Jesse Hart was “hurt” when he saw the video replay from Dec. 17, 2016. He couldn’t be at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., that night because he was training for his own fight.
But he saw that Joe Smith Jr. had gotten Bernard Hopkins, a Philly fighter like Hart, on the ropes. The light heavyweights had traded blows for seven rounds. Then, Smith landed a six-punch combination that lifted Hopkins completely out of the ring, and the 51-year-old former champion hit his head on the concrete floor.
Hopkins was unable to respond to the prolonged 20-second count due to an injured ankle, and he lost by technical knockout. It was the first and only knockout loss of Hopkins’ illustrious career (55-8-2). It was also his last fight.
On Saturday, finally, Hart will have the opportunity to avenge that loss by Hopkins, who has served as a mentor to him. The 30-year-old "Hollywood” Hart, the son of former middleweight contender Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, is 26-2, with 21 knockouts.
He will take on Smith, who is 24-3, with 20 knockouts, in a light heavyweight fight at the Etess Arena in the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. The fight will be the main event for Top Rank Boxing on ESPN at 10 p.m., and the result of that 2016 fight between Hopkins and Smith has been on Hart’s mind since the bout was announced.
“This is something that has to be done,” Hart said of defeating Smith for Hopkins’ sake. “This is for glory. This is for an icon from my city. This isn’t for bragging rights or money.”
Standing at 6-feet-3, Hart’s size and 77½-inch reach are two of his biggest advantages in the ring. But this fight is about much more than just another win. A victory puts Hart in the driver’s seat for a title shot and avenges the Hopkins loss.
“Definitely [personal]. I have to get to Joe,” Hart said. “This is a Philly thing. You beat somebody here from our city, and I get a chance to fight him? We have to stand up. Especially [for Hopkins].”
Hart first caught Hopkins’ eye -- actually, his ears -- at the boxing gym on 69th Street in Upper Darby. He knew of Hart then but didn’t share a personal relationship with him. No matter where Hart worked out in the gym, Hopkins could tell when Hart was punching by the sound of the bag. Wham. Wham.
Also, English “Bouie” Fisher trained both Hart’s father and Hopkins. Fisher was one of the biggest names in Philadelphia boxing before he passed away in 2011.
Fisher even helped forge a relationship between Cyclone Hart and Hopkins that led to a memorable moment in the younger Hart’s childhood: One Christmas, Jesse Hart received a pair of black Grant sparring gloves that were signed by Hopkins. He called it the best Christmas gift ever.
Hart was motivated by Hopkins’ story of rising from incarceration to one of boxing’s most successful fighters. His favorite moment, he said, was watching Hopkins knock out a heavily favored Felix Trinidad in 2001 to become the first undisputed middleweight champion since “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler in 1987.
“If there was no Bernard Hopkins, I wouldn’t have a model to trying to become champion,” Hart said. “His story always plays in the back of my mind. That’s the inspiration I thrive off.”
Hart knows the names of the most famous Philly fighters -- Joe Frazier, Sonny Liston, Bennie Briscoe, in addition to Hopkins -- and he is out to become the next one. This bout gives him the chance to etch his name in history while inching toward a title shot.
“He’s the Hart of the city,” Hopkins said. “It beats through him. The torch has been passed. Not only did I pass it, but his dad passed it, too.”
Hopkins said that Hart’s upbringing gives him an advantage in that he grew up around championship boxers.
“Can you imagine a basketball player being able to text [Michael] Jordan or Julius Erving?” Hopkins said. “Getting a chance to get a piece of that, and that recipe becomes the best recipe of success when you put them all together.”
When Hart delivered a phone call to Hopkins to give him the news of his upcoming fight with Smith, Hopkins was delighted.
“Good. You’re going to whoop his ass,” Hopkins said to Hart.
It wasn’t just a moment to instill hope. It was what Hopkins said he believes. He watched Hart train for the fight and liked what he saw. It’s a reason he specifically passed the torch to Hart. And of course, Hopkins has been in the ring with Smith, so he knows what Hart can expect.
“He has all the ingredients to be great himself,” Hopkins said of Hart. “To me, it’s just a matter of time when he becomes a complete fighter, and that comes with being a world champion.”
Hart is 7-0 in his career fighting in Atlantic City, and Smith will be one of his toughest challenges yet. Hart won his first 22 professional fights. His two losses have come to Gilberto Ramirez in 2017 and ’18, but Hart won his most recent fight by unanimous decision against Sullivan Barrera in his first light heavyweight bout, last June in Las Vegas.