Some Call It Ballin'

Issue 3: Fall 2014

"...but in joy create for others the house, the poem, the game of athletic beauty" — Dudley Randall

Bernard Hopkins: Alien

by Patrick Rosal

Then they put on weird clothes, space helmets, robes, flowing capes. They did rituals, played in rituals, evoked lost civilizations, used strangeness to teach us open feeling as intelligence.
                 —   “Sun Ra”, Amiri Baraka

 

We are your future. You are the past.
                 — “Looking For the Perfect Beat”, Afrika Bambaataa

 

One reason I watched November’s Light Heavyweight Championship boxing card was because I wanted to see if Bernard Hopkins, a man going on fifty years old, could retain his world title against a much younger man, a bona fide heavy-duty puncher, in Sergey Kovalev.

I was hoping B-Hop would come away with the win, but Kovalev was sharp and extremely patient. The challenger moved better than I thought he would, especially with an impressive feint-and-fill-the-space hook that put Hopkins on his ass in the second round. The rest of the fight Hopkins never hit the canvas again and there were short flashes where you thought he might be able to drag Kovalev into a messy clinch. Maybe Hopkins could steal some rounds by half wrestling, half roughing him up on the inside. But that never quite happened. Even though the forty-nine-year-old fighter managed to float Kovalev into the late rounds past the eighth, where his less experienced opponent had never been, Hopkins couldn’t finish him off. The reigning champ lost to the young Russian by unanimous decision (106-120, 107-120, 107-120).

The other reason I watched the fight was because I’ve been intrigued by the Philadelphia boxer’s name change. I’ve been fascinated by The Alien. Last year, Hopkins replaced his hangman’s hood. He walked up the aisle of the Karo Murat fight wearing instead a bright green mask with a huge cranium, tapering to a narrow chin, small mouth, and big black eyes.

I know a little something about aliens. I was born to a pair of them. I remember, when I was a kid, seeing the documents that proved my parents’ identity — their Resident Alien cards. To this day, in parts of the country, I walk into a room and still get that “You’re not from around here” look. Sometimes people will just say it to me out loud. My mother and father were both eventually naturalized — for as we well know, aliens exist against the natural order. By definition, they originate from some elsewhere — exotic or galactic or both — a place outside the sanctioned borders.

In the essay, “Black to the Future: Afrofuturism 1.0”, Mark Dery points out the connection between sci-fi tropes and the history of slavery: “African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees.”  Turns out, you can look at Hopkins’ Alien not just as boxing kitsch, but as a figure in the black tradition of Sun-Ra, Parliament Funkadelic, Ikon, Brother from Another Planet, and more, which is to say, the Alien is also a manifestation of Black Power and Black Arts and can be traced back through the Harlem Renaissance, the blues, Negro spirituals and the Middle Passage.

Let’s not forget that aliens very often have a more sophisticated knowledge of earth than earthlings themselves do. I imagine that’s one of the things that make aliens somewhat terrifying to ordinary humans. The power of aliens often comes from their acute observation of earth and its inhabitants. These highly cultivated habits of attention make aliens more prepared to adapt — and survive.

Days before the fight, Hopkins was talking his usual shit. He told reporters at the presser that Kovalev would step into the ring on Saturday and find out that the 31-year-old could only be what he is — slow footed and predictable. Really, Hopkins was pointing to a quality of his own unbelievable success: adaptability.

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You may know that Bernard Hopkins was sentenced to 18 years in prison for armed robbery at the age of 17. In many interviews, he has repeated the catalog of terrible scenes he witnessed while incarcerated. “When I saw a guy murdered for a lousy pack of cigarettes, something in me snapped,” Hopkins told The Atlantic. In 1988, when Hopkins was released with nine years parole hung on him, the warden at Graterford told him it was just a matter of time before he would see him again in one of those cells. The young man, who started boxing while doing time, told the warden, “I ain’t ever coming back.”

Despite Hopkins’ determination to be a great pro fighter, he lost his very first fight to Clinton Mitchell. Hopkins didn’t step into the ring again for another a year and a half — a very long layoff for a new fighter. When he returned, he reeled off 21 wins in a row, knocking out 16 of his opponents along the way.

He climbed the middleweight ranks as a skilled defender and boxer. He moved very well, faster and slicker than most of his opponents. His fists found their target in quick well-timed swarms. In 1992, Hopkins took on a new name: The Executioner. He played up the role when he walked up the aisle and into the ring, looking over the ropes at the crowd, making an “X” with his forearms, drawing his hand across his neck like a murderer, an assassin. But Hopkins was also the executioner, that is, one who could carry out a plan.

He got his first world title shot against another up-and-comer named Roy Jones Jr. In that world-class matchup, he met a faster, slicker fighter and lost by unanimous decision.  That was 1993 — only Hopkins’ second loss. But it was time for another change.

Hopkins, even more committed to his craft, slowed the pace in the ring and became more deliberate, controlling the tempo. He went on to win an amazing 24 fights in the next 12 years without losing. (He had one draw and one no-contest during that stretch.) He beat excellent competition in Glen Johnson, Syd Vanderpool, Felix “Tito” Trinidad, William Joppy, and Oscar de la Hoya.

