How Bernard Hopkins and Dan Rafael found the right farewell fight

Last month, when I traveled to London to cover the Gennady Golovkin-Kell Brook middleweight world title fight, I stayed at the hotel next to the O2 Arena, the same place where the HBO crew working on the American broadcast was staying.

On the morning of the fight, I had breakfast in the hotel restaurant. As I was walking out, Bernard Hopkins, who was working on the telecast as HBO's analyst, was walking in. We had seen each other a few times during fight week but hadn't had much of a chance to talk. He invited me to sit with him. We've known each other since 2000, and I have covered around two dozen of his fights. I would say I know Hopkins as well as any fighter I have covered in my career. We've met each other's families and when we chat, it is often not even about boxing at this point.

But when we sat down on this morning, we talked about Hopkins' career. At 51, did he still want to fight again after a two-year layoff and a one-sided loss to Sergey Kovalev, and if so, when and who would he want to fight?

So we sat and talked it out for more than an hour while overlooking the River Thames on a lovely London morning. This was not an interview, rather just a deep conversation about what Hopkins wanted to do.

The former middleweight and light heavyweight champion made it clear he wanted a farewell fight and that he wanted it this year, before he turns 52 in January. He saw the hoopla surrounding the recent retirement of Kobe Bryant and wanted the chance to leave boxing on his own terms with a similar farewell fit for a king. For some of the fights in the later years of his career, he has come into the ring to the classic Frank Sinatra song "My Way," and he'd be damned if he wasn't going to go out on his terms.

Hopkins made one point very clear, over and over: He did not want to fight a walkover opponent. Sure, he wanted somebody he would be favored to beat but a real opponent with a good record. He used the word "respectful" and "credible." He wanted somebody whom nobody could say was a soft touch or an unworthy foe. Somebody the fans and media would see as a legitimate fighter.

But he is 51 and doesn't move like he once did. So one concession was that he wanted to make sure whoever he faced was not somebody that was too slick and moved a lot. He didn't want to have to chase a guy for 12 rounds. He wanted a guy to come to fight and be in front of him.

Then Hopkins (55-7-2, 32 KOs) asked my opinion on who he should fight. He would have preferred to fight for a world title at either light heavyweight or super middleweight but none of those titleholders were available. I put my thinking cap on and came up with two names I thought fit his requirements well.

Both were from Long Island, New York, with good records, straight-ahead styles and fan bases. Each was certainly a "respectful" and "credible" opponent. They were also fights I believed could be made without any political issues, and both were opponents I felt HBO would approve.

One was Seanie Monaghan (27-0, 17 KOs). The other was Joe Smith (22-1, 18 KOs). Hopkins asked me for my view of both fighters and his eyes grew wide. He liked what he was hearing. He punched their names into his phone and began to look them up. He said he would do his homework and also take the names to Golden Boy CEO Oscar De La Hoya and president Eric Gomez to see what they thought.

I said to Hopkins, "Wouldn't it be funny if you wound up fighting one of those guys and we could joke about it for years to come that the fight was hatched over a cup of tea in London at a restaurant overlooking the River Thames."

Hopkins laughed and agreed. A month later it has come to pass.

Hopkins will in fact face Smith in his last fight -- "The Final One" as it has been dubbed -- on Dec. 17 on HBO from The Forum in Inglewood, California.

"I want to go out with a knockout. I didn't have one in 12 years since I beat Oscar, my partner. Not just the win, I want the knockout. This is not just promotional talk. That will be the bow on a long career." Bernard Hopkins

"I was at a fight and you was there also and we were looking at the river in London that morning," Hopkins recounted to me after the fight was set on Monday. "I had just done a light run and walked in for breakfast and we got to talking. A name was kicked around and you said, 'I know a guy respectful and credible and he has a following,' and you said Joe Smith."

Hopkins was enamored by the fact that Smith was coming off a very big win, an upset first-round knockout of contender Andrzej Fonfara on June 18 on NBC in prime time.

"I didn't know Joe Smith until you mentioned his name," Hopkins said. "I went and did my research. He's promoted by Joe DeGuardia and we have a good relationship. I knew that Joe respects me and that we'd be fair in any deal, and here we are.

"I was doing my research on him like I do on all of my opponents. I said this is a guy I want. We are fighting for legacy. He's fighting for his legacy and I'm fighting to keep mine intact and make sure I go out with no negatives. But when I looked at the tape I said to myself, 'Why did Dan tell me to look at this guy, another puncher in front of you who is coming to rip your head off like Sergey Kovalev?'

"But then I thought what do I want? Do I want a guy who is a C-level? That's not Bernard Hopkins. I have to be honest about doing this final fight."

Hopkins has not scored a knockout since he stopped De La Hoya with a body shot in the ninth round in 2004. I bust his chops about that sometimes.

He said he wants to finish his Hall of Fame career with a KO, so he is doing some work with weights, which he has not done in years, not since he worked with fitness guru Mackie Shilstone to bulk him up to light heavyweight in the first place for his 2006 upset of Antonio Tarver to win the title.

"I want to go out with a knockout," Hopkins said. "I didn't have one in 12 years since I beat Oscar, my partner. Not just the win -- I want the knockout. This is not just promotional talk. That will be the bow on a long career."

When told he would be facing an opponent who was not even born when Hopkins turned pro in 1988 (the year I graduated high school), Hopkins paused.

"It's not only crazy, it's insane," Hopkins finally said. "I'm an old m-----f-----."

Then Hopkins began figuring out how many presidential administrations his career has lasted. He turned pro during Ronald Reagan's second term and boxed through George H.W. Bush's term, two Bill Clinton terms, two George W. Bush terms and two Barack Obama terms.

"I don't want to still be boxing when Hillary Clinton is sworn in," he said, offering his prediction for the outcome of next month's election.

"I'm done. This is the final one, and what a good way to end it," he said. "Joe Smith is all action, he's credible, he's hungry, he throws a lot of punches, only one loss. A young guy. And he come off a big, confident win. So he has momentum to know that he belongs. That's the kind of opponent I need. I want to put on a fantastic show. I want to be able to enjoy this."

Hopkins said -- and Gomez backed it up -- that his contract has language legally stipulating that this is his last fight, as opposed to when he retired the first time after beating Tarver a decade ago and was bored to death a few months later.

He said it will be different this time. He is 10 years older and knows it is time.

"I signed off on this in writing that I am done," he said. "It says this is my final fight and I will not return as a fighter ever again. This ain't bulls---. I'm done, win, lose or controversy. But I came back for this fight because I wanted to go out on my terms.

"People might think that's cocky, but if they know my career I did just about everything my way. But if I was coming into the restaurant that morning in London two seconds later we wouldn't have seen each other and had that conversation about Joe Smith."

It's a conversation we will no doubt discuss for years to come.