fame, and more glory than he ever could have imagined.
In a couple weeks, Bernard Hopkins will turn 49. He doesn't look or fight his age. If he were 15 years younger -- and 15 years by itself is a lot longer than most good boxing careers -- he'd still look relatively young. Hopkins endures because he's fanatical about his conditioning, and because like that guarantee that he wouldn't go back to prison, he thrives on proving everyone wrong.
Hopkins (54-6-2, 32 KO) will fight on in 2014. We're well past the stage now where we're wondering when his last fight "might" be -- if wisely matched, Hopkins could seemingly fight on forever, not that he should or would. Most expect that he'll fight at age 50, then leave the game behind and settle into a new role as a promoter with Golden Boy. He's already started handling press conferences to get the hang of his future career, hosting the Malignaggi-Judah events in early December.
The first fight in 2014 for B-Hop will almost surely be against Beibut Shumenov. Hopkins currently holds the IBF light heavyweight title, while Shumenov (14-1, 9 KO) is the WBA titlist, meaning it would be a unification fight, ostensibly a step toward Hopkins' stated goal of unifying the four major titles at 175, as he did at 160 between the ages of 30 and 39. Shumenov, 30, is on paper a familiar foe for the surefire Hall of Famer. He's much younger, he's aggressive, he's confident, and his record really isn't all it's cracked up to be. In the last five years alone, we've seen Hopkins pick apart power punchers like Kelly Pavlik, Jean Pascal, and Tavoris Cloud. Does Shumenov have the answers they did not?
If he fights and beats the Kazakh, then the target supposedly would be fights with the other titleholders at 175, namely WBC and Ring Magazine champ Adonis Stevenson and WBO beltholder Sergey Kovalev, two more aggressive, hard-hitting fighters. Even if Hopkins truly wants both or either of those fights, there's no certainty that either can be made. Neither Stevenson nor Kovalev are Top Rank fighters, but they've been featured and built up on HBO, and the network war is as real now as the promoter Cold War.
As Bernard Hopkins has grown older, it has become clear that we're less likely to see him put out to pasture than we are to see him leave with his hand raised, finally having had enough of the grind, ready to retire into the good life. 2014 could be his final year, or we could be having this same discussion in 2015, 2016, and 2017. At some point, he'll walk away. Is anyone going to make him?