QUEBEC CITY, Quebec - The boxing ring, like the jungle, can be a savage place. Old fighters are like old lions; at some point a younger, stronger lion is certain to challenge the aging king for leadership of the pride. More often than not, youth must be served. It is called survival of the fittest, and it is nature's way.
When Jean Pascal retained his WBC light-heavyweight title on a technical decision over the favored Chad Dawson on Aug. 14 in Montreal, he felt emboldened enough to call out the oldest, toughest, most enduring predator in the 175-pound weight class, the seemingly ageless Bernard "The Executioner'' Hopkins. But is the 28-year-old champion prepared to finally drive out the lion in winter? Or has Pascal made the mistake that another youthful firebrand, Kelly Pavlik, did in misreading how much resistance is left in the aging beast from North Philadelphia, who turns 46 on Jan. 15?
Saturday night's scheduled 12-rounder in the Pepsi Coliseum will be televised in the United States by Showtime.
"This guy wants to use me as a commercial to make himself better known in America,'' Hopkins (51-5-1, 32 KOs) said of Pascal (26-1, 16 KOs), who was born in Haiti before moving with his mother and older brother, Nicholson Poulard, to the Montreal suburb of Laval, Quebec, when he was 4. "He thinks he can become a superstar by beating someone as well-known as me, and he wouldn't have asked to fight me if he didn't think he would win.''
Pascal doesn't deny that he is seeking recognition beyond French-speaking Canada, where his spreading popularity has been mostly confined.
"I want to become a legend myself someday,'' Pascal said. "This is a good fight for me to become a legend. Hopkins is a big name. That's why I chose to fight him. I want to fight the best, to prove I am the best.''
It is Hopkins' contention that Pascal sought him out on the basis of what he saw in B-Hop's last two outings, in which he scored less-than-scintillating points victories over journeyman Enrique Ornelas and Pascal's idol, Roy Jones Jr., another over-40 lion whose once-sharp claws and fangs are considerably duller these days. But there is something about dispatching an opponent young enough to be his son that energizes Hopkins, whose status as one of his sport's all-time greats is largely rooted in his ability to perform at a high level when most fighters have long since retired or are running on empty.
"It means a lot to me to be able to still compete in a young man's sport,'' said Hopkins, who is attempting to usurp George Foreman as the oldest man to capture a world title. At 45 years and 10 months, Big George had lost almost every minute of every round up to the point when he knocked out WBA/IBF heavyweight champ Michael Moorer with a crushing overhand right in Round 10 of their Nov. 5, 1994, matchup in Las Vegas. Hopkins, on the other hand, has lost close decisions, but he has never absorbed a major beatdown.
"Breaking records is one of the reasons I'm in this game,'' Hopkins continued. "I like making history. A lot of you [media members] were eating crow after I systematically ruined a young superstar's career. I'm taking about Kelly Pavlik. Come [Saturday], I'm going to have you eating crow again.''
Maybe Hopkins will silence the skeptics again but, to many, Pascal has the look of someone with the enthusiasm, talent, determination and focus to force his way to elite status and stay there for quite a while. His role model might be Jones, but in many ways his approach is similar to that which has made Hopkins boxing's version of the Picture of Dorian Gray. There might be an oil portrait of the artful codger stashed in his attic that increasingly shows its age, but the man himself, if not quite in his prime, remains reasonably close to the top of his game. He is like the pushy guest who came to dinner and refused to leave the table.
"When you have a health-conscious, clean-living lifestyle and mentality, it buys you more time,'' said Hopkins. "I'm just buying time to be here.''
Interestingly, Pascal never imagined that he would make boxing his life's mission, as has Hopkins. His first love was hockey, and as he got older he imagined a career in law enforcement. But despite the disappointment of losing to Cuba's Yordanis Despaigne in the early rounds of the 2004 Athens Olympics, his destiny could not be denied. It would have been illogical, and maybe downright foolish, for Pascal to hang up the gloves after he posted a 108-13 amateur record, won seven Canadian national championships, a bronze medal at the 2003 Pan American Games and a gold at the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
"Jean is still improving from one fight to the next,'' said Yvon Michel, Pascal's promoter. "He's really an old-fashioned type of fighter. He always wants to take on the best guy out there." *