The pre-fight buildup to the first Bernard Hopkins vs Jermain Taylor fight was nasty versus nice. But once the bell rang, that didn’t matter. By Thomas Hauser
Like most fighters, Taylor came from hard origins. His father abandoned the family when Jermain was five, leaving Jermain, his mother, and three younger sisters behind. The children were raised in large part by their maternal grandmother, who was murdered by her own son (Jermain’s uncle) when Jermain was nineteen.
“He had a bad drug problem,” Jermain later recalled. “He wanted money and she wouldn’t give it to him, so he cut her throat and then killed himself. I was at the Good Will Games when it happened. They told me about it when I got home. I heard what they were saying but it wasn’t real. Then I went into her bedroom. There was blood all over the sheets, all over the floor, and I realized that what they were saying was true. I’d won a bronze medal at the games and, at the funeral, I put it in her casket.”
Taylor won National Golden Gloves championships at 156 pounds in 1998 and 1999 and was a 156-pound bronze-medalist at the 2000 Olympic Games.
“In the amateurs, I was ignored most of the time because I come from Arkansas,” he noted years later. “I was skipped over a lot when boxers were chosen for teams that went to tournaments because Arkansas is small and doesn’t have much boxing. Then I started winning national tournaments and it was like, ‘Wow! Look at Jermain.’”
Taylor came into the Hopkins fight as an immensely likeable 26-year-old man. He was down-to-earth, good-looking, personable, and unfailingly polite.
Meanwhile, boxing fans were familiar with the Hopkins saga. At age 17, Bernard was sentenced to five-to-twelve years in prison for multiple street crimes. Fifty-six months later, he was released and his life began anew.
“When I got home from Graterford State Penitentiary,” Hopkins later reminisced, “it wasn’t like I knew I was going to be middleweight champion of the world some day. It was, I got eight years of parole and I don’t ever want to go back there again.”
Ultimately, he became boxing’s pound-for-pound champion and entered the Taylor fight with 20 successful title defences for the third-longest unbroken championship reign in boxing history (ten years, 82 days).
“I’m in the hurt business,” Hopkins said. “I’m not looking to come out of this squeaky clean every time I step into that ring. While the fight’s going on, the fight business is not about, ‘Are you okay? Are you all right? Did I hit you too hard? It’s legal to hit a guy in the Adam’s apple. A shoulder can be hit. Trust me; whatever limb you give me, I’m punching it. I’ll do anything to win.”
Often, the public hears a fighter say, “I’m in the best shape of my life,” and then watches as the fighter comews into the ring physically unprepared for battle. That never happened with Hopkins. Over the years, he maintained his body through a mix of hard work and extraordinary discipline and turned himself into a finely-honed precision weapon. His superb defensive skills allowed him to dictate the pace of fights. No boxer’s defense is “impenetrable” but his came close.
There were times when Hopkins was charming. But often that gave way to something ugly. Bernard approached many of his dealings in boxing, in and out of the ring, as though they were street confrontations.
Hopkins and Taylor had been on each other’s radar screen for several years. Bernard was the undisputed middleweight champion. Jermain was seen by many as the heir apparent. The negotiations leadng up to their fight were acrimonious. Hopkins had once been promoted by Lou DiBella. Then he left DiBella, made ugly allegations of financial wrongdoing by the promoter, and wound up on the losing end of a $610,000 jury verdict in a libel action that DiBella brought against him in federal court. DiBella was now Taylor’s promoter.
At the final pre-fight press conference, Hopkins seemed to be looking past Taylor as he talked about moving up in weight to fight Antonio Tarver or Roy Jones next. He also commented on Taylor’s persona, saying, “Jermain Taylor and I are both African-Americans but that’s where the similarity ends.” A mocking appraisal followed, highlighted by, “Jermain uses words like ‘golly gee.’ That’s not my style.”
“As a child, I had a real bad speech problem,” Taylor said when it was his turn to talk. “I stuttered a lot. I still do it some, so it’s hard enough for me to talk without trying to talk trash. Bernard Hopkins might outtalk me, but I’m gonna outfight him. I want to be number one. And now that I got that chance, I’m gonna take it. I’m a lot faster than Bernard, faster and stronger. However he brings it, I’m going to take it to him. I know how Bernard fights. If he wants to make it a dirty fight, then it’s going to be a dirty fight because I ain’t backing down from nobody. My time is now, and Bernard is ready for the taking. There’s been a lot of ups and downs in my life, a lot of hurt. I’ve had to step up to the plate when it wasn’t my time. All that has prepared me for this moment. This is what I’ve wanted since I first started boxing.”
