By Jason Keidel
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Ask any 20-something why Madison Square Garden is called the “World’s Most Famous Arena” and you’ll hear some misguided monologue about Melo, the Knicks and some glittering history that never happened. Carmelo Anthony has never sniffed an NBA title and neither has his employer for four decades.
No, MSG was once the main nerve of sports because it hosted a bouquet of iconic clashes, including the most important event in the history of American sports. Indeed, last Friday was the 42nd anniversary of “The Fight of the Century” between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, the first and last time that two authentic, undefeated heavyweight champions fought each other. Between the political and pugilistic ramifications and the racial and cultural currents that ran through the fighters and their fans, it was the de facto ballot box on myriad societal and athletic debates.
And long before the Knicks became relevant — then quickly irrelevant again — the Garden hosted fights almost every day of the week, from the legitimate to those “promoted” by Frankie Carbo, a real Mafia boss who fixed fights and ruled the sport with Murder, Inc.’s malicious fist.
In 1979, my dad took me to MSG for the first time, to see Roberto Duran fight. There was something about love at first sight, and thus I made my bones as a boxing writer.
And thus when someone of Bernard Hopkins’s heft fights in New York City, I’d normally speed dial my boss and lead the conga line of reporters to press row, ringside and inside the sparkling new Barclays Center. But the loquacious legend who once defended the middleweight crown 20 times, whose pre-fight costume was as ominous as his once-feared fists, is now 48 and a literal graybeard, even if he shaves the evidence from his face and his physique belies his years.
Hopkins is now the boxing version of the Rolling Stones — jamming to the oldies, catered to the crowd once so proud to call boxing their favorite sport, with Hopkins the last emblem of the sport’s onetime eminence. On Saturday night Hopkins defeated Tavoris Cloud to add the IBF light heavyweight crown to his bejeweled trophy case, giving Hopkins more belts than Bloomingdale’s. The problem is that no one knows who Cloud is, and there’s a reason for that. He’s not worth knowing. Nor is anyone else in the sport north of 150 pounds. Hopkins simply xeroxed his 20-year, canvas blueprint in a simple, sleepy win over an obscure fighter.
Even at his best, Hopkins’s moniker was a misnomer, for The Executioner’s soporific style often frustrated opponents into sloppiness and wild fits of wide fists while Hopkins counterpunched his opponents into oblivion. Boxing was always far more glacial to B-Hop, who sets new records with each title belt he wraps around his incongruous, 30-inch waist, forcing the rest of us to ponder our love handles with shame.
But Hopkins’s dedication to fitness and to the American ideal of redemption is more befitting a film than a ring these days. If you watched his interminable, boring brawl with Roy Jones, Jr., you don’t need more proof that Hopkins is only relevant because his sport is irrelevant. Most gifted men play other sports now. Only the lighter weights are littered with talented boxers, because no other sport is clamoring for 130-pound athletes. I’ve interviewed Hopkins several times, and he’s everything the sport demands and rewards — tough, talkative and talented. He’s a little less of each these days, as any of us would be so close to 50.
The last time I watched the ancient icon ringside, the fight was postponed two weeks because Satan chartered two planes and crashed them into two buildings. Hopkins mastered the favored (and crowd favorite) Felix Trinidad, stifling his volcanic left hook while battering him around the ring in the later rounds. We were all stunned — not just the army of Puerto Ricans who came to worship their native son, but all of us, astounded by Hopkins’s mastery and mystery in the ring. And we were still dazed while our attention drifted a few miles south, as the embers still churned in lower Manhattan.
New York City has changed a lot since 9/11, and almost none of it for the better, particularly for boxing. Just as some of us can’t pretend that Barclays Center makes up for Ebbets Field, anyone who knows anything about the sweet science has turned sour when its marquee attraction is a few months from an AARP membership. Maybe the Rolling Stones don’t gather moss, but men do.
Hopkins is a fitting avatar of a fading sport. He was arrested 30 times before his 18th birthday and learned to box in prison, where he spent several years for armed robbery. Whether it was his newfound punches or an epiphany, Hopkins used his physical prowess for real progress, and rather than morphing into a statistic, his statistics are forever burned into American history. Despite such a stained past and violent vocation, he’s a model citizen who doesn’t drink, smoke or do drugs. Yet like the drinker or drug addict, he’s engaged in the very conduct that will kill him.
But we all must die of something. Even The Executioner.
Any boxing fans out there? Will the sport ever again be what it once was? Sound off with your thoughts and comments below…