By Eric Raskin | Photos by Will Hart
Fifteen years ago, one future Hall of Famer established his greatness, while another had his run to boxing immortality cut short. And it happened just 18 days after the terrorist attacks of September 11, just three miles from Ground Zero, at Madison Square Garden, in the first major sporting event in Manhattan after the towers fell. In the shadow of 9/11, sanctioned savagery shared the spotlight with recovery from America’s darkest hour, and the result was one of the most dazzling individual performances the sport of boxing has ever seen.
Listen to the audio version of this oral history on the HBO Boxing Podcast:
The middleweight title was splintered in 2001—William Joppy had a belt, Keith Holmes had a belt, and 36-year-old Bernard Hopkins was the longest reigning of the beltholders, having held his title since 1995. Hopkins grew up in the Raymond Rosen housing project in Philadelphia, and at age 17, he was sentenced to 18 years in Graterford prison for strong-armed robbery. He would serve nearly five years. And during that time, he learned to box.
Bernard Hopkins: I had a Y-41-5 number, and that was from State Correctional Institution of Graterford, and that’s all I had. And a hope and a dream. So, you got someone trying to give you that BS, and tell you about the things you accomplished to say like, “I was there from Day One.” I lost my first fight. Clinton Mitchell in Atlantic City resort casino. And I remember that like yesterday. You know why? Because I never forget failure. But I move on to be successful. And I never want to forget failure, because failure what made me who I am.
HBO blow-by-blow announcer Jim Lampley now works alongside Hopkins at the broadcast table, and he’s gotten to know and understand him well over the years.
Jim Lampley: Bernard’s life is about his redemption, his active, visible, day-to-day redemption. I do not believe there’s a single day in Bernard’s life when he does not tell somebody the story of a warden at Graterford prison and how on the day that Bernard got out after 41/2 years, the warden casually said to him, “You’ll be back,” and those words motivate Bernard every day to this day. There’s nobody else I know who’s exactly like him, and I think it’s that internal machinery, the motivation that is built into him from his experience in prison and his extremely active decision never to be back there again, that to this day guides everything that Bernard does from nutrition to the scheduling to the preparation, to the way he dresses, to the way he saves money. Everything about Bernard is motivated by that moment.
At the start of 2001, though, despite having made a dozen successful title defenses, Hopkins had still not fully found his redemption. He was a respected boxing talent, but not a star, not an attraction. His adviser at the time, Lou DiBella, who’d been an HBO Sports executive from 1989 to 2000 and was now getting into the promotional side of the business, was struggling in his pursuit of opportunities for the man known as “The Executioner.”
Lou DiBella: At the time, HBO didn’t want Bernard Hopkins. They didn’t think anything of him. They didn’t want him, they were arguing with me and fighting with—they wanted to know, before my last day at HBO, they wanted to know some of the fighters I might be using on my dates. And I said—you know, at that time Bernard Hopkins was free, and I had been talking to Bernard’s lawyer at the time and Bernard, we had agreed we were gonna work together, and I believed Bernard was the best fighter in the world at that moment that wasn’t promoted. And I also believed that he hadn’t been promoted as what he was. And I was right before everyone else, and Bernard knows this. I knew how great Bernard was.
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.
Hopkins’ path toward that respect began with an ugly, clinch-filled, one-sided decision win over Holmes. But the real challenge awaited in Trinidad. “Tito” came into the tournament with a record of 39-0, 32 knockouts. Some considered him the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He was everybody’s pick for Fighter of the Year in 2000, a year in which he rose from welterweight and beat up two previously unbeaten U.S. Olympians in the junior middleweight division, David Reid and Fernando Vargas. In his middleweight debut, before a deafening crowd full of Puerto Rican and Puerto Rican-American supporters at the Garden, Trinidad bounced Joppy off the canvas three times en route to a jaw-dropping fifth-round knockout. Larry Merchant sat ringside as a color analyst for HBO.
Larry Merchant: I recall Joppy saying afterwards in the dressing room, “I’d never been hit like that. I felt something I never felt before.” And I thought, “Wow.” That Trinidad had carried his punch from the welterweight division into the middleweight division, which is unusual. We’re talking about a 13-pound leap. And for a guy that was a considered a tough, top middleweight to say that, got my attention.
Alan Hopper, too, recalls being in awe of Tito’s power, and his popularity.
Hopper: Not too many people got past Tito’s left hand. And, I mean, you’ve gotta remember, when Tito fought Fernando Vargas, both the fighters were undefeated, but Fernando was 20-0 and had 169, I think it was, amateur fights. He had never been knocked down in his life, amateur or professional, until 27 seconds into round one, when Tito hit him with the left hook. And William Joppy found out the same thing, and so did many others. I was standing next to Kevin Wynn, who was head of boxing at the Garden at that time, and, of all people, Bob Dylan. And we were sitting there while William Joppy was laying on the ground after a knockdown, and just looking up and around at all the seats at the Garden, and the whole place just rockin’, and that’s when Kevin told me, “This is the loudest it’s ever been in this building.”
Joppy had an arena full of rabid Trinidad fans against him. What Bernard Hopkins did on the press tour to promote the tournament finals turned an entire island against him. It started at the press conference in New York’s Bryant Park, where Hopkins made a show of ripping a miniature Puerto Rican flag out of Trinidad’s hand and throwing it to the ground. Photographer Will Hart was there.
Will Hart: It was pretty shocking. It was really, way over the line about Hopkins. But he was always about him being the black hat and to stir up the pot by being the bad guy. So he was stirring it up to make tickets. And he did a good job doing that all the time. We saw it on the news, it made news. Big time news. It was like, you know, what an asshole.
Before the next stop on the press tour, Hopkins received a stern talking to from a group of power players involved with the fight. As Bernard recalls, even Al Sharpton inserted himself into the situation. HBO Pay-Per-View executive Mark Taffet was among those trying to get Hopkins to apologize—or at least trying to nip the issue in the bud before it escalated.
Taffet: We had talked with Bernard about what had happened in New York, and said, “This is not the way we want to publicize the tournament, and don’t think it’s befitting of the tournament and the trophy we created.” And Bernard said, “Okay, I hear ya, I gotcha, no problem, no problem.” And then when we got to Puerto Rico, he expressed the same sentiments and did the same thing again. And then we learned that Bernard was not only cagey in the ring, but he was very fleet on his feet and a great escape artist outside of the ring.
I’ll let Alan Hopper, who was there in Puerto Rico, recount the madness.
Hopper: We went to San Juan. Coliseo de Roberto Clemente is where we held it. It was open to the public. And, I was sitting up in the regular stadium seats, and the press conference is going on, and I was off to the side. And I just heard a commotion. And I saw the whole scrim, or the backdrop that was promoting the fight, coming down, and ran around the corner to find out that Bernard had thrown the Puerto Rican flag on the ground in front of this audience. And followed Bernard as he was running away from people who were trying to grab him, and he jumped over seats and jumped over a vestibule and fell down in it, must have dropped 10 feet. They almost got him. I saw some of the fans almost get him. And he ran into the dressing room, and I remember Naazim Richardson, who later became his trainer, holding people back and letting Bernard in the door, and I went in there, and promotion people went in there, and Don King went in there. And then, I remember hearing a noise and looking up, and I’m not sure, but there was a hole in the window. And I think somebody from the outside may have shot a gunshot. There were some really, really unhappy people. Puerto Rico’s the most patriotic place I’ve ever been, and towards that end, they found out that Bernard’s white limousine that he was using that day was out back. And they lit it on fire. It was no small thing that happened there. I’ve rarely been afraid for my life, but that was a day when all of us were afraid for our lives. And it was difficult to get him out through the airport after that. And the next day in Philadelphia, I asked him if he could cool it. And Bernard said, “I’m not doing anything for anybody.” It went to show you the lengths that Bernard Hopkins is willing to go to try and get into somebody else’s head.