Two days later, there was an uglier confrontation. Hopkins had made his hatred for DiBella a subplot to Hopkins-Taylor. At the final pre-fight press conference, he’d proclaimed that beating DiBella’s fighter would be “like a second erection.”
That ugliness burgeoned out of control at the fighter weigh-in. The temperature outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena was a blistering 110 degrees. With trainer Pat Burns (who’d trained Jermain from his first day in the pro ranks) beside him, Taylor stepped on the scale. Perfect weight, 160 pounds. Hopkins followed, also 160.
“Face off the fighters,” someone instructed.
But instead of moving to a staredown with Taylor, Hopkins approached DiBella.Bernard knows how to place his punches, in and out of the ring. In both venues, he has been known to go low. Twelve years earlier, after being disabled in a skiing accident, DiBella’s brother had committed suicide. DiBella had shared that information with Hopkins in earlier years when the fighter and promoter had been friends. Now – “You’re going to kill yourself tomorrow night,” DiBella says Hopkins told him. “It’s the end of your life tomorrow night. You know about people killing themselves. You’ll slit your throat or take pills and not wake up on Sunday morning.”
Then Hopkins moved toward Taylor, who was tieing his shoes, and stood over him.
“You’re a puppet,” Bernard sneered.
Taylor stood up and the two men were nose-to-nose with perhaps two inches between them.
“I ain’t no one’s puppet, you ugly mother**ker.”
They stood that way, jawing at one another, until calmer heads separated them.
Afterward, Taylor was pleased with the confrontation. “There was a whole lot of motherfucking going on,” he said on the way back to his hotel room. “Bernard got in my face, and my first reaction was to step back and throw an uppercut. I got two sides. I’ll beat him in a street fight too. Man, we were so close, our lips were almost kissing. I said to myself, ‘This won’t look good to my wife.’”
Pat Burns had a similar take on the situation. “Bernard is trying to get his courage up; that’s all,” Burns offered “Some guys drink to get that liquid courage. Some guys do it like this.”
Then Burns turned to this writer. “Listen to me,” he said. “Look at me, because what I’m about to tell you is very important. Jermain will not be intimidated by Bernard Hopkins. There is no intimidation factor here at all. Zero. None.”
Shortly after 6:00 PM on Saturday night, Jermain Taylor arrived at his dressing room at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. The early odds had been 2/1 in the Hopkins’ favour, reflecting both his greatness and doubts regarding Taylor’s seasoning as a fighter. The champion was still favored but the odds had dropped to 3/2.
Taylor sat quietly beside Burns on a sofa and watched as an undercard fight unfolded on the large television screen in front of them. Dennis Moore (a Little Rock police officer and friend of Jermain’s) stood guard by the dressing room door. Cutman Ray Rodgers was readying the tools of his trade. Ozell Nelson (who taught Taylor the rudiments of boxing when Jermain was a boy), Dan Lowry (who ran the gym in Little Rock where Ozell first trained Jermain), and Joey Burns (Pat’s brother) joined them. So did Pat’s 12-year-old son, Ryan. Well-wishers came and went.
At 6:30, Burns closed the door to all but essential personnel. Five minutes later, referee Jay Nady came in to give Jermain his pre-fight instructions. The Taylor camp was happy with the choice of Nady as the referee. He was a big no-nonsense guy who ran a tight ship and, it was hoped, would keep fouling by Hopkins to a minimum. “This is for every belt that I know of,” Nady began. The pro forma instructions followed.
At 6:55, Ozell Nelson went to Hopkins’ dressing room to oversee the champion’s hands being wrapped. While he was gone, Naazim Richardson (on behalf of Hopkins) watched Pat Burns do the same with Jermain. At 7:20, the taping was done.
“Except for the commission inspector,” Burns said, “all cell phones off, please.”
Everything in the dressing room was business-like and low-key. There was no music.
Jermain put on his University-of-Arkansas-red trunks.
Lou DiBella came in and sat on a chair in the corner.
Jermain went into an ante-room the size of a small boxing ring with a carpeted floor and cinderblock walls. Under the watchful eye of Burns and training assistant Edgardo Martinez, he shadow-boxed and worked the pads with Martinez.
At 7:45, Naazim Richardson returned and Jermain gloved up.
