The Underappreciated True Story of 48-Year-Old Boxer Bernard Hopkins

Hopkins began boxing after leaving prison, gained fame first as a knockout artist and later as a crafty defensive fighter, and is now one of the oldest successful pro boxers ever.

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AP / Matt Rourke

From Boom Mancini and Micky Ward, Hollywood loves to dramatize the lives of great boxer. But it has so far ignored the most incredible ring story since Muhammad Ali. Then again, it would be difficult to make a movie about Bernard Hopkins—both because his career has seemed like it will never end, and because if someone wrote a script about Hopkins's journey, no Hollywood producer would believe it was true.

But if Hopkins had fought in the 1950s, when boxing on TV was part of mainstream American culture, he would have been a household name. As it is, the 48-year-old Hopkins will have to settle for a few million devotees who'll be tuning in to see what could well be his last fight along with several thousand ringside at Brooklyn's Barclays Center on Saturday, when he'll face International boxing Federation light-heavyweight (limit 175 pound) champion Tavoris Cloud, who's 17 years his junior.

Bernard Humphrey Hopkins, Jr. was born in January 15, 1965 in Philadelphia. He grew up in perhaps the most crime-ridden projects in Philly. By the time he was 11, he was already into petty theft; within two years, he was mugging people and had been to the emergency room three times with stab wounds. He joined a gang and graduated to higher crimes. By the age of 18 he had accumulated a rap sheet longer than his left arm. In 1982, after racking up nine felonies, he was sent to Graterford Prison for 18 years. As he once told a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News, "I saw worse stuff inside prison than I ever saw in the streets. I saw guys raped, beaten and tortured. When I saw a guy murdered for a lousy pack of cigarettes, something in me snapped. I knew that I had to be responsible for turning my own life around."

Around his 21st birthday, he discovered boxing. A cliché about fighters is that many are violent men who come out of the pugilistic trade more violent than they went in. I've never seen any statistic on that, but I've known quite a few fighters for whom the fight game seemed to served as a means to focus their energies into something more productive. Hopkins, to hear him tell it, is one of these men.

According to legend—which Hopkins helped create himself—the warden of Graterford Prison told him upon his release after five years, "You'll be back." To which Hopkins supposedly replied, "No, I ain't ever coming back here again." Whether or not the exchange ever happened, the important part is that Hopkins kept his vow. He converted to Islam and swore off drugs, alcohol, and even junk food. He lost his first fight in 1988, got discouraged, and then refocused, resuming his career nearly 16 months later and earning his first win.

Over the next two years he scored 21 victories in 21 fights, 16 by KO and 12 of those in the first round. He gave himself the nickname "The Executioner." "I know it sounds kind of dumb," he told a boxing writer, "but I couldn't think of anything else to call myself, and it got me noticed. I got on TV a lot."

In 1993, five years after leaving Graterford, Hopkins had his first big fight, against middleweight champion Roy Jones, regarded by analysts as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. Hopkins had yet another setback, losing badly, though he finished the match.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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