25 Years Ago: Bernard Hopkins And Glen Johnson Meet Before They Were Legends

Two fighters who became legends clashed on this day in 1997
10:06, 20 Jul 2022

25 years ago today Bernard Hopkins stopped Glen Johnson in 11 rounds to retain the IBF middleweight championship. The fight itself is not one that has become burned into the memories of anyone but the most ardent of boxing fans. But in hindsight this world title bout is noteworthy for a number of reasons. This scheduled 12-rounder pitted two of the greatest veteran fighters the sport has ever seen against each other at a time where both were still young. 

Hopkins and Johnson are both renowned for having peaked late, but on-paper their 1997 clash was nothing to be sniffed at. Jamaican Johnson had racked up a 32-0 record to earn his title shot, and arguably posed the biggest threat to Hopkins’ IBF reign so far.

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Hopkins lost to Clinton Mitchell back in his first ever professional bout in 1988. ‘The Executioner’ had also been defeated in his first tilt at a world title, when Roy Jones Jr comprehensively outscored him to take the vacant IBF title in 1993. But Hopkins had found form, taking the title from Sergio Mercado in 1995 and winning four title defences by knockout. But now he was in with a man who had never even been beaten, never mind stopped.

No one had stopped Johnson before 20th July 1997 and by the time ‘The Road Warrior’ retired 18 years later only one other man would. Current WBC cruiserweight champion Ilunga Makabu managed the feat when Johnson was in his mid-40s but nobody else came close in the Jamaican’s prime. Nobody apart from Bernard Hopkins.

The fight itself was one-sided. Already, at the tender age of 32, Hopkins had the guile and veteran instincts to immobilise most middleweight challengers. The unbeaten Johnson showed reserves of bravery and grit he had never had to display before, the same well of toughness he would drink from as he fought well into his 40s. But it wasn’t enough. 

Johnson didn’t get knocked down. He rarely ever did, even when he was being passed around the young guns of the super middleweight like an illicit student party roll-up at the end of his career. But a burst of Hopkins uppercuts and hooks caused the referee to correctly wave off the fight in the eleventh round.

This match is less remarkable for what happened on the night than what happened in the years that followed. Hopkins would continue as the quiet man of the middleweight division, retaining his title for another four years before entering the Don King Middleweight World Championship Series. Essentially created to crown Felix Trinidad as undisputed champion in much the same way King had done with Mike Tyson in the 1980s, Hopkins upset the applecart and knocked out ‘Tito’ in the 12th round of the final.

He would reign as undisputed boss for a further four years, beating Oscar De La Hoya for his WBO title along the way. He eventually lost his gold via a pair of controversial decision losses to Jermain Taylor. Not content with a legendary middleweight title reign that featured 20 successful title defences before it was over, Hopkins went up to light heavyweight. The ageless ‘Alien’ beat lineal champion Antonio Tarver and Winky Wright before losing his title to Joe Calzaghe. But even well into his 40s you could never count Hopkins out, and he would reign twice more as a light heavyweight champion. His final title win, a decision over Tavoris Cloud for the IBF strap, made the 48-year-old the oldest world champion of all-time.

Johnson himself would go on to enjoy a quite brilliant career in the wake of his first professional defeat. His is the classic Rocky story where, having lost six of his next ten fights post-Hopkins, he eventually clawed his way to a stunning upset victory.

After beating Britain’s Clinton Woods for the IBF light heavyweight championship, Johnson was matched with Roy Jones Jr. The iconic Jones was on the comeback trail, having lost for just the second time in his career in his previous bout. Before Tarver knocked him out in two galling rounds, his only previous defeat had been a controversial disqualification against Montell Griffin. Johnson was designed to give Jones a title belt and some confidence back. The tough but plodding ‘Road Warrior’ wasn’t thought to pose a real threat to arguably the best fighter of a generation.

Not only did Johnson pose a threat, he dominated the fight. Constantly on the front foot making Roy work for every single minute of each round, the champion was rewarded for his intelligent pressure with a ninth round knockout victory. The boxing world was stunned. The loss to Tarver was considered by some an aberration. The loss to Johnson was unequivocal. This wasn’t a one-punch knockout, it was nine rounds of abuse meted out from one man to another. Johnson had shocked the world.

Warming to his task as boxing’s wise old sorcerer, Johnson turned the trick again in his next fight. Closing the circle, he out-pointed The Ring and lineal champion Antonio Tarver to reign as the true light heavyweight champion. The veteran who everyone had counted out when the losses kept piling up ended 2004 as The Ring Fighter of the Year.

Things would never quite be that good again for Johnson. He put in a great effort against Tarver in a rematch but lost his title. He then settled into a role of gatekeeper in the super middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. Carl Froch, George Groves, Lucian Bute and Chad Dawson all walked through that gate in tough, competitive fights. Yusuf Mack, Allan Green and Daniel Judah weren’t so lucky. If you weren’t top class, you weren’t beating the former light heavyweight king.

Hopkins and Johnson stand as two of the modern era's great veteran fighters, famous for what they did at ages where most fighters are long-retired or washed up. But 25 years ago today they met as younger men, a crucial stop in the road that would make them both legends.

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