WASHINGTON - Flanked by two large, chiseled men in executioner masks, Bernard Hopkins bobbed back and forth, waiting to make his entrance and step into the ring. Chants from members of his camp indicated it was "Executioner Time." An R. Kelly track played over the PA system.
Meanwhile, some expressed doubt. The opponents' camp thought Hopkins appeared old in the previous fight, Steve Albert told a Showtime audience. The grind eventually catches up with all professional boxers, added color commentator Bobby Czyz, a former world champ.
"Maybe it's not the night tonight that it catches up with Hopkins," Czyz said. "But it'll catch up with him eventually."
That was 1999, Hopkins' last fight in the national's capital. Fifteen years later - the middleweight now a light heavyweight, "The Executioner" now "The Alien" - the boxing world has yet to see the day that daily travails catch up with this ageless wonder. Before he retires from boxing, Hopkins wants to ensure a migraine for all pundits to debate his place in the sport's history. It could be argued he's already done so. How does one properly contextualize a career that has no precedent?
"Thirty is old in boxing," said Naazim Richardson, Hopkins' longtime trainer. "So what he's doing is ridiculous."
Less than 9 months from AARP eligibility, the North Philadelphia-raised Hopkins (54-6-2, 32 knockouts) defends his legacy once again in his 65th pro fight. Putting his International Boxing Federation belt on the line tonight at the D.C. Armory, the future Hall of Famer is favored to add two more, the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Association titles currently in the possession of Beibut Shumenov (14-1-0, nine knockouts).
A triumph would make Hopkins, 49, the oldest in boxing history to unify world championships. He's already twice set the record for oldest to win a title bout. As Richardson is quick to point out, Hopkins is the oldest athlete to claim a major championship in any professional sport.
The word "history" has been thrown around often in the weeks leading to tonight's fight card, billed "History at the Capitol." Richardson likes to tell Hopkins that every water bottle from which he drinks, every hand wrap he discards and every speed bag he hits is part of history. It's been said for a while now, but any fight could be his last.
"If Bernard Hopkins was an athlete in any other sport," Richardson said, "y'all would be sick of seeing him on the front of magazines."
Tonight's Showtime broadcast is set to start at 9 o'clock. Although a win for Hopkins would add to his legacy and likely set up another unification bout with World Boxing Council titleholder Adonis Stevenson, Shumenov, who hails from Kazakhstan but trains out of Las Vegas, hopes to propel himself to prominence. He is 19 years Hopkins' junior - "He could be Bernard's son," Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer quipped Thursday - and this is by far the biggest fight of his career.
The 2 days preceding today have featured plenty of drama. When the fighters came face to face at yesterday's weigh-in, Hopkins began jawing at Shumenov in what became a heated exchange. That came on the heels of Thursday's news conference, when Hopkins took his counterpart's belts and placed them to his own side of the dais.
After the weigh-in, Shumenov told Showtime that he had not heard what Hopkins said in their exchange and that he found Hopkins' actions of the day before "very disrespectful."
"I have no doubts that [tonight] I'll be the winner," he said.
Hopkins, who weighed in at 172.4 pounds, exactly 2 pounds lighter than Shumenov, has history in Washington. Before he defended his middleweight title a record 20 times, he attempted to win his first world championship against Roy Jones Jr. at RFK Stadium, just steps away from the locale of tonight's match. That bout proved more of a tactical match - "So far, this is a little bit like watching congressmen argue on C-SPAN," Larry Merchant jested midway through the HBO broadcast - and Jones won by unanimous decision.
"What I remember about that is that losing ain't fun and winning is always fun," Hopkins said. "Experiencing that, I went on to win 20 fights in 12, 13 years being undefeated as a middleweight champion, defending it 20 times. So, to me, failure is a motivation, but it's not an option for me."
Then there was the bout against Allen at the Convention Center, a rematch of a no-contest stemming from an accidental push from referee Mills Lane that knocked Hopkins out of the ring. Hopkins defended his title with a seventh-round technical knockout.
He was 34 then. Two years later, days before Hopkins unified his belts against Felix Trinidad, a reporter approached Richardson and told him he was picking Trinidad.
"I think he's a better fighter," the reporter said of Hopkins, "but he's too old."
Yet, well more than a decade later, here we are.
"When you watch [tonight], you're going to see something over and over that you've seen before, and I can't stop y'all if you get bored," Hopkins said.
"You're going to have to write a repeated story."