You’ve never read an interview like this before, because you’ve never met an athlete like Bernard Hopkins before. Whether or not you like boxing, you’ll be interested in hearing this Philadelphian’s story, because it is a tale more incredible, more improbable than that of Philly’s favorite fictional boxer. And it’s more intriguing, because his controversial beliefs are devoid of Hollywood cliches.
Over the last 10 years, as Philadelphians were screaming at the Eagles, cursing the Phillies, and crying over a freaking horse, many were ignoring the champion they had in their own backyard. Philly born and bred, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins became IBF middleweight champ in 1995. A victory over the favored Felix Trinidad in 2001 made him the undisputed champion, a title he held until July 16th of this year, when he lost an extremely controversial decision to Jermaine Taylor. The rematch is set for December 3rd. It is expected to be Hopkins’ last fight, as he promised his late mother that he would retire before he turned 41, which he does in January of 2006.
But this story begins before his first title, even before his first boxing match. It begins on the rough streets of North Philly, where he grew up. In Part 1 of this interview, Bernard discusses his early years, his five years in the penitentiary (“As great as Oz was on HBO, that was kindergarten compared to what happens in prison for real”), and the realization that he came to in order to turn his life around.
Johnny: You were somewhat of a bully growing up.
Bernard: Yeah, I was bullying the bullies more or less. The guys who had money was the guys doing the negative stuff. The guys who had money was the guys that gambled, the guys that sold marijuana, and they was the guys who everybody who wasn’t involved in those activities was afraid of. And I would prey on those guys.
I got three different stab wounds. One in my left side, near my heart. And two in my back. One by my spine, one near my right shoulder. Those came from serious dudes in the neighborhood who had money that I had jacked them for. I bullied the bullies. Now, that’s not saying I should be a Robin Hood, because I was just as bad as they was, but I knew who had the goods, who had the diamond chain, the gold chain, this and that. No nerd or quiet guy had those types of things. But I’m not proud of it. Even though these were guys in the streets who had the same mentality as me, or even worse. But what’s done is done.
There’s two sets of people in the hood when it comes to street. You got the lamb, and you have the wolf. I chose to be the wolf, not the lamb. If something happened to you, and you don’t justify it, you fall in the lamb category. Word gets around quickly in the hood. It gets hot outside, there’s fun things happening in the neighborhood, believe it or not, things happen in the hood that are fun. There’s things you can’t participate in because you’re scared of Joe, Jack, or whatever, and I’m pretty sure people stayed in and missed a lot of events because of me.
Johnny: You spent some time yourself in Graterford State Penitentiary for strong-arm robbery. You spent almost five years there. You came out of prison in ’88, and you were obviously a different person when you came out of prison than you were going into prison.
Bernard: Prison didn’t change me. I changed myself. But let me tell you what changed my thinking. It took a year. It took me a year for me to realize that because of my ignorance, that I became, overnight, somebodies 401 (k). It was because of my ignorance, I’m gonna keep saying that to let you know that there is no blame game going on here. But because of my ignorance, I became a part of modernized slavery. I got up at the crack of dawn, me and eight or nine other guys. Loaded up on a bus, shackled from the waist down, went out to a field, half a mile from the prison, picked potatoes, picked corn, planted flowers, kept the wardens house clean, put the mulch down. That’s how I learned about landscaping. Most of the time I do my own house out in Delaware. That stuff looks good when you come up for parole. They ask you, did you stay in your cell for five years, or did you do work, get your GED? What did you accomplish while you were here? That could make or break whether you go home or not.
Johnny: Were most of the prisoners you were working with, were they black?
Bernard: Ninety nine percent of the people in prison are black, except for the guards. Or people of color. You can have hispanic, but yeah, most people is black.
Johnny: Earlier, you compared it slavery, is that what opened your eyes?
Bernard: I realized that if 90% of the people don’t come back, then they gotta start laying people off. See my vision was very profound. If they had to get a private entity to come out, fertilize the dirt, churn the dirt, plant the seed, pick the seed, I would bet my life that it would cost 100 times more than the $19 a month they was paying us. Now some would argue, and make a good case, that that’s part of the punishment. Well, it is. It’s part of the justifiable punishment for justifiable slavery. I looked at it like I’m not gonna be no-one’s 401 (k).
At this point Bernard talked about the time he spent in prison, about the fact that he never went in hole, about the fact that he always came back from his furloughs. He then insinuated that positive stories like his are not what some people want to see.
Johnny: Are you saying that there are certain people who don’t want that story to get out?
Bernard: First, I’m gonna say yes to that. And second, I’ve got an even better example for you. Six months to a year after I left, all boxing in the Pennsylvania state prison, there’s 34 prisons in the Pennsylvania Penal code, no boxing. Stopped it.
Johnny: They stopped the boxing program after you left prison?
Johnny: So if you had gone to prison 10 years later, we wouldn’t be sitting here doing this story.
