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.