Champs gym stands like a tombstone amid one of the saddest slums
in North Philadelphia. Derelict row houses stretch for blocks
along West Huntingdon Street, an area of hopeless poverty and
malignant neglect. Outside the gym, street people lounge, lost
and passive. Inside, Bernard Hopkins struts around a boxing
ring, lean and muscular and full of the righteous ire he has
displayed since winning the IBF middleweight title in 1995. "I'm
a survivor," says the 35-year-old Hopkins, sounding as if he has
clawed his way out of the smoking ruins of Dresden. "Sure, I'm
well-off now and have a nice house in the suburbs. But I still
prefer to train in my old neighborhood. It's not the gym that
makes the man tough. It's the man that makes the gym tough."
Hopkins has toughed out nearly five years of prison, legal
dustups with two promoters and a system that, he claims,
shackles him like Kunta Kinte. "No matter where I fight, I fight
hard," he says. "If I promise to win, I follow through. I
execute." With his bullet-hard eyes and fisticuff abs, the
self-styled Executioner looks as if he was hammered on the anvil
of the gods to be an emblem of war. "He's an excitable guy with
a reputation for being a lunatic," says HBO boxing czar Lou
DiBella. "Get to know him, though, and you find he's reasoned,
decent, very together."
Part of the Executioner's rep derives from his ring entrances
(he often bursts through the ropes hooded in black and
accompanied by a couple of bare-chested, ax-wielding handlers)
and part from his rambling rants. "I get pissed, but I wouldn't
call it angry," he says, crunching syllables like Clint Eastwood
working up a vengeful froth. "To me, angry is out of control. I
haven't been that way for a while. My mood is more controlled
Beneath Hopkins's smoldering menace lies an innocence that
borders on Lewis Carroll enchantment. He talks tenderly of his
pet poodle, his snow-white pit bull, his snake (Fred), his wife
(Jeanette) and his infant daughter (Latrice). The kid's photo is
sewn into Hopkins's satin trunks. "Sitting on my stool between
rounds, I'm rejuvenated to see her face looking up at me," he
says. "Her picture reminds me I'm fighting for my family's
The 36-2-1 Hopkins makes his next security deposit this Saturday
in Indianapolis. A victory over the lightly regarded Syd
Vanderpool would be Hopkins's 11th successful title
defense--three shy of Carlos Monzon's middleweight record.
Hopkins's share of the purse looks to be about $450,000, chump
change compared with what lots of other titleholders command.
Still, it's $350,000 more than he earned for his previous bout,
a lopsided decision over No. 1 contender Antwun Echols in Miami.
Underpaid and largely overlooked, the self-managed,
self-promoted Hopkins refuses to take pleasure in his fame and
accomplishments. He's forever railing against promoters,
managers, sanctioning bodies. "Prizefighters get mistreated,
exploited, out-and-out robbed every day," says Hopkins, who
would like to launch a boxers' union. "Either you crusade for
reform or you become part of the problem. As a champion, I feel
an obligation to take a stand."
A year ago he testified in New York City before a boxing task
force that was convened by the National Association of Attorneys
General. "Fighters have as much chance against promoters as a
welterweight has against Mike Tyson," Hopkins said. "How many
stories have you heard about fighters who went broke? Now, how
many stories have you heard about boxing promoters who went
broke? Promoters hold all the power, all the leverage and most
of the money. They're not going to give that up to any fighter,
not unless they absolutely have to."
According to Hopkins, a half-dozen promoters advised him not to
appear at the hearing. "They said, 'Bernard, you've been
blessed, be part of the program,' but I don't want to be part of
a program," the fighter says. "The business of boxing makes me
want to puke. If you brought that business home with you every
night, you wouldn't be married too long." Evidently he doesn't
bring it home: He's been married seven years.
Born in a section of North Philly he calls "the pit-bull belly
of the ghetto," Hopkins has been fighting ever since he can
remember. "Back then I hit lots of people upside the head," he
recalls. "I had a lot of negative energy." So much that juvenile
detention became his second home. He says that after a
conviction for strong-arm robbery in 1983, a judge told him,
"I'm tired of seeing your face, Mr. Hopkins." The judge banished
17-year-old Bernard to a penitentiary, where he reflected on his
negativity for 56 months.
"I got a good, hard whack for what I did," Hopkins says. He
credits the boxing coach at the prison in Graterford, Pa., for
turning him from a street bully into a polished combination
puncher. "Many nights I cried, [jail] was so rough. But the
experience straightened me out. If I could find the guy who
called the cops on me, I'd shake his hand."
Hopkins lost his pro debut, in 1988, when he was a chubby light
heavyweight. Though the 23-year-old was a natural middleweight,
his manager fattened him up with fast food. "All those burgers
made me sluggish," Hopkins says. "Everybody in the crowd seemed
to think I'd be knocked out. Fortunately, my heart kept me on my
His head, filled with self-doubt, kept him out of the ring for
the next 16 months. Returning under new management, he fought as
a middleweight and super middleweight and won 22 straight
bouts--16 by knockout, 13 within the first two rounds. He often
returned to Graterford to train. "That way, I was sure to get in
at least 15 rounds," says Hopkins. "If I beat up a sparring
partner on the outside, he might not come back the following
day. The guys at Graterford didn't have anywhere else to go."
Hopkins got his first title shot in 1993, when Roy Jones Jr.
outpointed him in a close 12-rounder for the IBF crown. After
Jones moved to a heavier weight class, Hopkins earned a
seventh-round TKO over Segundo Mercado to become Philly's first
160-pound world champ.
Since then Hopkins's fiercest fights have been with former
promoters he feels worked against his best interests. Contract
disputes have limited him to about two bouts a year. "Nobody
wants to fight Bernard," says his adviser, Don Elbaum. "Efforts
to unify the middleweight title have been fruitless." Don King,
promoter of WBC champ Keith Holmes and WBA counterpart William
Joppy, has shown no interest in risking either belt to a boxer
he doesn't control.
Hopkins looks at the big-ticket junior middleweights below
him--Felix Trinidad, Fernando Vargas, David Reid--and says he
would happily shed six pounds to challenge them. "The 154-pound
division is a holding pen for welterweights too scared to move
up to middleweight," he snarls. "That's why Reid is Jenny
Craiging himself on carrots and celery, and fighting every Mary
Poppins and Sue."
If Hopkins can't land a 154-pounder, he's willing to bulk up to
super middleweight (168 pounds) for a rematch with Jones, the
undisputed light heavyweight (175 pounds) champ. Jones is
reluctant to pare down, however. "Everybody's waiting for me to
get old and over the hill," says Hopkins. "They don't realize
that by fighting infrequently, I've never gotten pounded, never
been cut, never been stitched up. I've been preserved. I'm like
grandma's peaches sitting on a shelf in the cellar, waiting for
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS
"Fighters get mistreated, exploited, out-and-out robbed every
day," says Hopkins.
"If I could find the guy who called the cops on me," says
Hopkins, "I'd shake his hand."