Bernard Hopkins had just begun training camp a few days earlier as he held court with a few reporters on a sweltering early August day in the tiny office of the Joe Hand Boxing Club in South Philadelphia.
Hopkins lifted his T-shirt to reveal his flat abdomen, rippling with muscles.
This, he said, pointing proudly to his midsection, is why I am who I am. On one of his first days in camp, Hopkins already looked ready to fight. Credit some of it to genetics, but credit most of it to Hopkins’ obsession with greatness.
When you’re Bernard Hopkins, there is never a day off. There’s no time to cheat when you’re driven to become a legend. Hopkins is 46 and rich beyond his wildest dreams. He’ll be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame on the day he becomes eligible. He’s one of the greatest fighters of his generation and holds records that may be impossible to break.
He’s fiercely proud of those achievements, but it’s the ones still to come that matter most to Hopkins, who on Saturday at Staples Center in Los Angeles defends his Ring and World Boxing Council light heavyweight belts against Chad Dawson, a man young enough to be his son, in the main event of an HBO Pay-Per-View card.
“The past is the past,” said Hopkins, who draws his inspiration from historic sports figures like boxing’s Sugar Ray Robinson and football’s Jimmy Brown.
Hopkins doesn’t want simply to win and make money, though he’s obsessed with both. He’s determined to leave a legacy that will inspire future generations of boxers. He wants to be talked about 50 years after he’s dead.
And so, he drives himself as few professional athletes ever have. In May, he bested Jean Pascal to win the WBC belt and become, at 46, the oldest man ever to win a world title, an accomplishment that nearly moved him to tears at the post-fight news conference.
The fixation now isn’t with running a victory lap and getting accolades for a career well done. Now, it’s with becoming Fighter of the Year, setting another record, doing the seemingly unthinkable yet again. Hopkins is at his best when there is always a carrot dangling in front of him.
His only truly terrible performance came last year in a fight against fellow 40-something, Roy Jones Jr. Hopkins was heavily favored and Jones was well past his prime. Hopkins won convincingly, but he looked decidedly ordinary in the process.
Champion Hopkins goes in as underdog
But when the odds are stacked most heavily against him is when Hopkins seems to be at his best. Dawson is a 7-5 favorite and that has spurred Hopkins to prepare for battle with an all-out intensity.
“I never operate well when I am the favorite in a fight,” Hopkins said. “I like being the underdog. I think that is the reason a lot of people want to watch. I am not surprised I am the underdog. This is a new movement in my career. Am I the underdog because of my age or because of my rťsumť? It must be my age, because I know can’t be the rťsumť.”
His rťsumť reads like a boxing record book. He defended the middleweight title 20 consecutive times, but it seems so long ago, it’s almost forgotten in light of what he’s done recently.
Hopkins has faced the greats
He has consistently faced the best of his generation and has repeatedly come out on top. Guys like Jones, Antonio Tarver, Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya and Winky Wright were all ranked at or near the top of the pound-for-pound lists at some point in their careers and Hopkins has wins over all of them.
There is no clear frontrunner for the 2011 Fighter of the Year and, if Hopkins beats Dawson, who was ranked as high as No. 3 in the Yahoo! Sports pound-for-pound poll, Hopkins will likely take the award.
Don’t think he’s not aware of that.
“I always have a motivation, something to push me to win, and that motivation now is to become the oldest Fighter of the Year,” he said. “It puts pressure on the writers, 90 percent of whom are 40 and up. I want to put a bug in their ear that I am trying to make history on that front.”
It’s no easy task, given that Dawson is 17 years younger, as well as quicker and bigger. Dawson may be the most gifted fighter he’s faced since he fought Jones the first time in 1993.
The only thing he may do better than fighting is talking. And upon hearing that Dawson accused him of being a dirty fighter, it provided him a little extra dose of motivation that he hardly needed.
“Watch the ageless warrior systematically break a young, strong, tall light heavyweight that everybody had high hopes for two years ago,” Hopkins said.
He’s in a remarkably similar position now that he was in during Don King’s Middleweight Championship Series in 2001. Hopkins was a 36-year-old middleweight then, better known for his renegade ways and rages against the system than he was for his boxing skill.
Trinidad was a heavy favorite and blowing through the cream of the middleweight division. Hopkins, though, tore through Trinidad, made him look like a mediocre fighter, and finally, after years of trying, earned respect for himself as one of the greats of his time.
That, though, wasn’t enough. He was motivated by the bigger picture, and he was comparing himself to men like Robinson, Joe Louis and Henry Armstrong, legends of the sport, and not as much to men like Trinidad and De La Hoya.
Related: Video: Hopkins’ greatest hits
“I just want to go ahead and win this fight, and I’ll win this fight big, and I want to embarrass another young so-called gun of the world, of the boxing world, and prove that Bernard Hopkins is not better, but just different,” Hopkins said. “And that’s the page of a history book that I’m establishing, or that I’ve established since beating Tito Trinidad in 2001. That’s when my legacy started, and we’re well into 2011 right now.”
The ride has to end sometime. Even Hopkins can’t fight forever.
It’s ridiculous to think that a 50-year-old man could ever win a world title fight.
But if it does happen, bet everything that it will be Bernard Hopkins who does it.
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