Reflecting on it 15 years later, Hopkins admits he was extraordinarily lucky to escape San Juan unscathed.
Hopkins: Real danger. I mean, I had to jump 20 feet down and land on the floor. I mean, they had to, they had to actually call reinforcement to be able to come and motorcade us out, so we wouldn’t get basically shot down or ran over or whatever. Let me tell you something, man. If it didn’t storm, when those tropical storms came down. And I know this sounds too much like a Hollywood script, but I can’t make this up. It stormed so bad, and you know how those islands storm when it’s hot like that. It stormed so bad that it got rid of half of the people. One limo was turned over. They were stomping, it was coming from a project. It was really ran-down shacks that people lived in, and they was coming cross the street with machetes, man. Basically, everybody’s life was on the line. I will tell you—I would do it again if I had to. There’s a lot of things that I said and a lot of things that I did that I know that was needed at that time—at least that’s what I thought. And that’s what I believed. And that’s what kept me, I believe, in the winning column for a long time, and it had nothing to do with my abilities. That’s the physical part. But I had to touch base for my own confidence, for my own drive, for my own demeanor, my own self-esteem. I couldn’t back down, buddy. Blame it on North Philly.
The disrespecting of a flag, and the culture clash between a Philadelphian and a Puerto Rican, seemed like a big deal. Until suddenly, four days before the scheduled September 15 fight date, nothing seemed like a big deal anymore.
On Tuesday, September 11, two hijacked planes crashed into the two World Trade Center towers, and within less than two hours, both towers had been reduced to rubble and nearly 3,000 lives were lost. Everybody remembers where they were and what they were doing that morning. Here’s photographer Will Hart, who has lived in New York City all his life.
Hart: First of all, it was a beautiful day. It could have been like the 10 best days of the year. And you could just sense that fall was around the corner. An absolute cloudless, cobalt-blue sky. It was a beautiful day, a beautiful morning. And I got up early. And what I normally do is turn on FAN and listen to Imus in the Morning in those days. And make my coffee, do my usual morning stuff. And then I heard him say, Imus said, “I just got a call from Warner Wolf, and he says a plane just hit the World Trade Center.” And I’m like, holy shit, I heard a fucking plane go so low, heard it, because I’m on the West Side on 45th Street, I’m about three blocks away from the Hudson River. That plane flew right over us, at a really low, low altitude, and at a slow, slow speed. I heard that plane. And I shower and I said to myself, “I gotta get down there.” You know, I’m a photographer, I gotta get down there. And, came out, and then the second plane hit, and after that, I said “I’m not going anywhere near there.”
Some of the HBO broadcast crew members were in New York already on September 11, some weren’t. Jim Lampley was in Wichita, Kansas, working on a report for Real Sports and was stuck there for three extra days because all planes were grounded. Lampley told me of his time in Wichita, quote, it was “a very odd and strange place to be contemplating the possible disintegration of global society.” Larry Merchant, meanwhile, was already in New York, with his wife.
Merchant: I can recall going out into the street to see what it felt like, seeing people who had obviously, who walked uptown. I remember going to the corner of 59th Street Bridge, and seeing people walking uptown with their briefcase, like out of something out of a Magritte painting. And in general, people being stunned. Walked over to Central Park, near the zoo, and sat down and found myself people watching, and people just trying to take a deep breath and gather themselves and try to figure out what was going on and how they felt, I guess.
Don King publicist Alan Hopper was also staying at a New York hotel that week, and when he came to the conclusion that there was no more boxing PR work to be done that day, he returned to his hotel.
Hopper: I remember, Dean Witter used to use the hotel we stayed at a lot for trainees, and there was a guy on the elevator on that afternoon, September 11th, who said, “I was in the second tower when the first one got hit.” And we all asked him, “What did you do?” And he said, “I ran down the stairs and I got out of there.” And that was pretty amazing. To have actually been riding on the elevator with a possible dead man who got out. And so, I was happy for him. But I couldn’t imagine what it could have been like to have been him, and he was standing there and the others were not. And then you remember all the family members who went around with pictures of their family members, looking for them. And everybody knew that it was very unlikely anybody would be found, but nobody would say a word to them. And there were pizza parlors and restaurants closer to—whole walls were dedicated to the photos of the people and the family members were doing what they could and looking for their loved ones.
