How Prison Shaped Bernard Hopkins For Boxing Greatness

Stabbed three times on the streets of Pennsylvania and in jail at 17, a young Bernard Hopkins would rise through the prison system to become one of the most devastating Middleweights the sport has ever seen.
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To understand the prison house, you have to understand the layers that operate within it. The subtle shade of underground commerce and social violence. It's granite tough inhabitants and their different characteristics: The dispossessed, the suicidal. The poetic. The ambitious. All under one boilerplate roof teeming with frustration and tension. Life and death under a single lightbulb existence, with a lone piece of graffiti scratched and sighing into a cubicle wall that reads: 'What do you think of your blue eyed boy now Mr Death?'

Into this hotbed of devilment strides Bernard Hopkins. It's 1982 and at the tender age of seventeen his incarceration has begun. Suddenly he's found that sharks that cut into the night eventually get caught in the headlights of the law too. His is no Midnight express story either - the solace of innocence doesn't hang upon him in the slightest, mainly of course because he isn't innocent. Hopkins is a street guy in the proper sense. Villainous and brash - he's primed to go two ways. Either spiral further into the lurid violence that has already seen him stabbed three times on the streets of Pennsylvania or use the next few years as a spiritual marker for a better, more disciplined life.

Wisely he chooses the latter. First however, he must perform one last brutal gesture, not for his own sense of self worth but as a non too subtle marker for survival. It occurs in the prison yard early on in Hopkins sentence. A pre-planned show of force by the future world champion, a death or glory moment where he decides to go one on one with one of the most notorious inmates in Graterford prison to set down a marker. By the time the face off has finished, Hopkins emerges victorious and people know not to fuck with the sullen kid from Block D. It should be remembered that at this time Hopkins is no more than seventeen years old.

It's to Hopkins credit however that he has no intention of becoming a violent capitalist or social chameleon in Graterford. He just wants be left alone. To scratch an itch that fascinates him. An interest in the fight game has already been ignited in him by his uncle Artie McCloud, an actual pro fighter who's followed the same path as his nephew back into the penal system. Artie has blown his chance but Hopkins figures quite rightly that one on one violence is suited to him. There are things in his favour too. The American prison system is notoriously harsh but it does have potential for those wanting to rehabilitate, particularly in the sport of boxing. Much like a bona fida boxing organisation - within the prison system there are select champions for each of the different weight categories. It's a good level too. Much like the kudos to winning a title on the outside - few champions rarely want to give up on their thrones. It's all a lot of them have to hold on to. It gives them class and respect and they fight with all they have to hold on to it.

One such champion is Michael 'Smokey' Wilson, a convicted murderer who also happens to have been a three time middleweight prison champion. He is also a resident in Graterford. He's already heard of Hopkins reputation before the teenager even walks in the gym. In many ways he reminds him of himself at the same age - the same flash of temper, the same mistrust of anyone and anything. But Wilson realises that Hopkins has something else too. A flash of talent in between the posturing of manhood. He sees it in those early sparring sessions with the teenager. A natural ability. The way he plants his feet. His posture and gait in the ring. Although he doesn't realise it yet, over the next few months, Wilson's main role in Graterford will be to mentor the wayward teenager, keep his red mist between the ropes, which is no easy feat. Temperance is not really Bernard Hopkins thing but it will have to be if he is to stand a chance of making it. Graterford is an institution constantly teetering on blood soaked violence. In one incident Hopkins witnesses a man stabbed to death over a pack of cigarettes. It's the thumb rule not to plan too far ahead in Graterford. Although Hopkins is not particularly scared of anything or anybody.

His toughest opponent in reality is boredom. The ticking of the clock in Grateford can drive even the most patient of men to madness. From time to time Hopkins watches the men who are too far gone with their smuggled contraband nod out in their cells like melting snowmen. Although it's not his dance, he understands it. It's just another sensual waltz to get you through the day. For him his drug is boxing however. Under Smokey Wilson's tutelage, Hopkins will prove himself a fast learner, accelerating his potential to the point where no one really wants to spar with him in Graterford. Pretty soon, he will come to the attention of the warden too. Nothing pleases the warden more than an in-house boxing protégée. Hopkins is their best fighter for years, a shoe in for the upcoming championships everyone tells him. Excitedly, he makes it happen. The news just makes Hopkins hungrier than ever. He chomps so much at the bit for his opening bout that Smokey Wilson actually has to stop him training for fear of burning himself out. By the time it arrives he feels as though he could split the atom with his punches. Like his destiny is calling. He makes short work of his first opponent and then the guy after that, breezing his way through the early rounds. By the time he reaches the semi final - he already feels as though his name is on the championship. He wins well just to make sure. Given his residency he knows not to take anything for granted.

The day of Bernard Hopkins' first title fight is no Las Vegas extravaganza. There are no show girls carrying number signs in between rounds or gamblers sweating like a cactus in the front row. There's just a select audience in tow. A couple of wardens and guards, authority figures clawing back a piece of excitement in the humdrum of their daily lives. Hopkins watches them through an alligators eye, taking them like a painter would a background but focusing on nothing more than his opponent across from him. It's a guy that's all brawn and power, a KO monster who has been a wrecking ball throughout the championship. Hopkins already has him worked out before the first bell has even sounded however. He feels it as the first wild haymaker roars past his ear in the first round. Ego and anger - a dangerous combination for sure but no match for Hopkins measured intelligence. He picks his punches like a poetic verse. Slowly but surely he wears the other guy down to a chalk outline. Counter punches him to a standstill and a whimper in the centre of the ring. By the time the referee calls a halt to proceedings - he hasn't even had time to unleash his full armoury yet. He may be champion but he has a lot more to come from his hurt locker. It's this weird sense of anti climax and his circumstance that will ensure he will continue to strive to show it.

Hopkins will win the middleweight prison title four times in a row in Graterford and it will pave the way eventually for an early parole release for him. It will also be the beginning of a glittering career in the sport for the Pennsylvania fighter. He will never quite forget his six years spent in the prison house however. Whatever difficulties he might face as a boxer - none will ever quite be as big as the fight to beat the walls of Graterford. In many ways that will be Bernard Hopkins greatest victory. As a piece of altered graffiti that now reads on the correctional institutions cubicle wall: 'what do you think of Bernard Hopkins now Mr Death?'