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17 March 2013

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.

By Cameron Sharpe

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.

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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.

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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.