Bernard Hopkins is one of the most interesting and fascinating fighters in the history of boxing. As a youth, he was a hardcore criminal in the mean streets of Philadelphia, resulting in an armed robbery conviction of up to 18 years when he was only 17. After serving five years, Hopkins was released on parole. He vowed never to go back to a life of crime and in turn, prison. While incarcerated, he began boxing. Like many before him, boxing was his ticket to freedom and prosperity. It was that hunger and determination that helped make him the fifth greatest Middleweight of all time.
After losing his pro debut in 1988, Hopkins, who had absolutely no amateur career, won his next 22 fights and earned a shot at the vacant IBF World Middleweight title. Unfortunately, he ran into the most talented and gifted fighter of his generation; Roy Jones, Jr. On May 22, 1993, Jones thoroughly outboxed Hopkins to win an easy 12 round decision to win the vacant title. That loss, like the earlier setbacks in Hopkins’ life, only made him stronger and that much more determined to one day become champion. After a few tuneup fights, Hopkins traveled to Ecuador to fight their native son Segundo Mercado on December 17, 1994 in another attempt to win the IBF title, which was once again vacant. Jones vacated the belt the month before after thoroughly outclassing James Toney to win the IBF Super Middleweight crown. Despite being knocked down twice, Hopkins dominated the majority of the fight, yet the fight was scored a draw. Once again, Hopkins failed in his quest to become champion. The third time would be the charm.
On April 7, 1995, Hopkins put on the first of many virtuoso performances as a Middleweight. He outboxed and battered Mercado in the rematch, causing the referee to stop the fight. At the age of 30, Hopkins was finally the Middleweight champion. It was one of the most incredible title reigns in the history of boxing, as Hopkins defeated one great fighter after another thoroughly and convincingly. Not one time was he given a gift decision.
On March 16, 1996, Hopkins defended against the IBF number one contender, Joe Lipsey. Despite beating several tomato cans, many so called experts picked Lipsey to defeat Hopkins. In the fourth round, Hopkins landed an incredible five punch combination, culminating with his signature right cross that put the undefeated Lipsey to sleep. Despite being only 29 at the time, the beating was such that Lipsey never fought again. It wouldn’t be the last time Hopkins ruined a man’s career.
In 2001, Don King in conjunction with Madison Square Garden, held a tournament to crown the undisputed Middleweight champion of the world. King was holding this tournament as a showcase for the number one star of his stable, Puerto Rican legend Félix Trinidad. Trindad was 28 and in his prime. He was undefeated and one of the most explosive fighters in boxing history. In his fight against WBA Middleweight champion William Joppy, Trinidad destroyed him inside five rounds. This beating, coupled with Hopkins workmanlike decision decision over WBC champion Keith Holmes, made Trinidad the favorite in their historic Middleweight unification fight held in September of 2001.
The fight was originally scheduled for September 15, 2001 but the events of 9/11 postponed the fight until September 29. My father had died a year before this fight occurred. My father was a proud Puerto Rican and Trinidad was one of his favorite fighters of all-time. The last fight we saw together on television before he died was Trinidad’s destruction of Mamadou Thiam. I attended the September 29, 2001 fight at MSG. It was the first fight I ever attended without the presence of my father. While he would’ve rooted hard for Trinidad, he would’ve known what I knew. Trinidad was tailor made for Hopkins.
Hopkins was a master boxer/counter puncher. The only fighters that gave Hopkins problems in his career were slick and quick boxers. Trinidad was a deadly boxer/puncher, but as displayed in his fight against Oscar De La Hoya, he had a very difficult time dealing with a fighter that moved and gave him angles. I told everyone I knew that Trinidad didn’t have a shot in the world to beat Hopkins. That night, Hopkins put on the performance of a lifetime. He knew what Trinidad was going to do before Trinidad did. It was a master display of counter punching and defense. Trinidad took a terrible beating for 12 rounds. Finally, in the 12th round, after going down from a booming right cross, Trinidad laid on the canvas a battered and beaten man. Trinidad was never the same after this fight. Hopkins, at the age of 36, was on top of the world and held the title for another four years until losing a close decision to Jermain Taylor in 2005.
Bernard Hopkins was never as talented as the two other great Middleweights of his era; Jones and Toney. They were better, more complete fighters. However, Hopkins had a hunger and desire, coupled with his boxing ability, that resulted in a 10-year title reign and a record 20 successful defenses. Jones and Toney both gave up their titles to move up in weight, so despite their superior talent, they didn’t do enough the crack the top five Middleweights of all time. Hopkins did more than enough, and that is why he’s the fifth greatest Middleweight of all time.
Listen to my podcast on Hopkins’ greatest performances, recorded on November 6, 2016.
You can also read my series on the Greatest Welterweights.