QUEBEC CITY - There he goes again . . .
The public image of Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, at times, can be that of someone who is arrogant and abrasive. That would be the Hopkins who twice threw a Puerto Rican flag to the floor in the lead-up to his megafight with Felix Trinidad, who shoved Winky Wright's face at a weigh-in, who dismissed Joe Calzaghe as a legitimate threat to him because, B-Hop sneered, "I would never allow myself to get beat by a white boy."
Then there is the more private perception of Bernard Hopkins, the one known only by the rare few who have earned his trust and respect. That Hopkins forged a special bond with a dying teenager, Shaun Negler, who idolized him. When the cancer-stricken Negler died on Oct. 23, 2008, just 5 days after Hopkins had shocked the boxing world by dominating the much-younger Kelly Pavlik, the North Philadelphia icon took it as hard as any defeat he ever received in the ring.
Both sides of this very complex and intriguing individual have come into play in his preparations for tomorrow night's Showtime-televised matchup of Hopkins (51-5-1, 32 KOs) and WBC and Ring magazine light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (26-1, 16 KOs) in the Pepsi Coliseum.
It certainly appeared as though Hopkins was playing more mind games at a Wednesday news conference here at City Hall. The usually verbose former middleweight champion limited his comments to three words, which he asked be translated into English for a predominately French-speaking audience. Pascal, a native of Haiti, who relocated to the Montreal suburb of Laval, Quebec, when he was 4, instructed members of his team not to do so, because, he said, "In this town, we speak French. When I go to the States, you guys speak in English. There is no translation. Now you are in my country. You are not home."
Hopkins' reaction to Pascal's illogical announcement (most Quebecois speak English as a second language) was to snatch the champion's green-and-gold WBC title belt and act as if he was going to leave the podium with it. When Pascal reached to retrieve it, Hopkins hid it behind his back, as might a bullying child playing keep-away with a toy.
Eventually, the belt wound up back in Pascal's possession, but a tense moment never really eased. In the obligatory pose for photographers that followed, the two men got nose-to-nose, and Hopkins kept telling the clearly agitated Pascal, "I'm going to make you quit. I'm going to make you quit."
Quebec, meet Bernard Hopkins, ugly American.
There was no revelation at the news conference that the kinder, gentler Hopkins was planning to honor Negler's memory by placing a photograph of his deceased friend inside one of his boxing shoes, similar to what Sugar Ray Leonard did when he taped a photo of his then-girlfriend and future first wife, Juanita, to his shoe throughout the boxing competition at the 1976 Montreal Olympics. It is the second time Hopkins has paid such homage to Negler; he also did it for his victorious rematch with Roy Jones Jr. on April 3.
"On the back of the photo it reads, 'I'm not afraid of any man who breathes the same air that I breathe,' " Hopkins said after a brief workout yesterday. "Shaun loved that quote. His mother put it on the back of the picture."
Informed of Hopkins' intentions, Mike Negler, Shaun's father said, "I know Shaun would be honored by what Bernard is doing. Bernard did so much for Shaun, and he's still doing it."
So who is the real Hopkins? Is he the evil genius who tries to push all the buttons he can to elicit a negative reaction from the people he hopes to beat up? Or the loving husband and father who wept when a final 10-count tolled on Shaun Negler's tragically abbreviated life?
Brother Naazim Richardson, Hopkins' trainer, said the tales of Hopkins' psychological ploys are highly exaggerated. Richardson said his fighter does not win primarily because he makes opponents crazy and reckless, but because he is a better boxer than most of the ones he's faced.
"People say, 'Bernard's in this guy's head, he's beating him down mentally,' " Richardson said yesterday. "Hey, Bernard Hopkins can fight. He's been in 57 fights and never been cut. He has an outstanding defense and a tremendous offense.
"It bothers me when everybody gets caught up in that other stuff. Bernard wins because he's the better fighter. He makes better adjustments. I've seen guys who never let Bernard's antics affect them and they still took a butt-whipping."
Richardson thinks the nastiness at the news conference was spontaneous and not a preconceived action, and he doesn't imagine it will have a bearing on how Pascal performs.
"All the advantages point to Pascal," he said of the 28-year-old titlist. "We're in his country. He's the younger man, faster, more athletic. Remember that when Bernard beats him, which he will. I hope people give Bernard his proper respect then and won't say something like, 'Oh, Pascal was too inexperienced,' or 'He wasn't really that good, anyway.'
"When you've been around as long as Bernard and I have been, you're not going to see a right hand or a left hook that's going to really impress us. You measure these young guys by their ambition, their hunger to succeed, and that's something you can't tell by watching a tape. I believe Kelly Pavlik had that kind of hunger, and so does Pascal.