PHILADELPHIA — The sneakers his mother sent had not yet arrived, forcing Bernard Hopkins to leave Graterford in 1988 while still wearing his state-issued prison boots. He spent five years in prison after being arrested when he was 17 years old. As he left, the warden told Hopkins he would see him again soon.
But Hopkins — who would become one of Philadelphia’s all-time great boxers — was determined to never wear those boots again.
Seven years later, he became a world champion despite losing his professional debut. He fought in the ring, Hopkins said, with the same aggression he had on the streets as a troubled teenager in Germantown. Now — in April of 1995 — he was the middleweight champ.
Hopkins defended that IBF title a record 20 times, building a 28-year career that will be honored Sunday by the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame. He proved the warden wrong and still keeps his old boots as a reminder of the life he left behind.
His life, Hopkins said, often feels like a movie. But his story may not have such a Hollywood feel without the help of Rudy Battle, the referee who lifted his arm that night in 1995.
“Listen,” Hopkins said. “If my career would have stopped right there and I did nothing else, no 20 title defenses, nothing, I would have been cool with it.”
Battle drove to the Northeast once a month to visit Holmesburg Prison, help with the boxing program, and eat lunch with the inmates while giving them hope for life after prison. He became a boxing referee in the 1970s, just before the sport exploded in Atlantic City.
Battle was on TV almost every weekend, refereed more than 100 championship bouts, and worked on every continent except Antarctica.
The first Saturday of every month at Holmesburg was his way to give back. And that’s where Hopkins was in 1983 after being sentenced to prison following his arrest for armed robbery. Battle, knowing Hopkins from their old neighborhood, asked another inmate where Hopkins was.
“He said he’s embarrassed, Rudy,” Battle said he was told. “He doesn’t want to come out because you told him he would eventually end up here.”
Battle first saw Hopkins box as a kid in Jazz Jarrett’s West Mt. Airy basement on West Upsal Street. The kids in Jarrett’s gym would square off against other amateurs throughout the city. And it was evident then — in a ring where the fourth rope was a basement wall — that Hopkins was special.
But first Hopkins would have to escape his neighborhood. Battle would pull his car over on Germantown Avenue every time he saw Hopkins and his buddies hanging on the corner of Hortter Street.
“Not to lecture, not to preach,” Battle said. “Just encourage them to get off the corner and do something more constructive with their lives because I told them if they continued down that avenue, they would eventually end up in jail or end up dead.”
And that’s why Hopkins didn’t want to see Battle when he visited Holmesburg. Battle told the inmate to tell Hopkins that he’d be back next month.
“He came out of the cell block, and he came over to me,” Battle said. “He said, ‘I know you told me that I’d eventually end up here, but I have five years to do and they’re going to send me to Dallas prison. He said, ‘Would you come visit me?’ I told him to put my name on the list.”
Battle trained in boxing as a kid at the old Chris Perry Gym on North Broad Street, but his love was fencing. He mastered the saber at the University of Pennsylvania as a high school student under maestro Lajos Csiszar and traveled the world with the U.S. national team.
But he was brought back to boxing while he was in the Air Force in the 1950s with top-secret clearance in military intelligence.
“I was stationed in Japan, and I couldn’t fence because they didn’t have any facilities for fencing,” Battle said. “So I got reinvolved with boxing and trained for a while. Then our trainer left to go back to the United States, and our team members asked me to become the coach and trainer. I said, ‘Well, that’s a different feel.’ But they said if I didn’t take over the team, then we wouldn’t have a team.”
Battle became the trainer, led the team to a championship in Japan, and brought them to California for a tournament against the best military boxers. He returned home to Philadelphia, went to school at Temple, and continued fencing under the Maestro at Penn. He trained three nights a week and competed on the weekends around the world.
“My whole life was fencing,” Battle said. “I reached the saturation point.”
Battle retired from fencing but needed to do something to stay active. So he became a boxing referee, officiated amateur bouts, and quickly moved to the pros.
Battle, who is in the Pennsylvania and New Jersey boxing halls of fame, refereed the main event on his first card at Resorts in Atlantic City and never looked back.
