Still Standing

In spite of some tough times growing up, Bernard Hopkins has risen above his troubles and, at 39, is on top of his game.


September 14, 2004|By Lem Satterfield | Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

PHILADELPHIA - Less than two months ago, Philadelphia staged Bernard Hopkins Day. Saturday in Las Vegas, it could be Bernard Hopkins' night.

Philadelphia was celebrating Hopkins' boxing achievements, for having given the city a middleweight champion. The honor came as Hopkins prepared for the biggest fight of his career.

On Saturday, Hopkins puts his three world titles - International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council - on the line against Oscar De La Hoya. At $10 million, Hopkins' guaranteed minimum is by far his largest purse. It's the Executioner from Philadelphia vs. the Golden Boy from Los Angeles.

And on a hot July day, his hometown was reveling in Hopkins' accomplishments and in that Executioner persona.

More than 2,000 people - from toddlers riding their parents' shoulders to smartly dressed professionals playing hooky from work - crammed into Love Park, craning their necks and squinting against the searing, early afternoon sun in 95-degree temperatures.

Up on a stage stood Hopkins, wearing a white tank top, sweat glistening on his chiseled upper body. He was joined by a line of Philadelphia middleweights who, for all of their talent, had never brought home a world title - Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, Bobby "Boogaloo" Watts, Willie "The Worm" Monroe and Stanley "Kitten" Hayward.

When Hopkins crossed his forearms into an "X" for Executioner, the crowd mirrored his gesture. Then, from his position at the podium, Hopkins grabbed the microphone and pointed toward a distant building.

"Right across the street at City Hall [at a courthouse] was a future that wasn't bright for Bernard Hopkins," Hopkins said. "To go from being in the penitentiary to having a Bernard Hopkins Day in a park right across the street from City Hall, who would have thought that I would be standing before you today, an undisputed world champion? Your champion."

When he was teenager, Hopkins seemed unlikely even to reach age 39, much less be a middleweight champ at that age.

At age 14, a stab wound punctured one of his lungs, missing his heart by inches. At 15, he was stabbed again, this time in the back.

At 17, Hopkins began serving five years in Pennsylvania's Graterford Prison for multiple offenses that included armed robbery. While imprisoned, Hopkins saw a man stabbed to death, and his brother, one of seven siblings, was shot to death on the street.

Yet Hopkins seemingly laughs at the face of death by having created the Executioner character. At their final news conference tomorrow, he plans to deliver a "last meal" to De La Hoya. He often enters the ring flanked by two muscular, poleax-wielding men and wears a dark or blood red, X-marked mask and hood.

"In the ring, I don't care nothing about you, who you are with, your family," said Hopkins. "That might seem cruel, but you have to understand: To be a real, bona fide fighter is a mental game, and you have to take that into the ring."

Out of the ring, Hopkins lives with his wife and 5-year-old daughter in a wealthy neighborhood in Newark, Del. But he often returns to train in North Philly to nurture his mean streak.

"I've learned to transform from being Bernard Hopkins the fighter," Hopkins said. "I can take off that jacket or that baseball cap and go into another personality and be with my family, be a regular citizen, go into society without even trespassing, jaywalking or missing a beat."

After the Hopkins Day ceremony on July 30, the fighter was back in his old neighborhood, staring into the eyes of 50-some children at the year-old Althea Gibson Education and Tennis Center. He sat before a poster of himself that read: Knock Out Violence With Education.

Hopkins spoke of losing his first fight, adding: "I didn't quit. It doesn't take much effort to quit." Motioning over a shoulder in the direction of hilly Girard Avenue, Hopkins told the children he still trains "right around the corner from this center."

Later, he talked about his life as a survivor of a troubled area called "The Badlands," where you had to "kick glass off the basketball courts to play."

"You all are blessed to have this place here. These people care about you," Hopkins said. "Even with everything I've accomplished, I didn't do it alone. I have a trainer I listen to who is 75 years old. Sometimes, you have to trust your teachers are giving you the right information."

Hopkins' mother, Shirley, died of cancer Aug. 14, 2003. Shirley Hopkins made a final request of her son. She asked him to reconcile with longtime trainer Bouie Fisher. The pair had split over money after a September 2001 knockout of Felix Trinidad that yielded Hopkins' biggest previous payday - $2.7 million.

"My mother told me that Bouie was a good man and that he had basically been my father for all of these past years," said Hopkins, who wears a small photo of his mother on a locket that hangs from a chain on his neck. "She said he was the best person to be in my life [without her], particularly for my career."

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