SOME YEARS AGO, a splashy advertising campaign funded by the city advised would-be tourists that "Philadelphia is the place that loves you back."
For North Philadelphia native Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, feeling the love in his hometown hasn't always been a two-way street. Oh, sure, there was that parade from the Blue Horizon to City Hall after he knocked out Oscar De La Hoya in 2004, but the seemingly ageless boxing legend's penchant for controversial statements have, at times, stamped him almost as much of a local pariah as a civic treasure.
But any misgivings Mayor Michael Nutter might have had about honoring Hopkins were not evident during yesterday's half-hour tribute staged a few yards from the Rocky statue at the Art Museum. Hopkins was on his best behavior - well, sort of - and Nutter and other city officials were lavish in their praise of B-Hop's most recent historic achievement, that of becoming the oldest boxer to win a widely recognized world championship. In scoring a unanimous decision over WBC light-heavyweight titlist Jean Pascal on May 21 in Montreal, Hopkins, 46, displaced George Foreman atop his sport's golden oldies list.
"Man, it's hot out here," Nutter told a crowd of several hundred spectators while dabbing sweat from his shaved head and wearing an increasingly damp business suit in the mid-90s heat. He then got down to particulars, which involved presenting Hopkins with a proclamation of appreciation and an engraved, miniature Liberty Bell.
"In prison, he discovered his passion and talent for boxing," Nutter said, acknowledging that Hopkins' rise to wealth and glory had less-than-humble origins. "But the real reason Bernard Hopkins is a role model is, he's a survivor.
"His life is a lesson to all of us. It's never too late to do something great. We're proud to recognize Bernard Hopkins as one of our own. He's a Philadelphian."
Hopkins said it meant something for him to receive a municipal pat on the back in close proximity to the Rocky statue because, well, Sylvester Stallone's most famous fictional creation more or less took the same laborious route to the top.
"His character made the most of what he had," Hopkins said of Stallone's interpretation of a Philadelphia fighter who, against all odds, made good. "I did the same thing . . . I made the most out of nothing."
Much of the rest of Hopkins' address to the crowd dealt with his clean-living ways, which he said have played a major role in enabling him to stay on or near the top at an age when most fighters have long since faded away.
"People ask me, 'How do you do it? What's your secret?' " Hopkins said. "I have talent; that's established. But I invested in my health. Treat your body like a temple. I don't put anything in me that's bad."
It's not always what goes in his mouth that stirs his detractors, but what comes out of it. A week-and-a-half before he tuned up Pascal, Hopkins had ignited a furor by taking another verbal swipe at former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb. He didn't mention McNabb by name yesterday, but he made a veiled reference to athletes who "come to this town and aren't ready" to deal with the criticism of a knowledgable fan base. It wasn't difficult to connect the dots.
Hopkins is tentatively scheduled to defend his new WBC 175-pound title against Chad Dawson, probably in November. Nutter is hoping Philly is among the locations under consideration.
"We would love to have Bernard fight in Philadelphia," he said. "It would be a great honor for the city. But I don't know who determines that. Probably TV."
Professional boxing returns to Harrah's Chester tomorrow night with a seven-bout card put together by co-promoters Joey Eye and David Feldman.
The co-main events are a pair of six-rounders, one pitting Northeast Philadelphia light-heavyweight Tony Ferrante (9-2, 4 KOs) against Joe Park (8-5, 6 KOs), of Florence, Ala., and the other an all-Philly matchup of lightweights Victor Vasquez (12-5-1, 6 KOs) and Gustavo Dailey (4-11, 1 KO).
Vasquez and Dailey have swapped punches before, with Vasquez winning on a fifth-round stoppage on Jan. 15, 2010.
First bout is at 7:30 p.m. *