Bernard Hopkins had just gotten in from a run in Central Park when the first plane hit, then he was going to head downtown to the Trinity Boxing Club on Duane Street for a public workout. His adviser Lou DiBella was headed to the same place.
DiBella: I had left my house in Long Island and was in a car heading to the city when I heard on the radio that there was an incident at the Trade Center—because we literally, literally, were doing a public workout in the shadow of the Towers. It was gonna be at the Trinity Gym. It was literally within a block or two of the World Trade Center. And as I was approaching the ramp that leads you to the Midtown Tunnel, the second plane hit the Towers. And I saw, like, an eruption and smoke and whatever, I pulled off the highway at the last possible exit before you go into the city, and I reversed course, back home. And I knew right then and there that the fight wasn’t going to happen that weekend.
DiBella’s instincts were correct. And before long, everyone involved with Hopkins-Trinidad had to figure out what the tragic events of the day meant for the pay-per-view event scheduled for that Saturday. Mark Taffet recalls when those conversations began.
Taffet: I think it was that night. Maybe 10 or 12 hours after the events of 9/11, that we talked about the fact that it was highly likely that the event would be postponed, the September 15th finals of the middleweight tournament. And we really had no idea, at that time, whether, let alone when, the event would be rescheduled. So we were scrambling. I spoke with Don, he knew he had to speak with Madison Square Garden. The Garden was in touch with the mayor’s office, and it didn’t take long to announce the postponement of the event. But we really didn’t know at the time of postponement whether or when it would be rescheduled. We had no way to anticipate the extent of damage, the security measures and repairs and cleanup that would be necessary, and whether or not an event could be staged again.
Incredibly, the fight was postponed only two weeks, to September 29. Hopkins, having been in the city and witnessed the physical and emotional toll firsthand, told me he thought there was, quote, “no way in the world” the fight would be rescheduled that soon—he thought it would get bumped to sometime in 2002, in fact. But just in case, and being the maniacally disciplined athlete that he is, he never broke training camp.
Hopkins: I wanted to go to another place where we can train at. So the first thing I told Naazim is that, since nobody’s telling us nothing and we don’t know what to do, let’s go to Harlem or Brooklyn, because they ain’t gonna bomb there. I realized this is a terrorist attack, everybody know, so let’s go, let’s go where they’re not gonna bomb, and that’s the ghetto, so that if we go there, we fine. So let’s go there because they’re not gonna bomb the hood. You couldn’t get out of the city! But one thing I kept the course on is I must train until I hear something different. Now, eventually, we got out.
For Trinidad, who was staying at a hotel in lower Manhattan, it wasn’t so simple. Here’s Mark Taffet on how Tito and Don King dealt with the postponement.
Taffet: I think Don had a feeling that if Tito went back to Puerto Rico, the fight may never happen again. So he wanted to hold on. Bernard got into his SUV and went back to Philadelphia for a few days, but he was nearby and we knew that no one was more committed to that fight happening than Bernard Hopkins. It was everything for Bernard. It was exactly the opportunity he was looking for to take his legacy to another level. But in the case of Tito, we felt keeping him in New York was the way to keep the possibility of the fight open. Don knew he needed to keep Tito busy, and he also, being the great promoter that he is, wanted to keep some fight publicity going. So he did a beautiful thing. He took Tito around to firehouse after firehouse to visit with and speak with the firefighters. And not only did it keep Tito busy and focused, but it provided an incredible therapeutic benefit to the firefighters, at a time where they needed a release themselves.
That humanitarian/promotion-minded approach may have backfired on King and Trinidad, however. King’s then-PR ace, Alan Hopper explains.
