Life and career of Bernard Hopkins would be a compelling movie

Bernard Hopkins is assured a place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame in five years. Gilbert Carrasquillo/Getty Images

On Sept. 7, 1894, heavyweight champion Jim Corbett, wearing what looked like a cross between a jockstrap and a thong, stepped into an improvised ring at Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Smiling condescendingly throughout, "Gentleman Jim" sparred six one-minute rounds with crude-swinging Peter Courtney as a 35-millimeter camera recorded the proceedings.

The resulting filmstrips were to be used in a kinetoscope, an exhibition devise designed for films to be viewed through a peephole. Few, if any, would have guessed it at the time, but it was the birth of what would eventually become a staple of the motion picture industry -- the boxing movie.

The venerable genre has been counted out almost as frequently as the sport itself, but always manages to stage a comeback thanks to creative people on both sides of the camera. They are irresistibly drawn to boxing's innate drama and raw emotion, as well as the fascinating characters that populate it.

In the last 17 months alone, four major boxing films were released -- "Creed," "Southpaw," Hands of Stone" and "Bleed For This" -- and there's every reason to believe the tradition still has the legs to last a few more rounds.

Although the boxing world is still getting used to the sight of Bernard Hopkins ending his career upside down on the arena floor, his story is unique, even for a boxer, and in the right hands would make an intriguing film.

Selecting the right cast is key to the success of any movie, and choosing the right actor to play Hopkins would be crucial.

Hopkins is a complex man with contradictory personality traits. The actor will have to peel back several layers to reveal the man behind the executioner's mask Hopkins wore into the ring for many years and reprised for his final bout -- an eighth-round knockout loss to Joe Smith Jr. last Saturday.

Readers, I'm sure, will have alternate suggestions, but the pick here is Sterling K. Brown, best known for his Emmy Award-winning role as Christopher Darden in "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story." Not only does Brown have the acting chops to pull it off, he has the physical wherewithal to go with it.

Perhaps the trickiest part about making a movie of somebody's life is deciding what to keep in and what to leave out. One solution is to pare it down to its essence and focus on events upon which the story hinges.

The Vinny Paz biopic, "Bleed For This," begins with the boxer swaddled in plastic wrap and furiously peddling an exercise bike in order to make weight. Boiling down was the bane of Paz's early career, but it wasn't the pivotal moment that defined him. That came later when he survived a horrific car wreck and, against overwhelming odds, returned to the ring.

Hopkins is a different kind of survivor, and the opening scene of his movie would most likely focus on the day he left Graterford Penitentiary, paroled after serving almost five years of an 18-year sentence for strong-arm robbery.

When the doors of freedom swung open in 1988, it was game on, time to keep the promise he made to himself while locked up inside one of Pennsylvania's most dangerous maximum-security prisons: He was never coming back. No way. Not ever.

Trying to find a job when you're a convicted felon is crushingly bleak and the temptation to fall back into the lifestyle that led to incarceration in the first place is almost too strong to resist. But Hopkins held fast. Although he had the street cred to make plenty of easy money, he took a job washing dishes at a Philadelphia hotel instead.

Imagine the character-building potential of a scene in which Bernard is seen wearing an apron, his hands submerged in soapy water, a proud man doing a humble task for a noble reason.

When he was fired for conveniently forgetting to mention his prison record on the employment applications, Hopkins could have easily backslid. Instead, he redoubled his effort to make a success of his nascent boxing career. He persevered against tremendous odds to eventually achieve more than he or anybody else would have dreamed. But it was far from easy and took much longer than it should.

Any Hopkins movie would have to have at least one courtroom scene. He was a maverick who sued almost every promoter he worked with and testified in Congress about the evils of the boxing industry. That didn't exactly endear him to the powers that be, but he continued to swim against the tide until he reached a point where he could call the shots.

By then Hopkins had mastered his art to such a sublime degree, he proved the cynics wrong time after time and fought on with uncanny success until a month short of his 52nd birthday, when he proved the pundits wrong one final time by losing to Smith, a handpicked opponent Hopkins was favored to beat.

An unabashed publicity hound, Hopkins alternately charmed and bullied the media throughout his career. Exceedingly accessible and cooperative most of the time, he would also unleash a torrent of abuse when he couldn't get his way or the chip on his shoulder chafed is his ego.

Recreating the ugly incident following his bout with Morrade Hakkar would be one way to shine a light on Hopkins' dark side. It had been a pitiful mismatch fought before a tiny crowd in his hometown, and Bernard was embarrassed. But instead of acknowledging the farce for what it was, he accused media members of being racists for having the audacity to question his challenger's worthiness.

Hopkins is not, however, an unrepentant heel in the vein of Midge Kelly, the protagonist of "Champion," who even treated his crippled brother like dirt. Nowhere near it. Hopkins has quietly given back by supporting Philabundance, the largest nonprofit food bank in the Philadelphia region, and making private donations to those in need.

It's just that the ruthless side of him, a side that all great fighters have, isn't confined to the ring. Hopkins had no qualms about casting aside trainers Bouie Fisher and Naazim Richardson when he felt it was to his advantage to do so. He can be cold that way.

Fisher had given Bernard a job at his transmission repair shop when he lost his dishwashing gig and helped take him from the penitentiary to the middleweight championship and beyond. As is usually the case, money came between them and Fisher eventually sued.

Clarke Peters, who played detective Lester Freamon in "The Wire" and Albert "Big Chief" Lambreaux in "Treme," would be an excellent choice to play Fisher. Cuba Gooding Jr. is a natural for the role of flamboyant promoter Butch Lewis, a former used-car salesman who thought wearing a tuxedo jacket without a shirt was the epitome of style and eventually lost a bitter lawsuit to Hopkins.

Adrian Grenier (Entourage) would be good as Oscar De La Hoya, the superstar Hopkins eviscerated with a left hook to the liver and then went to work for, becoming a shareholder and corporate officer in Golden Boy Promotions.

And we mustn't forget Joe Smith Jr., last seen knocking Hopkins through the ropes and into retirement with a four-punch combination -- a perfect cameo for Channing Tatum, perhaps.

The director would have a plenty of fights to choose from, but Hopkins' upset knockout of Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden to unify the middleweight title, 18 days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, would be a must. It was his masterpiece, truly a performance for the ages, fought in front a hostile crowd and in the shadow of one of our nation's darkest days.

Hopkins turned pro with a loss in October 1988 and bowed out with another defeat a month before his 52nd birthday. During the 28 years between, he complied an unrivaled résumé of accomplishment, including unifying the middleweight title for the first time since 1987. All told he made 20 successful defenses of the 160-pound championship, breaking a record that had stood since Carlos Monzon retired in 1977.

Hopkins also won the light heavyweight title on three occasions, the second time in 2011, making him, at age 46, the oldest boxer to ever to win a major title. Then he broke his own record, winning a 175-pound title a third time in 2013.

Movie audiences eat up the old-guy kicking-ass stuff, and that's what the last third of Hopkins' career was all about. From now on, however, he'll be the guy in the expensive suit hyping Golden Boy fights, one of the sport's most prominent elder statesmen, loved by many, hated by some and respected by all.

Hopkins' election to the International Boxing Hall of Fame is assured, but the promise he kept when he left prison remains his greatest triumph. It is the underlying theme of any movie attempting to capture the true spirit of the miracle worker who fell to earth last Saturday.