Before Bernard Hopkins arrived in Brooklyn to bewitch the light heavyweight belt away from Tavoris Cloud, the liveliest old boxers in New York City were those painted 90 years ago by George Bellows and hanging uptown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That exhibition has since moved on to London, leaving Mr. Hopkins alone as America's most famous fighting antiquity. He is 48 years old.
The night of the fight, the Saturday streets around the Barclays Center teemed with people, and the subways and the limousines came and went, and so did the Suburbans and the Escalades and the S550s. The sidewalks under the lights were as bright as day. The custom rims glistened, and so did the acrylic tips and the lip gloss and the leather and the silk, everything and everyone shimmering, radiant, people moving to the doors, talking and walking fast and happy, a boxing crowd on the night of a championship fight.
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In a hot low-ceilinged dressing room under the stands, the IBF light heavyweight champion of the world, Tavoris Cloud, 31, sits quietly having his hands wrapped.
To see a boxer's fists taped before a big fight is to watch a meditation on craft and ambition and hope. The wrap starts at the thumb and tightens around the wrist. The gauze roll unspooled at maximum tension and with awful concentration by Abel Sanchez, Cloud's trainer, across the knuckles and down around the fat pad of the lower palm and back, again and again, the champ impassive, staring ahead, expressionless, his hands draped across the back of a chair. Sanchez pours sweat under the TV lights in the little room as he folds back a doubled then tripled thickness of gauze across the punching surface of the knuckles; then another long winding of white cotton across and around and under, pulling with a force so great the gauze tears. Another layer of gauze then; then another, and the sound of it tearing, before the adhesive tape goes on strip by strip by strip. With six minutes perfect work, Sanchez armors some of the weakest bones in the body by building a cast out of cotton and tape. The champ flexes his fingers. Now the other hand.
Watching all this in the foreground are the official from the state athletic commission and one of the Hopkins cornermen, and in the background the entourage of the champion's family and friends and well-wishers, his seconds and his bucket men and his publicists and, in the corner, with a writer at each elbow, his manager, Don King. Old Scratch himself.
King is 81 now, a little bent by the years, an inch or two smaller perhaps, but as ageless as good or evil and still boxing's most recognizable face. Tavoris Cloud is his last champion.
With his hands wrapped, the champion stands and starts his shadowboxing, the sweat coming on and the sharp sounds of his breathing the same as the tape and the gauze being torn.
King is showing photos on his phone and answering questions and explaining North Korea and Venezuela and free market economics by quoting Moses and Shakespeare and James Cagney, the monologue and the one-man show running now into its 40th nonstop season, the laugh still a klaxon and a defiance and not a minute's quiet since he came out of nowhere to promote Ali-Foreman in Zaire and turn boxing and white America on its head.
He is still as charming as Lucifer.
"Work that thunder," he says to Cloud, laughing and coughing, "Work that lightning and that thunder cloud."
The champion circles the room firing punches like shots, combinations top and bottom, head and body, hard now then harder still, the air torn by his breathing. He carries his right hand high, thumb to his nose, a responsible orthodoxy. His left floats a little, ready to block a punch or throw one. His right is the real weapon.
"Just a reminder to bring that extra towel to the ring," says the guy from the commissioner's office, "and you got that backup mouthpiece, too, right?"
King slides past snapshots of himself with every celebrity of the 21st century. He does so with an unlit 12-gauge cigar between his fingers.
The champ is all ready muscle and cheekbones and grim intentions and, as he dances and shadowboxes himself into a hot sweat an hour before the fight, he is like something out of Bellows, all motion and action and blurred, monstrous beauty. "He is a bad m-----f-----," whispers a publicist, "but Hopkins is a wily m-----f-----."
The undercard runs long. Through the low ceiling comes the deep insect drone of the crowd. There's no air in the room, and it feels as if a decisive moment has somehow already passed. Cloud waits and he waits and he is ready or he is not ready, and all at once it's time to walk out.
* * *
The fight is not beautiful.
From the opening bell, Hopkins circles and clinches and feints and ducks and grabs and circles. And circles. Clockwise. In and out. Counterclockwise. Up and down. He makes it impossible to get his range. So the champion is tentative, and tentative is bad. He's not sure where Hopkins is, or where he's going to be. The champion's jab seems sent out less to do damage than in the spirit of discovery. Cloud is awkward and cautious and deliberate. Hopkins has moved and left no forwarding address.
Now, for all the preparation and the perfection of the wraps and all that shadowboxing, for all the muscle and the craft and the ambition, Cloud can't find Hopkins, much less touch him. He might as well have come out of the tunnel bare-knuckled.
In the sixth round, Hopkins clips Cloud across the left brow and opens a cut along the eyelid. It's bad enough and deep enough for the ref to beckon the doctor up to the ropes, but not bad enough to stop the fight. Between rounds, Cloud's cutman gets the bleeding stopped, but after the cut the rest of the fight feels like a done thing, a formality. Forced to play peekaboo, with his left fist now floating up to protect his left eye, Cloud is even more cautious, more confused and has even less to throw at Hopkins as he circles. He does his best. For his part, Hopkins stays out of reach and jabs at the eye when he can, trying to reopen the cut. It's only a matter of time. He throws fewer punches but connects more often. He wins every card. He is again the oldest boxer to hold a major title. He is the New Old Mongoose.
There are three other international light heavyweight belt holders Hopkins can fight or not fight or dodge or circle or fatten on in the months and years ahead. He might never retire. He can tie up this weight class and influence every contract and promotion and pay-per-view in it until he's more than 50 years old.
* * *
Sometimes at the end of a fight the loser is too tired or too beat to speak with the media. Sometimes the main event finishes within a minute or two of newspaper deadlines, leaving no time for Q&A. So while the winner is doing his live television interview in the ring, the losing boxer answers a few terse questions from his own publicist, who walks the mumbled quotes down to press row. Tavoris Cloud, now a former champion in need of stitches and a shower, dictated a few sentences, then stepped through the ropes and down from the ring apron and into his future.
A minute later, these thoughts were read aloud slowly and clearly by Don King's longtime press agent Alan Hopper. Cloud wanted it known he wasn't complaining.
"It is what it is. The good thing about boxing is we do it inside the ring without guns and everybody lives to fight another day."
The lights were up, and the crowd was climbing the stairs. At every landing, a few turned to look back at the ring. The quote sounded like melodrama, and it seemed to hang in the air a few seconds before the press bent back to its keyboards and its deadlines. But if you knew that 52-year-old retired welterweight Tony Martin had been shot to death collecting rents in Philadelphia the day before, it all made a kind of terrible sense.