- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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WASHINGTON -- The master was at work.
Bernard Hopkins, self-described as "The Alien" for his otherworldly longevity in the hurt business, was at yet another news conference hyping his latest fight, this time midday on Tuesday at a swanky hotel next to the White House. But for Hopkins the fight might as well have already begun.
We are six weeks away from Hopkins throwing down with Beibut Shumenov on April 19 (Showtime) at the DC Armory in a light heavyweight title unification fight, but for Hopkins the fight begins way before the first bell.
So there was Hopkins, boxing's ancient statesman and oldest titleholder at age 49, putting the 30-year-old and much less experienced Shumenov under what he called his spell. This is the real start of the fight as far as Hopkins is concerned.
Get into your opponent's head, Hopkins said. Make him do things he doesn't even know he is doing. Make him subservient. It will pay off on fight night, The Alien believes.
"If anybody knows anything about the mental game that comes in this sport, I think I am the king behind [Muhammad] Ali when it comes to knowing how to test a guy mentally and his belief in himself or lack of," Hopkins said, in his best preacher's tone, to the writers gathered around him. "This is something I've been a master at and then I back it up with the hard training and the discipline and the skills."
Moments earlier, Hopkins (54-6-2, 32 KOs) showed off just what he meant.
He hadn't trash-talked Shumenov (14-1, 9 KOs) at the podium, instead complimenting him.
"I'm pretty sure that a lot of people don't know who Shumenov is and I tell them he's a fast guy who is rising in the sport of boxing quickly," Hopkins said. "He comes to fight and he comes to win."
Shumenov, the native of Kazakhstan living in Las Vegas, was practically in awe of his opponent.
"I'm very excited that I'm going to fight one of the greatest fighters ever," he said. "I know that I've never faced anyone on his level and I know it's going to be the hardest fight of my life. But I will do whatever it takes to win this fight. And I'll do everything possible and impossible to get the victory."
But when the formal remarks concluded, Hopkins went to work.
The publicists, of course, wanted the television folks and photographers to get the money shot of Hopkins and Shumenov posing together on stage and moments later on the hotel balcony with the gorgeous D.C. skyline in the background since they are selling the fight as "History At The Capitol."
Hopkins took the opportunity of the photo op to dig in on Shumenov, who probably had no idea what had happened as the master went to work.
Hopkins is subtle. He is cunning. He has guile. It is what comes with 26 years of professional experience and 4½ years in prison before that.
As Hopkins and Shumenov were being situated for the photos, Hopkins took over, putting Shumenov in certain spots for the pictures, making him go where he wanted him to go and do what he wanted him to do.
Shumenov was like a puppy dog, falling right into the trap as Hopkins established his dominance.
"It doesn't speak on the outcome [of the fight], but it does speak on his respect for me," Hopkins said. "Now, I have to transfer that into the ring, like 'move right here, get right there, get right there so that I can hit you with this, so I can hit you with that.' You can't say it verbally, but it's a way of having a guy being somewhere where he really don't know he's playing into your game. He's playing into your dictatorship.
"I said, 'Get over here and stand right here,' and he came over. So I said, 'You've gotta back up a little bit,' and he backed up a little bit. I've done this to many fighters, even the veterans. Now it's how you transfer that into any ring where you put someone under a trance like a hypnotist without them even knowing that they're under that spell."
It's certainly not the first time Hopkins has done this to establish control of the situation with an opponent -- or even a potential future opponent.
Take Felix Trinidad, for example. Hopkins' career-defining knockout victory against Trinidad in the 2001 middleweight tournament final to win the undisputed championship had really begun long before they got to the ring.
Hopkins believes establishing a mental edge was huge for him going into the fight, one in which Trinidad was the favorite.
"We were up on stage [at a news conference] and we were doing this flexing with each other and I grabbed [Trinidad]. I put my hands on him, and pinched him, and I had about three inches of loose skin in my hand," Hopkins said. "His reaction? There was none. He didn't smack my hand down, he didn't look in my face, he just let me do it. These are the things that might seem simple but when you're in a battle where a lot of things come into the outcome of the fight, those little things mean a lot."
Not too long ago Hopkins did the same thing with light heavyweight champion Adonis Stevenson, the man he hopes to face after Shumenov, despite the network complications involved in such a match.
"We were in Los Angeles, and we were on a podium, and Stevenson had come out to one of Golden Boy's fights," Hopkins said. "And what happened is I said, 'Let's have some fun with the media. Come on up on the stage,' and he came up. I said, 'Let's do a stare down to get everybody riled up, for s---- and giggles.' So he had his sunglasses on, and I said, 'Take your sunglasses off,' and he took 'em off. He took them off like I was his parent.
"Where I come from, that gives you a blueprint on how far I can go. You're waiting for him to say 'That's too far,' but he didn't. You got a starting point that I should never have gotten. If that was me, you're supposed to kill that from the door. You stop it right there because, otherwise, it can turn into something that is a habit. [Golden Boy boss] Richard [Schaefer] said, 'You got him doing what you want him to do already.'
"I felt like [Stevenson's] Pop Pop. 'Take your glasses off, you got to do it right.' And he took 'em off. These are little things. The foundation is laid and now I got to translate it to what he thinks that he can do and what he is told he can do. That's when the dictator stuff comes in."
It's almost like Hopkins is the Obi-Wan Kenobi character from "Star Wars." Remember the scene when Obi-Wan and Luke arrive at the Mos Eisley spaceport with the stolen droids and need to get them by the Empire's Stormtroopers, who are looking for them, and Obi-Wan employs The Force?
Stormtrooper: Let me see your identification.
Obi-Wan: You don't need to see his identification.
Stormtrooper: We don't need to see his identification.
Obi-Wan: These aren't the droids you're looking for.
Stormtrooper: These aren't the droids we're looking for.
Obi-Wan: He can go about his business.
Stormtrooper: You can go about your business.
Obi-Wan: Move along.
Stormtrooper: Move along.
This is Hopkins, minus the light saber.
"I think I win mental Round 1 before I say anything based on the time I've been in the game, the respect I have in the game," Hopkins said. "And for any fighter of this era who steps in the ring with Bernard Hopkins, he has to know and think when he's in bed, when he's running, when he's training, he has to think, 'Damn, I'm getting ready to get in there with Bernard Hopkins.' And as the days get closer to April 19 you can't block out that you have to be ready to fight and ready to go up against the great Michael Jordan, or the great this or the great that.
"End of the day, that's a fight of nerves, anxieties. These things I must use an advantage. This stuff is mental."
He is the master.
The fight is six weeks away, but light heavyweight champion Bernard "The Alien" Hopkins is already using head games on challenger Beibut Shumenov.