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Bernard Hopkins is too fit to quit

MONTREAL - In what is tantamount to someone coming forward with information about where Jimmy Hoffa's body is located, seemingly ageless boxing champion Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins made a startling admission to the Daily News recently: He cheats.

"I think I can surpass any other fighter who fought well into his 40s," Bernard Hopkins said. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff photographer)
"I think I can surpass any other fighter who fought well into his 40s," Bernard Hopkins said. (Sarah J. Glover/Staff photographer)Read more

MONTREAL - In what is tantamount to someone coming forward with information about where Jimmy Hoffa's body is located, seemingly ageless boxing champion Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins made a startling admission to the Daily News recently: He cheats.

With cheesecake.

The man who brags - truthfully, he insists - that he hasn't consumed a doughnut or a slice of pizza in 20 years sheepishly confirmed that his iron will and legendary discipline bend just enough for him to occasionally indulge his only guilty pleasure. It's a wonder that some enterprising paparazzi hasn't photographed him in the act and sold the pictures to one of those dirt-dishing magazines you find at a supermarket checkout line.

"[His favorite cheesecake shop has] all kind of flavors," Hopkins said earlier this month at the Spring Garden Deli & Restaurant, where he frequently stops for a healthy breakfast when he is training in Philadelphia for an upcoming fight. "OK, I admit it. I love cheesecake. That's one area I fall short of. I'll eat a slice right then and there and I'll take a whole cake home."

But the 46-year-old Hopkins (51-5-2, 32 KOs), who challenges WBC light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal (26-1-1, 16 KOs) Saturday night in the HBO-televised main event at Bell Centre, is indignant at the merest suggestion that the holy temple he considers his body to be would ever test positive for anything more scandalous than a few bites of New York-style.

Pascal's public wonderment about whether B-Hop has been able to fight so well for so long as the result of performance-enhancing drugs has given the longtime former middleweight champ an incentive to win, and win big, beyond even the historic implications of what undoubtedly would be one of his most important victories. Should Hopkins triumph in a rematch of his disputed Dec. 18 majority draw with Pascal in Quebec City, which enabled the Canadian to retain his title, Hopkins would displace George Foreman as the oldest boxer ever to win a widely recognized world championship.

Hopkins, who is as much or more about legacy-embellishing these days as he is about the size of his purses, makes no secret of the fact he wants to supplant Foreman atop boxing's longevity chart. In fact, he doesn't rule out the possibility of fighting until he turns 50.

"As far as my training and my body feels, it's possible," he said of remaining an active boxer long enough to qualify for AARP benefits. "I think I can surpass any other fighter who fought well into his 40s. I'm not saying I can go all the way to 50, but [Saturday] I'm going to give everybody a clear indication of how long I'm going to remain in the game.

"I feel good. My reflexes are not perfect, but there's no noticeable drop-off. I do wake up a little later now than I normally would. I get up around 7, stretch, get out on the road and do my running around 9. I used to get my roadwork in before the sun came up."

But when Hopkins is out for his 3-mile run in Fairmount Park, or putting in the requisite time in the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties, his thoughts mostly are not on erasing Foreman's name from the record book and penciling in his own. They are on comments made by Pascal that hardened his already firm resolve into tempered steel.

At a news conference last month to hype his second matchup with Hopkins, Pascal, 28, raised the possibility that the geezer remained forever young, at least in a boxing sense, for reasons that had nothing to do with his Spartan-like diet and workout regimen. A shoving match ensued on the dais that seemed more authentic than the standard insult-swapping.

"I just want to set the record straight," Pascal said recently. "I never accused him of anything, but, you know, I certainly didn't expect to get that kind of reaction out of him. If you're not taking anything, then why are you so upset? I really think that people who don't want to disclose the truth are people who have something to hide.

"Bernard Hopkins is trying to make me quiet. But I'm going to bark like a dog and expose him to the nation."

Hopkins vows that Pascal is going to bark himself into a bloody pulp, maybe after becoming the first opponent the North Philadelphia native will have knocked out since Oscar De La Hoya fell in nine rounds on Sept. 18, 2004, a stretch of 10 bouts.

"He said I was a cheat," said Hopkins between bites of his egg white/spinach/tomato/mushroom omelet with a side order of French toast minus, of course, the syrup and powdered sugar. "That's not your regular trash talk; that was way over the top. And I do take it personal. Right then and there I wanted to kill him. He tried to tear down all that I have worked for, all that I stand for."

For someone who considers himself an artist, with his superbly conditioned body his finest creation, someone hinting that the masterwork is in any way artificial is not only repellent to Hopkins, but to those who have assisted him through the years.

Renowned fitness guru Mackie Shilstone, who helped Hopkins bulk up from middleweight (160 pounds) to light-heavyweight (175) for his one-sided victory over the favored Antonio Tarver in 2006, said Hopkins is that rarest of individuals for whom many of the natural laws of diminishing returns do not apply.

