THE OLD MAN limped through the back door of the Joe Hand Boxing Gym in Northern Liberties at precisely 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, cane feeling for the floor, "disguised" in a gray goatee and granny glasses. After disappearing into the men's locker room, he appeared exactly five minutes later in his workout gear, ready to get his hands taped while holding court ringside as only Bernard Hopkins can, 12 questions and 20 minutes of talking about his life, his fights, his past, his future while dispensing wisdom and advice.

Hopkins lost his first fight and then lost one more - over the next 17 years. He successfully defended his middleweight title a record 20 times and didn't relinquish it until he turned 40.

He was a big underdog against unbeaten Felix Trinidad at Madison Square Garden in 2001, but dominated the fight and won by TKO in the 12th. There was no way he could move up to light heavyweight and beat Antonio Tarver, but he did. He was a 4-1 underdog against unbeaten Kelly Pavlik, but never gave him a chance and won easily. He became the oldest world champion at 46, then 48, then 49.

Now, Dec. 17 on HBO, across the country in the "refurbished" Fabulous Forum, the joint where Wilt and Magic and Kareem played, just east of LAX, right next to the old Hollywood Park and the site of the new LA Rams futuristic stadium, Hopkins, 29 days from his 52nd birthday, will have what he promises will be his final fight, against Joe Smith Jr.

It has been two years since Hopkins' last fight, the only time he never had any chance to win. Sergey Kovalev won every round, but there was zero chance Hopkins would ever leave that as the final memory. This will be the one.

A decade earlier, he announced he would be done at 40. But Tarver and Pavlik and so much more have come after 40.

"I'm glad I reneged on that 10 years, because I've added to my legacy even further and no one is complaining," Hopkins said.

Two hours earlier, Hopkins had been with Mayor Kenney at 26th and Master, where a grant just came to renovate the facility where Hopkins got his start as a 9-year-old, the ABC Gym.

"My plate is full," said Hopkins, who will continue being a commentator on HBO fights when he retires from boxing. "If you're worried about Bernard Hopkins being bored, this man behind me, Joe Hand Sr., he's not going to let me be bored. There's so much to do."

Will you miss it?

"Nobody misses getting hit, getting punched," Hopkins said. "I'll hit the bag. One thing about that bag, it don't hit back."

Oscar De La Hoya, a legendary boxer in his day and Chairman and CEO of Golden Boy Promotions, arrived 30 minutes before Hopkins, there to support his partner in the company and the man the company will be promoting in Los Angeles. De La Hoya got in the ring once with Hopkins, and his night ended when he took a brutal kidney shot that momentarily paralyzed him.

Tarver and Pavlik were skillful fighters. So was De La Hoya.

"Bernard Hopkins was able to dissect and dismantle every single one," De La Hoya said. "I believe that we're going to see a Hopkins that is probably better than ever. Joe Smith is a guy who is going to come at him; he's strong, he's younger, obviously. But Bernard Hopkins, for some reason, always figures out a way to figure you out."

Smith is 22-1, with 18 knockouts. Hopkins (55-7-2, two no contests) has never come close to being knocked out. John David Jackson, who is Kovalev's trainer and trained Hopkins earlier in his career, will be the head trainer for this fight. But Hopkins runs his show.

"The game plan will be to deflate my opponent and take over the fight and win it," Hopkins said.

That never changes.

Only a few blocks from his apartment on Delaware Avenue but another life from that five-year prison term and only a few training days before a flight west after explaining that "rules don't apply to everyone," Bernard Hopkins was almost wistful, but never, not for an instant, unfocused.

"Just because you started off one way don't mean the ending of the book has to be the way you started," Hopkins said. "Most people remember the ending of the book more than the beginning and the middle. To make them talk about the book, they must have a memory of the ending. I am the ending of my book."

The final in-the-ring chapter looms.

"You're looking at a guy that will be 52 in less than 60 days, with the body like a 25-year-old," Hopkins said.

Hopkins looked at his questioners and asked globally about the rest of the planet: "How do you really feel about yourself? Are you really happy with yourself? Are you happy with what you became in life? Did you reach your full potential like I've done many times?"

He has, of course, so many times that it's hard to count that high.

"In a way, I really feel for them, not to the point where I lose focus," Hopkins said at the end of a final six-minute soliloquy. "I feel for them for one reason. It's because the majority of the population want something handed to them. When they see or hear or witness something great or different, they are blinded by their own selfishness . . . This happened in BC time . . . Noah, who is this crazy, old man trying to get all these animals together? They laughed at it.

"You know how many times they laughed at me when I had these long speeches that I'm having now? The problem why I'm retiring, to go back to that question 20 minutes ago, nobody's laughing at me anymore and that laughing made me motivated . . . How do I know it's time? I can't find nobody to laugh anymore."

With that, Bernard Hopkins climbed through the ropes and began to shadowbox, his 67th and final fight no doubt somewhere on his mind, but the work in front him was all that mattered.

@DickJerardi