The curious case of Bernard Hopkins

The 48-year-old boxer’s world title win is a triumph for longevity but a death knell for the last link to sport’s last golden age.

When I was born in May 1988, Bernard Hopkins was serving a five-year prison sentence after half a decade of petty crime on the streets of Philadelphia had left the directionless tyro facing the best part of his youth behind bars.

The legend goes that as the then 23-year-old Hopkins walked towards his freedom, having served less than a third of his 18-year jail term, one of the prison guards shouted: “I’ll see you when you come back!” Hopkins, never one to let a dramatic moment slip past, is purported to have muttered: “I ain’t never coming back here.”

And he was right.

Last weekend, nearly 25 years on and at the scarcely believable age of 48, Hopkins broke his own record as the oldest man ever to win a version of a boxing world title with a comfortable points win over previously undefeated fellow American Tavoris Cloud.

Such is the staggering level of Hopkins’ achievement, even in an unfashionable and relatively shallow weight division, that it dwarfs almost all other feats of age-defying performance.

Hopkins had already crossed the Rubicon into his fourth decade when he first secured a world title 18 years ago, but since 1995 his monastic lifestyle - an iron-clad discipline occasionally punctured with a post-fight celebratory cheesecake – has kept him relevant on the world stage.

Similar feats of agelessness may well increase in the coming years as athletes from all sports experience the benefits of superior nutrition, intelligently constructed contracts and higher quality medical care, but whilst this victory kept one of sport’s great stories alive, it brought with it a notable footnote.

With every round that Hopkins captured on Saturday, it hammered another nail into the promotional coffin of the true grand old man of big time boxing. Don King.

King and his flag-waving, crazy-haired persona have been synonymous with the sport ever since he pitched up from nowhere to promote George Foreman and Muhammad Ali's Rumble in the Jungle in 1974 and has gone on to handle the great and good of the boxing world in the intervening four decades. Hopkins included.  
The vanquished Cloud- perhaps best known for his defeat of Britain's Clinton Woods- was the last mule out of a stable that has slowly reduced in significance over the last 15 years.

Some will struggle to shed a tear for King’s demise. The manner in the which the 82-year-old serenaded Nigel Benn after the Briton had delivered a career-ending and life-threatening beating on King's exciting young prodigy Gerald McClellan in 1995 was lamentable and epitomised a man who has always been about money and the limelight.

But yet, for a generation of boxing fans, the weakening of King's power is significant.

Many of King's boxing contemporaries from the early 1970s have noticeably begun to be counted out. Joe Frazier died in 2011, Angelo Dundee and Emmanuel Steward followed last year and with every passing week there appears to be another story about how Ali’s fragile body is nearing the end of its 30 year battle with Parkinson's disease.

King is the last active link to an era where boxing was not simply the preserve of the poorly written copy of the disinterested trainee sports journalists but, instead, a genuine global occasion. His fights were the biggest sporting events, boxing or otherwise, anywhere in the world.

He may have been a figure of fun and hate in equal measure- Hopkins, for one, rejoiced at the thought of ending King's career- but his influence on perceptions of the sport cannot be underestimated.

Alas, there are always bigger fish to contend with and the growth of US promoters Golden Boy Promotions and Top Rank has left King with no cards left to play. For the elderly showman to recover now would require a more formidable comeback than anything Hopkins has ever produced.

Hopkins was not slow to illustrate this point to a visibly weakened King as the former supremo attempted, unsuccessfully, to rally himself for one final defiant soundbite.  

It was an unsavoury end to a significant evening.
 

Bernard Hopkins in training. Photograph: Getty Images

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit