EVEN HAJI the frame guy knew that retirement announcement by Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins couldn't possibly stick.

After Hopkins, the longtime former middleweight champion, dominated the larger, and favored, Antonio Tarver last June 10 in his first light-heavyweight bout since his professional debut nearly 18 years earlier, the folks at HBO decided to present him with a nice parting gift.

"I never told Bernard this story, actually," HBO Pay-Per-View chief Mark Taffet was saying yesterday at the Blue Horizon, the Philadelphia stop on a five-city tour to hype Hopkins' July 21 bout with the formidable Winky Wright. "But the beautiful framed photo of him in his fight against Antonio had a plate that was supposed to read, 'Thank you for a legendary ending.'

"I sent the photo out and it came back, in a very expensive frame, and the plate read, 'Thank you for a legendary performance.' Haji the frame guy must have known something that I didn't. Thank you, Haji."

Taffet has been doing pay-per-view bouts with Hopkins since 2001, when the ageless wonder from North Philly shocked the world - well, at least part of it - by knocking out the undefeated, and favored, Felix Trinidad in Madison Square Garden, just 18 days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Anyone in Philadelphia could have told Taffet, however, that Hopkins thrives on competition. He loves it when he's told he's too old or too small to do something special in the ring.

Now that he's defeated Trinidad and Tarver in his only ring appearances as an underdog over the last 14 years, Hopkins, 42, is juiced that the Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed Wright, the clever, 35-year-old southpaw from St. Petersburg, Fla., as a 7-5 opening-line favorite.

"I'm the poster boy for everything that has to do with being an underdog," Hopkins said of a role he relishes and sees himself in, even on those occasions when he's everyone's pick to win a given fight. "To come out of the Blue Horizon, that has so many fighters' DNA around the ring . . . if you can make it out of Philadelphia, and especially the Blue Horizon, you can go anywhere and handle any situation."

Where Hopkins (47-4-1, 32 KOs) will be going next is to Los Angeles, where the media tour winds up next week, before returning to the Philadelphia area to begin training in earnest for the catchweight bout - the contract weight is for 170 pounds - with Wright (50-3-1, 25 KOs) at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Wright, who hasn't lost in nearly 8 years, vows he will be the one favorite who proves that Hopkins finally has bitten off more than he can chew.

After giving some obligatory props to Hopkins, Wright said, "Maybe he should have stayed retired. After this fight, he's going to know he should have stayed retired.

"Yeah, Bernard beat a lot of southpaws [Hopkins is 10-0 against lefthanders] - but he didn't beat Winky Wright. Yeah, he beat Antonio Tarver - but he didn't beat Winky Wright.

"I beat everybody they put in my way. The only reason I didn't beat some other people is because they wouldn't fight me. So I was amazed when Bernard Hopkins said he wanted to fight Winky Wright. I thought it was a joke at first until they came with the contracts. I said, 'Cool. If Bernard wants to fight me, let's do it.' "

As is his wont, Hopkins appeared for the news conference with visual aids. Claiming that Tarver had "disappeared" after his drubbing by Hopkins [actually, Tarver fights Elvir Muriqi on June 9 in Hartford, Conn.], B-Hop produced a milk carton with Tarver's face on it. He also brandished one with Wright's image on it, telling amused media members that "I might as well do this now, so there won't be no mystery when Winky disappears."

When Hopkins had pulled similar stunts in Las Vegas on May 5 at the news conference to formally announce this fight, Wright bristled. Now, he said, "It don't make me mad. It's funny. He can say what he wants. But on July 21, the talking stops and the fighting starts."

What remains to be seen is whether the fighting is nearly as entertaining as all the verbal sparring. As good as future Hall of Famers Hopkins and Wright are, some have described this pairing as a chess match of brilliant technicians who tend to lay back and wait for the other guy to initiate the action.

Hopkins, who will be working with lead trainer Freddie Roach for the first time - his regular trainer, Brother Naazim Richardson, who appeared at the Blue Horizon yesterday, is recovering from a stroke - said that analysis is just wrong.

"It's going to be physical and in-your-face," Hopkins promised. "It's going to be Bennie Briscoe and Marvin Hagler all over again. Last time I saw Bennie Briscoe fight, he didn't dance around and back up. And Marvin Hagler don't even know how to go back. So you're going to get action. You're going to get counterpunching and smart boxing and a lot of inside fighting.

"At this stage of the game, me and Winky don't have time to play chess. Now that Bernard Hopkins has this new body, you're going to see more energy, you're going to see punches that come fast, like from a middleweight, but with the power of a light-heavyweight."

Taylor-Spinks tomorrow

Jermain Taylor (26-0-1, 17 KOs), who scored two narrow decisions and fought to a draw with Winky Wright, defends his WBC and WBO middleweight titles against former welterweight champion Cory Spinks (36-3, 11 KOs) tomorrow night in Memphis, Tenn. The fight will be televised on HBO. *