Ah, the elegance of a midday meal at the newly-opened and sensibly-priced Shook! fine-dining establishment at the Swatch Art Peace Hotel. Ah, yes. Sun Yat-Sen stayed there a hundred years ago and agitated for a New China, the Imperial Army of Japan occupied it during the Second Big One. And last Thursday, Bernard ‘The Executioner’ Hopkins, newly crowned WBC, WBC Diamond and IBO Light Heavyweight Champion of Planet Earth stopped by for a light lunch. Gulp.
The Executioner is in town as a special guest of Saturday night’s Brawl on the Bund. We learned that he was en route while chitchatting with Bernard’s people about the likelihood of a future bout in Macau. We were racking our brains to recall everything we knew about the man of the hour, all of which was gleaned entirely from an old Xbox Fight Night Demo that only provided Roy Jones Jr. and B-Hop as selectable fighters. Jab was X, uppercuts were Y, and if you clicked the right bumper button, you got Bernard’s special move, the bob-and-weave haymaker.
While debating whether the Mullet or Sifu Sam’s Noodles would be better for a main dish, Bernard walked in and the energy of the room changed, as they say. Our resident boxing analyst Alex stopped talking to us and looked stunned, as if all the women in the room decided en masse to remove the upper portion of their clothing. The Champ had arrived, and was man enough to sport a bookish-chap-on-vacation look, wearing Ray-Ban spectacles, a pink shirt, long shorts and white canvas boating shoes. He was parked several seats away from us with his right-hand man Phil Stein, in the company of event promoters and marketing people. We tried not to stare.
They decided that the interview would be done over lunch. A few looks, some quick nods, and The Champ moved over from his seat to sit next to us. Us! We shifted the position of our silverware, pressed the record button, and commenced.
We got the details of why he came to China (an associate working in Shanghai asked him to). The Champ laid down the credentials straight out the gate. “Everybody knows me in the States,” Hopkins told us. “But in China, they’ve seen two of my last fights, I believe. Two of my most important historic fights, out of my 23-year career, making history for the fourth time in my whole career. In different weight classes and different topics. This one is more sweeter because a forty six year-old don’t supposed to be doing the things I do in the ring.”
At 46 years and 126 days, Hopkins won against the Canadian Jean Pascal, a fighter 18 years his junior, on May 21st in Montreal to become the oldest ever title-holder in boxing. The achievement meant that The Executioner beat out the previous record set by George ‘Lean-Mean Fat-Reducing’ Foreman in 1994 by 190 days.
During the morning before our lunch, B-Hop took time to get familiar with the work of the Foundations For Newborns With Respiratory Failure, visiting with doctors and nurses at the Children’s Hospital of Fudan University. Also known as Leo’s Foundation, the charity is where proceeds from Saturday night’s Brawl will be directed.
Hopkins spoke at length about his new understanding of Leo’s Foundation’s work. “I’m humble and I’m close to the unfortunate things that happen to kids before they’re born…I got here for the hospital today, for the born premature kids, or babies rather. And to me, it was something well worth coming to if I was leaving tomorrow. To be able to help from wherever you live is being able to help, period.
I have a newborn, she’s healthy. And to see unhealthy newborns is a reality check, that if I can do anything, then my time is not being wasted. So everything I do is calculated on what’s important. And this is things I do. I just happen to be in China.
In the States and in Canada, yes, there are sick kids. But the healthcare is off the roof, they got these things. I don’t see that here. Since we’re talking here, I see it’s a little loose…everything is ass-out. But that’s keeping it real, and that’s what I understand.”
We move on to discuss his plans for boxing becoming more accepted in China, and it seemed that B-Hop’s hopes for the sport are a little far-fetched. Hopkins expressed wishes for a ‘historic moment’ for boxing in China, akin to Li Na’s recent French Open win, that would make the sport more popular in the mainland. The flyweight Zou Shiming’s 2008 Olympic gold medal in boxing was seen by some as a possible tipping point for the sport; however, there’s still just as little chance that Chinese parents would encourage their sons and daughters to engage in as hard-hitting a contact sport as boxing as there’s always been.
But such is the unshakable confidence and self-belief (and even the naivete so native to Americans) that saw Hopkins through his years in Pennsylvania’s Graterford Prison, which he entered in 1982 as a 17 year-old after years of petty crime when he mugged strangers on the streets of Philadelphia, and later on when he became Middleweight Champion of the world in 2001.
“Doing five years in the penitentiary, then working my way out, never to go back again as a convicted felon…giving them nine years of strict parole on the street without a parking ticket…I was a statistic with a record. I made lemonade without having lemons. I had the sugar though, and I dreamed of there being lemonade, and it became that.
My vision is to be who I became. It’s already documented, it’s already been said prior to me getting there. And it’s scary, because I’ve been a collector of my own career…to hear footage of me five, six, seven, ten years ago, me predicting and saying things that I became…”
We see him as he speaks. The thick rivulet veins bound to his forearms like the vines of a thin tree, a missing upper tooth, a small picked-scab crater on his left arm. A soft-spoken friendly dude with hands that could destroy mortals in half-seconds.
That face of his, we see it up close, the seven-figure pay-per-view revenues that homes and bars shell out to see slow-motion shots of punches landing across it clean. The face that dozens of fighters have dreamed about hitting and have hit, that’s gotten bruised and swollen and then healed again and again. A face that’s been pounded thousands of times in a career that’s spanned four decades, for the pleasure and catharsis of millions.
If you abhor violence and boxing and couldn’t care less for the sport, then at least know that Bernard Hopkins has lived and still continues to live the ultimate American Dream, of an individual overcoming the greatest of odds to succeed at the highest level.
