Bernard Hopkins needed a platform. And like all the great fighters, he needed a great opponent. In the middleweight division at the time, all of the best opponents were promoted by Don King. Fellow titleholders Joppy and Holmes were with King. And one of the biggest stars in the sport, the undefeated Puerto Rican Felix Trinidad, who’d just gotten done conquering the junior middleweight division, was with King. Tournaments don’t happen often in professional boxing, but King got to work on a four-man tournament to determine the one, true ruler of the middleweight division. It would be Hopkins vs. Holmes on HBO in April 2001 at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, Trinidad vs. Joppy on HBO Pay-Per-View in May at MSG, and then the winners facing off in September, again at the Garden, again on pay-per-view. Mark Taffet was the senior vice president of HBO Pay-Per-View at the time. Here’s Taffet on putting the tournament together.
Mark Taffet: To explain how complicated the process was, it takes only two words: Don. King. I never worked with anyone who, once you got them to say yes, was more focused and more cooperative than Don. But getting Don to say yes is one of the most difficult things in the world. We actually talked about a tournament for a few months, and then we decided that the middleweight division was the right division because Don was really focused on, at the time, on getting Tito Trinidad to be on a platform on top of the boxing world. And he felt it was the right time for Tito to fight at the middleweight level and against some of the best in the world. He knew that he would be able to bring William Joppy and Keith Holmes into the tournament, but of course, that Bernard Hopkins would be the most difficult. We hired and contracted with a sculptor after deciding that the tournament should be done in the name of Sugar Ray Robinson. And we actually had a beautiful bronze sculpture made of Sugar Ray Robinson, which we did in conjunction with the Robinson family, to get their blessing. And that really added gravitas to the tournament, in addition to it being a sequence of fights. Sugar Ray Robinson’s name and this beautiful image signified everything Don and I had wanted the tournament to be about.
Love or hate Don King, you can’t deny that he was a tireless worker and as ambitious and driven a promoter as boxing has ever known. Alan Hopper was Don King’s head of public relations at the time.
Alan Hopper: Nobody could have done what Don did—a lot of people said that at the time—and Bernard Hopkins was difficult in getting that done because he was so distrustful of promoters. Lou DiBella was Bernard’s adviser, and at some point they decided that it was something that they wanted to do, and Bernard had not been recognized as being the great middleweight that he certainly was after he won the tournament. To have the four top middleweights vying to determine the best middleweight in three fights is a rare thing in boxing. It’s very difficult to get something like that together. And I give credit to Don King for that, because I watched him. I watched him negotiating at the Garden, with Bernard. And at the press conference announcing it, I don’t think it was all done, and Don needed some signatures, and he was walking around with the pieces of paper himself going, “Come on, Bernard, sign this, I’m gonna make you rich.” And he signed him.
Mark Taffet confirms just how down to the wire the negotiation between the strong-willed duo of Hopkins and King was.
Taffet: The deal between Don and Bernard was actually done on the day of the press conference to announce the tournament. We were sitting there in the Theater at Madison Square Garden, about two hours prior to the press conference, I walked in with Don, and said, “You know, of course, if we don’t have Bernard Hopkins’ signature, there’s no reason to do a press conference.” He said, “No, I understand, I know that’s the way it’s got to be. But this is what I do.” And when Bernard came in, Don ran over to him like a bee to honey, and they had extremely intense conversations at a very accelerated pace. The two of them were speaking loudly and quickly. And I would say those are two of the men for whom saying yes is more difficult than any other men in the world. So I had my doubts whether or not we were going to have the press conference that day. Sure enough, I at one point saw the smile on Don’s face, the smile on Bernard’s face, and actually a handshake between them. And I couldn’t believe my eyes, but the two of them came to an agreement and they signed paper right there as the press conference went on, and none of us knew at the time what a road we were going to be traveling down and what a journey it would be given the events that happened in the ensuing months.
For Hopkins, who’d never made a seven-figure payday and didn’t appear to have time to waste as he entered the back half of his 30s, it seems in retrospect a no-brainer that he would want to be a part of this tournament, even if it meant giving up some control of his career to King.
Hopkins: Don had the pieces and Lou DiBella had the actual dates and the power working with HBO. So I said to myself, you know, I’ve had 11, 12 defenses by that time, and I didn’t feel that I was getting the respect that I always felt I had to fight for. And what kept me always in shape, always with a chip on my shoulder, matter of fact two chips on my shoulder, I always felt like that I wasn’t getting respected and this was the time now, since I’m doing this middleweight unification that hasn’t been done since the Marvin Hagler, that era, and now I should get my respect.