ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Saturday night. Atlantic City. October cold. A hard wind down off the barrens as sharp as new money.
"This is the part I hate, the waiting." He points straight down. The old boxer's hands, ruinous and beautiful.
This is in the Boardwalk Hall, the Jazz Age convention center on the beach. But the locker room could be anywhere. Nothing can happen in this room. Too bright, too much light in every corner, too hot, too clean. Indifferent as a motel room, it enforces anonymity, dislocates you, drains you out the soles of your shoes.
Watching the undercard, Bernard Hopkins stretches on the floor. The carpet is hospital blue. Emergency room blue. On the monitor, Nicolai Firtha takes a silent beating from Deontay Wilder. Big punches. Neither heavyweight can box worth a damn. Firtha bleeds from the nose like he's been shot in the face.
"But he's game," the champ says low. "He's game."
He listens to a docked pod. Stretching. Tapping his toes. Firtha goes down for the last time to the bridge from "Please, Please, Please." James Brown bent double in a cape. Then Sir Joe Quarterman. "I Got So Much Trouble In My Mind." All that brass and '70s Dexedrine guitar scratch. Rub on a little Jackie Wilson. "A Woman, A Lover, A Friend."
Under the door, from the dark, that noise. The crowd.
The champ's eyes close, his face as unlined as a baby's.
Down the boardwalk, the wait for the buffet at the Tropicana doubles back on itself. The stilettos and puffy white sneakers and walkers inch forward as seats open. The racket from the slots sounds like Christmas in Hell. Steam rises off the seafood bisque into the lights. The roast beef chef at the carving station cracks wise and slices thin. Crab legs, prime rib, sneeze guard, dessert station. All you can eat. The kind of B-minus chop you'd expect for $30 worth of loyalty on your players card.
"We're here every couple months."
"We don't spend really but what we gamble. They comp us most of the rest. More free dinners than we can use."
"We break even mostly. See a show. Go home."
"You should go upstairs and get a card. It's fun. Better than Dover. Ever been to Dover?"
Upstairs are the chandeliers and the table games and the cashiers' windows, the hen parties walking five wide, watery blender drinks in clouded plastic cups, all legs and Spanx and underwires, extensions and foundation and concealer, hip to hip to hip between the slots and the poker robots, an inventory of French tips and bad skin, glitter and low hopes. Pit bosses watch, grim as priests. The rebreathed air rings metal on metal with the sound of money won and money gone. The noise. The smoke. The hapless frat-house bros, eyes red as dice, drunk and unloved by luck. The honeymooners and the living dead, the sharps and bangers and addicts, the ironic weekenders and the low rollers and the porkpies and the hypnotized seniors and all that madness patterned right into the carpets. Red felt and green felt everywhere, acres of it, the green baize like a summer field, a fat green harvest of money.
Past the hoodies and the cocktails and the sweat and the cleavage and the dazzling radiance of all that failure, maybe you notice their hands. Pushing a single chip across the felt at roulette. Tossing a 20 to the croupier at craps. Cradle, shake, blow, roll. Fingers crossed. Dirty nails. Nail-bitten fingers caged on short stacks at blackjack, stack and restack and fidget the inventories of chance. Good luck, bad luck, no luck at all. Hit. Bust. Cracked knuckles white on a brown beer bottle. Cigarettes and engagement rings and cigar butts. Getting and letting go. American hands never more American than when they're holding a fork or money or a gun. Or when that hand is a fist.
Maybe Bernard Hopkins understands this better than anyone. For a long time, he was a certain kind of Hollywood story. Up and out of the killing Philadelphia streets and into prison by the time he's 18. Walks out of the penitentiary and into boxing and never looks back. Redeemed by his fists. Nicknames himself "The Executioner." Since then, he is many times a champion. Rich. Famous. Music swells. The End.
