No one doubts the street cred of Bernard Hopkins, who made his living mugging people in the streets before he got paid to do it in the ring. Growing up in the projects in Philadelphia toughened him, as did a five-year stint in prison for his crimes.
It helped make him the fighter he is and probably is a big reason why he keeps fighting at the advanced age of 46. No one gave him anything, and no one could have predicted when he lost his first fight in Atlantic City in 1988 that he would enjoy a career as remarkable for his achievements as it is for his longevity.
I’ve always liked Hopkins, even admired the way he turned around his life after leaving prison. One night at a boxing dinner, we were discussing how fighters tend to blow their money, and he pulled out his wallet to show me his Costco card as a sign of how frugal he is with his sizable income.
But Hopkins is in love with the sound of his voice. And sometimes he doesn’t know when to shut up.
He didn’t the other day in Philadelphia, where Hopkins went off on Donovan McNabb for what he perceives as his many failings while quarterback for the Eagles. Nothing new there, since Hopkins repeatedly has criticized McNabb over the years for not leading his team to a Super Bowl title.
This time, though, Hopkins went too far. He implied that McNabb somehow wasn’t black enough to succeed because he grew up in a Chicago suburb instead of the ghetto and didn’t have to overcome some of the hardships many other black athletes have faced.
McNabb, Hopkins said, “got a suntan, that’s all.”
It was, at best, an ignorant statement born of stereotypes. While many black athletes rise out of the ghetto to become stars, many others like McNabb come from more fortunate surroundings and still succeed in athletics.
“There’s nothing about poverty that produces a better athlete,” said Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and director of the Center for Social Inclusion in New York City. “The disturbing part of what he said is that blackness equals being poor and aggressive. It’s hard to imagine anyone tougher than Donovan McNabb, who has to face the pressures a black quarterback carries in his situation.”
The tendency might be to give Hopkins a break because he’s trying to sell his fight Saturday against Jean Pascal in Montreal. Taken in context, it’s not the worst thing ever said in the boxing world, where questioning an opponent’s race, sexual preference and drug habits are sometimes just part of the prefight hype.
It’s also not the worst thing Hopkins ever has said. He recently said he was so angry at some of the things Pascal had said about him that people shouldn’t be “surprised if he dies in the ring on May 21.”
McNabb has nothing to apologize about for his success. He’s a black quarterback in a league where everything black quarterbacks do is scrutinized closely, and he played for years in front of Philly fans known for being demanding of their athletes.
Like Hopkins, he couldn’t choose the surroundings in which he was raised. That it wasn’t in a big-city ghetto doesn’t make him any less of a black athlete than the longtime middleweight champion.
“Donovan’s parents are proud Americans who worked hard to give their sons the best childhood they could provide,” said McNabb’s agent, Fletcher Smith. “He is unapologetically proud of sacrifices they made for him. Donovan and his brother were raised to be hardworking African-American men who were taught to believe in themselves.”
Wiley said some in poor black communities refuse to see black athletes as their own unless they grew up in the same difficult surroundings they did. That, she said, has more to do with an economic divide than anything.
“There are real issues and class tension in black communities that Bernard Hopkins’ statements reflect,” she said. “But I don’t think many black people would express it in the way he did.”
That’s Hopkins, though, who never has seen a microphone he didn’t like. And, if it’s any consolation to McNabb, it’s also not the first time he has used race to make a point.
Hopkins said late last year that Manny Pacquiao should fight more black fighters and that Floyd Mayweather Jr. would beat him because “the styles that African-American fighters — and I mean, black fighters from the streets or the inner cities — would be successful.”
That’s boxing talk, so it didn’t get the attention the McNabb comments did. Still, it seems to reflect the narrow vision Hopkins has that anyone who didn’t grow up like him is nothing like him.
Wiley said the fighter would be better served taking an example from a loquacious fighter from another time.
“I really wish Bernard Hopkins talked more in the tradition of a Cassius Clay,” she said.
Either that or just keep his mouth shut.
Tim Dahlberg is a Las Vegas-based national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg.