- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 23, 2006

When “Rocky Balboa” debuted yesterday, one Philadelphia fighter had more than a casual interest.

After all, Bernard Hopkins is the real Rocky.

A kid who grew up in a tough neighborhood in Philly, Hopkins was a troubled young man who wound up spending nearly five years in Graterford, one of the toughest prisons in America, where he learned how to box and turned his life around. He went on to become undisputed middleweight champion, successfully defending his title a record 20 times.

“When you really do look at it, I am Rocky,” said Hopkins, who was in Washington this week at the Swanson Communications Christmas party. “The whole concept of Rocky is what I went through. I was the underdog, the tough Philly fighter who came from hard times.”

He is, like the latest version of Rocky, a relic, a dinosaur. There are few fighters who learn their craft in prison anymore, as most systems have done away with any sort of boxing programs. He had the work ethic and discipline to remain at the same fighting weight from 1990 to 2005 while having enough respect for his craft and being world champion to successfully defend his middleweight championship for 10 of those years.

No one stays at the same weight anymore. And no one does what it takes to remain a champion.

“I think I am the last one of the old Philly fighters, the ones like Bennie Briscoe who put in their time in the gym,” Hopkins said. “They fought hard, and when they won the title it meant something to them and they worked hard to keep it. I am an old school fighter, and I know that taking care of yourself and being smart in the ring will bring you a long career.”

It was a career that many people believed was over when Hopkins moved up in a weight class to defeat light heavyweight champion Antonio Tarver in June. They believed it because Hopkins said it was over.

But this is boxing. And while Hopkins has the discipline to stay in the gym, he found he didn’t have the discipline to stay away from the ring. Just like Rocky Balboa, Hopkins — a senior citizen in boxing (he will turn 42 next month, just three years shy of when George Foreman won the heavyweight championship a second time) — wants to fight again, and he has a list of possible opponents, all of whom would be remarkable challenges.

“I want to fight on,” said Hopkins, who has a record of 47-4 with 32 knockouts. “Rumble, young man, rumble. Until I get a busted lip. I’ve never had a busted lip my whole career. There will have to be a sign to show me when it is over. I’ve haven’t seen it yet.

“The ring will speak to a fighter, and it hasn’t spoken to me yet. The ring will retire a fighter.”

First on his list is World Boxing Council title-holder Oleg Maskaev. Hopkins would like to move up and add a heavyweight title to his legacy, but he said talks with the Russians have not gone well.

“Moscow doesn’t want to be embarrassed by fighting Bernard Hopkins, a middleweight, and lose,” he said. “Negotiations may get back on track in January.”

If that doesn’t happen, Hopkins said he wants to put the little-known cruiserweight division — between light heavyweight and heavyweight — on the map.

“The cruiserweight division hasn’t been good since Evander Holyfield left it,” Hopkins said. “O’Neil Bell is a respected fighter and cruiserweight champion. I can fight him and bring some credibility to the cruiserweight. ”

Then there is Plan C. The way Hopkins sees it, he remains the light heavyweight champion of the world after beating Tarver. He would seek a fight in that division with highly regarded British super middleweight champion Joe Calzaghe.

And finally, there is his worst-case scenario: Roy Jones Jr. vs. Bernard Hopkins.

They fought once before in May 1993 at RFK Stadium on the undercard of the Riddick Bowe-Jesse Ferguson heavyweight title fight, as Hopkins lost a decision to Jones. It was one of just two losses Hopkins would suffer (he lost his pro debut in 1988 after coming out of prison) until he lost two close decisions to Jermain Taylor 12 years later, dropping his middleweight championship.

Jones, meanwhile, has lost three of his last four fights, two of them to Tarver.

“I would like to redeem myself for that loss,” Hopkins said. “Someone is going to have to show me my time is up. As of June 10, 2006, it was not up.”

That was the day he defeated Tarver, which makes yesterday’s debut of “Rocky Balboa” all the more interesting for Hopkins. You see, Tarver plays Mason Dixon, the young heavyweight champion Rocky fights in the movie.

“They used the crowd from my fight against Tarver in Atlantic City for Rocky,” Hopkins said. “They weighed in the same day we did and used the weigh-in crowd from our weigh-in, and some of the crowd from my fight as well.

“I think the plan was for Tarver to be victorious in our fight and then later come out with the movie,” Hopkins said. “He would have been the star. But there was only one thing — he had to beat me.”

He didn’t.

In this fight, the real-life Rocky won. Many people want the story to end there, and wish Hopkins would stay retired. But he never has listened to anything but his own conviction. It has made him his share of enemies in the business — there are few promoters Hopkins, who manages himself, has not been in legal battles with — but it has served him well.

“I bet on myself,” he said. “Everyone else was telling me I was crazy, but I knew if I did what I had to do, I would be victorious.”

That’s what Rocky would do.

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