By Bernard Fernandez
Some athletes are so obviously gifted that they appear to have burst into prominence at a relatively young age, fully formed and predestined to excel.
The saga of boxing legend Bernard Hopkins, who came up the hard way, overcoming all manner of obstacles inside and outside the ring, is not one of those tales of quick and seemingly easy success.
Philly native Hopkins, now 57, will be inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame on Nov. 2 at the Live! Casino & Hotel in no small part because of his incredible longevity, a 28-year professional career in which he won world championships at both middleweight and light heavyweight. His obsessive dedication to remaining at or near the top of his brutal profession was such that he remained a world-rated fighter until he was nearly 52.
“Bernard Hopkins is as close to a perfectionist with nutrition as anyone I’ve ever dealt with,” said renowned physical conditioning guru Mackie Shilstone, who helped B-Hop, then 41, bulk up the right way from the middleweight limit of 160 pounds into a fantastically fit 175-pound light heavyweight for his June 10, 2006, unanimous decision over Antonio Tarver, another one of his many “upset” victories that in retrospect doesn’t seem so surprising. If ancient Greek fabulist Aesop had thought to conjure a fable about a boxer, no doubt someone like Hopkins would be represented as the human tortoise that kept outlasting and frustrating the hell out of every frisky hare sent against him.
Earlier this year Hopkins was welcomed into his sport’s most exclusive and prestigious club when he was finally inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. As befits someone whose road to glory might have been sidetracked before it began, he went in as a member of the Class of 2020, although COVID-19 postponed that year’s induction festivities and also those for 2021. But a spot in a Hall of Fame that had previously been graced by the addition of some of the boxing and non-boxing heroes of his childhood and adolescence, has Hopkins as upbeat as he’s ever been. It’s not just another prestigious award; it is a form of acceptance he has craved since his misspent, hardscrabble youth in North Philly incorrectly stamped him as an incorrigible whose future likely included prison and/or an early death. But only one of those gloomy outcomes came true, if only temporarily.
“It’s huge,” Hopkins said of his welcome-to-the-club notification by the PSHOF. “Mr. (James) Villareal, my sixth-grade teacher, knew all about Philly sports history. He used to talk to me about some of the stars on our teams back then. Obviously, Canastota is the big Hall of Fame for boxing, but the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame covers all the sports in our town! It doesn’t get any more iconic than that.
“I was also introduced to what a lot of those guys did by my uncle, Artie McCloud. I was a big fan of Tug McGraw, Julius Erving, Ron Jaworski, Bobby Clarke and the Broad Street Bullies. And Joe Frazier, of course.”
Few if any of Hopkins’ fellow Philly Hall of Famers can match his relentless trek from disgrace and disappointment to a place not even shared by fellow age-defying boxers Archie Moore and George Foreman. He was incarcerated at 17 for an armed robbery and spent nearly five years behind bars. He lost his first pro bout and might never have been heard from again. After becoming a contender, he lost his first shot at a world title, then had to settle for a draw in his second such attempt. But when he finally ascended to the top of the mountain, a seventh-round stoppage of Segundo Mercado on April 29, 1995, for the IBF middleweight crown, he remained there for a division-record 20 defenses (since matched by Gennadiy Golovkin). One of those was his most celebrated victory, the unification conquest of the highly favored Felix Trinidad on Sept. 29, 2001, in Madison Square Garden.
What allowed Hopkins to so long outpoint the natural laws of diminishing returns? His personal vow never to backslide, as a fighter or a man worthy of proper society’s notice, as well as his memories of being told so often that he never would amount to anything. In a story I did for the Philadelphia Daily News before the then-43-year-old upset (natch) 25-year-old Kelly Pavlik, I wrote that “Hopkins is one of those athletes who seems happiest when he’s unhappy, like tennis’ John McEnroe. He doesn’t get mad, he gets even. Even the slightest provocation can get Hopkins stoked, and nothing lights that particular fire like the notion he is being dismissed, disrespected or disenfranchised.”
Hopkins (55-8-2, 32 KOs, with two no-contests) becomes one of only 15 fighters inducted into the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame, including fellow 2022 honoree Fredia Gibbs, 59, who was a standout in kickboxing and mixed martial arts in addition to boxing. They join the likes of such luminaries as Joe Frazier (a charter inductee in 2004), Tommy Loughran (2008), Joey Giardello (2009), Jersey Joe Walcott (2010), Harold Johnson (2012) Meldrick Taylor (2014), Bob Montgomery (2015), Jeff Chandler (2017), Philadelphia Jack O’Brien (2017), Benny Bass (2018), Matthew Saad Muhammad (2019), Tim Witherspoon (2020) and Lew Tendler (2021). Other inductees with boxing affiliations are promoters Herman Taylor (2016 Legacy of Excellence) and J Russell Peltz (2020 Legacy of Excellence), and Joe Hand Sr. (2013 Legacy of Excellence), an integral closed-circuit TV figure and former member of Joe Frazier’s early Cloverlay support group.
Other inductees in the Class of 2022 include Adele Boyd (field hockey); Art McNally (former NFL director of officiating); Charles Cooper (one of the NBA’s first three black players); David Akers (Philadelphia Eagles placekicker); Ed Bolden (Negro Leagues baseball team owner); Howard Eskin (media); Jimmy Rollins (Philadelphia Phillies shortstop); Keith Allen (Philadelphia Flyers coach); Dr. Nikki Franke (Temple University fencing coach); Phil Martelli (St. Joseph’s University basketball coach); Ray Kelly (baseball writer for the now-defunct Philadelphia Bulletin); Francis “Reds” Bagnell (former All-America tailback for the University of Pennsylvania); Rollie Massimino (longtime Villanova University basketball coach who guided the Wildcats to the 1985 NCAA championship) and Susan Francia (two-time Olympic gold medalist rower).
Bernard Fernandez, named to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in the Observer category with the Class of 2020, was the recipient of numerous awards for writing excellence during his 28-year career as a sports writer for the Philadelphia Daily News. Fernandez’s first book, “Championship Rounds,” a compendium of previously published material, was released in May of last year. The sequel, “Championship Rounds, Round 2,” with a foreword by Jim Lampley, is currently out. The anthology can be ordered through Amazon.com and other book-selling websites and outlets.