Taylor-Hopkins: The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

16.07.05 - By Wray Edwards: Beside the usual discussions of past opponents, current skills, age, physical attributes and style comparisons, there is a whole other set of dynamics which sometimes are factors in the outcomes of boxing matches. Taylor-Hopkins is one of those pairings. There are two major considerations when one looks at a boxer’s image and persona.. First, what is the actual background of the fighter in question, and second, what would he and his promoter have you believe about this guy?

Appellations like “The Executioner” and “Bad Intentions” are meant to convey a menacing presence, a dangerous person or a really formidable opponent. My favorite image of Bernie Hopkins is the really creepy executioner’s hood bit that is part of the “Countdown to Hopkins-Taylor” teaser which is currently being replayed on HBO. Under a black hood we see a cold, dark presence with only the whites of its eyes showing at first. It is very effective with the square cheekbones and burly shadow beard.

By contrast Taylor is shown as a clean-cut family values kid who watched over his sisters from a really young age while their mother was at work. He is smiling and speaking in a friendly manner about his life and sport. Though raised in a rough neighborhood, Jermain was saved from possible gang involvement by a local coach, Ozell Nelson who convinced his mother to let him divert Taylor into boxing. Bernard was not so lucky. His gang activities (not unlike Tyson’s) culminated in a severe stint (five of twelve) in prison for assault and robbery. BTW Hopkins also refers to himself as “…the baddest guy in the world…the baddest man on the planet."

No doubt about it, Hopkins is the product of a really nasty beginning in the dangerous streets of Philly. His youth was spent in a setting which required serious, pre-emptive violence as a necessary survival skill. His goal was to establish himself as a high-profile alpha male with a reputation for dispensing immediate, devastating consequences should anyone dare to cross him. Thus we have two guys who, though they both grew up in dangerous neighborhoods, come from vastly different personal histories. Jermain and Bernard see themselves very differently.

Hopkins observers state that, “evil” comes out in him in the boxing ring. If that’s true, then this match is apparently a fight between good and evil because Taylor is presented as rather wholesome, personable and friendly sort with little or no proclivity for trash-talk. The “Bad Intentions” alias seems a weak effort to portray him as mean or dangerous. He is, rather, a very talented and flexible boxer/puncher with respectable power. The fans might just see this bout in such terms as good and evil. The good-bad (as in “man that is baaaad” meaning, paradocically of course: good) kid against the evil-bad guy; The handsome young kid against the ugly executioner. You got to admit Bernie is not exactly a Ken Doll.

I remember looking over the wall of a castle courtyard high above Salzburg, Austria. Down below was a house sitting alone and far away from the rest of the town. The tour guide told us that it was the home of the local executioner. He said that it was isolated in that manner because nobody wanted to live near or be associated with the merchant of death.

It’s just a hunch, but there is a good possibility that the crowd will gravitate to the kid as Hopkins might easily be perceived as an unsympathetic villain. Respect for his tenacious and patient self-management over the years, and his obvious boxing and conditioning skills might be lost if the bad guy image becomes all too real in contrast to the perception of Taylor as the wholesome kid. Hopkins probably wouldn’t care whether or not the fans are with him.

Hopkins is very adaptable with an innate ability to alter his approach as necessity demands in the ring and in life. Hopkins got it. From a juvenile who ended up in the hall “twenty-five or thirty times” to an adult who finally saw the light, it was a long trip. When he ended up in prison, he took a look at his approach to life which put him there, made the necessary changes to reverse that course, emphasize his talents in a constructive manner, and became a world champion. He does the same thing in the ring. When something doesn’t work, he alters course and flanks his opponents.

There is one very big difference between the two and it probably comes from their different motivational origins. Hopkins has a tendency to, shall we say…uh…push the limits of boxing etiquette especially on the inside. When confronted with real outside talent, he will close, grapple and do “evil” things to the other guy. Taylor’s head, elbows, hips and shoulders are less likely to inadvertently get into the mix. Hopkins is a dominating, survival fighter who will throw everything at you including the kitchen sink, otherwise he would not be alive today. Taylor responds differently. If he gets tagged, he just turns it up a notch or three rather than resorting to marginal tactics. Again we have a budding good-guy bad-guy confrontation.

Hopkins said “I refuse to lose to a guy live in Arkansas…I’m a Philadelphia guy.” Jermain says that, “The hard part won’t be beating Hopkins. It will be keeping the belts as long as he did.”

One interesting sub-plot is the personality conflict between Hopkins and Lou Dibella, Taylor’s promoter. In times past Lou was a go-between in dealings with Don King and Hopkins. Things got a little messy and Bernard said some less than complimentary things about Dibella. According to Lou, Hopkins lost a libel action in an appellate court which left hard feelings between the two. Bernard considers this fight to be his opportunity to “knock two guys out at the same time;" Taylor in the ring, and Dibella as Jermain’s promoter to avenge his previous troubles with Lou.

There are many opinions as to how the fight will turn out. Emanuel Steward describes Hopkins most notable opponents, De La Hoya and Trinidad as “overstuffed welterweights." Lampley says that if Taylor should KO Hopkins he will lose his vaunted legacy. Others think that Hopkins is taking a pretty heavy risk with this pairing. This writer tends to agree. Looking back, it is hard to find another man Bernard has faced with the size and power of young Jermain. His freakish fights with Oscar and Howard were hardly the stuff of legacy. Taylor is effectively bigger and stronger than Eastman who took Hopkins all the way.

Hopkins has good numbers against so-so competition with a seventy per cent KO average. Taylor’s opponents have been, for him, about an equal challenge and he has a seventy-four percent KO average. Bernard has twice as many fights but fourteen more years. Experience versus youth…can the student beat up the teacher? Much is made of Hopkins patience. That’s all well and good, but it might not suffice if Jermain brings it early. This is a win/lose situation for Bernard. If the kid beats him it will be a bummer. He may even be accused of staying too long at the party. It is a win/win bout for Taylor, for there will be no disgrace if he gets beat by the champ and he’ll get props for the effort.

They both have got the goods; Bernard battle-tested…possibly tougher, Jermain a bit quicker and most likely more powerful. This time Hopkins bulldozer roughhousing might not work. If Jermain can stay off the ropes he will have a much better time of it. This should be a very good match with historic consequences. Hopkins long journey from juvenile hall through Graterford Prison to working as a roofer (an incredibly grueling vocation) and finally a world-class boxer is an epic story of self-discipline and fortitude. His life is an example of raw determination equaled by few. The young man who now challenges this old war-horse has stepped in it now and probably knows that he is at the crossroads of his career.

Katie Holmes’ fiancé, in one of his recent movies, offered that “A man does what he can until his destiny is revealed”, for it is the sport of boxing which provides us here in the west with our versions of the last Samurai.

Article posted on 15.07.2005

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