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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To beat the Trump hype, we need a return to old-fashioned political virtues

If we want to resist the Trumpification of politics, what we need is restraint, duty and incorruptibility.

After the 1992 US presidential election, Alistair Cooke’s celebrated BBC radio series Letter from America struck a poignant note. Cooke described Bill Clinton’s worn jeans and checked wool shirt, contrasting them with George H W Bush’s buttoned-up Wasp manners and buttoned-down Ivy League shirts. Clinton’s style, Cooke argued, was a rebuke to a tired social and political establishment. His casualness was the new America.

Cooke, then 83, was honest enough to admit unease about this departure from the old, patrician modes and manners. “Along with the passing of George Bush,” he said, “we shall see, I fear, the passing of the blue blazer.” Cooke seemed right at the time. But don’t write off the blue blazer just yet. As ruling elites change, so does the appropriate counterpoint. To topple Bush’s stuffy golf club elites, Clinton picked up his saxophone, took off his tie and felt everyone’s pain. And now? The subtext of these turbulent months (the inevitable second question, prompted by “How do you beat Donald Trump?”) is: “What should ­tomorrow’s leaders, the leaders we crave, look and sound like?”

My conjecture is that, to beat Trump and his type – bling, shiny suits, dodgy deals – we should push towards centre stage an underestimated set of political virtues: restraint, duty and incorruptibility. If it weren’t for the gender associations, I would be tempted to call this quality gentlemanliness. Aside from personal virtue – signally lacking in the Clinton camp – how might decency inform public debate as it comes under attack from maverick showmen trained in the media circus? How can the middle ground regain its confidence?

First, level with the public. Maybe liberalism hasn’t failed so much as its messaging has failed. Instead of smashing the electorate over the head with the idea that everything is just great, make the case that not everything can be for the best in all possible worlds. As populists reach for empty slogans, a new space has opened up. Accept and exploit those asymmetries: more people are ready to hear uncomfortable truths than politicians imagine.

Kingsley Amis once argued that a writer’s voice should stay close to his speaking voice: not the same, but close. Adapting that idea, if politicians stayed closer in public debate to the truths that they articulate in casual conversation – some things are impossible; almost every policy creates a losing as well as a winning side; there really isn’t any money – they would be surprised how many people are ready to hear that not all problems can be evaporated into thin air. Stray too far from awkward truths and elections become about simple lies v tricksy lies.

Second, centrists do more harm than good when they rush to categorise dissenting opinion as not only wrong, but unacceptable. “Any suggestion that liberal values are not humanly universal,” as John Gray wrote in a recent NS essay, “will provoke spasms of righteous indignation.” Instead, we need to be more tolerant in our tolerance.

Third, stop pretending that everything desirable can be shoehorned into the “progressive” agenda. “I really care passionately about persevering with the common-sense middle ground and doing it quite well” is a problematic political sales pitch, but not for the reasons that are usually given. The gravest difficulty may come at the beginning, with the faux passion, rather than with the substance – public service and competence – underneath.

It is revealing that those closest to David Cameron expended so much energy trying to persuade us that he was not an updated version of Harold Macmillan. That is why the gay marriage reforms, though admirable, were accorded too much significance. Ah, Cameron was a natural crusader! But he paid a price for dressing up as a “radical” when greater challenges arrived. It weakened some of his strongest cards – calmness, perspective, proportion – just as politics was coarsening. Aren’t Tories supposed to understand the virtues of yesterday? In other words, as an electoral strategy to beat Trump (or Nigel Farage), I’d put up a Macmillan type over a Clinton type every time.

Fourth, cut ties with “messaging experts”. It’s a fraud. They teach that everything must be asserted with powerful conviction. Yet ideas unworthy of powerful conviction are best left shorn of them. The electorate has endured a communications version of crying wolf. As a result of the messaging game, when something genuinely important crops up, it sounds simply like the same old shtick.

Fifth, ditch the bogus quantification. Few things signal untrustworthiness more reliably than fake precision. Something shifted in me when George Osborne argued that Brexit would leave households £4,300 worse off. What, no decimal point? Voters understand uncertainty better than politicians imagine. Precise quantification used to sound professional. Now it sounds suspicious.

Finally, think about tone. Conventional wisdom holds that the mainstream must fight the Trumpian revolution on its own terms: a simple solution, memorably expressed, a guiding vision for the country or the world. If anyone has a good one to hand, I’m all for it. But what if – after decades of ­sophisticated argument and counterargument, as politics has solved the easy problems while parking the difficult or insoluble ones – we have reached a state of such evolved equilibrium that no such easy answer can exist?

Pretending otherwise is no longer a point of difference. It takes you towards the lowest common denominator. As Trump has shown, that is well-occupied territory. Perhaps wooing the angry mob is not the solution. Instead, the admirable and successful politician of the future will have to win back the support of moderate, sensible but disillusioned voters. 

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 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage