ATLANTIC CITY - Among the many funny things Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra is alleged to have said is "It's déjà vu all over again."
Maybe Yogi, that master of the malaprop, actually spoke those exact words at some point during his English-mangling baseball career. And maybe he didn't. There are those who will tell you that when boring facts conflict with colorful legend, always go with the legend. It's more interesting, easier to remember and more apt to be believed.
When WBC and The Ring magazine light-heavyweight champion Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins (52-5-2, 36 KOs) steps inside the ropes in Boardwalk Hall on Saturday night against favored challenger Chad Dawson (30-1, 17 KOs), there are a number of a curious story lines that could play out, as has been the case in the 47-year-old Hopkins' remarkable professional journey from ex-con to record-setting golden oldie.
Will it all end for Hopkins in the same town where it began that chilly night 23 1/2 years ago, when, as an unknown, debuting professional boxer, he dropped a four-round majority decision to another first-timer, Clinton Mitchell, at Resorts International on Oct. 11, 1988? So distressed was Hopkins at the egg that he laid that night that he quit boxing for 16 months to regroup and decide what he wanted to do.
And if Dawson, who at 29 is 18 years B-Hop's junior, writes the same closing chapter to the Hopkins saga that Mitchell authored at the beginning, will anyone denote the eerily similar parallels between Hopkins-Mitchell and the main event that took place that same night in '88? Will B-Hop fall victim to Dawson's youth and vitality, as did an aging Saoul Mamby against John Wesley Meekins?
Hopkins said the loss to Mitchell, a native of Brooklyn, N.Y., who more or less vanished from public view following his final bout, a first-round knockout loss to Robert Fredericks on July 26, 1998, might have marked the most important crossroads of his then-23-year-old life.
Just 10 years before, he had spent nearly 5 years in prison for an armed robbery conviction. If Hopkins couldn't make it in boxing, what were his options? More and longer incarcerations for repeated violations of societal mores? An early trip to the graveyard?
"I had to ask myself if I wanted to do this [boxing], or go back on the streets of Philadelphia," Hopkins said of that important period of personal reflection. "From 1988 through half of 1990, I was inactive. I had to come to grips with whether I was going to live, think, eat and dedicate myself to boxing. I made my choice to do just that.
"When I made that decision - and it takes a strong mind, strong discipline and strong character - I never fell off the wagon again. I told myself that this is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to go back to prison and I didn't want to wind up dead."
So a retooled and rededicated Hopkins, in his words, "came back a terror." He dominated in his second fight, a four-round decision over Greg Paige on Feb. 22, 1990, at the Blue Horizon, the launch of a 22-bout winning streak that catapulted him to a No. 1 middleweight ranking from the IBF and a run of success that almost defies believability. He was a middleweight champion for a record 20 defenses spread over 10 years, and when he gave WBC light-heavyweight champ Jean Pascal a boxing lesson en route to a unanimous decision on May 21, 2011, he became, at 46, the oldest man ever to win a widely recognized world title, surpassing George Foreman's record by 192 days.
How long can a comparatively ancient Hopkins continue to stave off younger foes and the turning pages of the calendar? He initially was declared a second-round technical-knockout loser by referee Pat Russell in his first matchup with Dawson, last Oct. 15 in Los Angeles, a bout in which Hopkins injured his left shoulder when Dawson lifted him and tossed him to the canvas. The California State Athletic Commission later invalidated that result and declared the fight a no-contest.
"I admire everything Bernard's done in boxing, but I'm too young, too strong and too good for him at this stage of his career," Dawson, a former WBC and IBF 175-pound titlist, said of what he expects in the rematch. "He had his time, and it's lasted for a lot of years. But I am going to dethrone him. It's my time now."
That pronouncement sounds remarkably similar to what Meekins, then a 23-year-old junior welterweight contender, said after he'd scored a 10-round majority decision over former WBC super lightweight champ Mamby, then 41, in the marquee bout the night Hopkins was outpointed by Mitchell.
"It's a tribute to him that he's still able to do what he does," Meekins said of Mamby, whose last pro bout was in 2008, when he was nearly 61. "He obviously takes care of himself. I personally can't even imagine what it would be like fighting when I'm his age."
Hopkins couldn't have imagined it either, back then.
In Saturday's other HBO-televised bout on the Hopkins-Dawson II card, Chazz Witherspoon (30-2, 22 KOs), cousin of two-time former heavyweight champ Tim Witherspoon, swaps punches with Seth Mitchell (24-0-1, 18 KOs), of Brandywine, Md., for the vacant NABO heavyweight belt.