ATLANTIC CITY - Maybe Bernard Hopkins didn't get old all at once. Maybe his boxing mortality crept up on him, on little cat's feet, the gradual erosion of his marvelous skills taking place over years, sliver by sliver, tiny piece by tiny piece.

But, at 47, all those missing pebbles tend to add up. And Saturday night, against a talented and committed opponent 18 years his junior, the aging master finally found out what it was like to peer into the future and see . . . well, maybe the retirement that should have awaited him years ago.

Dawson wrested the WBC and The Ring magazine light-heavyweight championships from Hopkins here Saturday night in Boardwalk Hall, by scores of 117-111 (judges Steve Weisfeld and Kevin Flaherty) and 114-114 (Luis Rivera).

"What did he do to win that fight?" Hopkins said. "I knew the only way I could win was to knock him out."

It wasn't as if "Bad" Chad Dawson (31-1, 17 KOs) totally dominated Hopkins (52-6-2, 32 KO's). Hopkins had his moments. He always does. It's just that those moments seemed further between than we have become accustomed to seeing, and less spectacular than what he was able to fashion in flummoxing such younger opponents as Kelly Pavlik and Jean Pascal.

For more than a decade now, fight fans had come to believe that the seemingly ageless Hopkins was immune to the natural laws of diminishing returns, that the swimming pool at his Hockessing, Del., mansion somehow was being fed by the Fountain of Youth.

Dawson - who believed he was on his way to just such a victory on Oct. 15 in Los Angeles, when Hopkins was unable to continue after sustaining a shoulder injury in the second round after being tossed to the canvas - was the aggressor throughout, landing more punches, and the more telling ones.

A headbutt from Hopkins, ruled accidental by referee Eddie Cotton, opened a cut over Dawson's left eye in the third round. Dawson apparently didn't believe the clash of skulls was by chance, and he glared at Hopkins.

In the 11th round, both fighters tumbled to the canvas when Hopkins made a better tackle than Asante Samuel ever made while a member of the Eagles.

"I was prepared for his dirty tactics," Dawson said of Hopkins' particular form of ring generalship.

The question for Hopkins now is whether he wants to, or even should, continue to ply his trade after 24 years. He is a certain first-ballot Hall of Famer, and maybe that should be enough to satisfy him going forward.

In the cofeatured bout, former Michigan State linebacker Seth Mitchell (25-0-1, 19 KOs) weathered a shaky first round to stop Chazz "The Gentleman" Witherspoon (30-3, 22 KOs) in three rounds.

Witherspoon, the St. Joseph's University graduate from Paulsboro, N.J., dominated the first round, but Mitchell kept his composure and began to turn the tide in the second round with a two-handed body attack. The onetime NFL hopeful floored Witherspoon with a left hook in Round 3, and he was scoring heavily along the ropes when referee Randy Neumann stepped in and waved the bout off after an elapsed time of 2 minutes, 31 seconds.

Mitchell earned the minor NABO title with the victory, but more importantly he established himself as an American heavyweight on the rise in a division that hasn't seen a United States fighter challenge the long-established dominance of Ukraine's Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, for a very long time.