Fighting for Your Value: The Negotiation Wisdom of Bernard Hopkins

On the eve of his November meeting with feared Russian light heavyweight Sergey “Krusher” Kovalev, the New York Times took a fascinating, in-depth look at the 49-year-old who was about to step in the ring against Kovalev: Philadelphia’s Bernard Hopkins.

It was a chance to learn about the hard-won wisdom and discipline that had made him not just an expert boxer who could seemingly defy time, but an expert businessman. Boxing is often called the “cruelest sport” for the punishment that boxers absorb in the ring. It’s also financially unforgiving. The destinies of top fighters are managed by a handful of powerful and (sometimes) corrupt promoters. Even seemingly handsome six-figure paydays get gobbled up by managers, trainers and promoters. Only a few rise to wealth and fame, and many of these stars still see their massive fortunes vanish.

Hopkins was determined not only to beat the odds by staying in the ring into his late ’40s, but to invest in learning the business that saw so many of his friends and rivals beaten up physically and financially.

Hopkins began managing himself in 1995 (with the help of some legal allies) to earn a greater share of the money that his fights generated: “I started getting mines late in the game, once I realized I should know this before I became another [expletive]-up fighter,” he said. “If you don’t know your own value, somebody will tell you your value, and it’ll be less than you’re worth.”

Those words couldn’t be truer! While Hopkins racked up belts and marquee fights over several decades, he also continually inquired about the mechanisms of the fight game’s value assets: international rights, license fees, gate take, merchandising and more. Over the years, he became fluent enough to demand a bigger piece of them, even querying other boxers along the way, even if only for cautionary examples.

It is impossible to advocate for your own value until you are disciplined enough to discover the nature of all the assets that are on the table between you and the other party or parties. Only then can your value arguments be truly credible.

Remember, your potential customer, partner or vendor does not owe you recognition of your credibility, value or leverage. It’s up to you to make the argument based on the knowledge you have acquired through your investment of time. Articulation of value requires you to know something about the other side. The more you know, the better. Knowledge is power—especially in a negotiation. You have to know the gaps they have to fill, what challenges they face and what assets are in play.

On Nov. 8, Sergey Kovalev fought an extremely disciplined match, using his power and a solid game plan that insulated him from the tactics Hopkins usually uses to confound younger, stronger opponents. While his future as a boxer is now in question, Hopkins has triumphed in an equally important battle. He will retire a wealthy man, in part due to wise money management and a hunger to discover why so few had prospered despite becoming champions. By investing in knowledge and discovering the nuances of fight promotion and marketing, he was empowered to become a champion of his own value. That’s a record any of us would be wise to emulate.