“I was licensed by every major boxing organization. The IBF, the WBC, the WBO, the WBU in Europe,” said Battle, who is now the chairman of the state athletic commission. “My favorite fight was the Slugfest Fight between Evander Holyfield and George Foreman. They featured the three of us on the cover of Sports Illustrated. I’ve refereed boxing for many, many champions. Mike Tyson, Vitali Klitschko, Roberto Duran, on and on and on. It’s been gratifying.”
The Dallas prison is just west of Wilkes-Barre, about two hours north of Philadelphia. Hopkins was not yet “The Executioner,” instead he was Inmate Y4145. And that’s why Battle drove to Dallas. Not because he thought Hopkins would one day be a Hall of Fame boxer. But because he wanted to give hope to the kid he used to watch box in Jarrett’s basement.
“I knew he had the potential, but my intention was just to direct him in the right way,” Battle said. “I didn’t want him to become institutionalized. That was my purpose. Just try to keep him off the streets. Apparently, it worked out well because he never went back to prison.”
He sat with Hopkins in the day room, gave him $20, and told him that he would introduce him to people in the boxing world if he lived right after being released from prison. Hopkins was a state champion in prison and the best boxer in the prison system, dominating just like used to do in that basement on Upsal Street.
Hopkins still had three years left in prison but Battle told him that he had the talent to be a world champion once he returned to Philadelphia as long as he focused on boxing.
“I didn’t ask him for $20,” Hopkins said. “I was just glad that he visited me. I had family members who didn’t visit me because they didn’t have a car. Obviously, after six months people are like ‘OK, he’s going to be there for another four-and-half years.’ The visits stopped. That $20 meant a lot to me. I remind Rudy Battle that I’m grateful that he came up there and believed in me.”
Battle helped Hopkins get a job at the old Penn Tower Hotel near the Civic Center after he was released from prison. The future boxing great worked in the kitchen as he prepared for a professional career. Battle introduced him to promoter Butch Lewis and trainer Bouie Fisher, and connected Hopkins with Howard McCall, the chairman of the state’s athletic commission. Hopkins had everything he needed to get started.
Hopkins lost his debut in Atlantic City in October of 1988, stayed out of the ring for 15 months, and returned determined to be a champion. He won 26 of his next 27 fights before earning a shot at the IBF’s vacant middleweight title against Segundo Mercado in the tough Ecuadoran’s hometown.
The fight was a draw — “A draw in Ecuador is a victory for the American Bernard Hopkins,” Hopkins said — and a rematch was scheduled four months later just outside of Washington. Bob Lee, the IBF’s president, called Battle. They needed a ref. Battle told Lee he was available and then went to Hopkins.
“I told Bernard that I had been selected to be the referee, but there’s one thing I want you to know. I will not compromise my reputation,” Battle said. “I won’t do anything to hurt you, but I’m not going to do anything to help you. He said, ‘When we get in the trenches, you have to do what you have to do.’ I said, ‘OK, as long as you realize it.’ ”
Battle knew Hopkins since he saw him hanging on the corner, but that didn’t stop him from warning him in the dressing room about any trickery and then issued a warning during the bout for low blows. The referee had a job to do.
Hopkins repeatedly punished Mercado with his right hand before the fight was stopped in the seventh round. Mercado was out on his feet as Battle stepped in to wave off the fight. Hopkins fell to his knees in the middle of the ring. Seven years after leaving Graterford in prison boots, he was a world champion.
And the man who drove to Dallas, Pa., to give him hope would soon be strapping the belt around his waist.
“Rudy raised my hand,” Hopkins said. “Can you imagine that? You’re telling me that this isn’t a Hollywood script? This came to fruition on the heels of a man who did not have to drive to Dallas, Pa. To ride up there, being an old head from the neighborhood who saw me fight just as good in the street and at a gym in a man’s basement. How are you going to write a better script than that?”
“After it was over,” Battle said, “it was like, is this real? After all this time, me mentoring him and talking to him and they select me out of all the referees in the world.”