Daily News boxing writer Bernard Fernandez counts down what he considers to be the top five performances by 46-year-old Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, who bids to become the oldest fighter to win a widely recognized world championship when he challenges WBC light-heavyweight titlist Jean Pascal Saturday night in Montreal.

Here is his account of No. 3, Hopkins' ninth-round knockout of Oscar De La Hoya on Sept. 18, 2004, at Las Vegas' MGM Grand:

Hopkins had vowed to do damage to the face of De La Hoya, boxing's biggest attraction, to "give it more character." The thought of their heartthrob having his matinee-idol looks rearranged must have sent cold shivers down the spines of the "Golden Boy's" many female fans.

That handsome mug already had been reddened through eight rounds, at which point Hopkins, the WBC/WBA/IBF middleweight champion, held wide leads on two of the three judges' scorecards. Maybe even De La Hoya, the WBO 160-pound titlist, was a bit leery about taking additional shots upstairs, which could explain why Hopkins thought the time was right to change tactics and deliver what is now acknowledged as the single most important punch of his career.

Hopkins' left hook to the liver sent De La Hoya crashing to the canvas, his face contorted in pain, and he was counted out by referee Kenny Bayless.

This victory was no upset - Hopkins went off as a 2-1 favorite - but beating the hugely popular De La Hoya not only earned B-Hop a career-high $10 million, it make him more of a household name than he'd ever been. In effect, it made him a superstar.

"I set him up with the jab, leaned to the left and hit him in the liver," Hopkins said afterward. "The left hook made him say, 'Ughhh!' I heard the wind come out of him."

It marked the first time De La Hoya had been stopped.

Upon his return to Philadelphia, Hopkins got a hero's welcome during a parade from the Blue Horizon to City Hall. *