Hopper: He was stuck in a hotel in a wounded city. I remember Bernard, as soon as they opened up the tunnels to get out, he drove back to West Philly and kept training. And Tito was stuck in New York City. And Don, as a lot of Americans did, went down and served food to the people going through the rubble and Tito went with them. Tito was a mean guy in the ring but a very wonderful and soft-hearted person outside the ring. And I don’t think it did him any good to have to stay in New York for those weeks when it was all set up for him to peak on the 15th, not September 29. And what people have to understand is, we’re never gonna know what would have happened if the fight would have taken place as scheduled.
The two-week delay wasn’t the only development that threw Trinidad off his game and may have helped transform him from the 3½-to-1 favorite he was listed as to an underdog when the bell actually rang. On the night of the fight, September 29th, in the dressing room, Hopkins’ assistant trainer, Naazim Richardson, was watching Felix Trinidad Sr. wrap his son’s hands and objected to the way he was layering tape and gauze. Richardson believed the amount of material on Trinidad’s knuckles exceeded legal limits. And the New York Commission member present agreed that the handwraps did not meet the state’s standards, so the Trinidads had to re-wrap his fists.
While the drama unfolded, or if you were part of the Trinidad camp, unraveled, in the dressing room, there was a different kind of drama taking place out in the arena. The lingering post-9/11 emotional fallout, where Americans were still asking themselves whether it was okay to joke, to laugh, to be entertained, created a truly unique atmosphere. Here are Jim Lampley’s reflections:
Lampley: It was otherworldly just to be there. I never dreamed they could put the fight together within two weeks. I never dreamed I’d be back in New York so quickly after 9/11, after sitting through those four days waiting it out in Wichita. I was shocked, I was kind of awestruck that it was actually taking place, that we were there. And just as the city would later demonstrate in the playoffs and the World Series in the baseball postseason, the city was ready for a visible statement of its continuing vibrancy and importance, and that statement was there in MSG that night. I mean, the fight wouldn’t have been the same thing anywhere else. It had to be there.
Don King took the step of setting aside a section on the floor just for survivors and first responders. HBO executive Mark Taffet says he’ll never forget the moment during the undercard when those firefighters and policemen were led to their seats.
Taffet: I remember some of the folks at HBO, Janet Indelli and Coco Cocoves, working with the fire department. And at one point, Janet and Coco walked into the arena with what had to be at least 20 firefighters and policemen, and I recall the moment the images appeared on the big screen, and all of a sudden everyone in the Garden stood. It was like a giant wave. And the roar that came from the crowd was so loud that it actually didn’t have sound. It almost sucked all the sound out of the room, and you just felt this roar of air crossing by you. And everyone was crying and standing and cheering. And the fighters in the ring were actually perplexed, they had no idea what was going on. Suddenly they realized it, and there was a very quick short break in their action, as they just looked around to see what was going on. It was really something that I’ll never forget. I can’t even explain in words how overcome I was and everyone was with emotion, I’ll never forget even as I knew they were about to walk in, the chills that, as I say it now, I get the same feeling again—I get so emotional, such feelings of pride, you felt great to be an American, great to be there, and my god, so grateful to those folks who walked in and symbolized the hundreds and hundreds of people who worked so hard to bring everyone to safety that night and the days that followed. It was something I’ll never forget the rest of my life.
Bernard Hopkins made the decision not to wear his all-black Executioner outfit to the ring, feeling it wasn’t appropriate. He entered to Ray Charles’ “America The Beautiful,” to a mixed reaction from the mostly pro-Trinidad crowd. Then Trinidad entered wearing an NYPD hat and brought the house down. Four months earlier, when Trinidad fought Joppy, the Puerto Rican fans booed the Star Spangled Banner. On this night, there was no booing when NYPD officer Danny Rodriguez sang the National Anthem.
Referee Steve Smoger recalls the power of that anthem and the vibe in the arena.
