Middleweight boxing champion Bernard Hopkins watched the second airplane ram the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 from his Manhattan hotel room 20 blocks away, and for one of the few times in his life, he said, was afraid.
"I guess I should count my blessings," said Hopkins, who, only one day earlier, had trained three blocks from the site of the tragedy while preparing for a Sept. 15 title fight against Felix Trinidad that was postponed until this Saturday at Madison Square Garden.
"Being paranoid, scared and afraid - I don't usually have any feelings like that. But when I saw the second plane disappear inside of the building, knowing I was scheduled to train at Water Front Gym that day, first thing that went through my mind was, `Where's the next one going to crash?' "
Having been in prison and survived the tough streets of Philadephia, Hopkins has both seen death and escaped it. At 14, a stabbing punctured a lung, inches from his heart. A year later, Hopkins was stabbed in the back. At 17, he began serving five years in Pennsylvania's Grateford Prison for multiple offenses; there, he saw a man stabbed to death. While he was incarcerated, his brother, one of seven siblings, was shot to death on the street. He was released from prison at age 22.
Said Hopkins, now 36, after being cleared yesterday to return for training at the Water Front Gym: "I never saw anything as graphic as the World Trade Center, but where I grew up, you just learn how to live with it, because it's survival of the fittest."
Hopkins (39-2-1, 28 knockouts) won't be afraid Saturday, when he puts his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Federation titles on the line against Trinidad (40-0, 33 KOs), the World Boxing Association titlist. And he won't tone down his `Executioner' ring persona, which employs grim reaper-like imagery as intimidation.
Hopkins has entered the ring wearing a dark mask and hood, flanked by two muscular men carrying poleaxes. He offered "a last meal" to Keith Holmes (36-3, 23 KOs) before lifting Holmes' WBC title in his 13th defense of the IBF crown, surpassing Marvin Hagler's 12 defenses for second place on the all-time list of middleweights.
"This sport here is very unpredictable. There's no warning label, like on a pack of cigarettes, `Beware, when you go in the ring, your life can end there,' " said Hopkins, whose reign of six years, five months as champ ranks second in the sport only to Trinidad's eight years, two months.
If Hopkins defeats Trinidad, he will tie Argentina's Carlos Monzon, who retired undefeated in the late 1970s with 14 title defenses.
"I have to separate what happened at the World Trade Center, block it out, and be ready to inflict some physical pain on someone," Hopkins said. "If it's him or me, it's got to be him."
During yesterday's news conference in New York, Hopkins wore a red, white and blue bandanna with "War" printed on it.
"I had these printed up a month ago, so I'm not lobbying on the blood and the souls that aren't here to cash in on a tragedy," he said. "The United States is at war, and I have a personal war with Felix Trinidad."
Hopkins said he saw fear in Trinidad after snatching the Puerto Rican flag from his hand and throwing it to the ground during a promotional tour in San Juan, causing 13,000 to 14,000 fans to storm the stage at Roberto Clemente Stadium.
"The look on Trinidad's face was like a kid seeing a ghost late at night, calling his mommy, and she ain't running into the room fast enough," said Hopkins, who was airlifted to safety. Bernard Hopkins, the husband, father and son, is different from "The Executioner," said friend and adviser Lou DiBella.
"Everyone was affected by the tragedy in New York, but we're going to that arena to be entertained for a couple of hours," DiBella said. "When the fight's over, he'll be Bernard Hopkins, the family man."
Two days after the attack on Manhattan, as well as the Pentagon, and plane crash in western Pennsylvania, Hopkins rushed from New York to his Delaware home for a brief visit to his wife of eight years, his 2-year-old daughter and the mother he has shuttled to chemotherapy sessions.
"Bernard knows exactly who he is, more than any fighter I've ever met," said boxing historian Thomas Hauser, author of a definitive biography of Muhammad Ali. "Bernard carries a lot of anger, even rage, but he's figured out who he's mad at [and] can turn it off and leave the rest of the world alone."