In 2005 that string ended abruptly. He lost twice in a row, dominated both times by Jermain Taylor. While fans and commentators said the Executioner was done, Hopkins made another change; he moved up to compete at light heavyweight. He kept his name but evolved his style a bit further. Mostly he became an expert at frustrating his opponents. He had gradually become unhittable. Fighters had trouble finding him.

During that period, Hopkins had a no-contest and a loss in two absolutely sloppy back-to-back fights against Chad Dawson. But it was as if he was working through his transformations in the ring, because, soon after, Hopkins appeared to have perfected the ragged style he had been cultivating by beating a tough Jean Pascal and becoming the oldest fighter ever to win a world title at the age of 46. Two years later, at 48, The Executioner looked masterful in his title defense against Tavoris Cloud, who was a decade and a half Hopkins’ junior.

His victory last year against mandatory challenger Karo Murat marked Hopkins’ last shape-shift: the black mask of the axman was gone. In the post-fight interview, Hopkins was asked how he was still a dominant champion at the age of 48. He responded, “I’m a freakin’ Alien.”

How else could a man nearly a half-century old beat full-grown professional fighters young enough to be his sons? Hopkins’ success, of course, has much to do with his mind-and-body pre-fight preparation. It has to do with strategy. He still executes as good as anyone in the ring.  In the current Bernard Hopkins decade, he has slowed down his fight tempo even more; he is even more controlled. He tangles fighters up quite a bit more in the clinch. He’s gotten even cagier, sometimes throwing low blows or tripping his opponents. He has wily techniques to knock fighters off balance or shove them out of position. His style has gotten — well — awkward. And that’s different from clumsy.

For Hopkins, awkward is a choice. The word that gets thrown around more often is ugly. That, too, makes the Alien moniker a good fit, for aliens (by earthly standards) are not handsome creatures.

And when I think back on “ugly” in boxing, I think about Muhammad Ali ridiculing Joe Frazier in front of press and crowds: ugly. That’s the word Ali used to demoralize Frazier. I think about how painful that was for the tough Philly future Hall of Famer — to be degraded publicly like that right smack in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, to be turned into the ape, the savage, the grotesque Negro.

Hopkins, on the other hand, chose his ugliness. I think by winning ugly, he has cleverly shown that even ugliness has symmetry and function. I wonder if we couldn’t say that Hopkins has rescued ugly from these particular sorrows of boxing history.  

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In addition to adaptability, there is another characteristic of aliens that might be even more important to consider: aliens operate outside the normative, rational world. They don’t make sense.

When Hopkins says that the horrors of prison made something inside him “snap”, I wonder if that was the sound of an American myth finally breaking.

The warden — within the rules of his world, a world that he owns and enforces — was right. In his America, on the third planet from the sun, it is completely within the logic of his galaxy that a young black man just released from prison should get picked up again in no time and sent back to be locked up. It is the same world and same set of logic by which an unarmed black youth is simply gunned down without consequence or repercussion.

Bernard Hopkins’ metaphor is particularly moving for me tonight. For the last week or so, many of us in the country have been waiting to see if a Grand Jury will indict the Ferguson, Missouri police officer who, this past summer, shot the unarmed Michael Brown, 18, dead. Kimani Grey was 16. Sean Bell was 23. Oscar Grant was 22. Even Eric Garner, when killed by police, was 43, younger than Hopkins as a World Champion. And at this very moment, my news feeds are flashing headlines of Akai Gurley, 28, unarmed and shot dead by police in a Brooklyn stairwell.

That’s the thing. Hopkins, a black man, at almost the age of 50 has outlived every other champion of any color and race in the fight game; he has outlived the black men in the imagination of the warden; he has defied whole sets of powerful rules in this universe that insist that should not be the case. Hopkins comes from a world where the rules of the warden's universe don’t apply.

An alien is also capable of saying and doing things that ordinary humans can’t seem to do or say. If you aren’t governed by a set of ordinances, you can determine your own limits of speech and action. You can speak out, for example, against the prison industrial complex. Hopkins has. (Other professional athletes have not been so vocal on the subject.)

Hopkins’ record of beating the odds had me wondering whether or not he might turn the fight around in those last four rounds. He was actually battered pretty bad in the twelfth. B-Hop slips or rolls with a punch as good as anyone. He’s also good at concealing weakness and pain. So when I saw him off balance and wobbling a bit in the last round, I knew he’d been rocked. A man who had made a career – perhaps a life – of being real close to danger but avoiding its worse consequences was getting caught. The last round completed the narrative of this particular fight, but it was a minor byproduct of a much longer, much more complicated text.

For me, the meaning in this fight didn’t reside in the fact that Bernard Hopkins was defeated by Sergey Kovalev. It would have meant only slightly more and no less if he had beaten the Russian. It means exponentially more to me that Hopkins has arrived to us from a time on a planet that is much like our own, but where black people are alive. He is one figure along a great tradition of black figures who travel to us from our own yet-to-come, our own failed American imaginations turned upside down, our tomorrow-selves. He's here to tell us that there is a future, another story, an alternate narrative not only about blackness or black people, but about our dominant culture as a whole. Like every alien, he has come to show us the possibilities of living by defying the limits and very assumptions of our conventional world. 


PATRICK ROSAL is the Editor-in-Chief of Some Call It Ballin'.