Tarnished legacy; but Bernard Hopkins will be missed out

At the Forum in Inglewood, California, on Saturday night, in the eighth round of the 65th and last fight of his 28-year career, Hopkins, who will be 52 next month, was knocked through the ropes and out of his sport. He was left lying flat on his back on the floor, surrounded by concerned officials and TV operatives, as he stared up at a conqueror 24 years younger than him, one Joe Smith Jr. It was not the farewell he had anticipated.

Bernard Hopkins should be remembered as the best pure middleweight since Marvin Hagler. Although The Executioner might not have beaten the “Marvelous” bald one, they would have had a hell of a fight, and there is a case to put Hopkins alongside him in the all‑time top 10 of the division. However, his legacy will be tarnished by the very quality that made him so formidable for so long: pride.

Hopkins had done reasonably well up to that point, slipping and sniping as of old. One official, Pat Russell, had him 67-66 up, which was charitable. Tim Cheatham had it the other way by a point, and Tom Taylor was closer, at 69-64 for Smith. I gave Hopkins the third, fourth and sixth. But, as smart as he boxed, his feet stopped gliding. The blows “stayed on him”, as they say. It seemed his beard-fleck grew a little more grey.

Junior was no ordinary Joe, but nor was he that special. A 27-year-old construction worker from Long Island, he trades on his Irish roots and fought with a robust, unsubtle intensity that has elevated him into the upper reaches of what was once the glamour division of boxing. It was too much for Hopkins – too much to counter after a solid start, too much to absorb a cluster of solid head shots sent him tumbling to defeat and embarrassment, and too much to accept with anything approaching good grace.

This is a precis of what Hopkins said, in contradiction of all visual evidence, to Max Kellerman after limping through the crowd to his dressing room: “I think I was throwing a right hand or a combination and using the rope as an offensive defence, like I’m known for. I made him miss and I believe I was frustrating him up to that round. Every now and then he got in an overhand right, which was his only big punch. He got frustrated when we got in a clinch.

“I might have got hit with a grazed right or a left hook and, going through the momentum, he shoved me out of the ring. I tried to grab [the ropes] on the way out and I went straight through. I believe I hit my head. I hit my head first and my ankle got hit when I hit the ground, a twist. The doctor says it’s swollen on the right side.”

In a sadly familiar ritual, Hopkins refused to believe he had been beaten fairly. He bitched, to use the argot of his Philadelphia streets, as he has done before in defeat, against Chad Dawson and Joe Calzaghe. This time, he said, he couldn’t carry on because he had injured his ankle, and thus could not beat the extended 20-count to get back in the ring, although he wanted to.

He was then afforded the unwarranted get-out by officials who declared the result “a TKO because of injury due to a legal blow”. Not for the first time, boxing got it wrong. It should have been an unequivocal count-out stoppage, as he failed to beat the 20 seconds allowed for being knocked out of the ring. Instead, he argued and prevaricated, eating up the clock as inept officials scratched their heads.

Smith, respectful in victory against a one-time great fighter, had a better grip on reality: “I landed the left hook there and it finished the job. I hit him with four, five clean shots, they were good shots right on the button. I didn’t expect him to get up. But he’s a true champion and I knew if he didn’t get injured he would be back here in the ring. I had to do my job. This was my coming-out party, too.”

Nobody was champion for longer than Hopkins’s 10 years, two months and 17 days, or made more than his 20 defences; he was the oldest world champion at any weight – nudging George Foreman and Archie Moore out of the record books – at 48 years, one month and 22 days, by beating Tavoris Cloud three years ago.

Nevertheless, Hopkins was a fine fighter, a shrewd, tough survivor with a keen understanding of the sport’s nuances. Any reasonable assessment has to place him in the mix with the middleweight greats: Sugar Ray Robinson (the pound-for-pound king, as well, across the middle range of weights), Marvin Hagler, Carlos Monzon, Stanley Ketchel, Jake La Motta, Harry Greb, Mickey Walker, Hopkins and Marcel Cerdan.

His farewell had the air of Robinson’s. Sugar Ray had the last of his 198 fights in 1965, the year Hopkins was born, but there was precious little left of him against Joey Archer, who outpointed him with unseemly ease and went on to challenge Don Fullmer and Emile Griffith in three unsuccessful bids for the world middleweight title. Joe Smith Jr works in a considerably reduced environment.

Hopkins, born into adversity that he worked to his advantaged, was not too proud to earn a living as a dishwasher. He went to prison. He overcame. But he could not get a grip on humility in the ring. That, perversely, is what made him so dangerous and, for a long time, so good. One way or another, we’ll miss him.

In the 90s, Hopkins lost to a prime Roy Jones Jr, beat worthy challengers John David Jackson (who was in his corner on Saturday night after the fighter had unexpectedly split with Nazeem Richardson), Glen Johnson, Simon Brown and Antwun Echols. In the following decade, he beat Keith Holmes, an unbeaten Felix Trinidad, William Joppy, a fading Oscar De La Hoya, Britain’s under-rated Howard Eastman over 12 rounds in 2005, Antonio Tarver, Ronald Winky Wright, Kelly Pavlik, and, on a night of sweet but late revenge, Roy Jones Jr. In the fading years a strong, young Jean Pascal lost to him; Chad Dawson, another tough veteran, won and lost. Jermain Taylor beat him twice; Joe Calzaghe was too young and fast for him; two years ago Sergey Kovalev, fearsome and undefeated, beat him up and nearly stopped him.

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