Steve Smoger: It was the first major step toward healing. And it was the most emotional event I have ever attended or participated in in 34 years. The emotion. Don had a section for first responders and survivors, if they felt strong enough to come out and try the first step in the healing process. The chills were just, I had to maintain my composure. I really, really did. I said, “You’re here to do a job, you cannot get caught up in it.”
It was time for the opening bell. When Hopkins’ warm-up jacket came off, we saw a giant GoldenPalace.com ad painted across his upper back—this kicked off what would become a huge trend in boxing for the next several years, of fighters turning their bodies into billboards. The online betting site Golden Palace paid Hopkins $100,000 for the advertisement, and if you have any doubts about Bernard Hopkins’ craft or his confidence, know this: He bet that entire $100,000 on himself to win at 3½-to-1 odds. Those odds sound steep knowing what we know now about Hopkins, but at the time, Trinidad was so red hot that there was talking of him facing light heavyweight champ Roy Jones after he destroyed Hopkins. Here’s Jim Lampley on his prefight premonitions, which mirrored those of most of the public at large.
Lampley: I didn’t give Bernard much chance, in my mind. I was naïve enough, at that moment, to favor Trinidad very heavily and feel as though he was potentially too dynamic and too good an offensive fighter for Bernard to beat him. I underestimated at that moment Bernard’s level of craft and his capability for mentally mastering that kind of big-fight confrontation. I thought that Trinidad had by far the greater experience in that kind of event and therefore it was very logical to favor him to win the fight.
Bernard Hopkins began to buck those expectations the moment the opening bell rang. He boxed cautiously and effectively in round one, and by the end of round two, he was really starting to dial in his offense.
Before long, Hopkins was putting on a clinic. His focus couldn’t be disturbed, and he was outmaneuvering Trinidad at every turn. Tito kept moving forward and firing his power shots, but Hopkins was getting the better of nearly every exchange in rounds three through five. Here’s Larry Merchant on how Hopkins was defying expectations:
Merchant: I don’t think that many people recall that in his original incarnation, he was a kind of rough guy. He was not considered a master boxer, by far. He was using his strength, a really big guy as a middleweight, and his toughness, and a certain improvisational, intuitive style, but I always thought of him as a kind of feral warrior, in trying to establish his dominance of the middleweight division, which was splintered all over the place. So, it did take me a little while to sense what he was up to, once the fight began. And then my head clicked into, well, Bernard Hopkins is a Philadelphia fighter, he survived the gym wars of Philadelphia for years—he had to know something about boxing as well as banging. And we’re seeing it now.
Trinidad’s father/trainer remained in denial, telling him after the third round, “It’s only a matter of time until you get him out of there,” and after the sixth that he was winning the fight—even though at most Tito had won a round or two. Referee Steve Smoger recalls the moment in the sixth round when he realized it was Hopkins’ fight to lose.
Smoger: Bernard just had answers for everything that Tito had, and I recall specifically in the middle rounds, Tito landed a crisp, clean, signature right-hand flush. Bernard grunted and continued pressing the action and I could see the demeanor of Tito, “I hit this guy with everything, and he’s still here.”
So how was Hopkins pulling this off? We may as well let the man himself explain.
Hopkins: The left hook was the key, because his left hook, not like a Joe Frazier, in his own way, he had a left hook. And I wish I would have took a picture of my swollen right hand. If you look at the fight, I had my right hand plastered to my ear. If you look at the fight, it stayed there. The right hand barely left my right cheek. Every time Trinidad need to get off that power left hand, he gets into a left-right-left-go. So it’s 1-2-3. It’s a rhythm. You have to get in between, half of three is one and a half, and you have to get in at the right time, at the right time, at the right time, from one and a half at the end to one and a half at the beginning makes three, and if you can time that, when he rocks, and you get him coming in a half of that last rock, which is the third one, you can catch him and make him start all over. He had to start all over. I watched that in the Oscar fight, I watched that in the Vargas fight, I watched that in a lot of fights that he had, that is Tito, he has to rock before he gets his power, which makes the rhythm, then power. And once I noticed that and I would look for that left hook every time, and every time he rocked, I touched him softly, I touched him hard sometimes—just on the shoulders—threw it out there, rock him, offset his 1-2-boom! I catch him right in the middle of the last one. And guess what? He had to start all over. He had to pick it up and start. He didn’t start from where left off. He started back. And any time I didn’t want him to reset, I threw combinations, I beat him to the punch, I start confusing him. And now remember, he threw my flag down. I’m Trinidad, he threw my flag down. I gotta get him. He’s antsy. He’s itchin’. He rushin’. And he’s punching with madness and anger and hatred. So now, this guy’s not really thinking. Here’s the mental now. Here’s the mental now. So now he’s thinking, “I can’t let this guy not get knocked out by me. I can’t let this guy win this fight, because my country, they will never forget this.” So he riding on pride, he riding on how much it would make him even bigger than he is. He riding on I did something that he didn’t like either. I don’t care how good you are—that’s a lot, man.
