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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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear