Naazim Richardson stood a few feet away, watching Bernard Hopkins jostle the punching bag. Boxing's oldest world champion mixed thudding strikes with the pitter-patter of soft jabs.
Hopkins switched to the speed bag. Richardson stood to the rear. His eyes stayed on Hopkins as the fighter rattled the bag, seeming to dance with the rhythm of each punch. Richardson kept the time. The workout was almost complete.
Richardson is the trainer and Hopkins is his athlete. Not fighter, not boxer but athlete. It is a term of respect, Richardson said.
The trainer and athlete's strong bond has helped them defy the odds. They both overcame Philadelphia's streets to attain boxing glory rooted in faith and family. Their next challenge - perhaps the stiffest one yet - is Saturday night in Atlantic City. A win by the 49-year-old Hopkins against fearless Russian Sergey Kovalev may be the duo's greatest accomplishment.
Hopkins is two wins away from being the undisputed light-heavyweight champion, a feat he would try to complete after he turns 50 in January. In his way is a built-for-television knockout king. The 31-year-old Kovalev has recorded his last 13 wins by stoppage.
"You're coming to see a guy that looks like he punches like Hercules," Richardson said. "But can he beat the old bird? This joker's 111 years old and he's fighting monsters like Kovalev."
Richardson declines to talk brashly about Kovalev. Talking brashly, he said, is not what men do. Richardson said he has been a man for most of his life, ever since leaving home at 14 years old. He lived on the streets in Germantown and sought shelter each night. The nights he failed to do so were spent on park benches.
"Somebody from the neighborhood would come through and wake me up," he said. "And they'd say 'Naazim, you're sleeping.' I'd say 'Oh, my bad, I just fell asleep out here.' I didn't tell anybody that I had no place to go."
He split his schooling between Germantown High and Daniel Boone, a former disciplinary school operated by the school district. He was arrested as a teen and dropped out of school, returning to Germantown a few years later to earn his GED. He later took psychology classes in community college.
"If you had went back and asked everyone what would happen to me, everyone would pick me to be the one that was dead or in jail," Richardson said.
Richardson started his workday one late-September morning at Shuler's Gym, a tough gym in a tough West Philadelphia neighborhood. It is the home base for the trainer's Concrete Jungle Boxing Tribe.
The name is derived from a hip-hop record label that he started in the late 1980s. The project, which featured Richardson rhyming as Brother Naazim, was shelved when his sons started boxing. Now it is what he calls his group of athletes, which consist of some of the city's best talent.
Richardson wrapped the hands of his nephew Karl Dargan, a rising lightweight contender. He trained his athlete for two hours before leaving in the afternoon for Juniata Park. Richardson would do the same there with Hopkins. It was then back to West Philadelphia for a night session.
Richardson travels to three or four gyms a day, working with athletes from morning to night. Dargan said his uncle's gig is more challenging than any 9-to-5 job. The city's top trainer said life can be hectic.
"If I get a red light too long, I'm in trouble going to the next project," Richardson said.
The trainer chooses his athletes carefully. Each one, he said, is family. His friends tell him he would make more money and gain greater fame if he trained more fighters. Richardson cannot do that. He said he puts too much time into the athletes he already has.
He first started working with Hopkins in the mid-1990s. Then a middleweight, Hopkins was being trained by Bouie Fisher, who was Richardson's mentor. Hopkins and Richardson shared a troubled past. Both were from Germantown and both were incarcerated for parts of their youth. And both had found Islam.
"We feed off each other's adversity," Hopkins said. "Everyone has a story that could have ended their lives or stopped their careers. But somehow we found a way to not fall victim to those challenges. It's good to know that he's a fighter, not a quitter."
When Hopkins and Fisher split in the early 2000s over a monetary dispute, Richardson became Hopkins' chief trainer. With Richardson in his corner, Hopkins moved up two weight classes in 2006 to upset light-heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver.
Two years later, Richardson suffered a stroke. The trainer had a slight headache after returning home from Shuler's. He reached for aspirin but kept dropping the bottle. Richardson could not understand why. He lost control of the left side of his body and collapsed. His family rushed him to Temple University Hospital. Richardson could only pray.
The doctors told him he may never walk or talk again. He proved them wrong. He said that if he didn't already believe in God, he would have after that. His youngest son, Bear, who now assists his father, said the recovery was a miracle. The trainer said he felt he was letting his athletes down when his health failed. He had to make a quick return.
The father and son stood side-by-side as Hopkins completed his workout. "One minute," Richardson said. Hopkins' punches were so furious that the baseboard shook. "Thirty seconds," the trainer said. Hopkins hit the bag with a flurry.
"Time," Richardson shouted.
Hopkins whacked the speed bag, bouncing it off the baseboard and stopping it still. He walked past his trainer expressionless and covered in sweat. There was nothing more to say. The athlete and his trainer are out to defy the odds, again.