Bernard Hopkins defied serious odds 23 years ago when he left Graterford State Penitentiary and never went back. Since then, he has thwarted all conventional wisdom about athletes and aging with a thriving boxing career into the back side of his 40s.
If Hopkins can figure out a way to beat Chad Dawson, the Executioner has topped himself one more time. The 46-year-old Hopkins (52-5-2, 32 KOs) realizes the enormity of the task he accepted at Staples Center on Saturday night. He has spent a half-decade warily circling Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs), the former light heavyweight champion who ranks among the most gifted fighters of his generation--and is 17 years younger than Hopkins.
``He could almost be my son, but I'm used to that,'' Hopkins said. ``Not many guys who couldn't be my son are still fighting at my level.''
Dawson sees the fight as nothing less than the defining moment of his career. He has been angling for this bout since shortly after he won his first title in early 2007, figuring a win over Hopkins will establish him as the world's greatest 175-pounder. Bad Chad coaxed, prodded and insulted Hopkins, but still couldn't get him in the ring until he leveraged a lucrative HBO pay-per-view slot and a mandatory shot at Hopkins' WBC light heavyweight belt.
``I want to be in the position Bernard is in, so I've got to move him out of the way,'' Dawson said. ``I'm not going to say I'm a nightmare, but I can be a problem for him, and I think he knows that. I think deep down, he knows this is going to be a tough fight.''
The main event is a chess match pitting two impressive athletes who prefer tactics over brawls. That's just one reason not many fans are likely to turn up at the cavernous Staples Center to see two East Coast-based boxers who rarely put on crowd-pleasing fights. Even with a strong undercard featuring Kendall Holt's 140-pound brawl with Danny Garcia and bouts for steady pros Jorge Linares and Paulie Malignaggi, the promoters know they'll struggle to fill the House That Kobe Built. Promoter Gary Shaw even tried to give away 100 tickets Thursday night on Twitter.
The card also features the pro debut of 52-year-old Dewey Bozella, who spent 26 years in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Bozella trained with Hopkins in recent weeks, and he showed off his readiness by ripping off his shirt during the pre-fight news conference on Wednesday.
Yet the main attraction is Hopkins, who beat Jean Pascal last May to become the oldest man to win a significant world title. Hopkins is no George Foreman-style novelty act, however: His skills haven't significantly eroded, but his veteran guile and gamesmanship have grown.
Dawson's combination of quickness and activity could be a brutal matchup for the shorter, slower Hopkins, but while the champion is aware of Dawson's dangerous hands, he's not terribly intimidated by the challenger's head. Dawson has acknowledged struggling for motivation and focus at various points in his career, and he makes no apologies for his nonchalant personality.
Hopkins' inner fire and ascetic lifestyle are the stuff of boxing lore. He also relishes the mind games played at boxing's highest level, and he has taken both potshots and subtle jabs at Dawson during the promotion.
``I know that he has doubt, because his personality represents doubt,'' Hopkins said. ``It doesn't mean he can't be a winner. It just means I have to exploit and expose that doubt. I will make him fight harder than he ever had to before, and we'll see if he can answer that challenge. He's knows what's capable of happening, what he'll lose if he loses.''
Hopkins has never been stopped, and Dawson is an unlikely candidate to do it. Dawson acknowledges he doesn't try to knock out most of his opponents, preferring to befuddle them with technique and work rate-but he can dream.
``Which is my favorite scenario? A knockout,'' Dawson said.``Hit him with a nice, crispy left hand and watch him go down. I know Pascal put him down three times, and I'm stronger than Pascal. I don't expect Bernard to sit there and try to trade with me. I think he's going to try to lull me to sleep, but it's not going to happen.''
Hopkins' confidence can't be shaken by any physical mismatch. He already has begun lobbying the media for the Fighter of the Year award after he beats Dawson, saying it would be an appropriate cap to a remarkable year for an athlete who could redefine all expectations of age by beating the most talented fighter in his division.
``It takes discipline not to crack that champagne bottle when they tell you you're the best,'' Hopkins said. ``When I win this fight, I'm going to go back to work just like I did before. I'm not retiring until I'm 50, and I'll still be the best light heavyweight out there.''