Taylor, Burns, and Martinez went back into the ante-room. Work resumed with Burns giving advice in a reassuring yet authoritative tone. “Make sure your feet and hands work together . . . He won’t be able to stop the jab. The moment you sense he’s trying to counter the jab with a jab, double up . . . The last fifteen seconds of each round, you’ll have already won it and he’ll try to steal it. Don’t give up anything cheap . . . Punch him anywhere you can . . . Speed kills. If he’s doing forty, you do sixty. If he’s doing sixty, you do eighty . . . Don’t let the crowd influence you . . . If he gets in a rhythm, go in with a forearm and push him out of it . . . I’m looking for at least twenty-five jabs a round. Pick him apart. That’s how you dominate.”
At 8:12, the final preliminary fight ended. Jermain started hitting the pads with greater intensity. “We’re bringing back a world champion,” Burns said.
People in a fighter’s camp believe; particularly when their fighter is young and undefeated, as Taylor was. But Jermain would be facing a man who hadn’t lost a fight in twelve years. In a matter of hours, win or lose, he would no longer be a rising star. Either he would be the undisputed middleweight champion of the world or just another name on Bernard Hopkins’ ring record.
It was a pro-Taylor crowd. That was evident from the roar of approval that resounded when Jermain entered the arena. 11,992 fans were in attendance. One-third of them had come from Arkansas.
Two minutes later, Hopkins made his way to the ring.
Michael Buffer introduced the fighters.
The bell for round one sounded.
One could imagine the thoughts in Jermain’s mind: “I’m in the ring with a great fighter. Now is the time to find out if I’m a great fighter too.”
The early rounds belonged to Taylor. Hopkins fights cautiously in the early stages of his fights. Jermain advanced behind his jab while Bernard slowed the pace by retreating and keeping his right hand cocked to discourage forays by the challenger. Forty seconds into round two, a chopping overhand right followed by a left hook caused the champion to fall back and downward against the ropes. Some thought it should have been called a knockdown. Jay Nady let the moment pass.
Taylor was faster. Hopkins minimized the number of encounters by moving around the ring and did his best work while punching out of clinches with sharp punishing blows. Bernard is supreme on the inside. That was where he was expected to do the most damage.
Fifty seconds into round five, the fighters clashed heads and an ugly wound pierced Taylor’s scalp just above the hairline to the bone. Blood flowed freely and would for much of the night. Jermain had only been cut once before in a professional fight.
“Blood was pouring from my head,” he said later. “I’d never gone through anything like that before. After the head butt, it was like, ‘Boy, these rounds are long.’ I was just hoping I had enough blood in me to finish the fight.”
Blood can undermine a fighter’s confidence. And some ring judges score blood more than they should.
After eight rounds, Taylor had outlanded Hopkins by 63-to-40 margin. But he’d expended a lot of energy chasing. In round nine, he tired and the roles of predator and prey were reversed.
Hopkins began his assault. In round ten, a right hand hurt Jermain. More punishing blows followed. Round eleven was the same. Now Hopkins’ fists were doing his talking for him. That one hurt, didn’t it, Jermain?
Then came a moment that will forever define the career of each fighter. There was a minute left in round 11. The momentum was all with Hopkins. Taylor was backed against the ropes, in trouble. Hopkins landed a big right hand. And in his darkest moment, Jermain summoned the strength to fire three hard shots with lightning speed into Bernard’s body. Rather than continue the exchange, Hopkins stepped back. No one knew it at the time, but that was when Jermain Taylor established himself as a champion.
“I was dog-tired,” Jermain acknowledged afterward. “No way of getting around it. I said to myself, ‘Man, this is it. Either you’ve got it inside or you don’t.’”
“Ladies and gentlemen; we have a split decision,” ring announcer Michael Buffer told the crowd when the fight was over. “Jerry Roth scores the bout 116 to 112 for Hopkins.”
Pat Burns, patted his fighter’s cheek. “Don’t worry; that’s just one.”
“I knew the next one would be for me because that’s the way they read them,” Jermain said later.
“Duane Ford, 115-113 for Taylor.”
“Okay; here we go,” Jermain told himself.
Twelve thousand people held their breath as the final moments of the drama unfolded.
“Paul Smith, 115-113 to the winner by split decision and NEW . . .”
Years later, Jermain would looked back on that moment and remember, “All I heard after that was the cheering.”
Thomas Hauser’s most recent book – Staredown: Another Year Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.