“Who’d have thought that a city boy from North Philadelphia, the village of Philadelphia, who was written off…to come home to start my career and lose my first fight, then managing, promoting myself, and went up against the system that I thought was exploiting, that I know was exploiting fighters…and paid the price by not getting the things that i probably would’ve gotten earlier…”
‘I can get real deep, China done something to me’
The interview at this point has gotten off the topic of boxing and charity work, and ventured off into the realm of deep, no bullshit narration about the essential stuff of living.
The unspeakable things he saw in the dark cave of prison, where he turned to boxing as a refuge and as protection from bodily harm. Where he would clandestinely get extra portions of food when the whole of Graterford Prison recognized his talent, prisoner Y4145 who read Malcolm X ‘with matches, because the lights went off at 8.’
And where he came back to years later with an HBO camera crew in tow, only to shed tears he promised himself he wouldn’t shed when he saw an enormous wall-sized mural of him painted by lifers of the prison. When a camera crew member reminded him that B-Hop said there was no crying in prison, he said, ‘Yeah, but I’m coming home.’
Hopkins wants to ‘give them hell before he leaves’, maintaining an absurdly disciplined diet, not having ‘thought about alcohol in 23 years’ because he ‘wants to look good in his suits.’
Hopkins, who considers himself a better fighter now than he was in 2001, when he was the undisputed Middleweight Champion and Ring magazine’s Fighter of the Year, because he has ‘no time to waste any bullets.’
There’s a decent chance that Ring, which he’ll be on the cover of soon with his championship belt and his foot perched atop the rim of an oversized wall-clock, a visualization he conceived for the fight against age and doubt, his own idea after rejecting a proposal for him to sit in a rocking chair, would name him Fighter of the Year for the second time in his career when voting takes place in December.
Hopkins, who has walked the straight and narrow path of the ascetic, who fears Allah, who considered boxing to be his last and ‘only refuge’, ‘the last hand I was dealt,’ who has struggled with racism, class, lack of a formal education and whatever other disadvantage you can think of besides the physical, looks us in the eye and tells us:
“You know there’s a price to be a man, no matter where you live. There’s a price to have principle, there’s a price to have integrity. There’s a price to have religion that you won’t compromise. There’s a price to be different, whatever that difference. If you ain’t serious and real, and don’t have it in your DNA called courage, you will be defeated. And that’s what keeps me in the race, as I fight today in a young man’s sport, because I have that edge.”
And so we listen to him. We will say that the event Hopkins is here to be a part of, though we look forward to it, is something of a contradiction. Something always strikes us as inherently egregious about the wealthy spending money dressed to the nines to help out the poor or underprivileged (and yes, we’re aware this is a benefit for sick children). What about a benefit to help the morbidly obese attended by nothing but the fit and skinny?
White-collar types, who’ve for the most part been given every advantage in life that Hopkins himself was denied, working out their pent-up office aggression and reasserting their maleness through a fancy black-tie fight club in front of the creme de la Shanghai: this is, in part anyway, how we view the proceedings that will take place at Hyatt on the Bund on Saturday night.
We still plan on attending the event, but if we get disinvited, then so be it. But we had to say what we had to say, because this is what we learned from The Executioner.
The man himself of course is not without his faults. He threw Felix Trinidad’s native Puerto Rican flag on the ground twice during pre-match meetings in New York and Puerto Rico. He shoved Ronald ‘Winky’ Wright in the face during a weigh-in. He has something in common with Rush Limbaugh, in that he gave Donovan McNabb grief about his blackness.
His speech stutters and halts when he speaks on subjects besides fighting and his own story. He is not without a little bit of self-grandeur, sometimes speaking in cliches and platitudes when holding forth (though such self-aggrandizing seems like a necessity rather than an indulgence in his life-long struggle for self-actualization).
And Hopkins also expresses the belief that ‘they’ are trying to reduce the population through cancer-inducing cell phone technology.
We would be amiss to exclude all of that. Hopkins says that at 46, he still needs a trainer, because he believes that someone besides himself can still see things he doesn’t see.
So we’ll brave the possibility of cold stares at Brawl on the Bund, if anyone managed to read that far, or even a possible reneging of our invitation.
The lunch is almost over, and we talk about his family. The hardest thing in Hopkins’ life besides prison was the death of his mother, and his sister Bernadette is on his all time list of people he wishes he could fight (after Marvin Hagler and Ray Robinson). And as for his two kids, he says:
“I want them to understand that they can’t be weak with my blood in them. They have to have courage. It’s simple, but hard. Courage, something you’re not born with. See, most people try to get along to get along, and they’ll compromise, and be something that they know they not. Just to be liked, just to be hired.
But they really can’t look at themselves…they’re not comfortable with their own self. It’s not easy to do something that isn’t popular…I know there’s been times when somebody told you to be something else. Hell, you probably listened.
It takes courage from a little situation to a big situation but it all boils down to you did something that wasn’t popular. Not to hurt anyone or anything. What a great gratification, to make a decision that isn’t popular, even amongst people you love and trust…and press on in spite of, and making it happen? That’s gangsta. That’s gangsta.”
So we’re going to make up for all the times during the lunch when we smiled at something we didn’t think was funny, and write it like we saw it, and not try to ‘get along just to get along.’ And we’ll make up for when we felt like blurting out, ‘this is the best interview I’ve ever had’, when we asked someone to take our photo with The Champ, feeling like we owed someone for the free lunch.
If we didn’t, then we’d waste what we learned from lunch with The Executioner, who challenged us to not hold back our punches, and see what a little self-respect feels like.