MONTREAL - It is, in a figurative sense, NCAA Tournament time for Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins. And the age-resistant No. 1 seed will seek to overcome another one-and-done obstacle in the form of WBC light-heavyweight champion Jean Pascal, who is standing in as a bracketbuster for Virginia Commonwealth.
In basketball terms, Pascal is more apt to draw parallels between tonight's HBO-televised rematch at the Bell Centre (10 o'clock) to the NBA playoffs, where he expects Hopkins to soon join the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, old standbys who have been tossed out like packaged fromage that had been left too long in the refrigerator and passed their expiration dates.
"I was willing to go to the United States to beat up Bernard Hopkins," said Pascal (26-1-1, 16 KOs), the Haitian-born resident of Laval, Quebec, a Montreal suburb, who again will be fighting before a large and supportive crowd, as he did when he retained his 175-pound title on a controversial majority draw against Hopkins (52-5-1, 32 KOs) on Dec. 18 in Quebec City. "But he has no fans in America. That's why he chose to come back to Canada, to make more money.
"I don't think he likes me very much. I don't like him, either. But the beauty of boxing is that we can take care of that in the ring and hit each other legally."
Pascal, who, at 28, is 18 years Hopkins' junior, is so publicly confident that it will be he who does most of the hitting that he has publicly pledged to take the North Philadelphia legend out inside of four rounds, a bold statement when you consider that B-Hop has never lost inside the distance.
Factor in Pascal's insinuation that Hopkins might be on performance-enhancing drugs - how else could a fighter be so productive at such an advanced age? - and the Hopkins camp is euphoric that, yep, the aging master of mind games has again gotten inside the head of a fearful, uncertain opponent.
"I really think Pascal's intimidated," said Richard Schaefer, CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, which promotes Hopkins. "Clearly, this is the second time Hopkins is winning the battle outside the ring. I think the whole Pascal team is nervous. [Pascal] clearly is out of his comfort zone."
Pascal's trainer, Marc Ramsay, said it is Team Hopkins that is whistling past the graveyard with another display of misplaced bravado.
"He's not a big puncher and he has never hurt anybody his size," Ramsay said of Hopkins, who is on a 7-year, 10-bout streak without a knockout. "To me, he's nervous."
Prefight talk, of course, is cheap, and boxing history suggests that rematches almost are never as good as the originals. The Dec. 18 fight, in which Hopkins again was the underdog, was so surprisingly competitive and entertaining that the WBC ordered an immediate do-over, in effect skipping past former WBC and IBF light-heavyweight champ "Bad" Chad Dawson, who previously had been guaranteed first dibs on Pascal.
Dawson (29-1, 17 KOs) takes on Romanian-born, Montreal-based Adrian Diaconu (27-2, 15 KOs) in the other HBO-televised fight tonight, which makes for an interesting subplot. If Dawson wins, he is guaranteed the next shot at the Pascal-Hopkins winner.
HBO has agreed to televise Hopkins-Dawson, or maybe Hopkins and somebody else, but Hopkins has to win - and keep winning - for the contract to remain in effect.
"If Bernard wins, he's definitely going to fight in the late fall on HBO, and it will be against Dawson if Dawson beats Diaconu," Schaefer confirmed. "If Dawson doesn't win, we can take a third fight with Pascal or, really, do whatever we want to do. It might even be a third fight with Pascal."
Given that Dawson is from Hartford, Conn., a Hopkins-Dawson bout more than likely would be held on the East Coast, maybe even in the Wells Fargo Center.
"It could be in Canada. It could be in Atlantic City, or Philadelphia," Schaefer said. "It could be in Las Vegas or Los Angeles. We are not ruling out any possibility. But if Bernard doesn't win, all bets are off."
In calling out Hopkins before their first fight, Pascal no doubt was convinced that, based on his less-than-stirring victories over Enrique Ornelas and Roy Jones Jr., Hopkins was already on a steep downhill slide. His miscalculation became obvious when Hopkins, down twice in the early rounds, controlled the last seven rounds, only to be denied the victory many believed he deserved.
Pascal said he never took Hopkins lightly, then or now, but that he is more prepared this time to finish the job.
"I knew Bernard still was a good fighter," Pascal said. "I knew when you fight him, it's always complicated. He has a lot of experience. I did some things wrong in the first fight that won't be repeated.
"I'm going to show the world that I'm a great fighter, and that I'm better than Bernard Hopkins. He knows he cannot beat me." *