Alan Hopper, Don King’s head of public relations, told me that Team Trinidad completely guessed wrong on Hopkins’ strategy; that in training, Tito was wearing extra padding on his body, asking his sparring partners to try to rough him up, thinking Hopkins would fight him the way he fought Keith Holmes and so many other opponents. But as Lampley recalls, Hopkins instead followed the blueprint Oscar De La Hoya used to take Trinidad to a highly controversial decision loss two years earlier.
Lampley: The biggest thing in the fight is footwork. Just as it was against Tarver and against Pavlik. The biggest thing Bernard had was a cosmic understanding of how to move his feet to take away the other guy’s confidence that he could do what he thought he could do. When you can’t find the opponent, and he can find you pretty routinely, that’s very discouraging. And Bernard had fabulous footwork, knew how to apply it, he made Trinidad look silly, and Trinidad’s confidence evaporated pretty fast.
Trinidad made a last stand in round 10, which The Ring magazine named the Round of the Year. Both landed heavy shots. But Hopkins ultimately asserted his superiority as the round wound down.
Hopkins rocked Trinidad badly just before the bell sounded to end round 11. And 57 seconds into the 12th, he blocked a left hook with that right glove he had pinned to his cheek, and countered with a perfect right hand.
The final moments were a bit confusing, as Smoger was about to wave it off when Trinidad beat the count at 9, but before Smoger could make a decision, Papa Trinidad came into the ring and surrendered on his son’s behalf. Here’s Smoger, with an interesting clarification on the end of the fight.
Smoger: He did beat the count. And because it was the 12th round, I would have permitted it to continue had his dad not stopped it. In other words, I think he was well enough to continue. I was prepared to stay right on him, and any further shot I would have gone in. But he was so valiant, and he did beat the count. And the fact that, I don’t know how much time was remaining, but I wanted to give him every opportunity to finish on his feet. I would have allowed him to go, but watch, had he not been able to defend himself or finish with protecting himself, I would have stopped it. But the corner knows the fighter better than I do, and his dad saw fit to come in, so that took the decision out of my hands.
By CompuBox count, Hopkins outlanded Trinidad in every single round of the fight. The final tallies saw Hopkins almost exactly double the previously undefeated Puerto Rican icon: He threw 653 punches to 329 from Trinidad, and he landed 260 to just 129 for Tito. Hopkins would produce similarly spectacular performances throughout his 40s—upsetting Antonio Tarver for the light heavyweight title, dominating 17-years-his-junior middleweight champ Kelly Pavlik, and reclaiming a lineal title one last time when he beat Jean Pascal at a record 46 years of age. So where does the Trinidad fight fit in? Here’s Larry Merchant.
Merchant: I would say it’s the greatest performance in his prime years. It was a masterpiece of its kind, and nobody had ever seen him fight quite like that, as a counterpuncher, and as a guy who stood his ground and counterpunched and took a couple of punches and never got flustered. Never backed down from—respected, but didn’t back down from Trinidad’s power.
