Jesse Hart remembers the night of Dec. 17, 2016, well. Hart watched on television that evening as the great former middleweight and light heavyweight world champion Bernard Hopkins — Hart’s mentor, close family friend and inspiration for becoming a boxer — had his legendary 28-year career come crashing to an end in a most inglorious way.
A month shy of his 52nd birthday, Hopkins returned from a 25-month layoff for what was supposed to be a celebration of his career in a farewell fight against handpicked opponent Joe Smith Jr. at The Forum in Inglewood, California. Hart was at home in North Philadelphia — the same neighborhood where Hopkins came of age decades earlier — and watched as Smith belted Hopkins literally out of the ring for a shocking eighth-round knockout victory.
“I was very angry. I remember that night being very angry and upset,” Smith said of seeing Hopkins knocked out for the only time in his 67-fight career. “After the anger came, tears came because he wasn’t supposed to end his career like that. So when I saw that it was a sense of anger and being hurt.”
That anger, Hart said, has stayed with him since, and he is anxious to unleash it on Smith in the 10-round main event on Saturday (ESPN and ESPN Deportes, 10 p.m. ET, with preliminary bouts streaming on ESPN+ beginning at 6:30 p.m. ET) at Etess Arena at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
“I have to redeem Bernard,” Hart said. “I have to do it for our city.”
Hart, 30, was 7 or 8 and just learning to box when he first met Hopkins, who was in the early years of his historic middleweight title reign that lasted a decade and saw him make a division-record 20 consecutive defenses. Hopkins’ longtime trainer, the late Bouie Fisher, was the original trainer of Hart’s father, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, a hard-punching 1970s middleweight contender who faced several top opponents, including Marvelous Marvin Hagler.
“Bernard gave me so much inspiration as a kid,” Hart said. “Asking about me, telling me to train hard. Bernard became a family member.”
Hopkins remembers those days.
“I gave him encouragement,” Hopkins said. “You can either encourage people, or discourage them. I encouraged him even though he might not have believed in himself.”
This isn’t a big-money fight or a bout that edges him closer to a title shot. For now, Hart’s only goal is to avenge the brutal loss taken by his hero.
“This is aside from business,” Hart said. “This ain’t got nothin’ to do with purses. I’m going in there to do some damage and possibly get some damage done to me. I don’t care what happens to me, but I got to get Joe. That’s the mission. It’s personal for me.”
A boxer with so much pent-up emotion going into a fight might not be a good thing, but Top Rank president Todd duBoef said he’s not concerned in Hart’s case.
“Great athletes have great role models in their lives and great people they look up to that are motivational for them,” he said. “Obviously, Jesse being brought up in the fight town of Philly, and seeing Bernard Hopkins being kind of the poster boy for one of the greatest fighters ever to come out of Philly, represents something to him. So I think [his emotion is] good. Some people have different things that make them tick and obviously this is an important one because he expressed it very clearly [that] this was redemption for him.”
Hart (26-2, 21 KOs), who twice suffered competitive decision losses to Gilberto “Zurdo” Ramirez in super middleweight world title bouts, moved up to light heavyweight in June and outpointed contender Sullivan Barrera. Then Hart went to Top Rank chairman Bob Arum and asked him to get him a fight with the former world title challenger Smith.
Arum was unaware at the time of how desperate Hart was to fight Smith because of the Hopkins loss.
“I asked for this fight without telling Bob the stuff behind it,” Hart said. “But there wasn’t a name in the light heavyweight division I wanted other than Joe Smith. This fight was easy to get made on my end. I called Bob and we didn’t negotiate about purses, we didn’t negotiate about where the venue was at. I said, ‘I want to fight Joe Smith.’ It wasn’t back and forth.”
Arum did his part and quickly negotiated the bout with Smith promoter Joe DeGuardia of Star Boxing.
“[I said to Arum], ‘What do I got to do to fight him?’ That’s what it was about,” Hart said. “This ain’t about selling the fight. Bernard is my family. That’s how I look at Bernard Hopkins, as a family member. This is probably business for [Smith], probably just another fight. For me it’s not. I don’t look at what’s next.”
Smith (24-3, 20 KOs), 30, said that when DeGuardia offered him the fight, he told him Hart was close to Hopkins and wanted revenge.
“I don’t really understand it. I understand it to a point, I guess, but either way, he’s still in it to prove himself and do what he has to do,” said Smith, who claimed he had never heard of Hart until the fight was offered to him. “I mean, if that’s what he feels he’s fighting for, good for him. But me, I’m fighting to become a world champion.
“I know Jesse Hart is coming to fight after what I did to his mentor. He’s holding a grudge. So I know he’s looking forward to coming in there to possibly take me out. But I’m going there to do the same thing.”
Besides the knockout of Hopkins, Hart said he didn’t appreciate the way Smith, a union construction worker by trade from New York’s Long Island dubbed the “Common Man,” carried himself after the fight.
“He had these antics after the fight, saying stuff like, ‘I’m the ‘Common Man’ but the ‘Common Man’ knocked the special man out today,” Hart said. “The guy’s 50, man. He’s deserving of respect of any young fighter coming up.”
After Hopkins knocked out Felix Trinidad to become the undisputed middleweight champion in 2001, Philadelphia threw a parade in his honor. Hart was there and Hopkins recalled calling him up onstage and giving him one of his championship belts to hold.
“We’re at City Hall in front of thousands of people and he had it around his shoulder,” Hopkins said recently. “To see where he is at now, it’s a testimony to the fact that there are always young ones watching us. I feel pleased and respected that there is this athlete I have known since he was a kid who wants to establish revenge for his old mentor. He wants to get that [loss to Smith] back. Do I feel great about that? Yes. To inject me into his motivation to win makes me feel good. Jesse thinks it’s like Joe did something to his family.
“I got nothing against Joe. He’s a hard-working guy. But Jesse is going to beat him and it will make me feel great. Jesse cuts him, beats him down and the referee stops it in the 10th round. Joe’s gonna be outgunned. I will tell Jesse to stay focused, to keep the emotions under control. Joe Smith is nobody to play with. Have your strategy and do what you know how to do. Do what your father and [trainer] Fred Jenkins tell him to do. Be in the center of the ring and use your athletic ability.”
Hart, however, isn’t interested in outboxing Smith. He wants nothing less than a clean knockout.
“I ain’t looking to outbox Joe Smith. I don’t want to outbox Joe,” Hart insisted. “If I outbox Joe, it would be the correct thing to do as far as my trainer wants me to do, as far as my dad wants me to do it. I know what I want to do. If I win this on a decision, I will not be satisfied with myself. The only way to satisfy me is to see Joe fall, and that’s the only way I’ll be satisfied with my performance. I will not be satisfied if Joe Smith lasts 10 rounds.
“After the fight I would tell Bernard that the victory is for you, you’ve been vindicated and I’ve got your back. And when he’s inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame (in June), I’m gonna be there thinking of that.”