"I rate people in three categories," said the New Orleans-based Shilstone, who has worked with 3,000 professional athletes, including boxers Michael Spinks, Riddick Bowe and Roy Jones Jr. as well as Hopkins. "One is their chronological age, which you can't do anything about. You are as old chronologically as it says on your birth certificate.

"There's your 'health' age, which relates to your internal chemistry, such as percentage of body fat, triglycerides and other measurables. And then there's 'performance' age. There's no question Bernard Hopkins is as close to a perfectionist with nutrition as anyone I've ever dealt with.

"I'm 60, but my body doesn't know that. Bernard's body does not know it's 46 years of age. In theory, for us to be doing what we do at this point in our lives, our hearts should explode. But Bernard has taken such good care of himself over such a long period, you can throw all the formulas out the window."

Although Shilstone no longer works with Hopkins, he said they remain friends and the information on Hopkins he so painstakingly cataloged is still being used by the fighter's current strength and conditioning coach, Danny Davis.

"I kept very detailed records on Bernard's conditioning," Shilstone said. "It was a thick book of everything - his diet, his heart rate, every round of sparring, because I was in training camp with him. He asked me - well, his attorney, Arnold Joseph, asked me - if they could have a copy of my records. I told Bernard he was entitled to it so I gave him copies of his labs, his blood work, everything. I gave him the Bernard Hopkins physiological bible, and he still uses it."

While trainer Naazim Richardson formulates the fight plans and keeps B-Hop's ring skills sharp, it is Davis and Bulgarian massage therapist Tzoni "Tony" Kolev who work in tandem to help make the boss' old bones from becoming creaky.

"Bernard Hopkins is just a freak of nature, man," said Davis, who handles similar duties for highly ranked North Philly welterweight contender Mike Jones.

"Look, Mike Jones reminds me a little of Bernard. He's so dedicated, so focused in the way he lives, the work he puts in to make himself better. But working hard and living right doesn't necessarily mean that he will still be around this game, and at a very high level, when he's 46. There isn't but one Bernard Hopkins."

So where does that determination, that discipline, come from? Hopkins admits that his life and career still bear the imprint of the 56 months he spent in Graterford State Correctional Institution for a strong-arm robbery conviction he began to serve as a 17-year-old street tough.

"There are temptations that come at you every day, every hour, when you're on the outside," Hopkins said. "You have to be strong to say 'no' sometimes. Some people can say that, some can't.

"When you become comfortable, when you get to taste some success, it can get harder and harder to say no. Look, it's easy to have discipline in the can, when you're locked up. You don't have choices anyway. It's when you come out and you get some money and freedom that maintaining discipline can become difficult."

Boxers, by definition, must deny themselves much of what they might want. Hopkins came to realize that his freedom, once he had it, was not apt to come with an array of attractive choices.

"I didn't have options - at least I didn't believe I had any options - other than my boxing ability," Hopkins explained. "Boxing had to work for me, or what else was I going to do? Go back to prison? I was ready to run through a fiery building to make sure that didn't happen."

Hopkins cites his friend, former USBA light-heavyweight titlist Will "Stretch" Taylor, who has battled drug addiction for years, as an example of what can happen when a fighter lets his guard down.

"Will is still a great friend of mine, but he's in bad shape," Hopkins said. "There was a guy who was knocking at the door [of a world championship]. He could have been really good, a somebody.

"It's difficult, so very difficult, unless you have that discipline. I used to train in Miami Beach because of the heat and humidity, which I like, but also because there were so many distractions. People would say, 'Bernard must be getting soft to go down there.' No. I was making myself stronger. If I could withstand that environment, and I knew I could, I'd come out of it even more disciplined that I was going in."

Davis said Hopkins is strong enough to not restrict his inner circle from eating sweets or greasy fried food in his presence.

"I buy junk food sometimes," Davis admitted. "Bernard will not touch it. He sticks to his diet - I guess I really shouldn't call it a diet - but he closely monitors what goes into his body each and every day.

"I just have to take a step back sometimes and say, 'Wow.' "

Davis said the likelihood is strong that Hopkins, once he finally retires as an active boxer, will not let himself go, as so many others do once the demands of their profession are no longer required.

"He's never tailed off, not once, in the time I've been with him," Davis noted. "Beating all these young guys gives him something to shoot for, which I think is why we've had the best training camps I've been involved in the last few years. Bernard is on a mission.

"And when he does step away, don't expect him to put on a lot of weight. Bernard is always looking in the mirror. He takes pride in the way he looks. If you want to call it vanity, go ahead. But 10 or 20 years from now, he's going to be wearing the same size clothes he does now. I guarantee it."