By Mark Turley
Three days, three birthdays. On Wednesday, Thursday and Friday this week, a trio of bona-fide legends of the modern ring will be another year older. One of them is long retired, although many would say perhaps not quite long enough. Remarkably, despite being well over 40, the other two are still competing.
Bernard alias ‘B-Hop’, alias ‘The Executioner’, alias ‘The Alien’ Hopkins, the current IBF Light Heavyweight Champion, was born on January 15th 1965, the same date that The Who released their debut album. A day after Bernard turned four, in Pensacola, Florida, Ms Carol Jones gave birth to a boy who would eventually share a ring with Hopkins twice, who at his peak would be such a dazzling fistic phenomenon that nicknames would be superfluous, the one and only Roy Jones Junior.
At 49 and 45 respectively, the fact that these two competitors are still involved in the upper echelons of the fight game is staggering. Jones stands at 57-8, having boxed a total of 446 professional rounds. Hopkins, the oldest ever World Champion, is 56-6-2, with 482 completed sessions to his name. Their longevity is outstanding but also ominous. For clarity we need look no further than the third celebration, on the 17th, which eclipses both of them. On that day Jones’ idol, Muhammed Ali, will be 72.
In addition to being born on adjacent days, the career paths of RJJ and B-Hop have intersected repeatedly. Hopkins turned pro in ’88, Jones a year later. When 24 year old Roy, superstar-to-be, wowing audiences with spontaneous, malevolent creativity, won his first World Title, in May 1993, it was by outpointing Hopkins. His speed and movement were too much for Bernard, moving him to 22-0 and collecting the IBF Middleweight Belt, while B-Hop dropped to 23-2.
Over the course of the next ten years, Jones, like Ali, would dance crazy circles around opponents, make faces, shuffle, shimmy and showboat, score knockouts from all angles with both hands and generally scale god-like peaks of performance. There are few fighters who look genuinely untouchable in their era, but Jones was one, ultimately being named “Fighter of the Decade” for the 90s by the Boxing Writers Association of America. Combining supreme offensive skill with a hands-by-the-waist, reflex-based defence, his befuddled opponents rarely laid a glove on him. When they did, like Lou del Valle who inflicted the first knockdown of his career in 1998, Jones showed that also like Ali, when required, he had the chin of a champion.
A disputed DQ loss to Montell Griffin blotted his record in March ’97, which he avenged savagely with 1st round KO, five months later. That aberration aside, he remained unbeaten until 2003 and picked up World Championships at Middle, Super-Middle, Light-Heavy and Heavyweight. It was a career supreme. Yet Jones, we soon discovered, was human too. He, like all of them, would live out the four seasons of success. And his winter started abruptly. As Roy dropped back down from beating John Ruiz at Heavyweight, to Antonio Tarver at Light-Heavy, shedding 18 pounds of fighting weight in six months, his sharp decline began. He began taking shots he once had slipped.
In the meantime, Hopkins had quietly pressed on, emerging from Jones’ shadow, his candle burning less brightly, but longer. When RJJ vacated the IBF middleweight crown, Hopkins picked it up, with a 7th round TKO of Sergundo Mercado in 1995. With a circumspect style and an unaffected, cell-block demeanour, he learned to disrupt opponents’ rhythm behind a tight defence, frustrate them, then wear them down through attrition. He defended the title no less than twelve times. During this period he grew, becoming better, more intense, tougher. He went to pugilist college in those championship rings before our very eyes. In 2001, he matriculated with honours, adding the WBA and WBC belts with a career defining win over Felix Trinidad. This opened the door to the kind of superstardom Jones had been enjoying for years.
Three years later, as Roy began to falter, Hopkins, already 39 and over the hill in anyone else’s book, cemented his place as the World’s pre-eminent Middleweight by knocking out Oscar De La Hoya in nine to add the WBO title to his collection. The ex-con from Philly who lost his first pro contest had become undisputed Middleweight champ.
Since that spell, in the early-to-mid noughties, their paths have diverged. Jones’ deterioration has accelerated. He has gone from losing meaningful championship contests against top fighters like Tarver in 2004 (TKO 2) or Glen Johnson in the same year (KO 9), to being destroyed by the more mediocre Australian Cruiserweight Danny Green (TKO 1) in 2009. Like a top striker who loses a yard of pace and can no longer find the net regularly, Jones’ speed of hand, mind and foot have steadily eroded. Sure, there have been wins too, sprinkled among the defeats, including his most recent victory, for the WBU (German version) Cruiserweight Belt, but even there Jones has laboured where once he would have soared. Since returning from his Heavyweight party a decade ago, he has lost 7 of 16 – a journeyman’s record – including brutal knockouts at the hands of Tarver, Johnson, Green and Denis Lebedev. For many long-time fans, the Lebedev loss, his third on the bounce from 2009-2011, was particularly difficult viewing.
A flat footed Jones stayed competitive for the majority of the fight, but the contest always had a ‘matter of time’ look about it. In the tenth Lebedev hunted. Jones backed this way and that. He was finally broken by a vicious hook / uppercut combo against the ropes. His legs stiffened, his head slumped forward. Roy was spark out on his feet. The referee paused, even Lebedev paused, there were cries of “stop it!” from the humanitarians among the bloodthirsty in the front rows, before almost with a shrug of resignation, the Russian landed one last crushing right on the fallen idol’s skull. Momentum sent him spinning down where for several sickening minutes, with his attendant family and friends in tears, Jones lay, eyes closed, unmoving, as doctors attempted to revive him. They were horrible moments. But the 42 year old Roy survived. That’s what he does now. He survives. No longer able to make his opponents miss, the middle-aged version of RJJ has gradually swapped the art of self-defence for the art of no defence.
For Hopkins, the story is clearly different. Yes, he too has tasted defeat more often than at his zenith as a Middleweight, losing twice to Jermain Taylor and one apiece to Joe Calzaghe and Chad Dawson, but there have been no runs of defeats, no concussive stoppages. His approach always involved less risk. B-Hop’s hand speed, never as blurring or flashy as Roy’s, appears undiminished. His savvy and ringcraft remain second to none. “The only way you can get experience is from the clock.” Hopkins said. “Time works with some people and against some people. Fortunately the clock has worked in my favour.” When the two met again, in 2010, Hopkins proved this to be true. He handled with ease the man who had once handled him, coming away with a wide UD victory.
Since then, Bernard has done the impossible and become IBF Light-Heavy king at the age of 48, deserving every word of praise he has received. Despite all this, we must still struggle with the morality of what we see and encourage. If Hopkins keeps going, his eventual demise is as inevitable as anyone else’s. No matter what he claims, he is human too. His fragility will catch up with him. At 50, medical science tells us that bodily damage, injuries and wounds take four times longer to heal than at 20. Should any man, therefore, regardless of ability, continue to risk his health in the highest levels of the prize ring as he nears a half-century on the clock?
B-Hop remains adept at holding and spoiling, dragging the fight into distances and spaces his opponent is uncomfortable with. He made beating Karo Murat, a decent contender, look easy enough, but the thought of him entering the squared circle with one of the other Light-Heavy Champions – Adonis Stevenson or, god forbid, Sergey Kovalev, is not one to be entertained for long. With careful matchmaking we could maybe see him still reign at 50, if that’s what he wants. If so, lets hope that milestone will be enough for him. Maybe he can still quit while he’s ahead.
With swollen bank accounts and gold-plated legacies, what is it that makes these old masters continue to put themselves in there? The example of Ali, who finally retired after 61 pro contests, (less than Bernard and Roy), looms large.
Many young fighters claim to be treating boxing as a functional way to make a lot of money quickly – accumulate and leave. David Haye always said he would retire at 30, a promise he initially kept, then rescinded. James Degale was recently quoted as intending only to “win a World Title, defend it a couple of times, then f**k off.” Perhaps the most obvious case is Floyd Mayweather Jr, who with every ounce of his promotional effort professes to be all about the dollars.
The financial allure of elite prizefighting is undoubtedly attractive, and for some aged warriors it is a key incentive to go on. But there are other, deeper reasons that trap even those who have used their earnings wisely. To understand them we must go back, to paraphrase Ali, “from the fruit to the root.”
Young men are drawn into boxing for various reasons. Some feel alienated in society, then find they belong in the sweat and blood and camaraderie of the gym. Some are mixed up in crime or drugs and need the discipline of training to provide a straighter path. For most who stick with it though, the clincher is straightforward. They fall in love. The jangling nerves of confrontation, the surge of adrenaline provided by exchanging blows and testing wits with another, the intoxicating feeling, when timing and power, body and mind work perfectly together, when you sense you have hurt your man. It is primal and essential and there is nowhere else in legal life it can be found.
When fighters reach the age of Jones and Hopkins, whether they need the money or not, even as their clocks tick and skills erode, they become stripped back down to the core, to the same essence as when they took up the sport as boys. They do it for love. They do it because once, years ago, when they laced on some gloves and got in there, they realised that they had not chosen boxing, but boxing had chosen them, kick-starting a lifetime of devotion and dedication.
What we love too much, however, can destroy us. No-one should want to witness such tragedies unfold, yet we see them repeatedly in boxing. Our love for our sport has its dark side. We all know this. It is embodied by its most famous practitioner.
Neither Roy nor Bernard have given much indication that they are considering retirement. Publicly, there have been few calls for Hopkins to step down. He has a credible title to defend, after all. Jones too, still has his enthusiastic fans and is busily talking up a farcical, although perhaps low-risk match with former UFC champ Anderson Silva. They have promoters and management teams who will continue to profit every time they step through the ropes. Egos of the great ones are easily massaged by yes men. But perhaps somebody nearby should be brave enough to say ‘no’.
Jones has frequently talked of his admiration for Ali. Worryingly, much as there were aspects of his best performances that resembled his idol, seeing him brutalised by Lebedev or Green was like watching ‘The Greatest’ in his last few, ill-advised contests. Like Ali, Roy was a genius. But Ali’s shadow hangs over the sport in more than ways than one. Not only do we remember the greatness, the toppling of Foreman in Zaire, the trilogies with Frazier and Norton, the charisma, the one liners, we are forced to see the aftermath. The shaking hands, the faltering, whisper of a voice, the glassy eyes. When we see those things, we recall how he was pounded against the ropes by Larry Holmes, his slow motion drubbing at the hands of Trevor Berbick, how Ferdie Pacheco, his personal physician, one who was brave enough to say ‘no’, believed that every single punch he took after the ‘Thriller in Manilla’ rubber-match with Frazier in ’75, when Ali was 33, was one too many. “It’s the reason he’s a shambling, neurological wreck.” Pacheco said. ‘The Greatest’ eventually retired just before he turned 40, already exhibiting symptoms. Sometimes fighters, even the great ones, maybe especially the great ones, need to be saved from themselves.
Wanting to emulate the young Muhammed is one thing. But champions will always believe they have one fight left, that they can drag it back up one more time, it’s the nature of the beast. That pride, that stubbornness, that love, which made Ali so great, has half killed him. And emulating him in retirement is not something any boxer should want.
So for Roy and Bernard, with a nod to Muhammed, the message is simple. Happy Birthday Champs, you’ve been sensational. Now how about you give yourselves a present and hang ‘em up?