Bernard: I wouldn’t be here. When was I going to start? When I got out? Hell no. Boxing gave me discipline. It’s like a bad nightmare at first when you go to prison, and you got to sit there, you got to think, you see the yard out there, and you see guys boxing. I became what I am in the city, in the world in boxing, I was that already in prison. I had all the seniority. I had more snacks, I had more food than everybody. I was like John Gotti in prison. Trust me, if I wanted an inmate to do something to somebody for something I could have had that done. That’s the respect I got. And there’s guys who are still in there, in Graterford. There’s guys that are still there, like my old boxing coach Smokey Wilson. I’m going to see him on Wednesday. They asked me to come back, they said there’s a guy who put a mural up on the wall. And one guy came up to me and said, “I did this with a pencil.” Look at that (He points at a stunning portrait of himself hanging on the wall of his penthouse, where the interview was held.) They got a lot of talent in prison. They got a lot of problems, trust me. But he came up to me, and said it took me four months to do this. So I took it to the best framery I know on South Street.
Johnny: That picture up on the wall, that’s the one he did with pencil?
Bernard: Yeah, well many pencils, not just one. (laughs) They don’t have arts and crafts in jail, they got pencils. That’s talent.
Johnny: You talked a minute ago about Smokey Wilson, this is a guy you have a ton of respect for. He went to prison 35 years ago. Without him, do you think we’d be here today?
Bernard: No. For the first year and a half, I was doing what everybody else was doing. I was just establishing that I ain’t to be played with. You can’t go to Graterford and think that you can grab a Bible or a Koran and name yourself Yusef and think that, “Ok, fine your name is Yusef. Asalamalakim, my brother.” No, you get tried in different ways.
Johnny: Physically and mentally?
Bernard: First mentally. So I came through as tough in demeanor. But that’s just a front. You have only read about these things, but now you are there. You are anticipating drama. So, you don’t wait for drama to come to you, you act like a fool so everybody can see that you don’t care.
Johnny: So you act crazy to scare people, to scare people off, is that what you do?
Bernard: No. What I did was establish what they normally do when they see a new person. “What you lookin’ at?” (The following voiced as another person) “I ain’t lookin’ at nobody.” “Wrong answer.” What that question really means is, “Let’s fight”, or “I need money on the books by your wife, by your family, by friday.” In America, that’s called extortion.
Johnny: In prison, that’s an everyday thing?
Bernard: Yes. Survival. It’s no different than in the streets.
Johnny: So, when you walk into prison, guys that are established there are going to say, “I want your family to put money into my checking account”?
Bernard: They can say that, or they can say they want your ass. It depends what’s on their minds. As great as Oz was on HBO, that was kindergarten compared to what happens in prison for real. Not knocking Oz, not knocking the show, but I was asked all the time four or five years ago, “Hey Bernard, is it realistic?” Some parts. But man, this is TV. Everybody in prison would love to be in Oz. Come on man. Guys supposed to be spotting somebody’s weight, I’ve seen guys just drop the whole 300 pounds on him. It takes a hell of an individual to see someone get raped, stabbed, extorted. I ain’t a snitch. That’s just jailhouse rules. Somebody that you want to help, somebody who you think doesn’t deserve that, then you turn your head. I’ve seen guys who deserved to get beat up, who got a taste of their own medicine. They took people’s stuff, and they took the wrong people’s stuff. What are you gonna do? I wasn’t a crusader, I wasn’t Moses going through jail with a stick. I had five years. This guy here had 30. This guy had until the sun burnt out. I had respect. I gave respect. I wasn’t walking through the blocks like Debo. I mind my business too. And I just happened to be the jailhouse champion. Beating other prison’s fighters up. You come out, you get a little plastic trophy. But it ain’t about the trophy. It’s about credibility. Respect. Everybody loves you. That don’t mean you go around acting like nobody won’t stick a knife in you. But everybody loves you, from the he-she’s, they got their pom-poms and kool aid for lipstick. It’s the reality of that world. It’s a world within a world that you must not let become your world.
Johnny: Do you ever feel like when you’re fighting, you’re kind of carrying those guys too? Some of those guys have life. Do some of them follow your career?
Bernard: All of them do. Every time I fight. They know more about me than me. That’s one thing about jail, you try to get all the information you can from outside. That’s the only thing you have to do. There’s things in jail they know before us. What else do they have to do but get information? Life is dependant on what’s going on outside. See part of getting through your time is never locking your mind inside that jail.
Johnny: To keep you sane, you mean?
Bernard: Both. To keep you sane, to keep you looking for something. You can’t not think outside the box, and just think about Graterford every day. Then you become institutionalized. Some guys have became that. Jail has a profound effect on anyone who has been locked up. It leaves a profound effect you can never shake off, you can never totally forget. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about prison. I’m 40.
Johnny: You got out 17 years ago.
Bernard: Yeah. That’s seventeen years that I’ve been thinking about it. I don’t think about it when I’m eating or anything like that, but something always come up that makes you think about it. I think about it more when I’m facing the opposition or when I’m facing adversity. When I hear, “you can’t”, “you won’t”, “you do what we say”, “you’ll never make it”, “You’ll be back”, because that’s what I heard coming out the gates.