Saturday was supposed to be a celebration.
A farewell to one of the greatest fighters of all time.
After seven competitive close rounds, it was anyone’s fight. But then, as he always does, Father Time came calling.
Bernard Hopkins laid on the concrete floor, and immediately, team members and security rushed to check on him.
Shock washed over the audience of 6,513 at The Forum.
One month shy of his 52nd birthday, the legend was laying on the ropes when Joe Smith Jr., landed six unanswered punches, the last of which sent Hopkins flying out of the squared circle, the back of his bald head the first body part to collide with the concrete floor.
After all, Hopkins had never been knocked out. Referee Jack Reiss administered a 20-count — the customary ruling for a fighter knocked out of the ring — and finally, it was all over.
Hopkins (55-8-2, 32 KOs) never made his way back into the ring, a twisted right ankle — “I needed time to see if I could box on it” — derailing him as a sea of humanity crowded him on the ring apron.
Smith (22-1, 19 KOs) jumped up on the turnbuckle, feet away from where the legend sat, and celebrated, but no one, save for his team, was in any mood to join him.
Like Joe Louis, who was catapulted from the ring in a brutal knockout loss to Rocky Marciano in his final bout, Hopkins exits the sport in similar fashion.
Hopkins’ career, after more than 28 years of fights; 20 middleweight title defenses; 10s of thousands of interviews; lawsuits; upsets; setbacks; is finally over, and it surely isn’t the way he drew it up.
“This is my last fight, I promised it would be and you come to that point in life where it is final and I’m happy with my retirement,” said Hopkins. At the time of the stoppage, Smith was up 69-64 and 67-66, with Hopkins up 67-66 on the third card. “I know the fans will know I went out as a soldier, fighting the toughest, baddest opponents.
“ … I know if I hadn’t made a mess and gotten knocked out of the ring, I would’ve come back like I’m known for and would’ve had my chin.”
Boxers never know when to say goodbye. Where else can you find such an adrenaline rush? Even in defeat, Hopkins believed he could have found a way, if only one punch missed; if one little thing went differently.
But it didn’t. Instead, Smith, a laborer’s union worker from Long Island, N.Y., caps off an incredible 2016 with upset victories over light heavyweight contender Andrzej Fonfara (first-round KO) and now a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“It feels great, it’s the best feeling in the world to accomplish something I set out for and wanted to do,” said Smith, 27. ” … I had seen him fall, and I kept hitting him until I saw him go out, and I landed that left hook until he went out. I knew he had time to go out, but I hit him with four or five clean shots and they were good shots on the button.
“I knew he was a true champion, and if he didn’t get injured, he’d be back here. I came here to do my job, this is my coming out party, too. I had to finish him, it was either my career was going to end or his was going to end, but I needed mine to continue.”
Hopkins closes the book one of the greatest fighters of his era and is widely considered a top-50 boxer all time.
And at times Saturday, The Executioner showed flashes of his former dominant self.
Hopkins was clearly rusty early. He hadn’t fought since a November 2014 shellacking to Sergey Kovalev, and he simply couldn’t find his rhythm over the early rounds.
Smith wisely pushed the tempo to an uncomfortable pace for the old man. He chased Hopkins around the ring and was able to pin the defensive master into ropes consistently, a rarity for the defensive master.
Hopkins finally found his rhythm in Round 4, though. He began to duck under Smith’s hard-charging shots and responded with clean rights over the top.
The Alien was clearly back in the fight after a rough three rounds, and Smith also had a cut left eye to deal with after a clash of heads in Round 1.
But Hopkins, eventually, could no longer hold off Smith, who loaded up on every punch, and when he connected on that last combination, it was curtains.
It’s a sad ending for Hopkins, but he’ll always be remembered for his legendary nights, like the upset over Felix Trinidad. Or the beating he gave Antonio Tarver in his first farewell fight. Or even the time Hopkins won a world title at the record age of 46, all while performing pushups during the fight.
Hopkins leaves the sport the same way he entered it: with a loss.
But now, it’s finally all over. And what a career it was.
“Time says it all,” Hopkins said. “I’ll be 52 in a few weeks. I look like I probably still can (fight). But I can’t.”