Worth the Wait Long overlooked Bernard Hopkins capped his career and unified the middleweight title with a stunning upset of Felix Trinidad

Oct. 08, 2001
Oct. 08, 2001

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Oct. 8, 2001

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Worth the Wait Long overlooked Bernard Hopkins capped his career and unified the middleweight title with a stunning upset of Felix Trinidad

Not very often does an athlete blossom as fully and as suddenly
as Bernard Hopkins did last Saturday night. A fighter of such
suspect credentials that he was initially overlooked in the
planning of a middleweight title unification tournament (even
though he was one of the division's longtime champions), Hopkins
figured to be little more than a promotional partner in Felix
(Tito) Trinidad's march toward glory and Roy Jones Jr. Hopkins
was the motormouth fall guy, a cheerful old-timer on his way
out, a fighter prized only for holding the IBF belt.

This is an article from the Oct. 8, 2001 issue Original Layout

That title, cheapened by the level of opposition Hopkins had
entertained in the six years he had been champion, was all that
he could offer boxing. He had long ago exhausted his only chance
at the big money when he lost a 1993 decision to Jones, then the
IBF middleweight champion and still regarded as boxing's lone
true monarch, no matter what weight he fights at. Thereafter
Hopkins, an ex-con who has turned out to be one of the
straightest arrows in the sport, was stuck in a succession of
low-luster bouts against guys like Andrew Council and Syd
Vanderpool. His narrow appeal was based less on those fights
than on the WWF-style costumery he used to promote his persona
as the Executioner: a leather hood that was not so much scary as

Only this past spring, when Trinidad began his rampage through
the middleweight division after years of having eaten up
welterweights, did Hopkins become useful again. He would be a
high-level opponent, somebody who could round out a four-man
tournament and make Trinidad's advance upon an undisputed title
(and Jones, now a light heavyweight) seem logical. Promoter Don
King was not inclined to use Hopkins at first--his idea was to
have only a single bout, Trinidad against WBA titleholder
William Joppy--but he came to realize that Hopkins had certain
bona fides and that a four-man tournament offered a more
sustained buildup to a Jones fight. That is to say, King would
have the chance to bluster from two more daises than he'd
originally envisioned.

Who knew Hopkins could take this opportunity and not only
flatten the arc of Trinidad's career but also supply his own
with the kind of majesty few athletes ever enjoy? Before a
largely hostile crowd of 19,075 at Madison Square Garden,
Hopkins thoroughly worked over Trinidad, nullifying his left
hook, beating him to every punch and then, for an emphasis that
had fans and foes alike roaring in appreciation, dropping him in
the 12th round with a near perfect right hand. So short and
sweet was the punch that when Trinidad's father, Felix Sr.,
who's also his trainer, rushed into the ring, he appeared to be
doing so to examine the result more closely rather than to save
his boy from even greater punishment.

Hopkins's performance was the kind of underdog effort, a
crawling out from the shadows, that seemed especially
appropriate in New York City last week. That this fight--the
first major championship sports event in the city since the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11--ended in such an unexpected
fashion seemed mighty lucky. Hey, you never know! Maybe all you
really need is a little heart. Hopkins turned out to be the
perfect guy to demonstrate that. "When they say I can't, I do,"
he said afterward. "I am the American Dream."

Hopkins, who spent nearly five years in the state correctional
facility in Graterford, Pa., after an adolescence of strong-arm
robberies, knows something about heart. Forget his prison-life
resolve to learn boxing, to learn to read, to erase the shame of
his mother's traveling to Graterford from Philadelphia twice
every week. Imagine him sprung from prison at age 22 with only
his GED and a nine-year parole. "Nine years is a long time," a
guard warned him on his last day, "for a young black kid going
back to the ghetto."

Hopkins was careful not to get so much as a parking ticket.
Before his imprisonment he hadn't thought twice about yanking a
gold chain off somebody's neck (a minor specialty of his), but
he was determined to exercise discipline and righteousness. It
is startling how completely he turned his life around, becoming
a suburban family man--husband since 1993 to Jeanette and father
to two-year-old Latrice--and a breadwinner who banks his purses.
"I never made no million dollars," Hopkins likes to say, "but
those 300,000s, they can add up."

Nonetheless, who thought that he belonged in the ring with
Trinidad, who had systematically deposed America's boxing
royalty, defeating three Olympic gold medal winners between
February 1999 and March 2000? Once a hero only in his native
Puerto Rico, Trinidad, with his heavy hands, had become the
U.S.'s marquee fighter. If he could handle a superstar like
Oscar De La Hoya, he shouldn't have much problem with Hopkins.

The setup was simple. Trinidad would be matched with Joppy, and
the two other titleholders, Hopkins and WBC king Keith Holmes,
would meet in the other eliminator. The two winners would face
off, and the winner of that bout, presumably, would move up to
meet Jones in an all-the-money-in-the-world fight. Essentially,
however, it was supposed to be a complicated coronation of
Trinidad, who would become the first undisputed middleweight
champion since Marvelous Marvin Hagler in 1987.

