PHILADELPHIA (CN) - Facing claims that he stiffed his longtime trainer out of more than $1.3 million for a string of lucrative fights, boxing legend Bernard Hopkins took the stand Tuesday and accused the trainer's family of extortion.
Hopkins, known as the Executioner, told jurors he was "threatened" into signing a deal affording 15 percent of his "gross purses" to trainer English "Bouie" Fisher, a legend in his own right.
While testifying that the threats weren't physical, Hopkins said that the deal was signed under duress and thus void from the outset.
Fisher died while the suit was pending, but his son, Andre, acting on the estate's behalf, says the contract stands and that Hopkins owes more than $1.3 million in revenue for bouts with Oscar De La Hoya, Howard Eastman and Jermain Taylor.
Hopkins' attorney Arnold Joseph told jurors during opening statements Tuesday that his client signed the agreement on the fly, under pressure and without counsel.
Joseph explained the circumstances that led to the October 2003 agreement, which was allegedly reached one year after Fisher ended his 13-year relationship with the fighter by filing a federal suit against Hopkins in New York for unpaid trainer's fees.
Though Hopkins had been working with trainer Sloan Harrison, he reconnected with Fisher after Harrison backed out of training for a December fight with William Joppy.
Hopkins' crew was preparing to leave Philadelphia for a Florida training camp when Fisher issued an ultimatum at the fighter's Philadelphia home: agree to a deal on Fisher's terms or do without him for the critical December match against Joppy.
The Joppy match, which Hopkins ultimately won, was critical for Hopkins because he would be defending his title as the undisputed middleweight champion of the world, attorney Joseph said.
"Mr. Hopkins is in late October, getting ready for a December 13 fight," Joseph said.
With his flight to Florida mere hours away, Joseph said the fighter felt pressured to arrive at his Miami training camp with a trainer secured.
"He's about to get on a plane to go to Florida to start training," he said. "'I need that humidity. ... I need that tropical air.' This is what's on his mind."
Hopkins echoed that characterization on the stand.
"It was already snowing in Philadelphia around that time," the reigning light-heavyweight champion testified. "I got [boxing promoter] Don King breathing down my neck. I felt like I didn't have a trainer."
So, Hopkins said, he orally agreed to retain Fisher and headed south to Miami.
Joseph claims that Fisher and his sons met with Hopkins in Florida days later and demanded that the fighter "immediately" sign a "unilaterally drafted" agreement calling for Bouie Fisher to receive 15 percent of Hopkin's "gross purses."
The Fisher camp threatened to "get on a plane and go back to Philadelphia" if Hopkins didn't sign the deal, Joseph told jurors.
"Faced with the prospect of being left alone in Miami with no trainer less than a month before what was going to be one of the most significant fights of his career, Mr. Hopkins signed the agreement because he believed that he had no choice," Joseph's pretrial brief states.
Hopkins testified from the stand that the pressure he felt was extortionate.
"He only signed this under duress," attorney Joseph said.
Hopkins told jurors that Bouie Fisher - "one of the old jewels of boxing" - was always paid for his services.
"I never fought for nothing, and Bouie never trained for nothing," he said.
Hopkins' lawyer says Fisher waived his right to a 15 percent cut by not objecting to the smaller amounts that Hopkins paid. Even though Hopkins paid Fisher less than the amount called for in the contract, Fisher continued training Hopkins after the Joppy fight and never objected to his cut, meaning the claims now at issue are barred under the doctrine of accord and satisfaction, Joseph said.
Fisher waited until December 2009 to file a federal complaint over the purses in Philadelphia.
Now, "they come back and say, 'We want more.' I'm going to beg you to not give them any more,' Joseph told jurors.
Fisher's estate rejected the idea that Hopkins signed under duress.
"There's no evidence to support that defense," the estate's attorney, Robert Vance Jr., said. "In fact, after the contract was signed, all four of them hugged," he added, referring to Hopkins, Bouie Fisher and Fisher's two sons.
"The evidence will show that Mr. Hopkins read the contract before he signed it," Vance said.
Fisher also objected to the insufficient payments Hopkins gave him, the lawyer continued.
"Mr. Hopkins is unable to show evidence of an accord and satisfaction," Vance said.
The Hopkins-Fisher partnership "gave boxing fans some of the most memorable moments of boxing history," he added. Now, Fisher's children are simply asking Hopkins to "do right by the people who did right by you."
Hopkins defended his treatment of the Fishers, saying, "I considered the whole family as brothers and sisters."
But "every time it came to money, they played the family card, and I'm tired of it," he said. "I'm not an ATM machine. It gets old. I work hard for a living."
The trial is expected to last three days.
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