The fight was over. But there was one bit of drama left to play out. Remember that Sugar Ray Robinson Trophy that Mark Taffet spoke about? It was not presented to Hopkins at the post-fight press conference as expected. Maybe in the shadow of 9/11 and following a rousing conclusion to the Middleweight World Championship Series, a foot-tall sculpture wasn’t foremost on anybody’s mind. But it seemed curious, and rumors quickly began to spread that the trophy had been made with Felix Trinidad’s name on it, and therefore couldn’t be presented to Bernard. About a week later, Hopkins got his trophy at a press conference at Gallagher’s Steakhouse in New York. And here’s what Bernard says happened a few weeks after that.
Hopkins: Bouie Fisher, myself and James Fisher went over to Don King’s house, because I was a free agent when I beat Tito. I fought Tito in the tournament under no contract. Don King wanted to sign me now to a contract. He invited us to Fort Lauderdale, at the Four Seasons down the street from his house in Deerfield Beach—the Four Seasons or one of those hotels—we stayed there, and the next morning a car picked us up, we go to his house, we looking around at all the trophies in his office, he didn’t come out for like an hour, he kept us waiting. But we looking. Guess what was in there? It was the trophy. It was a trophy, the same trophy that I got, that I thought that I was the only one that got this famous trophy that this artist put together to hand to the winner of the tournament, but here’s the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy, sitting in Don King’s office, with Felix Trinidad name on there that was at the arena, that they didn’t give to me, cause it was locked in a room. They lied. And they couldn’t present it to me.
HBO Pay-Per-View’s Mark Taffet offers an alternate theory that might explain what Bernard Hopkins saw that day in King’s office.
Taffet: Well, I do recall this. I do recall that Don had wanted a trophy for himself, because he was proud of the tournament he created, and so proud of Sugar Ray Robinson’s name and memory being symbolic of the greatness of the tournament and the validity of the winner. So I knew that there was a second trophy made for Don, as a keepsake. But I have no idea what was on that trophy. I didn’t see it, I didn’t look at it. So I’m not aware. But I’ll leave it to Bernard to count and recount that. He was there and I wasn’t. Don wanted to see this from Day One through its conclusion and said it was one of the proudest accomplishments of his career. And that’s what the trophy represented to him. But I did not see the trophy itself, other than being aware that there definitely was going to be one for Don to keep.
I mentioned these opposing theories to Lou DiBella, who is never one to mince words.
DiBella: I’m going to agree with Bernard Hopkins on this one. I don’t believe Don had his own replica made because he was so proud of the tournament. Don was fucking shattered—Mark’s in never-neverland, I love him, but if he thinks that’s true he’s out of his effing mind. Don was beside himself that Hopkins won that fight. He had future rights through the tournament to Hopkins, but obviously Hopkins was not Trinidad at that point. Hopkins also did not have any kind of loyalty to Don. Or any desire really to have his career spearheaded by Don, so Don knew he was in trouble there. So I think the trophy that people saw, if they saw it in Don’s office, was exactly the trophy he was gonna present, and it still had Tito’s name on it, and he certainly wasn’t going to hand it to Hopkins. That’s my guess. But you know what? I have never asked Don about it. It’s completely believable to me that the trophy had Trinidad’s name on it. That makes perfect sense to me.
I reached out to Don King in hopes of interviewing him, but I got no response. So the story of the Sugar Ray Robinson trophy will remain something of a mystery. But the story of how that trophy was won is no mystery. I’ll give the final word to the third man in the ring that night, Steve Smoger.
Smoger: From my perspective, the fight lived up to the prefight hype and it was worthy of the stage that it was on, in New York City, in Madison Square Garden, with a packed house. And it looked like the first step in the healing process of the city of New York, and that’s the feeling I got in prefight, speaking with people—it was the first event that people came to. The aspect of recovery is the feeling that I got. The crowd was somewhat somber, but as the evening went on, it got more sporting, and lighter, and again, the fight lived up to and brought it to that level. That’s the feeling that I got. I’m glad it wasn’t a one-round blowout. It was a fight for the ages, and that’s why we’re talking about it.
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