“I’m embarrassed to live in Philadelphia when I see shit like this.”
Ori is peering up at the glorious rust-colored orb that hovers out above Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Tonight, inside the arena—a hulking totem of gentrification in its own right—North Philly’s Bernard Hopkins fights to break his own record as the oldest world champion in history, at 48.
Beers in fists, we find ourselves eight rows behind the ring, sitting in floor seats reserved by the Executioner himself. As Hopkins’s realtor and occasional tenant, Ori gets an official place in the entourage, along with B-Hop’s plumber, lawyer and accountant, who are all in attendance. A couple hours before the fight, an even tighter member of the entourage complains to Ori that Bernard isn’t angry enough. “Tell him I overbilled,” Ori cracks.
Yet by the time Hopkins enters the
ring around 10:30, wearing his trademark hood, a change has washed over Ori. He’s stopped talking to me. The quesadillas
I bought him sit on the floor, ignored.
He yells “B-HOP!” until his voice is hoarse. And his right leg won’t stop jiggling.
The bout itself feels quick. In the sixth round, Hopkins cuts his opponent above the eye. Ori relaxes. Hopkins is declared the winner by unanimous decision, history is made, and we head for the Mini.
On the drive back to Philly, it begins to seem odd that we were in Brooklyn at all. Ori actively abandoned plans with his girlfriend of five years, on the night before they would celebrate her birthday. He had “everything to lose and nothing to gain” bringing me along, as he put it. Even for Ori, the transparency seemed gratuitous. What was he trying to show me?
Only later do I remember something Ori told me on the drive up, a comment that barely registered at the time. “You know,” he said, “Bernard’s the only fighter without a manager.”
When Ori was nine years old, his father, Binyamin, was laid off from his lucrative job at Supelco, where he worked as an in-house chemist. Here’s what happened after Ori found out, as his mother Penina tells it:
“He didn’t understand. ‘I know Papa is so good. He has so many patents. How come they laid him off?’ How much I explained, he couldn’t get it. So it was snow in school and they called me earlier, so I went to pick him up. … And he tells me, ‘Ima, guess what?’ ‘What, Ori?’ ‘Remember what I’m telling you now. I will never work for somebody. I will be the boss of myself.’”
Ori’s frustration with bureaucracy, political correctness, people who are dumber than him—much of it boils down to his inability to play by anyone else’s rules. So he wants to rewrite them, sitting on the fourth floor of City Hall.
But there’s something else, too, something he tells me around three in the morning, rolling down I-95. “Bernard went to war with Don King,” Ori says. “They all stole from him. And Bernard went to war. He represented himself. He bucked the trend. He’s a champion for 100 different things. For 100 different reasons. I can’t say we’re similar, because he puts his life on the line every time he goes out there, and my job isn’t that serious. But in terms of mentality and that fighting spirit, I mean, it’s there. … ”
Then Ori trails off, and we sit in silence for a while, waiting for Philly’s skyline to come into view.