A fight can be over before it starts. “Some fighters, when they leave the dressing room they die a sudden death,” says Lou Duva, who’s handled many great fighters and also Andrew Golota, who quit against Mike Tyson in October 2000. “When they are in the dressing room, walking down the aisle, you have to talk to them. Against Michael Grant and Lennox Lewis, Golota didn’t even know he was there. I would feel his neck and shoulders, and they were always tight.”
Another veteran trainer, Teddy Atlas, says you can see that fear sometimes before they even start walking toward the ring.
“I’ve seen guys lose it when a guy takes off his shirt during a weigh-in,” says Atlas, who learned under Tyson’s early mentor, the late Cus D’Amato. “I’ve seen guys watch guys shadowbox in the ring and get nervous. I’ve seen guys in the amateurs see that the other guy was wearing a better type of boxing shoe and lose it, or the other guy had a mouthpiece made by a dentist and all they had was a plastic one, and they would lose it.”
Or sometimes it takes a little lunacy beforehand to unnerve an opponent. “If a person thinks you’re crazy, he tends to fuck with you less,” says matchmaker Johnny Boz. “It’s like a guy walking the streets and talking to himself—how many people are going to mug him?”
Apparently, Bernard Hopkins is listening.
Few really expect the 36-year-old “Executioner” (39-2-1-1, 28 KO’s) to defeat the 28-year-old Felix “Tito” Trinidad (40-0, 33 KO’s) on September 15 at Madison Square Garden. Trinidad, the pride of Puerto Ricans everywhere, has been scintillating in his last three efforts, versus David Reid, Fernando Vargas, and William Joppy. There is speculation that, at age 36, Hopkins is shot, that he doesn’t have the power or legs to deal with Trinidad.
Hopkins isn’t likely to make Trinidad start shaking with fear, but there’s no doubt that the older fighter is playing head games with Tito.
On July 9 at Bryant Park, during the fighters’ first press conference, amid chants of “Hopkins sucks, Hopkins sucks,” the Executioner snatched a small Puerto Rican flag out of Trinidad’s hands and threw it to the ground.
Two days later, at a second press conference in Puerto Rico, Hopkins grabbed a Puerto Rican flag from Don King’s hands and again threw it to the ground. This time an angry mob jumped onto the stage and chased Hopkins up the bleachers of Roberto Clemente Coliseo, where he reportedly knocked out an angry fan who was wielding a two-by-four. A helicopter rescued Hopkins from the mob.
“He [Trinidad] tried to pull away the flag, and I just manhandled him and took the doggone flag and threw it to the ground,” Hopkins later told Fightnews.com. “The look on his face was like a kid seeing a ghost and calling out for Mommy and she ain’t run into the room fast enough.” The Executioner hopes these stunts will pay this dividend: that the normally cool-headed Trinidad will come out fighting mad instead of fighting smart.
“It could make Tito so anxious that he’s overanxious,” allows Atlas. “But I don’t believe it will. He’s been a professional so long that it won’t affect him. Bernard’s an experienced guy, a little older, and he’s just trying to even the playing field. Also, Bernard’s never gotten the attention he deserves, so he’s trying to highlight the fight a little more.”
If Hopkins does pull out a victory, its seeds will have been sown during the pre-fight buildup. There have been other instances where fights were all but decided before the bell rang. Here are three:
CASSIUS CLAY vs. SONNY LISTON (1964)
Nobody gave the 22-year-old Clay much of a chance against Liston for the heavyweight title. Reporters said Clay held his hands too low and incorrectly moved straight back instead of going side to side. Clay ignored the skeptics and decided the best way to deal with Liston, a distant and gloomy man, was to mentally undress him before the fight.
Clay talked to Liston as nobody had spoken to him before. He drove to the estate in Miami where Sonny was staying before the fight and camped out on his lawn. “You big ugly bear!” he hollered. At the weigh-in, Clay ran around like a schoolkid during recess, hollering, “Hold me back, hold me back. This is my show! Round eight to prove I’m great!” Everyone thought he was a lunatic, including Liston.
Hearing reports that Clay was getting pounded on by his sparring partners in training camp, Liston was confident that he’d get a quick knockout, and he supplemented his training by eating hot dogs and drinking beer at a nearby racetrack. Clay made him quit on his stool after the sixth round.
MIKE TYSON vs. TREVOR BERBICK (1986)
For Berbick, having a date to fight Tyson was like being handed a death sentence and then being told to train for it. Gunning to become the youngest heavyweight champion ever, Tyson was known for going into a frenzy right from the opening bell, often freaking out his opponents. He entered the World Boxing Council title fight 27-0, with 25 knockouts, and everybody ringside could feel the tension in Berbick.
“When Tyson fought Berbick, the ring was vibrating during the national anthem,” recalls Eric Bottjer, a matchmaker for Cedric Kushner Promotions. “[Ring announcer] Michael Buffer noticed that the ring was vibrating, and he looked over and saw that Berbick’s legs were shaking bad. Angelo Dundee, who was in Berbick’s corner, just shook his head. Berbick was petrified of him.”
Too bad, because Dundee, who had engineered Clay’s upset over Liston, wanted Berbick to make Tyson work for a few rounds, figuring that the young dynamo would tire and then be vulnerable.
Berbick, however, fought as if his legs were in quicksand, and Tyson knocked him out in two rounds.
RAY “BOOM-BOOM” MANCINI
vs. LIVINGSTONE BRAMBLE (1984)
Clean-cut and engaging, a real darling of the media, Ray “Boom-Boom” Mancini was the Oscar De La Hoya of the early ’80s. Livingstone Bramble, the challenger to Mancini’s WBA lightweight title, decided to get personal with him.
Bramble said everything he could think of to piss off the champion. He referred to Mancini as a “murderer,” alluding to Mancini’s fatal bout in 1982 with Duk Koo Kim of South Korea. The challenger dedicated the fight to the Ethiopians who were slaughtered in two wars with Italy. He cursed in front of two 10-year-old girls stricken with Cooley’s anemia while Mancini was national chairman of the foundation fighting the disease. Originally from the Virgin Islands, Bramble brought in a voodoo doctor from St. Croix, whom he referred to as “Dr. Doo,” to stare at Mancini and cast spells on him.
“Mancini was spooked for that fight,” Bottjer says. “Mancini said before the fight, ‘I’ve never said this before, but I guarantee I will win the fight.’ He then fought angry and threw everything he had for the first six or seven rounds and then had nothing left, and Bramble stopped him in the 14th round.”
Bramble revealed later that Dr. Doo wasn’t really a doctor at all but was actually his basketball coach in St. Croix from when Bramble was a little kid.