Bernard Humphrey Hopkins, Jr. is a real-life example of what it means to be given a second chance.
Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on this date in 1965, as the second of eight children, Hopkins grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing project, one of Philadelphia’s most crime-ridden areas. He was into petty theft by age 11 and within two years was mugging people and had been to the emergency room three times with stab wounds. Hopkins joined a gang and by 17 had been arrested over 30 times. In 1982, he was sentenced to 18 years and sent to Graterford Penitentiary—Pennsylvania’s largest maximum-security prison located about 30 miles northwest of Philly—after racking up nine felonies related to an armed robbery. Hopkins knew it was time to take action. “I saw worse stuff in prison than I ever saw in the streets. When I saw a guy murdered over a lousy pack of cigarettes, something in me snapped. I knew that I had to be responsible for turning my life around.” While in prison, Hopkins worked toward earning his GED and, around the time of his 21st birthday, met fellow inmate and former professional boxer Michael “Smokey” Wilson. Hopkins’ uncle, Art “Moose” McCloud, was a former pro fighter who had trained with Wilson, so “Smokey”—a three time middleweight champion within the Pennsylvania penal system—took Hopkins under his wing and taught him to box. “Smokey was like my Gandhi. If I had run into somebody else in prison, with a different set of values, I might never had made it out.” Hopkins dedicated himself to the sport, swearing off drugs, alcohol and junk food while converting to Islam. Within a year, he won the first of four middleweight titles he would earn while in prison.
In 1988, after serving 56 months, Prisoner Y4145 was released from Cell Block D. Hopkins was 23 years old and faced nine years of parole. Upon leaving Graterford for the final time, the warden told him, “You’ll be back,” to which Hopkins replied, “No, I ain’t ever coming back here again.” He took a job washing dishes at a Philadelphia hotel and entered his first professional fight on October 11, 1988, losing to Clinton Mitchell in a four-round majority draw in Atlantic City. Discouraged, he took 16 months off before returning to the ring in February 1990 and winning a unanimous decision over Greg Paige. Between February 1990 and December 1992, Hopkins won 21 straight fights, 16 by knockout, with 12 coming in the first round. After losing to Roy Jones, Jr.—considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world—in 1993, Hopkins beat Segundo Mercado for the vacant IBF middleweight title two years later and would reign as middleweight champion for the next decade. “The Executioner” defended his crown a record 20 times before losing to Jermain Taylor in July 2005. Five months later, he lost to Taylor in a rematch and decided to jump two weight classes to light heavyweight. Hopkins took The Ring and IBO light heavyweight titles by beating heavily-favored Antonio Tarver in June 2006. After losing the title in 2008, the 46-year-old Hopkins surpassed George Foreman as the oldest fighter ever to win a world championship when, in 2011, he beat Jean Pascal in a unanimous 12-round decision for the light heavyweight belt. “B-Hop” bettered his own record twice more, claiming the IBF light heavyweight title at age 48 and WBA crown at 49.
The Bernard Hopkins tale is the most incredible boxing story since Muhammad Ali. Had he fought in the 1950s, when boxing on TV was part of mainstream American culture, he would have been a household name. Instead, he has become the greatest “old” boxer of all-time. Originally a knockout artist, “The Alien” became a crafty defensive fighter who tied up younger, stronger fighters and was reminiscent of Archie “The Mongoose” Moore, who fought well into his 40s. In 2004, he became the first man to hold all four major sanctioning bodies’ titles when he beat Oscar De La Hoya in Las Vegas for the WBO belt to accompany the WBA, WBC and The Ring titles he already held. Hopkins was a rugged, versatile technician who possessed good footwork, an iron will and a solid chin—he’s never been stopped. Unlike many boxers that gain weight between matches then train furiously to lose it, Hopkins kept himself at 165 pounds year round and returned to the gym the morning after a fight to train. At 6’1”, he has a 75” reach and has amassed a career record of 55-7-2 with 32 knockouts. On April 12, 2005, Graterford Penitentiary dedicated a 20-by-40 foot mural of Bernard Hopkins on the gym wall. In 2011, The Ring magazine ranked him number three on their list of “10 Best Middleweight Titleholders of the Last 50 Years.”