It never gets old for Bernard Hopkins, the way he motivates himself for his big fights - even though he's about as old as a boxer can get and still have big fights.
Time after time, the Philadelphia-born ex-champion and ex-convict does it: He surprises everyone in a fight he wasn't supposed to win, driven by how much we all underestimate him, by how much he believes boxing's power brokers want to lock his renegade butt out of the sport and throw away the key. Then, after he proves everybody wrong and wins, he works himself back into a position where we think he can't possibly win the big one again. And the process repeats.
Just ask Hopkins' unlikeliest victims: Felix Trinidad, Oscar De La Hoya, Antonio Tarver, and Kelly Pavlik.
How does he keep fooling us?
"My life has been about proving people wrong," he said last week. "From the day I stepped out of the penitentiary, when they said I'd be back in six months. It has been 24 years, and I've only been back to visit and to speak."
On Saturday in Quebec, Hopkins will go for his fifth shocker, his fifth symphony. He'll fight Jean Pascal, the World Boxing Council and Ring Magazine light-heavyweight champion. Hopkins is the underdog this time for good reason. If he wins, less than a month shy of his 46th birthday, he'll be the oldest boxer in history to win a title, edging George Foreman's 1994 record.
Pascal, a Canadian who was born in Haiti, is 28 years old and on a roll. In August, he outpointed previously undefeated Chad Dawson in Montreal. At 26-1 with 16 knockouts, he is cocky and fights in a loose, flashy style.
Hopkins' story line for this fight is easy to understand. "Anybody that's 40 years old and up is rooting for me," he said. Really, though, he's still fighting to defy the naysayers who - now, he said - have seized upon his advanced age to throw dirt on his grave before he's ready to go.
"The mafia of this sport wants to dictate what they want you to do," he said. "Being controlled like a puppet, that's not Bernard Hopkins. Don't they understand that I'm going to go down like I started, and that's fighting?"
In his early days, Hopkins didn't need to imagine that the world was no friend. He grew up rough in North Philly. "I got arrested like 30 times," he has said. "I got stabbed three different times by three different people."
He entered Graterford Prison as a teenager on a robbery conviction.
"I went in there, 'You mess with me, you might get me, I might get you, but I ain't backing down,' " he has said. Behind bars he boxed, then came out and stayed clean, "didn't spit on the sidewalk" for eight years of parole. He stayed disciplined in his training and lifestyle.
"I'm here now because I am the most health-conscious, clean-living, no wine, no champagne, no anniversaries, no birthdays, no New Year's, no sip, no nothing," he said. (Last December he explained his longevity: "I think I am biologically different than anybody who walks the planet Earth.")
All along, he has trusted hardly anyone in the business. He managed his career, negotiating his deals. In 1995, he won his first middleweight title. But it wasn't until 2001, at age 36, that he got a high-profile fight, as a 31/2-1 underdog against 28-year-old "Tito" Trinidad, who was 40-0 with 33 knockouts. HBO announcer Larry Merchant called Hopkins "the geriatric wonder" even then. Foreman, at ringside as a broadcaster, said Hopkins' old legs surely would give out. But Hopkins had a plan: He's nicknamed "The Executioner," and what he executes is strategy.
"Tito would lean over his left leg, his lead leg," Hopkins explained. "So he really couldn't get out of the way of a sharp puncher, because he's leaning forward."
Hopkins battered Trinidad with jabs and combinations, landing more punches in every round and stopping him on a TKO in Round 12.
"He tricked us all," admitted Foreman, who knew that territory. "I'd like to find my words so I can eat them."
Hopkins held the middleweight title from 1995 to 2005, then lost twice to Jermain Taylor. At age 41, it seemed insane to leap up two weight classes - from 160 pounds to 175 - and challenge Tarver for the light-heavyweight title in June 2006. Almost everyone thought Hopkins was nuts. Hopkins worked for months to put on muscle. As the fight started, he ran and grabbed Tarver.
"I let him feel my weight. You feel that power. And then I cracked him," Hopkins said. "When I cracked Tarver, he looked at me like he seen a ghost. The things that people were saying, the things that were being written, I knew he was going to underestimate me."
Tarver, who will be broadcasting Pascal-Hopkins from ringside for Showtime, said this week that he simply wasn't focused that night, having shed dozens of pounds quickly after playing a heavyweight in the movie Rocky Balboa. "On my worst night, Hopkins wasn't able to stop me. He should have killed me that night," Tarver said. Of course, it wasn't Tarver's worst night until the fight started.
In 2008, Hopkins targeted undefeated, 26-year-old middleweight champ Pavlik in a nontitle fight at 168 pounds. Again, few gave him a chance. He saw a way to frustrate Pavlik's hammering, straight-ahead style by sticking and moving.
"I came right out and hit him with a left hook. Remember?" Hopkins asked. "He went to his corner in his deer headlights. His face was like, 'Who the hell you got me in there with?' "
When the lopsided decision was announced, for Hopkins, he strode to the side of the ring that faced the media and stood there, arms down, stone-faced.
"It was: 'What can you say? What can you do? How do you like me now?' " he said.
Two veteran reporters, breaking press-row protocol, stood and applauded Hopkins for his performance, and for a moment his body heaved and lip quivered, as if he was about to lose composure, overwhelmed that he was finally getting his due.
The feeling didn't last. Now he's nearly 46, with a record of 51-5-1, and maybe you think he can't win again. Just how he likes it.
No surprise, he's sure that if he beats Pascal, the same observers calling him too old now will find a way to say it was no big deal.
"I'm going on record right now, so they won't think I'm playing Monday morning quarterback," he said. "When I systematically take this guy apart, take this guy to school, make him look like a boy in there with a man, they're going to downplay it. And then I'm going to move on to the next thing."
Jean Pascal vs.
WBC light-heavyweight championship, Saturday at the Pepsi Coliseum, Quebec.
TV: Showtime, 10 p.m.