Lord of Illusions: Bernard Hopkins, Chad Dawson, and Style as Strategy


True to form, Bernard “The Executioner” Hopkins and “Bad” Chad Dawson managed to avoid fighting throughout twelve tense but uneventful rounds last Saturday night at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City. Even with quasi-willing participants in the stands there was little enthusiastic violence to be found.

Lost in the criticism decrying the dearth of action however, was a fight strategy predicated on psychological manipulation. Hopkins had prepared for more than his opponent: he was targeting subliminal messages at the viewer as well. The first step in his contrivance was evident as he stepped through the curtains wearing a black balaclava. The purpose of this knitted accessory was two-fold: For those who found something admirable in stick-up-kid chic, Hopkins became representative of a culture, and therefore more likely to be appraised favourably by its members. Hopkins also jarred the collective memory of viewers, retrieving images of him fighting up to his preferred—though no longer fitting—moniker of “The Executioner.”

It has been thirteen fights and nearly eight years since Hopkins “executed” an opponent. Surely his willingness to put a modified sock on his head meant he would return to his lethal ways. Viewers were encouraged to expect the version of Hopkins that stopped Antwun Echols, Glen Johnson and Felix Trinidad and to translate that expectation in a favorable appraisal of his performance. Like the salt-water taffy peddled in “old-fashioned” boxes along the boardwalk, Hopkins’ retro attire was intended to make viewers expect the quality of better days.

As the masked Hopkins approached the ring, a voice came over the P.A. system. In reverential tones it recounted the remarkable story of Hopkins’ life—his journey from convict to champion. This chronology of undeniable achievement was purposefully recounted. The voice became fervent as the description neared the present; all in earshot were invited to reflect on the impossibility of the tale—Bernard Hopkins the American Dream.

A hero would be facing Chad Dawson, and heroism should be rewarded with close rounds and crowd support.

Then R. Kelly’s “Bad Man” began to play. The song’s lyrics are congruent with the image Hopkins was creating. “Bad Man” expounds the virtues of being raised in the streets, praises the re-evaluation of morals conducted by those who “run these blocks,” and reclaims the term “bad” as something noble, a badge of survivalist achievement insulated from the aspersions of the uninitiated. The incessant fouling and ham acting that constituted Hopkins’ style were supposed to be appreciated according to this new concept of “bad:” Hopkins’ violation of the rules seen as a testament to his ability to survive.

The old man was fighting before the first bell rang.

When the contest began Hopkins introduced one of his fundamental tactics: holding and hitting. As the rounds accumulated he unveiled more of his weaponry: leading with his head, hitting low and on the break, and trying to incriminate Dawson by embellishing Dawson’s retaliatory tactics. The high point of this subterfuge came in the eleventh round when Hopkins “fell” under the weight of a leaning Dawson, only to rise, charge in with his head, and tackle his opponent. This was bad stuff, but “bad” had been given a complimentary meaning less than an hour earlier.

Throughout the fight, Hopkins fought not to win rounds, but to obscure and obfuscate. His histrionics during the fight—playing the victim, clowning to give the impression of control—were meant to vilify Dawson and sway judges and spectators alike. Hopkins could not win by fighting alone, so he resorted to manipulating the observer to gain an advantage. Hopkins laid the foundation for this manipulation with the tactics he employed before the fight began and tried to build on that foundation rather than simply put his hands on his opponent.

While the scores were calculated, Hopkins leaned over the ropes and said, “They might try and take it ‘cuz they don’t want me in the game no more.” Hopkins, interminably the victim, was trying to create controversy and diminish the accomplishments of his opponent. Judge Luis Rivera scored the fight 114-114, while judges Steve Weisfeld and Dick Flaherty delivered tallies of 117-111 in favor of Dawson. Rivera’s card was crucial: the draw allows Hopkins to perpetuate his persona non grata image. It didn’t matter that people began abandoning their seats as early as the tenth round (the conclusion seemingly foregone, their patience exhausted), or that two other judges submitted lopsided scores for Dawson: the Rivera scorecard provided Hopkins with fuel for indignation (feigned or genuine) and he declined a post-fight interview. Hopkins needed only a glimmer of controversy—and a powerful promoter—to justify remaining in the sport. It is curious that he seems to need this justification at all.

Bernard Hopkins prepared to do more than simply fight when he met Chad Dawson on the boardwalk: he contrived a strategy designed to elicit a sense of fraternity and sympathy to win the crowd and rounds alike. Although he lost the fight, he salvaged a reason to persist. Hopkins might consider including this latest psychological tactic in his next pre-fight recounting. But he should expect it to resonate with a smaller audience.

Read more from Jimmy Tobin at In Between Rounds.


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