Hopkins kept barking that this wouldn't necessarily be so, but
he wasn't persuasive--even after he dominated Holmes to win a
12-round decision in April. Before his bout with Trinidad, when
an online casino offered Hopkins $100,000 to wear its dotcom
name on his trunks (and stenciled in greasepaint on his back),
he bet the entire amount on himself, getting 5-to-2 odds. Few
others followed his example. Yet last Saturday night his
performance was so natural and so confident that you had to
shake your head. What did Hopkins know that nobody else, least
of all Trinidad, knew?

For one thing, Hopkins believed his reputation had been unfair,
based on his long-ago loss to Jones and his failure to get a
quality opponent against whom to showcase his abilities. "If I
had those hype names years ago," he says, comparing his $2.8
million purse with Trinidad's $8 million, "where do you think
I'd be?"

Mostly, though, he knew that he was the better athlete. The
36-year-old Hopkins's boxing ability had been overlooked in the
buildup to this match, eclipsed by the 28-year-old Trinidad's
youth and power. In Trinidad's previous 40 fights, all wins, he
had knocked out 33 opponents. Yet Hopkins easily defused that
superior power. He deprived Trinidad of his vaunted left hook,
moving from side to side, always stepping in before Tito could
load up, delivering crisp right leads to his head. Trinidad,
whose style is simply to lock and load, had no backup plan.

It wasn't clear what was happening until the fourth round, when
Hopkins realized how baffled Trinidad was. Hopkins would dance
in, sometimes throwing stiff jabs, sometimes lone right hands,
and drive Trinidad back every time. Trinidad's slowness afoot
had never before caused him problems, especially when opponents
were willing to wade in and take their licks. Now he couldn't
locate Hopkins, and he was getting a faceful of leather every
time he turned around. By the 10th round the punches Trinidad
was taking had him close to being out on his feet.

Although Trinidad said he thought the fight was even going into
the 12th (all three judges had Hopkins far ahead), he could
hardly dispute what happened 1:18 into the round, when Hopkins
floored him with a right hand that could not have traveled more
than eight inches. Trinidad struggled to get up at the count of
nine, but by then his father was in the ring, and it was over.

The action, the pace, the surprising result--it all provided a
breathtaking resolution for an event that was, given the time
and location, problematic, to say the least. The bout had been
planned for Sept. 15, but the attacks, pushed the fight back two
weeks. Even though it had been keenly anticipated, it now seemed
a bit overripe, missing the tang it might have had if it had
been held as scheduled. It wasn't only the lack of percussion
from Trinidad's Puerto Rican constituency on Saturday night (for
security reasons, no drums were allowed in the Garden this time
around), it was also the general lack of energy in the arena, as
if all in attendance were still uncomfortable enjoying themselves.

Even King seemed to devote more of his precious press-conference
time to discussing the recovery of New York City than to the
fight. Normally he would have encouraged (if not invented) the
fighters' mutual enmity. Now he was obliged to wave flags,
promise lavish donations to the fire department and urge New
Yorkers to take to the streets against their common foe,

It was refreshing to see a major fight reduced from its usual
DefCon 4 status all the way to a sporting event. Given the
prevailing inclination in New York to celebrate the quiet
performance of duty over the violent ramblings of a boxer,
nobody was in a mood for hype. Everyone connected with the fight
recognized as much, with the possible exception of Hopkins, who
was still walking around the week before the bout with a
bandanna reading war wrapped around his head. This, believe it
or not, amounted to a considerable concession to good taste for
Hopkins. He had earlier stolen the promotion from Trinidad
by--twice!--stomping on a Puerto Rican flag. In July, Hopkins
had even performed the sacrilege in San Juan, barely escaping
the press conference under a rain of bottles and chairs.

Yet you couldn't fail to see the calculation in Hopkins's
misguided mischief. The Executioner tried one other gambit at
Wednesday's final press conference, saying he was prepared to
offer Trinidad, as is the custom before executions, a last meal.
With that Hopkins produced a bag of rice and a bag of beans and
flung them on the dais in front of Trinidad. By fight time,
however, both men were affecting so much sensitivity that any
previous ugliness was forgotten. They either wore or held aloft
NYPD and FDNY hats and helmets and behaved as if they had
suddenly attained a sense of proportion. They hadn't, of course;
they were still too immersed in their own do-or-die struggle to
begin to think globally. Still, it was nice that they made an

What mattered most, though, in a time and place that could use
an example of redemption and recovery, was the honest effort of
two fighters, one of them soaring beyond the capabilities he'd
displayed and fulfilling, at long last, the idea he had always
had of himself. Hey, you never know.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MANNY MILLAN WELL EXECUTED Hopkins (left) defused the younger Trinidad's power with constant movement and his own whistling punches.COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO GOOD NIGHT RIGHT Hopkins, backed by an Internet betting firm, beat Trinidad to the punch all night, then felled him with this shot.
Trinidad simply couldn't locate Hopkins, and he was getting a
faceful of leather every time he turned around.