- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 15, 2004

LAS VEGAS. — Undisputed middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins stood at the podium yesterday at the MGM Grand Garden to talk about his fight Saturday night against Oscar De La Hoya and waved a photograph at the crowd, a Polaroid from 19 years ago that still defines him today.

It was a photo of him and his trainer at the time, Smokey Wilson, who wrote on the back of the picture, “You will be middleweight champion of the world one day.”

He turned out to be right, but predictions like that are made every day by trainers. What makes this one noteworthy is that it was made by a convicted murderer serving a life sentence while Hopkins was an inmate in one of the deepest, darkest holes a man could ever be in — Graterford State Correctional Institution — serving a five-year sentence for a variety of crimes, including armed robbery.

Hopkins was in his third year at Graterford, one of Pennsylvania’s largest prisons, housing about 2,500 hard-core criminals, when the photo was taken, and it was nearly insane to think that this tough Philadelphia thug who had been stabbed twice in street fights could someday reach beyond the 30-foot walls of Graterford into a world where you are welcomed by corporate executives and paid millions of dollars.

It is exactly that wild and turbulent road, from a prison cell to a Las Vegas hotel suite, that Hopkins carries in his heart and soul. “I have to reflect on where I came from to keep me sane,” Hopkins said.

Where he came from is a sharp contrast to the road De La Hoya traveled to get here — coming out of East Los Angeles and tabbed at age 11 as a future boxing superstar. His route to Saturday night’s fight has been paved with gold — literally, from the gold medal he won at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona to his boxing promotional company, Golden Boy Promotions, one of many business ventures the world champion in six weight classes is involved in.

De La Hoya, 31, has been so golden that he has generated nearly $400million in pay-per-view revenue over his career, and figures to earn about $30million Saturday — even though he has lost three of his last nine fights and barely won a decision over the unheralded Felix Sturm in June. Win or lose, De La Hoya has remained golden.

Hopkins has not had that luxury. The 39-year-old fighter, who will be making a record 19th middleweight title defense, figures he had one second chance, and that was getting out of prison and turning his life around.

“I am a one and done fighter,” said Hopkins, who has not lost since his defeat by Roy Jones in May 1993 at RFK Stadium on the undercard of the Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson heavyweight title fight.

“He is blessed,” Hopkins said of De La Hoya’s ability to remain a box office commodity even while losing fights. “I would never be in that situation. He can lose and still be ‘the Man.’ Not me. … If I lose, nobody is ever going to give Bernard Hopkins a rematch.”

His prison experience, in a place where beatings and corruption ultimately led to a state investigation and the conviction of a group of guards, has made him very distrustful — some critics say paranoid — but he makes no apologies for his reputation as a difficult fighter to deal with.

“I made the decision a long time ago that it is my career, my health, my life,” he said of his contentious past relationships with boxing promoters. “I’ve done what other fighters didn’t do. I may not have always been right, but I did things my way.”

That includes testifying against promoters at government hearings, as he did in New York in 1999, when he said he received calls from promoters warning him not to appear before the task force of the National Association of Attorneys General investigating boxing. “Fighters have no chance against promoters,” Hopkins said. “It’s like a welterweight fighting against Mike Tyson.”

Bob Arum, De La Hoya’s long-time promoter who put together this fight, said Hopkins, who could earn $10million, has been nothing but professional to work with. Unlike past fights, when Hopkins has shown little respect for his opponent (such as stomping on the Puerto Rican flag in San Juan before his fight with Felix Trinidad), he has spoke highly of De La Hoya.

“He has achieved a lot,” Hopkins said. “But we have taken different roads to get here.”

It is that journey that will make the difference Saturday night in the ring, Hopkins said. “I’ve come a long way from sitting in a 5-by-5-foot cell with no gold medal and no big promoter,” he said. “If you can come from a place that is close to death, there is nothing you cannot overcome.”

He had the proof of that in his hand yesterday at the MGM Grand, a snapshot of Bernard Hopkins’ heart and soul.

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