It does Hopkins no disservice to thumbnail that career. It is a good story, and Hopkins is a good fighter, the longest reigning middleweight champion in boxing's long and awful history. He fights light heavyweight now and is the oldest prizefighting champion of any kind ever -- 48 when he steps through the ropes.
And that's his new story, the more important -- or at least more promotable -- story. He's out there fighting on behalf of every grizzled baby boomer and AARP member and Viagra-taker in TV land. Sixty is the new 30, say the search engine optimizers. Once interchangeable with any other down-on-his-luck, up-by-his-fists kid from the city by way of Odets or Stallone, Hopkins is reborn as an old man for us all. Ageless, and perhaps more bankable than at any time in his career. Hopkins abides.
But tonight he fights a mandatory challenger for short money. An imported waxwork named Karo Murat, a German Armenian by way of Iraq with heavy hands and visa troubles.
Down in the dressing room, one of his trainers kneads Hopkins like a loaf. Bends him back on himself, folds and unfolds him. "Right now I'm imagining calmness," Hopkins says, straightening. "This is psych-O-log-i-cal warfare."
Crowded with cornermen and cutmen and bucketmen, cameramen and moneymen, there are no women here, until Murat's seconds walk in to watch them tape the champ's hands. One of them is a tall young blonde in four-inch heels with lank hair and beautifully machined English. "Thank you very much," she says precisely into the silence when she arrives. "Thank you very much," she says into the same silence 10 minutes later as she leaves. "Groovin'" sing The Young Rascals.
Hopkins is as smooth and hard as worn stone, his features as blurred as old statuary. The unwrinkled skull is shaved and perfect. A Fabergé egg of a thing. How it gleams!
The thermostat is set to 80. Everyone sweats as Hopkins stretches, warms and shadowboxes. "Smart and sharp," say his men, one after another, a chorus of reassurance and unnecessary instruction. "Smart and sharp." In the corridor, the winners and losers come and go.
What's goin' on? asks Marvin Gaye.
Does it matter who or what Bernard Hopkins was? Or only who he is? Or what he'll become? He is transformed. Not just by his story but by your own. By your fears, by the eternal search for eternal youth, by mythology and sacrifice and the romance of risk and death. By boxing itself.
A week earlier, Frankie Leal was beaten to death in a ring in Mexico. A week later, Magomed Abdusalamov will be beaten into a coma at Madison Square Garden. Boxing is not ironic. "Boxing is not a metaphor," wrote Joyce Carol Oates. Boxing is the thing itself. Prizefighting is always sick, a constant invalid, but boxing never dies. Only boxers do.
The danger is real, and Hopkins is exceptional, but maybe one of the reasons he persists is the shallower talent pool. Fewer and fewer young athletes choose boxing. More weight classes and more sanctioning bodies spread those left even thinner. There are at least three other light heavyweight "world" champions. Stevenson. Shumenov. Kovalev. WBC. WBA. WBO. 36. 30. 30. Does it matter? By any standard of his art, Hopkins, IBF light heavyweight champion of the world, is a very old fighter. He'll fight Shumenov to unify titles on April 19, the oldest ever to try.
Even George Foreman never made it this far. Depending which birth date you believe, by the time the legendary mongoose Archie Moore was Hopkins' age, he had been retired for two years. James Toney, a cautionary tale of cumulative damage and slurred speech even as he continues to fight, is three years younger than Hopkins.
Get up offa that thing. A television crew, all black denim and sour worry, comes and goes and comes and goes. The reporter in the dress suit asks Hopkins questions. Hopkins is bright-eyed and runs his mouth when called upon to do so. He smiles his gap-toothed smile, and it is all nonsense, the questions and the answers.
Hopkins knows this. But Hopkins understands the show. And selling it. Understands his role out front of the tent. He is his own best promoter and owns a part of every fight he's in. The new spin on the selling is a new nickname, "The Alien." How else could he fight so well so long but that he be from another planet/universe/dimension? For the discussion of which he happily wears an alien Halloween mask, a rubber trick-or-treat thing the color of a sour apple. Hopkins' best weapon has always been his mind and a liberal reading of the Marquess of Queensberry, but he treats his business like a business.
Punch the clock. And understand the clock punches back.
The Girl from Ipanema.
State athletic commission guys wander in and out in gray latex gloves and powder blue polo shirts, fat and thin and short and tall. Security wears blue blazers. This is the biggest show in town tonight. Two weeks from now, the biggest show will be a Ricky Nelson tribute act starring Ricky Nelson's sons.
Have you seen her?
Up and down the boardwalk, from the old Hilton to the Showboat to the Revel -- a $2 billion glass blade half buried in the sand at the Absecon Inlet -- the hotel lobbies smell of air freshener, seaweed and low occupancy. In darkened rooms with walls full of distant voices and bedspreads thin as tissue, 10,000 unopened bibles wait in 10,000 unopened drawers. At the taffy shacks and the fry joints and the arcades, the wind howls against the windows. The walkers raise their collars as they hustle past.
There are at least two Atlantic Citys. The one on the boardwalk and the other one, the real one. The one with the lady in rags screaming and surrounded by cops at the bus station, with more gentlemen's clubs than gentlemen, with sidewalk to sidewalk flophouses and pawnshops and cash for gold. Money to loan. "Hotel Cassino." "Fortune Rooms." There's a vacant strip of sand and shadows between the boardwalk and reality, and what the 1960s, '70s and '80s and the bustouts and bankrupts like Donald Trump didn't carry away, the last hurricane did. Somehow Atlantic City hangs on.
We've come to see an antique attraction at an obsolete resort on an ancient ocean. To watch an old man cheat death in a dying sport that never dies in a dying town that never dies. Every one of us here to be briefly remade, transformed -- fans, gamblers, promoters, boxers, writers -- everyone here to become the hero of his or her own story.
Pesto chicken from Caesar's in the press room. Steamed green and yellow beans. Miniature pastries. Hopkins patty-cakes the trainer's mitts one last time. He weighs 172½ pounds. In January 2015, he will be 50 years old. Murat weighs 174. He is 18 years younger.
When the door opens at last, the crowd is a sound so wide and high it could only be coming from inside your own head.
Deep blue light bent to the ceilings, the hall is a vault at the bottom of the sea. The ring is blinding. The fight is the fight, like every fight before it, like no other fight ever. Hopkins enters in the mask and a black robe trimmed in extraterrestrial green. Naazim Richardson, his trainer, a man of great, scowling gravity, wears a matching neon kufi. Murat, all stubble and muscle and hammered cartilage, is a footnote in white satin and gold lamé.
Ringside are the swells and the media muscle, the lowercase rainmakers and their lifelike escorts, the guys who want to look like made guys but are not made guys. The lower stands are filled with tailored Hopkins fans in from Philly and folks who chose this over a night at Morton's and the IMAX. Everyone else, 6,000 of them, is in a $40 seat wearing Zubaz.
A fight from the floor or the seats isn't the same fight on TV. Television imposes sense, time, makes it linear. The unreal is made real by the edges of the screen. Coherence is a boundary. Seen live, unbordered, fights are misshapen, fragmentary. A Cubist portrait lit by a strobe, then gone. Don't look away, don't look up into the rafters or the lights, don't look at the back of her head, don't look down at that spilled beer, don't look at your notes, don't wander. Don't, don't, don't. You're missing it.
In the first, they clutch and grasp, swing and miss. They jab like children. They twerk and spin and Lindy. They tug and grunt and arm wrestle into the second. There are real punches, but more often Murat tangles himself around Hopkins just as Hopkins drapes himself over Murat. Coming off the breaks, they sweat and swear and whisper threats. When Murat takes Hopkins in a headlock, the champ steps away, pauses to reflect and then hits Murat's right kidney with crisp concision, as if sounding a barrel with a mallet. Murat looks around, maybe to see if anyone's watching, then pantomimes agony. Busiest man in the ring so far is Steve Smoger, the referee.
Hopkins is bigger than he looks, even as you're looking at him. Murat, smaller. Middle of the third the fight starts. Twenty seconds into the round, Murat catches Hopkins with a fast, hard-arcing left to the head.
It's been a long time since Hopkins had to punch his way out of trouble. You were probably still a kid. His last win by knockout was nine years ago, when he detonated Oscar de la Hoya's liver. His genius lies not in what he sends out, but in what he draws in, then disallows, what he slips, blunts, neutralizes. The mishits, shouldered almosts and half-shots that leave him amused and unhurt. Not tonight. Tonight, smart and sharp won't be enough. He'll have to punch.
Still, he takes Murat's roundhouse left to that magnificent skull and replies by stepping back and sticking out his tongue.
Electrified by their own violence, both men punch (and club and butt and clinch and elbow) their way into a fourth round. And a fifth. In the sixth, Murat bulldogs Hopkins to the canvas like a steer then punches down at his polished dome. Smoger pulls him off. Judges might have the fight scored even so far.
To see Hopkins caught in a punching fight is to watch your grandfather climb a stepladder. But he is an active senior and punches hard and often through the seventh round. The referee takes a point from Murat for punching off the break. With the armbars, low blows, rabbit punches and little hits to the filter organs, Murat flatters Hopkins by imitating him. But he won't take another round.
The careful measure of his energies is where Hopkins usually excels. His thrift. The economy of his brutality. Not tonight. Hopkins could have trained for this fight by breaking pool cues over bikers' heads.
In the eighth, he cuts Murat's left brow then walks to Murat's corner. He leans casually over the ropes to suggest their fighter quit before he gets hurt. The Germans glower up at him. The crowd roars down. Both men shine in the cruel light. Murat looks like he's been stitched together out of suet and bruises.
In the ninth, Hopkins stands and pivots and walks and lolls and punches and lets Murat do the roadwork. Murat shuffles a crabwise marathon chasing him, even as Hopkins stands still. Murat: fast hands, slow head.
Hopkins is an old magician, all misdirection and guile. Between all those champions and all those challengers across all those sanctioning bodies, Murat might be the second- or 11th- or 14th- or 40th-best light heavyweight in boxing. Maybe he understands he's a supporting character in someone else's opera. Maybe not. Like every one of us, he likely thinks tonight, every night, is about him. So Murat fights on as best he can, persists, not in on the joke. Murat is usually a high peekaboo fighter. Now he flails like a man walking through a cobweb in a nightmare.
Both men swing and clutch into the 12th.
Hitting is an art and not getting hit is an art, and Hopkins' easel is the cubic yard of space-time in front of him. When Murat enters that space, he gets painted. And Smoger referees the thing like he and Hopkins came in the same car. So when Murat nods an ineffectual head-butt at Hopkins after the final bell, Smoger pushes him away with a hand to the face like a dog at the dining room table.
Hopkins wins a quick and unanimous decision. At the end, he looks smooth and loose, untouched by leather or time. He talks and talks and talks. German or English or Arabic, Murat is at a place past language. Thank you very much. Cut and swollen, he looks like a man with a dislocated soul.
Which is the hero? The one who shows us what we might become? Or the one who reminds us who we are? The man rising or the man hanging on? "I'm an entertainer," Hopkins says into the microphone as the crowd hurries out, "and this is what people want to see."
The big postfight news conference is small on the immense stage where they crown Miss America. Our voices rise and disappear into darkness. Janitors fold the chairs and sweep the floors. The place is full of ghosts.
"He's a tough guy," says Hopkins, the oldest champion ever, answering a question no one asked. "He was game."
Outside the wind blows, and the sky burns with stars.