Bernard Hopkins made it to the Atlantic City Boxing Hall Of Fame by making sure he was the only person making decisions for his career.
By Chris Murray
For the Philadelphia Sunday SUN
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – During the speech he made to accept his induction into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame last Sunday, legendary world boxing champion Bernard Hopkins didn’t reflect on his great battles in the ring against the likes of Felix Trinidad, Oscar De LaHoya, Roy Jones Jr., or Ronald “Winky” White.
Nor did he talk about the fact that he managed to record 20 title defenses as the undisputed middleweight champion, was able to move into the light heavyweight division and win, or even that he won some of those victories over younger, stronger opponents while in his 40s and 50s.
No, Hopkins chose to focus on his determination to keep a promise to his mother and make something of himself. He reflected on his struggle to extricate himself from the streets of North Philadelphia and from his time in Graterford prison where the warden of the prison said that he would be back in the penitentiary in six months after his release.
He reflected on how he got to the ballroom of the Claridge Casino Hotel where he was given this high honor.
“If you pull back the DNA of my beginning and where I’m at now …. You would see that it’s a pattern,” Hopkins said. “You’ll see a pattern that I will not be nobody’s Y4145 (his prison number at Graterford). You’ll see the longevity of me being in society to be able to accomplish what I’ve accomplished. You’ll see that once I faced adversity whether it was my decision or not, whether it’s put or whether it was a fighting a system that was way bigger than me.
“It wasn’t [my] heart that was bigger than them. It was my determination. By any means I was not going to let anybody discourage me from where I need to go.”
But even more than his great accomplishments in the ring, Hopkins’ greatest legacy in the sport was establishing self-determination in a sport where fighters are often exploited and taken advantage of by promoters and managers. In a world where athletes, especially African American athletes, are told to not worry about the business end of sports, but just shut up and just focus on the ring, Hopkins was as formidable an opponent when it came to handling how he would manage his own career.
During his career, some of Hopkins more contentious fights have been in the court rooms against promoters trying to take control of the money he was making in the ring. In 1995, he was able to free himself from famed promoter Butch Lewis, who was also inducted into the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame last weekend, when a federal judge in Pennsylvania ruled that he didn’t he didn’t have to fulfill the final three years of his contract.
In that situation, Hopkins felt that his purses from the ring were getting smaller under Lewis’s guidance. It was the same situation when he felt his former advisor Lou DiBella was coming after his money. After his battle with promoters and managers, Hopkins decided it was time to manage and represent himself.
“Hopkins had a no-nonsense approach …A lot of the guys who didn’t go to jail they’re much softer and less harder and more likely to be taken advantage of,” said former heavyweight Tim Witherspoon, who spoke about the exploitation of fighters during his induction speech. “But Bernard came up the hard way and he fought back. A lot of guys won’t do that.”
After the ceremony, taking control of his career both in and out the ring, Hopkins talked about to me and the many well-wishers who gathered around him on the stage at the Claridge Hotel after his stirring induction speech. He said doing things his own way was the most important accomplishment in his career.
“[I] became a business in my early thirties, and I had to go up against a system that said that athletes aren’t supposed to do any business but be an athlete,” he said. “To me that’s like modernized slavery. I have a pattern of consistency. When I learned how to put that consistency in my business decisions, I learned how to learn other people’s job that’s watching my money.
“I have to watch my money better than them even though that’s what they do. I learned that from the boxing business. I learned that from taking on ownership to be managed by myself.”
Hopkins managed himself so well that the Boxing Writers Association of America made him a recipient of its Cus D’Amato Award for manager of the year back in 2004. He is now working as a promoter/partner with Oscar De LaHoya’s Golden Boy promotions.
While Hopkins is fond of saying he did things his way, he hopes athletes in all sports will follow his lead and take control of their careers.
“If you become something try to know something about it and at least you better make some decisions on how you want to spend your money and live your life,” he said. “I made enemies doing that. If I can read and no one else around me can read, if they don’t pluck me out of there or get me on their side to watch them, I’m going to have the whole slave ship reading.”