(Chad Dawson, left; Bernard Hopkins, right)
Every weekend throngs of fortune seekers flock to Atlantic City, wondering if lady luck will be their companion. She’s seductive. She’s alluring. If you can corral her for even a fleeting moment, you will have won. The buzz might stay with you for days.
Gambling, carousing… it’s a city that thrives on possibilities and opportunities. And on a rainy oceanside night in late April while the light heavyweight championship of the world was on the line, that same expectant feel was in the air and on the minds of boxing fans prowling the boardwalk.
Like a hand of blackjack tossed down in one of the glittery casino’s lining the shore, what did fate have in store for Bernard Hopkins and Chad Dawson? Would we see a chaste boxing match, a gritty foul-filled calamity, a shocking knockout or a controversial decision?
Sometimes a big fight is like a hand of cards… you might hit 21, you might go bust.
The joker in that deck is Hopkins, the ageless warrior, now 47 years old; what did he have left? And when would it be all used up?
It’s a question that has surrounded his bouts going back as far as 2001, when he faced Felix Trinidad in what many expected to be a grueling fight that might have removed Hopkins from the boxing landscape. Retirement at the hands of the dynamic Puerto Rican puncher, who was atop the pound-for-pound rankings of the day, was not to be.
As we now know, Hopkins was incredibly just at the midway point of his career back then with towering achievements still to be snatched from the hands of time.
But like gamblers at the roulette wheel, fans who very likely had lost money on Hopkins before… betting on tiresome pay-per-view bouts or wagering against the future Hall of Famer when in tough with the young guns of the sport… they all lined up again to see if Hopkins’ number would finally come up when he stepped back into the ring against Dawson for a rematch.
At the end of the night, there were winners and losers. There always are… and as always the uncertain future of a gambler with choices to make.
The weigh-in is about to start. Dawson promotor Gary Shaw sits on the edge of the stage waiting for his various fighters to arrive at the Caesars Palace scales.
After a few moments Chad Dawson arrives with his family in tow. His wife and three young boys file into the first row and Dawson sits quietly beside them with his oversized Dr. Dre Beatz headphones cutting him off from intruders.
Someone asks Mrs. Dawson if she’d like a fight program. She does and is handed one, eyes it for a moment, balancing her youngest in one arm before passing the glossy booklet to her oldest son.
The boy opens it slowly. His fingers smudge the pristine pages, putting fingerprints on the sheen. He arrives at the Bernard Hopkins biography page.
He stops flipping through the book.
He stares at the photos. Hopkins is caught frozen in time, baring teeth as he unleashes a hook to a hapless opponent. Another picture shows Hopkins posed, his face inscrutable, tough and menacing. He look like a man you might see in prison, a face you’d cross the street to stay clear of.
The boy turns the page to more images of the man who will attack his father the next night. He peers at them, lost in thought.
Onstage Oscar De La Hoya is taking photos with a few acquaintances. He stops to wave to Dawson’s boys and then weaves back over to the Golden Boy Promotions side of the stage.
A buzz rises among the gathered and someone shouts, “The champ is in the house.”
Hopkins strides onto the stage, his various belts held aloft around him. He is wearing a shirt that says, “The Man, The Legend.”
The weigh-in proceeds. Dawson looks strong and youthful. Hopkins looks petulant, quiet… caged.
They stare at each other nose to nose, neither man showing much emotion. Dawson smirks at his small victory as Hopkins turns to walk away first. Hopkins looks back over his shoulder and glares at him.
No pushing, no shoving — violent men, in a violence free time and place. For now they part, like the eve of a wedding day, knowing that when they see each other again, it will be to start an entirely different relationship.
Hopkins disappears from the stage and like a puff of smoke is gone from Ceasars. Dawson collects his family and starts to make his way through the crowd of onlookers that has gathered beside the stage to watch the proceedings.
His boys follow along… follow in dad’s footsteps.
Fight night. The early cards roll by. Solid fights, mostly unremarkable. Light heavyweight prospect Lavarn Harvell knocks his foe cold. The man’s head bounces off the mat and doctors rush in to stem the damage.
The hope of American heavyweight boxing, Seth Mitchell, wins a barnburner with Chazz Witherspoon. Three rounds of pyrotechnic pugilism: Both men are hurt; both men fight; both men gain credibility; both men lose credibility.
Entertaining boxing. Forget dollars, ratings, belts… It’s why eyes are on these guys. In the end, it’s just about the fighting. It captures you.
Finally the main event is here. Dawson, a Connecticut kid, is loudly booed as he enters the ring.
Hopkins, a Philly native from just up the road and a legendary figure of the sport, comes in to a roar of applause.
The bell sounds. The fight begins.
Round 1 is slow. Few punches. Hopkins lands a couple body shots and a few sneaky punches inside. Dawson scores a glancing blow here and there. A flurry at the end gets blocked.
Rounds 2 and 3 seesaw like a rocking ship righting itself and trying to find its buoyancy on the open sea. Dawson gets busier. Hopkins starts to dial in his lead right hand.
Things get chippy inside. Dawson exhorts quietly during a clinch, “C’mon, ref.”
Hopkins gets a talking to from referee veteran Eddie Cotton about holding and hitting.
On the scorecards the judges have dissenting opinions on what has gone on in the ring. Dawson gets the first two stanzas on two cards. Hopkins gets both on the third judge’s card. Everyone agrees that Hopkins wins the 3rd round.
After nine minutes of fighting we have Hopkins by whitewash on a card and Dawson in the lead on the other two.
In round 4 a cut opens above Dawson’s left eye and blood runs along his outside cheek. Replays show it’s from an accidental headbutt. Dawson tries to come on strong in the moments following, but loses steam after 15 seconds. Hopkins continues to place sporadic, but beautiful, right hands, now aimed at the big red target.
Dawson lands a few flush shots of his own, too, but seems a little weary with the sudden show of blood. Hopkins begins to clown around, dropping his hands, trying to potshot, but mostly mauling and setting the crowd off.
The official scorecards are all over the place. They read 3-1 Hopkins, 3-1 Dawson, 2-2 even.
Team Dawson attends to the cut in the corner. Their fighter looks a little worked over. Hopkins’ notoriously questionable infighting is already taking a toll.
The next round Hopkins is landing very tough, chopping rights inside, while Dawson is landing when he gets Hopkins back to the ropes. Just as the bell is about to sound, Hopkins clips the kid and “Bad Chad’s” legs seem to buckle. He grabs hold of the old man to stay up. They tangle and Dawson hurls Hopkins across the ring.
As the ship heads for the iceberg, scenes from their first match flash in everyones mind: Hopkins on the ground clutching a shoulder, Dawson’s look of disgust, months of recrimination and rehab.
“The Executioner” caterwauling towards the ropes holds back his momentum, doing a tiptoe dance on the ring apron and avoiding any replay of their previous dates calamitous ending.
As they roll to the halfway point, Dawson opens round 6 with a battering ram of a shot seconds in that gets the crowd’s and Hopkins’ attention.
As the next minutes tick by Hopkins does a lot of good work inside, but it’s not always obvious and he seems to flag towards the end of the stanza. Dawson stays busy and banks the round. It’s the first round everyone agrees Dawson has won.
If the preceding three minutes were relatively clear cut, the 7th becomes the poster boy for everything else. It begs the question, what catches your eye as a fight spectator?
Hopkins lands the cleaner, flashier punches. Dawson lands more glancing stay busy kinds of blows. It’s the formula that anyone who has beaten Hopkins within the last handful of years has needed to employ.
It starts to pay off for Dawson over the next few rounds. He is more consistent. Hopkins stops throwing the lead right hands that were catching Dawson flush early on.
Time starts to slip for Hopkins. Crucial rounds come off the boards and he seems to have just a handful of punches less than he needs.
Dawson isn’t winning rounds by much, but by a few more punches here and there. He’s edging these tight ones on being a hair busier.
The championship rounds come. At the start of round 11 Hopkins taps his gloves together in anticipation. He comes out and launches the first salvo immediately. He lands a couple of lead right hands.
In the next charge, they tangle, Dawson gets over the top of him, putting weight on Hopkins and the old man goes on his knees to the mat.
Then things get a little feisty.
They flurry along the ropes each landing a couple glancers. They tie up, arms wrangling after the firefight, and as they move from the ropes, grappling and jostling, they topple over onto the mat.
The judge who has it scored even through ten gives the round to Dawson. A judge who has it eight rounds to two for Dawson scores it for Hopkins.
Suddenly it’s the final round. Hopkins has good energy, better seemingly than the younger man even, but it’s a messy affair. There’s a lot of clinching and mugging. Hopkins lands cleaner and wins the closing argument on two scorecards.
The men trudge around the ring awaiting the verdict. The crowd was not enthusiastic about the final seconds of the round, witnessing only a final clinch as opposed to the free flowing slug out they’d always like.
The cards come in. The first tally is read. 114-114 even.
Hopkins wasn’t pleased: “I thought draw… I cant get out of this guys life and he cant get out of mine.” he told the gathered press later in the bowels of Boardwalk Hall.
The next two cards come in with more definitive results, both 117-111 in favor of Chad Dawson.
The crowd boos — whether for Dawson, Hopkins, the fight, or the outcome it isn’t entirely clear.
“Tonight, someone seen something different,” Hopkins says, and leaves the ring without giving an interview to HBO, but a brief statement is read along press row.
“They did what they wanted to do. The only way I knew I would win is if I knocked him out. The public can judge for themselves.”
Dawson on the other hand stays in the ring long after his chat with HBO’s Max Kellerman, receiving congratulations and celebrating with his mother, wife and sons before walking back to the dressing rooms through a throng of supporters that had pooled down at the walkway barricades to clap him on the back and envelope them in their enthusiasm for his victory.
De La Hoya and Mitchell file down from the long table up at the mini press conference stage erected in a cavernous backstage hanger in Boardwalk Hall.
Shaw and Dawson replace them on the dais to applause. Two of Dawson’s sons sit alongside him, the smallest sits in his lap. Shaw jokes about the boys being his future stable of fighters.
The clock ticks towards one in the morning. Up late for little boys, they look out at the gathered media, with that empty stare we all get when we’ve been going for longer than normal. The spotlight is thrown onto them from lighting tripods set up strategically around the platform, the rest of the large space hunkers in shadow.
“When you are in there with someone like Bernard Hopkins it’s harder than I thought,” Dawson explains to the big quiet room. “He’s 47 but he fights like a 35-year-old.”
Dawson is a little banged up from the clash of heads; some swelling at his right temple, the cut on the left eye. He looks content, but tired. “I don’t see him retiring after this,” he says. “He could beat any young guy.”
One of his sons yawns as dad continues to answer questions.
Hopkins arrives with Golden Boy’s Richard Schaefer and they take the stage to a round of applause.
Hopkins is in a newsboy cap, slung low over his brow. He looks sharp. In fact he looks less like he’s been in a fight than the new division kingpin Dawson does, 17 years his junior.
The Hopkins that stormed out of the ring earlier is nowhere to be found. Replacing him is this new man.
Hopkins walks immediately to the Dawson side of the table and individually takes each of Dawson’s son’s little hands in his own and shakes them, with a warm smile. He crosses back to his side and pauses before sitting down.
“Congratulations Chad.” Hopkins nods affirmingly. The room responds to his congeniality with a few cheers and applause.
The room settles and Chad continues answering a question, talking about how each man showed they came to fight. Dawson is interrupted by a woman’s voice from the back of the room.
She seems to be intimating that Dawson didn’t fight… and shouldn’t have won. Dawson strains to hear her, starts to respond.
Hopkins stops him, “Chad… Chad. It’s cool. She has an agenda.” Hopkins grins, “That’s my sister.”
She tries to continue and Hopkins shoots her a look, putting his finger up to his lips, and shaking his head. She stops the heckling.
Hopkins sets his agenda immediately. “I’m not here to discredit what Chad Dawson did,” he says, but he makes it clear he thought it was closer than the two overruling judges thought. “People will have their opinions.”
The inevitable “Will you retire?” question comes immediately. “Right now I feel good,” he answers. “Do I feel like I’ve been in a fight?… Yeah, I’m 47.”
Someone fires off a question for Dawson… was this your toughest fight?
“It’s the most difficult fight I’ve been in,” Dawson says. Dawson mentions Glen Johnson too, and a reporter asks about Antonio Tarver. Dawson dismisses it: “He’s way better than Tarver.”
“PLEASE say I’m better than Tarver!” Hopkins says with a grin. The two men laugh and the room joins them.
The pair are refreshingly kind to one another over their final minutes together, after months of backbiting, recriminations and accusations along with the night’s 36 minutes of trying to hurt each other.
“I didn’t see him get tired and I watched him the whole fight,” an admiring Dawson professes.
Conversationally, Hopkins answers, “I was thinking you’d get tired in the sixth, but that didn’t happen.” He shrugs.
“Regardless of what happened, you are a legend,” Dawson says in a nod at the old champ.
In answer, Hopkins for his part makes one special point repeatedly. He assures Dawson out of respect that what he says about the fight now isn’t going to change down the line. “Chad Dawson deserves to be where he’s at. It is what it is. I hope he represents it, like I represented it.”
The bright young champion has some interesting options to consider, in his division and the one right below it. But this night the questioning always returns to Hopkins future.
What is next?
“Live and enjoy my life,” he responds without too much thought, which sounds an awful lot like a retirement opener.
Later he turns more thoughtful, choosing his words like he does his punches. Carefully, considerately. Unfurling the words with a natural poetic flare, much like the beauty of his lead right hands.
“If you think that tonight was the night that my swan song would be sung?”
He pauses. Considering. Measuring.
The young champion and the old champion stand and pose for pictures. The crowd of people clamor close to the stage firing off flashes, and tapping touch screens.
A little boy looks up and watches his dad put an arm around the man he trained hard to hurt. His dad smiles for the cameras.
The boy watches.
You wonder what goes on behind those little eyes.
Hopkins low-slung cap casts a shadow over his older, wiser eyes. You wonder what’s going on behind those, too.
The rain-soaked Boardwalk is mostly empt. A few late night revelers, lucky or luckless — who can tell — are loudly clattering along the walk.
The men at the table tonight were dealt their cards, and played them as best they could.
Fighters and gamblers… men of skill, fortune and fate, they’re truly faced with just one important question at the end of everything.
Achievements, money, prowess, stature… there is always another hand to be dealt. And another date with Lady Luck.
But she’s a seductress who always leaves you cold sometime, one day.
When do you walk away?