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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue